Aliens Everywhere

By K A Shaji/ Udhagamandalam

28 April, 2007

Kanthasamy has reasons to believe that his gods have stopped smiling. A plantation worker by profession and a repatriate Tamil from Sri Lanka by destiny, he has to walk on barefoot for about 16 km each day in search of daily wage work in any of the small scale tea plantations of Nambiarkunnu, a tiny village across Tamil Nadu-Kerala border near Gudalur. His house is in fact located at Kolappally, virtually a plantation country of Nilgiris. Almost all the major tea plantations of Kolappaly are facing severe crisis for quite a long time due to shortage in production and plummeting prices. The crisis in the sector coupled with excess number of permanent workers has forced plantation owners not to assign even temporary jobs to people like Kanthasamy, who otherwise have to walk kilometers everyday in search of plantation jobs.

``Jobs are available in small scale tea plantations of Kerala's Wayanad district. But we have to walk many a kilometer each day through difficult terrains to reach there. The small scale cultivators there are paying very less citing our refugee status,'' lamented Kanthasamy's wife Pappathi.

Kanthasamy's neighbour Nhanaseelan is more articulate about the plight of repatriate Tamils from Sri Lanka, who have settled in Nilgiri. ``The public sector tea company Tantea was established years back to rehabilitate the repatriates from Sri Lanka. Though it has emerged the largest plantation company in South India, most of the repatriates still remain wanderers in search of jobs from one village to another village and one district to another district,'' he said.

S.Jayachandran of Tamil Nadu Green Movement shows another aspect of the flawed rehabilitation project for repatriates, which wasted a lot of natural resources and huge amounts of public money. `` In order to accommodate most of the repatriates from Sri Lanka, the government had opened 3,000 hectares of virgin forest land in the highly sensitive Nilgiri region for the much hyped Rehabilitation Tea Plantation alias Tantea. However, Tantea was able to provide employment to only 6,000 people. The majority are still living in abject penury and neither the repatriates nor the environment benefited from the trumpeted scheme,'' he pointed out.

According to S. Manivasakan of Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies at University of Madras, Tamil repatriates from Sri Lanka constitute a section of humanity who have been twice displaced. Their forefathers had been uprooted from Tamil Nadu circa 1823 because the British wanted them to clear Sri Lankan forests in the upcountry and set up tea estates. Their children and grandchildren were forced to look for a new home after the Sri Lankan Government stripped them off their citizenship once it gained independence in 1948. Most of them had no option other than returning to the mother land ever since the ethnic divide in Sri Lanka started affecting their survival in the island nation. They had to face the brutality of both majority Simhala might and minority Tamils of Sri Lankan origin.

The tragic events in their lives had took a major turn in 1964 when Indian Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri signed a pact with his Sri Lankan counter part Sirimavo Bandaranayake to take back a huge chunk of Tamils of Indian origin. The only concession the Lankan government made was that, of the 8.25 lakh Tamils identified to be of Indian origin, it agreed to absorb three lakh as its own. In 1974, another bilateral agreement was signed under which Indian would absorb another 75,000 people and Lanka an additional 75,000 as its nationals so that the ratio would be read: for every seven tamil reptraited to India, Sri Lanka would grant citizenship to four. As per the agreement, the entire process was expected to be completed by October 1981. According to Kanthasamy, the repatriation, which began in 1968, continued till 1983, when the ferry service between Talaimannar in Sri Lanka and Rameswaram in India was suspended due to the militancy in northern Sri Lanka.

According to data available with the Union Government, as many as 4, 61,630 Tamil repatriates are living in India now. They belong to 1,116,152 families. Of these, 3, 33,843 were repatriated under the cover of different agreements. The balance represents a natural increase. Among them, 4,639 families were moved to Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh and were rehabilitated in projects started by the respective governments. Though the rubber plantations started by Kerala government in Kollam district and Karnataka government in Uttara Kannada district had ensured better living condition for those repatriates who reached these states, the tea plantations and spinning mills started in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh with the same purpose turned abject failures. Though the Tamil Nadu government had splurged crores for their welfare, most of the repatriates still remain poor wanderers from one village to the other due to corruption, mismanagement and shortsightedness by officials.

The travails of V.Kulanthai Velu, a repatriate now settled in Uppatti near Gudalur, are representative of the half a million people, who have been described across Tamil Nadu as `Thayagam Thirumbi Vandha Tamil Makkal (Tamils who returned to their motherland). ``My return to India was more gruesome than my grandfather's trip a century ago to Sri Lanka to work in tea estates. He was not given any promise of a decent life. It was sheer poverty and caste discriminations that forced him to move out of Tamil Nadu and to cross the sea. But in my case, the Indian High Commission told me that I am an Indian and that I should come back as a good rehabilitation scheme awaits me,'' he recalls. Kulanthai Velu reached Rameswaram in 1981after obtaining and Indian passport and promised travel concessions. ``At Rameswaram, the Indian official greeted me with abuse for not knowing clearly about what I wanted to do in India. I said I want to work in plantation as that is the only job I know. He retorted, `Then you should have stayed in Ceylon.''

E.V.Ilamparuthi has another version of the flawed rehabilitation drive. Soon after his landing in Rameswaram in 1979, he was directed to reach Pudupalayam near Salem. There he became owner of a one-cent plot and was provided with a loan of Rs 10,000 to construct a house. After the house construction, Ilamparuthi became pauper and he left the village to Nilgiri in the absence of any job opportunity there. Now he is a manual worker with a house construction firm. According to him, the government had provide one-cent plots and small housing loans to many a repatriates, who reached villages of Agraharam Vazhapady, Pudupalayam, Mannaickenpatti, Thukkiampalayam, S.Vazahappady and Singapuram. All of them had abandoned the houses in the plains in the absence any plantation work and went to Nilgiri.

As per information available with Nilgiri unit of People's Union of Civil Liberties, the number of Tamil repatriates in India would come around half a million as the official statistics exclude another 60,000 people who come through the air route on different occasions. ``The situation of Thayamagam Thirumbi Vantha Tamil Makkal is really pathetic. In India they are being treated as Sri Lankans and in Sri Lanka they are being referred as Indians. India has spent around Rs 2,000 crore so far on their rehabilitation. But most of the repatriates still remain unsettled due to the failure of the grandiose schemes,'' according to N.Vasu, Nilgiri district secretary of CPI (M). He blames the bureaucratic negligence and unimaginative ways adopted by the state machinery for the failure of the schemes.

``In fact, nobody is interested in the welfare of these people. As far as the ruling elites in New Delhi and Colombo are concerned, they represent a statistic. To the tea plantation owners in Nilgiris and surroundings, they constitute docile cheap labour to be exploited to the hilt. To the Sri Lankan Tamils, a group readily available for communal propaganda and to the fanatics among the Simhalese the easiest and defenseless victims in times of communal conflict,'' points out V.Suryanarayan , former director of Centre for South and South East Asian Studies.

In the beginning, the rehabilitation was planned on a family basis. As soon as the Indian government recognizes them as Indians and issue passports, the repatriates are required to apply to the Indian high commission for a family card, which gives details of the family, the type of occupation which they are assigned, the grants to which they are entitled, their place of employment etc.

``The repatriates' trail of misery begins right at the stage they get their family card because they hardly realize that their fate in India would be determined only by the entries in the card. They fail to identify the right job, the right place and further, as there is no caste-based reservation in Sri Lanka, they fail to mention that they are all Dalits from Tamil Nadu. They are deprived of the benefits meant for SCs and STs because their card does not contain this information,'' according to a study by National Conference of Repatriates (NCR).

According to Vasu, the main hurdle faced by the repatriates was the shift from mono-occupational structure in Sri Lanka to the diversified occupation in Tamil Nadu. The post-globalisation crisis in tea plantation sector has intensified their problems, he argues. The NCR study has also confirmed that more than 70 per cent of the repatriates were reduced to wandering from village to village, district to district and office to office soon after their landing in the mother land in search of jobs. Though they finally abandoned the plains and trekked their ways to the hills like Nilgiris, Kodaikanal and Yercaud, the crisis in the plantation sector had made their survival more tuff. ``In the hills, we were thrilled to see plantations of tea and coffee. But the fall in prices of tea and coffee had dampened our spirits.Now, most of our people are searching jobs in construction sites of neighbouring Kerala districts of Kozhikode and Malappuram,'' informed Shanmughan, another repatriate.

``The situation is not different even in the case of those who working in cooperative spinning and weaving mills across the state. Weaving is also turning unprofitable now a days,'' points out Manivasakan.

According to Vasu, more than 83 per cent of the repatriates were given Rs 5,000 to start a business of their own. In the new country, they squandered the money in less than five months and became paupers. Since they have opted for a rehabilitation programme, they are not entitled to any other scheme. So most of these people are working as casual labourers and earning a pittance.

In the opinion of NCR, the Tamil repatriates lag way behind in the scale of priorities of the Union Government. ``The maximum subsidies and the more tolerable rehabilitation schemes are earmarked for Tibetan refugees followed by Bangladesh refugees. This despite the fact that only the repatriation of Tamils was precipitated by the Indian government,'' it argues.

(This story is part of a media fellowship awarded by New Delhi-based National Foundation for India)




K A Shaji/ Thiruvananthapuram

“The crux of the policy (police policy of the government of 1957 in Kerala) is that it is not the job of the police to suppress the trade unions, peasants and other mass activities of any mass organization, or a political struggle waged by any political party. The job of the police is to track down and punish those who commit ordinary crimes,”

(‘Twenty-eight Months in Kerala’, Selected Writings of EMS Namboodiripad, Vol. 2, p.134)

Fifty years ago, the Communist Party of India (CPI), led by EMS Namboodiripad, assumed the reins of government in Kerala.

It was a historic occasion — the first time ever anywhere in the world that a Communist party had been democratically voted into power. Appropriately enough, both the erstwhile CPI’s offshoots, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPM) and the CPI, are marking the golden jubilee of the event this year.

After he was sworn in as chief minister, Namboodiripad outlined his policy on the role of the police. It is ironic then that this year has also witnessed police atrocities against people agitating against the land acqusition policies in CPM-governed West Bengal. The turn of events at Singur and Nandigram has left many in Kerala dismayed — as has CPM state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan’s vociferous defence of the police action in West Bengal. Vijayan now holds the infamous distinction of being the first Politburo member of the CPM (and the erstwhile CPI) ever who is facing a CBI probe on corruption charges.

Despite having a razor thin majority in the Assembly, the EMS government of 1957 legislated a series of epochal initiatives, especially in land reforms and education. At the time, the total strength of the ruling coalition, was just 65 in the 123-member Assembly. After the election of the Assembly Speaker, the government’s majority was first reduced to three, and then to two when a court order cancelled the Assembly membership of Rosamma Punnoose. The Congress-led opposition, with the support of the powerful Christian lobby and the upper-caste Nair community, led a “Liberation Struggle” against the EMS government. Most vernacular dailies openly supported the violent struggle. “The Opposition, which had allegedly accepted money from the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to topple the EMS government, tried its best to win over at least an mla from the ruling front. But none of the legislators fell into the trap,” says Berlin Kunjhananthan Nair, a veteran journalist. Buckling under pressure, the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru dismissed the government.

The situation today could hardly be more different. The ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF) — a coalition of CPM, CPI and a clutch of other parties — enjoys a comfortable majority in the Assembly. But the policies being pursued by the government are more in line with the neo-liberal approach being followed by the West Bengal government. On several occasions, Achuthanandan has failed to assert his stand on crucial policy issues and the growing infighting in the party is increasingly reminiscent of the United Democratic Front (UDF) regime under K. Karunakaran in the early 1990’s.

“The reason (behind the infighting) is very simple,” says KR Gouri, who was the revenue minister in the EMS Cabinet. “The CM has no faith in most ministers who found entry into the Cabinet not on their merit but because of their loyalty to Pinarayi Vijayan. On their part, they have no faith either in the chief minister or in the party ideology,” she explained. Gouri was instrumental in piloting the landmark Land Reforms Bill during the EMS regime, but was later expelled from the CPM for “indiscipline”.

Achuthanandan is fast losing credibility as a “crusader against corruption”. The Vijayan faction enjoys a clear majority in the party’s state unit and has successfully compelled the CM to implement policies which go against his stated positions.

He had to agree to the hiring of top lawyers to oppose a pil in the Kerala High Court (HC), which sought a CBI inquiry into the controversial snc Lavalin contract case. Vijayan’s name figures prominently in the case. During the Assembly poll campaign, the LDF had promised that it will close all cola plants over concerns of the over-exploitation of groundwater. The industry and water resources departments are silent on charges that the cola multinational Pepsi is overdrawing ground water in Palakkad district. A week ago, the HC ruled in favour of Pepsico by striking down the Pudussery panchayat’s order that cancelled the soft drink giant’s licence. The industries ministry, headed by Vijayan nominee Elamaram Kareem, took a stand in the court which weakened the panchayat’s arguments and strengthened the company’s right to run the plant.

The controversial decision to accept a Rs 1,422-crore loan from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) for urban development was another flip-flop that shed light into the fissures within the LDF. When the LDF was in Opposition, Achuthanandan led the combine’s campaigns to scuttle the efforts of former Chief Minister Oommen Chandy to avail the loan. Now in power, Finance Minister Thomas Issac and Local Administration Minister Paloli Mohammed Kutty (both belong to the Vijayan camp) kept the CM completely in the dark when they expressed the state’s willingness to accept the loan.

“What is the difference between the LDF and us,” asks senior Congress leader and former CM, Oommen Chandy. “They are now implementing whatever they had opposed earlier. The CPM lacks political integrity and honesty,” Chandy said.

Farmers’ suicides in Kerala were the main poll plank for the LDF during the last Assembly poll. Much to the chagrin, his attempts to write off loans to stem the suicides didn’t bear fruit due to strong opposition from the state finance ministry. As of now, more than 100 farmers have committed suicide after he came to power.

The plight of the victims of sensational sex scandals was another hot issue raised by Achuthanandan. Unfortunately, the CM finds no way to help them since the Vijayan faction took away home portfolio. The CM neither has any agency under him to reinvestigate the cases nor has any control over the home minister who is a staunch Vijayan loyalist. Now, the industries ministry has no qualms in allowing private players in the mineral sand mining in the coastal Alappuzha region. The LDF had vehemently opposed the project a few years ago citing environmental reasons.

Now Achuthanandan is buying more time. “Ten months is not a period to judge a government, elected for five years. I would keep my promises. Give me a little more time,” Achuthanandan told Tehelka. When asked about his surrender in the ADB loan issue, he said only time would prove whose stand was correct on that issue.




K A Shaji/ Idukki and Munnar

``Revenue Minister KM Mani is trying to assign nearly two lakh acres of reserve forests to his relatives and encroachers with the connivance of Chief Minister Oommen Chandy. Mani is taking the initiative by highlighting a numerical mistake in the documents issued in 1897, declaring the Cardamom Hill Reserve in Idukki district a reserve forest, though the same order and the Travancore Forest manuals in 1917 and 1947 had vividly described the boundaries of the cardamom hill — that it had an area of 334 sq km.”

— VS Achuthanandan, then Leader of the Opposition in the Kerala Assembly, on December 12, 2005

Ten months have passed since Achuthanandan came to power. However, the evergreen forests of highly sensitive Cardamom Hill Reserve (CHR) in Kerala’s Idukki district are under the threat of total wipeout. In an unexpected turn of events, Achuthanandan’s coalition partner — the CPI — has told its nominee and state Forest Minister Binoy Viswam to support the claims of the powerful CHR encroachers’ lobby, represented by KM Mani of the Kerala Congress (M), for getting them legal protection. To make matters worst for the cm, the revenue minister is also a senior member of the CPI.

The CHR, near Munnar, comprises 334 sq km (2,15,721 acres) reserve forest according to a royal proclamation of the Kingdom of Travancore on August 24,1897. The proclamation was the first major initiative to protect the sanctity of the ecologically fragile area but a numerical mistake in it has now become handy for both the encroachers and their political patrons to permanently settle in the region.

According to conservationists, the rain forests of CHR are a natural corridor of wildlife from Palani hills of Tamil Nadu to Periyar Tiger Reserve of Kerala. The forest belt is also the catchment area of half-a-dozen major hydro-electric projects in the Idukki region. Paradoxically, the CHR is India’s hill of spices as it accounts for about 70 percent cardamom production in the country. Efforts are also on to axe big trees in the forestland leased out for cardamom cultivation. All these are now happening with the support of a few powerful CPI leaders.

It was in 1935 the Travancore government had framed special rules for leasing out the hill for cardamom cultivation. The rules specifically say that nothing except cardamom should be grown on the leased land, failing which, the land would revert to the government. However, in the 60’s, regional farmers’ parties like Kerala Congress (M) started encouraging people from other parts of the state to encroach into the CHR forests under the guise of cardamom cultivation. The forest and revenue officials had colluded with them in forging fake lease documents.

As per the latest government records, the forest area in the CHR has reduced to 25 percent of what existed 50 years ago. The actual level of encroachment may be more bizarre.

Though Mani’s Kerala Congress is the most powerful outfit among the CHR encroachers, the CPI bags the second position. At least three state CPI leaders are in the list of large-scale encroachers. The party has already told the forest minister not to stand in the way of regularising the forest encroachments or extending the duration of the land leases. It also directed Revenue Minister KP Rajendran to file an affidavit in the Supreme Court claiming that the CHR has never been a reserve forest but revenue land.

Under Mani’s pressure, AK Antony, during his stint as Kerala chief minister, had regularised over 20,000 hectares of land saying the government was committed to condone all the pre-1977 encroachments. Now, both CPI and Kerala Congress (M) are hell bent on regularising the post-1977 encroachments also.

“It would not be easy for both the CPI and Mani to convince the Supreme Court that the area in question is revenue land,” says Tony Thomas of One Earth One Life, an ngo. “The empowered committee of the court has already visited the CHR to take stock of the situation. All documents including fair copies of the Royal Proclamation of 1897 are under the perusal of Supreme Court,” he said.

But Mani counters this argument. “Any attempt to declare the cardamom hill reserve as forest would render at least four lakh people of Udumbanchola taluk, in Idukki district, homeless,” he said. “Before and after the Independence, successive state governments abetted migration to the hill reserve for promoting cardamom cultivation. No government can ignore the farmers now,” he said.

Sources in the forest department say that the state government is waging a losing battle. “There are clear evidences before the apex court and even an empowered committee had recommended strong action against the encroachers. The government and the land mafia have nothing to support their claim,” said a forest conservator on condition of anonymity.

In addition to the CPI, there is a ‘Left fellow-traveller’ legislator who was instrumental in preparing an official note stating that the area notified under the CHR in 1897 is only 15,720 acres. KJ Alphonse Kannanthanam, now a Left-supported MLA from the Kanjirapally constituency, in the capacity of State Land Revenue Commissioner, had understandably hobnobbed with the then Revenue Minister Mani to prepare the note in the 2001-2006 period. During the Assembly poll in 2006, VS Achuthanandan refused to campaign for Kannanthanam since he was under the shadow of the allegation.

In other words, Kannanthanam’s act excluded nearly 93 percent of the forest area under the CHR from the purview of the Forest Conservation Act so that it would be easier for the state government to regularise the encroachments even without getting the Centre’s clearance.

When contacted for his reaction on the allegations against him, Kannanthanam said: “According to the Proclamation of 1897, the CHR consists of 15,720 acres. However, forest department claims the area was 2,15,720 acres and the figure shown in the proclamation was a numerical error. How could it happen? Those who prepared it were experts. Moreover, people had started settling there about 187 years ago. They migrated to the hills as part of the ‘grow more food’ scheme of the government after World War-II. How can we tell them to leave the area?”

Eminent Malayalam poet and environmentalist Sugathakumari is puzzled by the CPI’s stance. “We can understand the motives of people like KM Mani. But how can we explain the attitude of the CPI on this issue? After all, it was the first party that took up environmental issues.”



Over the last few years, Wayanad in North Kerala has seen the country’s highest number of farmer suicides, along with Vidharbha in Maharashtra and Anantapur in Andhra Pradesh. An alarming depletion in ground water, extreme deforestation and erratic rains have brought severe drought to a hill district whose annual rainfall was once second only to Cherrapunji.

Fifteen years ago, MP Chandranath, who owns a 45-acre coffee estate near Kalpetta, the Wayanad headquarters, never imagined that he might be the first in the country to set an example by setting aside part of his land for a small forest. Located on a hilltop, his estate did not have enough water to service more than a couple of acres.

It was during a drought in 1992 that Chandranath chanced upon an article on Abdul Kareem, who has grown a natural forest over 32 acres of denuded country in Kasaragod district, considerably augmenting the area’s water sources. Inspired by the story, Chandranath started planting trees on his own estate. The forest he has cultivated began yielding wonders within a few years. Fountainheads of water that started appearing nine years ago are now helping him meet his plantation’s requirements round the year.

“Most of the land here is rocky with very thin top soil,” says Chandrakanth. “I would irrigate the forest once a week from January to April; I used cow dung fertiliser at planting time, and small doses of chemical fertiliser once a year over the next two years. With just this much care, the forest grows on its own.”

Chandranath also started rain water harvesting on his estate and took steps to prevent soil erosion. He also took special care in selecting plants for his forest. “Most of the trees I have planted are of low timber value. In future, nobody should be ever tempted to cut down this painstakingly developed forest for its timber value,” he says.

Chandranath says Wayanad never had a water problem till about 60 years ago. In the 1950s began an incursion of plantation cultivators in Pulpally, Mullankolly, Kenichira and nearby belts. The first thing they did was shave off the thick forests of the region. Tapioca cultivation let all the topsoil slip away. Then dadop trees were cultivated for pepper plantations; the pepper vine would be trained on the trees. Says Chandranath, “A hundred dadop trees can’t equal a natural forest tree in the way it works to conserve soil, water and coolness. Rampant deforestation is the main reason behind today’s drought in Wayanad. The second reason is banana cultivation. All the water that was earlier checked by the paddy fields is now drained out to cultivate bananas.”

“Everybody talks about water, but nobody does any serious work. I have shared my experience in developing forests and their subsequent benefits. Ideally, we should conserve or develop one acre of forest for every 10 acres of coffee plantation. But nobody seems to be taking it seriously.”

Inspired by the success of the first experiment, Chandranath has developed ‘mini-forests’ at four other spots in his property. One of these is just by the Kalpetta–Mananthavady highway. “I developed this one just as a demonstration for people travelling on the road. Let them see and learn that it’s only by preserving trees you can have water.”




By K A Shaji

M Geethanandan is the face of a resurgent adivasi-dalit identity in Kerala and the architect of a number of recent dalit and adivasi struggles to regain control of lost land and water resources. Describing both adivasis and dalits as the worst affected of an exploitative social system, he is of the view that the two communities need a combined initiative to fight attempts to keep them as separate entities with nothing in common.
Born in Thayyil in Kannur district in 1954, Geethanandan is a Marine Sciences ma. Though he worked with the Accountant General’s office in Thiruvananthapuram for two decades, he found his Marxist thinking in constant contradiction with the grim realities he faced as a dalit in the Communist heartlands of Kannur. When Naxalbari’s ‘spring thunder’ found echoes in the minds of young radicals in Kerala, Geethanandan found it more acceptable than the cpm doublespeak. Saying goodbye to the ag’s office, he became part of the Marxist-Leninist movement in Kerala, then led by K. Venu and KN Ramachandran. He shifted base to Thrissur, where he floated unions for workers in the unorganised sector.
“The trade union activities in Thrissur made me a dalit activist. The people I worked with were extremely poor dalits. Their problems required a caste-based approach rather than a class-based one because the discrimination against them was mainly caste-based. The Left never had any satisfactory answer to caste-based problems,’’ he says. The dismantling of the Soviet Bloc also eroded his faith in Communism. His association with dalit movements grew, particularly after a protest at Kurichi in Kottayam against the Kerala State Electricity Board for not changing the course of a high tension line over a dalit colony.
When it came to dalits, neither the mainstream nor the fringe Left ever had an answer to caste-based problemsIn 1996, he met adivasi leader CK Janu and formed a camaraderie that resulted in many landmark adivasi-dalit agitations. It was the 48-day-long stir for food, land and housing in Thiruvananthapuram, about five years ago, that made Kerala take note of his organising capacity as the tribals forced the then AK Antony government to accept their demands. Later, Geethanandan was active in the Muthanga tribal agitation in which more than 2,000 adivasis had occupied a barren portion of the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary. A government-ordered crackdown on the agitating tribals had resulted in the killing of one adivasi and maiming of several others. He has 12 CBI cases against him as a result of his role in the stir.
Geethanandan is now the general secretary of the Rashtriya Mahasabha, a political platform of dalits and tribals. He is also the only non-tribal member of CK Janu’s Adivasi Gothra Mahasabha.
“In Kerala, there are more landless dalits than adivasis. I have to assemble them on a political platform, not a communal one to fight for their rights,’’ he says.
(Tehelka, Mar 31 , 2007




(As told to K A Shaji)

Dhanya is 37 and grew up in Ernakulam in Kerala. Married to an Afghan, she lives in Kabul where she works with the UN World Food Programme

At the end of the 1980s, it was a matter of prestige for a Malayali family to send its children to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) for higher education. Soviet literature, brought out on glossy paper by both Progress Publishers and Raduga, was available at almost every rural library and party office. Though my father had no sympathy for either the Left or the Right, his library was filled with volumes of Russian literature. Each morning, Communists and anti-Communists would hold heated discussions at the village meeting place over the scientific achievements of the USSR; at school, our teachers were vociferous in their praise of the Soviet Union’s social and cultural progress. Though the so-called ‘bourgeois media’ had expressed doubt over the Communist convictions of Mikhail Gorbachev, most of the village’s social analysts termed such statements as the reflection of the class bias of media barons.
Uzma Mohsin
I was determined to live with my husband in his own city, imbibing his own culture. I never imagined living as a mute spectator to the Taliban’s extreme hatred for women I wish to place my going to Leningrad for my engineering degree in this context. I had just finished my pre-university course at a college in Ernakulam. My father was extremely happy when some of my relatives succeeded in securing me a seat at the Civil and Architectural Institute of St.Petersburg University. I was happy too because the USSR was the promised land for most of my generation. There was another thrill, a very personal one, of moving out of India and studying abroad. I never thought the decision would change my life forever.
It was at the Civil and Architectural Institute that I met Humayun Koram, an Afghan national and the only other of my classmates from a different country. Koram was from Najibullah’s Afghanistan, which had close ties with the USSR. He slowly became an integral part of my earthly existence. Both of us shared common dreams and objectives. It’s not the matching of horoscopes but of wavelengths that decides life, I learned. There were no attempts to add an ideological twist to our love affair. We were just two human beings in love. Even when I finally decided to marry Koram, defying barriers of caste, community and nationality, I never thought I would have to battle ultra-fundamentalist outfits and rigid nationalist sentiments to protect my family.
To my utter disbelief, my Hindu family in Kerala accepted Koram as their son-in-law. We married in Pozhuthana in Wayanad, where my family settled after my father’s retirement. By the time I married, the USSR had been dismantled and the euphoria over the socialist paradise was over. Going abroad to study became common and children even from socialist families started moving towards “capitalist” educational destinations like Australia, the UK and the US.
In Kabul, Najibullah was hanged from a lamppost by the Taliban militia. Unrest and uncertainty became the order of the day. But all such developments failed to deter me from settling down in Kabul with my husband and his family. I was determined to live with my husband in his own city, imbibing his own culture. At that time, I thought no political or religious force could change the flow of one’s personal life. I never thought of wearing a burqa and saying goodbye, for at least five years, to my career. I had never imagined living as a mute spectator to extreme hatred for women. In the meantime, I had become the proud mother of my children Naveen and Mallika. I had to teach them in secret, though, as there was no surety about the end of the ultra-fundamentalist regime.
Those who know me compare me with Sushmita Bandopadhyay, who married an Afghan, lived under the Taliban’s thumb and later escaped to tell her story. That became the theme of Ujwal Chattopadhyaya’s film Escape from Taliban. But my experience was different. I never tried to escape. I stayed on to tell the story: of wearing a burqa and secretly teaching children, of witnessing the end of fanaticism and the birth of hope.
Koram and I were in Wayanad with our kids when the Taliban captured Kabul in 1996. Days before Mullah Omar imposed restrictions on women being in public places, an Indian Airlines flight took me back to Kabul. On our arrival, the flight crew asked me to cover my head with at least a shawl before leaving the plane.
When I disembarked, I noticed that the aviation staff had been replaced by a group of bearded men. They directed me to destroy all film song cassettes, photographs and handicrafts purchased from India. There was no choice but to obey.
The Taliban put my family under stringent surveillance, because of our Russian connection. This was the time when the Taliban militia burned Russian books to cleanse the community from its “Communist sins”. As a foreigner of a different faith, I found survival extremely risky under the regime. During the years when the Taliban lorded over Afghanistan, I was totally cut off from my family in Kerala. There were no telephonic or postal communications. As for my husband, he didn’t just have to abandon his Western attire, but also his engineering job because of a freeze on construction. Koram had to start trading in iron rods to get by. In the meantime, I concealed myself under a burqa, and held clandestine English classes for children in the neighbourhood. It was a social situation next only to the Dark Ages. It was a life in unseen chains. Extreme fundamentalism took away almost all the joys of life. I was most concerned about my daughter. How could I bring her up in a society where even sending girls to school was taboo? I thought of escaping to India several times. But there was no way out.
Hope emerged only when fighter jets started flying across the horizon. When the civilian casualties started increasing, I had no other option than to cross illegally into Pakistan with my family. Finally, the war ended and the Taliban regime was ousted. I took my husband and children to India as soon as the war ended. When I met my parents, the reunion was a rebirth. My parents insisted we live in Kerala, but I disagreed. I was still unafraid to experiment with another episode of survival in the Afghan capital. On my return, the Red Cross provided me a temporary job at its Kabul office. A little later, I became administrative officer with the United Nations World Food Programme. Koram also got a decent job, as public information officer with the un Assistance Mission.
Following the killing of some Indians by the Taliban after the new government took over, my parents sought the guardianship of my children. I was unable to resist. So they are now in Wayanad as Indian nationals; they speak fluent Malayalam, along with English and Hindi, and lack proficiency only in Afghani. My husband has to apply for a single-entry tourist visa and wait for three months whenever he wishes to come to Kerala to see the children. My attempts to get him a multiple-entry visa started two years ago and are still continuing. The Indian Embassy in Kabul has approved the request and forwarded it to the Union home ministry, where it is awaiting final approval. I have sought the help of people’s representatives and ministers several times to get it cleared at the earliest. But nothing is happening. I am continuing my effort.
(Tehelka, March 31 , 2006)

New Kerala line: Coke bad, pepsi good

The CPM-led Left Front government in Kerala shut the Coca-Cola plant in Palakkad as it was damaging the environment. Why is it not applying the same rules to Pepsico?

KA Shaji/Palakkad

Two years ago, the CPM, CPI and other Left parties in Kerala were clear about who was responsible for the ground water depletion and contamination, and the rising temperatures in Palakkad district. They blamed Coca-Cola, the multinational carbonated drinks major and a perennial target of “anti-imperialism” protesters.
The Coca-Cola bottling plant, situated in the Plachimada locality of the Perumatty village panchayat in Palakkad, gained international attention after the Left launched an agitation accusing it of large-scale extraction and pollution of ground water. Coca-Cola caved in and shut the plant in 2004.
Which raises the question: if the Coca-Cola plant was the main culprit behind the water scarcity there, why is Palakkad district still facing acute water shortage? Many blame the double standards of the CPM, which heads the Left Democratic Front government in Kerala.
For some reason, the CPM seems to be much more accommodative towards Coca-Cola’s arch rival Pepsico. In addition to its cola plant, Pepsico bottles its mineral water at Wise Park, an industrial area situated in Kanjikode in the district.
“For the first time, animals are looking for new sources of water as existing sources are drying out,” says R. Bimal, a Range Officer at the Silent Valley National Park. It is almost April, but the mercury has already shot up to an unprecedented 44 degree Celsius. Ground water levels have plunged and paddy cultivation is in disarray. Most water bodies have dried up.
The region was known as the rice bowl of Kerala, but things began to change with the onset of liberalisation in the early 1990s. A number of industries, all with high requirement of fresh water, set up units here — Pepsico, Coca-Cola, beer companies and scrap iron smelters (there are now 48 of these in the district).
“When it was operational, the Coca-Cola factory consumed seven to 15 lakh litres of ground water each day. Now, Pepsico is consuming about 15 to 25 lakh litres of ground water per day in an area very close to Plachimada. In addition, the Pepsi plant has the right to take about 1.75 lakh litres of water from the Malampuzha irrigation dam on river Bharathapuzha every day,” says Tony Kulavayalil, a Palakkad-based environmental activist. The Pepsico office at Kanjikode near Palakkad refused to comment, but Kerala Water Authority officials corroborated the figures.
The previous ldf government, headed by then Chief Minister EK Nayanar, gave a “single window” clearance to both Coca-Cola and Pepsico to set up their plants without a preliminary environmental impact assessment. No one knows how many borewells are operational inside the Pepsico plant. “Not even journalists are permitted to enter the Pepsico factory. Security people roughed up photographers when they tried to take pictures of the factory. They say they have only seven bore wells. However, we have no checking mechanism in place. It’s a real wonder why the CPM is mum on the dictatorial attitude of the factory,” said NP Jayan, a photojournalist.
“Coca-Cola ruined Plachimada and its surroundings. But Pepsi is more guilty and its unit at Kanjikode still functions under the patronage of the ldf government. There may be other reasons also for the water woes of Palakkad. But the soft drink giants, the half-a-dozen beer factories and the scrap-iron smelting factories are responsible too,” says K. Sethumadhavan, an activist.
Pepsico also has the backing of other constituents in the ruling Left coalition, like the CPI and the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP). In February, Kerala’s Water Resources Minister NK Premachandran of the RSP ordered a study to find out the groundwater level in all the development blocks in Kerala. The Malampuzha development block, where Pepsico and the smelting units are situated, is the only development block exempted from the study.
The state revenue department, headed by a CPI member, sealed the Pepsi factory in mid-March for arrears amounting to Rs 2 crore. But the factory reopened within 24 hours, even though the company paid only half the amount.
E. Suresh is the president of Pudussery village panchayat, the site of the Pepsi plant. He belongs to the CPM and says that accommodation with Pepsico is out of question. “The panchayat is still fighting a number of cases against Pepsi in various courts,” he says. He admits that the panchayat stands no chance against Pepsico, which has hired top lawyers. But he has no answer when asked why the state’s local administration department, headed by CPM’s Paloli Mohammed Kutty, was not helping them. He also can’t explain why there were no popular protests in Kanjikode against Pepsico as had been the case in Plachimada against Coca-Cola.
“The Coca-Cola factory was inside a thickly populated village. But Pepsi is located in an industrial belt and it has arrived through the green channel. So the government has a limited role in enforcing regulations on it. But when it comes to the water exploitation, it is number one,” says Sreevatsan, local secretary of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions, which is affiliated with the CPM.
“It is sad to say that Pepsi is reaping profits in the same area while Coke has almost left the scene. The progressive movements must introspect deeply,” says M. Krishnan, leader of the Janata Dal Secular (Surendra Mohan faction) and past president of Perumatti panchayat.


Once touted as the district with the highest female literacy, Malappuram in Kerala has gone the other way with increasing instances of child marriage and girls leaving school

K A Shaji/ Malappuram

Malappuram district scaled a high about 15 years ago when Chelakodan Ayesha, then a 68-year-old grandmother of 18 from a remote village in the district, announced Kerala’s total literacy status by reading a verse from the Quran before a thundering crowd.That event heralded a new era in the history of this Muslim-dominated district by opening the possibilities of education and empowerment to its unprivileged women.
Though the then government crippled the continuing education programme attached to the literacy mission for political reasons, the mass initiative succeeded in ensuring over 80 percent female literacy in Malappuram.Now it’s downhill for the district. According to data available with the state education department, an alarming number of Muslim girls are dropping out of school. As many as 2,152 girls, who were promoted to Class x from Class ix this year, had decided to discontinue their studies.
The data also shows that over 1,500 girls stopped coming to school in Class viii this year and 1,834 at Class vii. The number of enrolments in Class i is another reason for worry. While girls dropped out right from Class ii to Class v, there is no dropout in the case of Muslim boys.
While officials cite poor finances as the reason for mid-school dropouts, the growing preference among parents to marry off their daughters by the time they are 14 is being identified as the major reason for the dropouts in Classes viii and ix. Though the unaffordability of higher education can also be blamed for the situation, growing priority for early marriages stands out as the main villain, say teachers. Now, this district with over 80 percent female literacy is also known for a large number of early marriages, high rate of infant and maternal mortality and poverty.The decrease in admission of girls to primary classes can be viewed in the background of the skewed sex ratio.
Though the district had a healthy sex ratio in the 2001 Census, a recent study of the district panchayat found that the ratio among the 0-6 age group in Tirur taluk fell to 925 females per 1,000 males.The education department data can be viewed with a rapid household survey conducted by the Union health ministry in 1999 in Kerala. As per the study, only 9.1 percent of girls in Kerala get married before they are 18. However, in Malappuram district, 36 percent of girls are married before they reach 18.“Normally, parents do not mind sending daughters to school as long as they do not go to Class x. That was my experience during the last few decades. However, mid-school dropouts are also increasing alarmingly now,” said a senior high school headmaster, who preferred anonymity. “Last year, a parent asked me to fail his daughter, a good student, in Class ix. He feared she would not get a husband if it were known that she had turned 15 (average age of a Class x student). When I refused, the man withdrew his daughter from the school,” he added.Most women in Malappuram are grandmothers by the time they reach their early 30s. “The age of the groom is never taken into consideration, though a 15-year-old girl is considered unmarriageable,” laments Ayisha bi, who had two of her daughters married at 13 and 14. Her younger daughter died during childbirth. Her elder son-in-law, in his 40s, died soon after the fourth child was born. “My elder son-in-law and I were of the same age, but we can’t be choosy,” she says. The steady rise in marriage of minor girls is linked to the large inflow of Gulf money into the Malabar belt in recent years. Once the men start earning petro-dollars, they prefer to marry off their daughters as soon as possible.In some marriages, the grooms also go to work in the Gulf after marriage. They often return only when their minor bride is already a mother. Psychiatrists say the long years of separation have also led to a rise in cases of depression among young girls.Many young girls also suffer from the “Friday Syndrome” — complaining of extra anxiety and stress on Fridays when their husbands usually call from the Gulf.Since the Muslim Personal Law does not specify the marriageable age for women, the community’s religious heads have encouraged the practice and sanctioned the onset of puberty as the ideal age for marriage.A recent Kerala High Court judgement - that a Muslim girl, even if she is a minor, can enter into a valid marriage agreement if she has attained puberty — will only foster such unfair marriages.The court also upheld that the married minor’s husband is legally bound to provide maintenance. A case was filed by Raihanth, a Malappuram girl, when she was 17 and was refused maintenance after a quick divorce.With the rise in minor marriages, the district is fast becoming a doctor’s nightmare. “Deliveries are complicated. The district has one of the highest maternal death rates,” admits a senior medical officer in the district hospital.“Only a concerted effort by clergy, ngos, citizens and government can resolve the issue. Awareness drives must be intensified,” said VP Suhara, president of nisa, a progressive Muslim women’s outfit based at Kozhikode.



Abandoned and ostracised, unwed mothers and fatherless children of Wayanad highlight the continuing exploitation of north Kerala’s tribal population

KA Shaji/Wayanad

Reena's life took a fateful turn just over thirteen months ago, when the friendly upper-caste construction worker from Thiruvananthapuram, who was working in the local water supply scheme project, entered her little hut and forced himself on her. The 18-year-old Adiya girl from Gunnikaparamba tribal colony in Thirunelli panchayat in Wayanad district in north Kerala is an unwed mother now.
The man fled from the village as soon as she became pregnant and Reena is trying hard to find his whereabouts so that she can initiate legal proceedings. All the details given by the construction worker are bogus. Psychological trauma apart, Reena is saddled with the difficult task of bringing up an illegitimate child.
Kali, Vatta and Onathi of the Chekkottukunnu Tribal Colony, and Lakshmi of Gunnikaparamba colony — all are in the same tragic predicament as Reena. Twelve years ago, Kali was similarly abused by a police constable. Being a policeman’s son is a matter of shame for her 11-year-old son.
Once known as the Naxalbari of Kerala because of Naxal-supported militant peasant revolts against landlords in the 1960s and the 1970s, Thirunelli is now home to over 600 unwed tribal single mothers, all victims of sexual exploitation. These hapless women, some as young as 13, are struggling to survive and raise their children. Thirunelli is the largest village in Wayanad district with a population of 24,000, largely consisting of tribes from 120 settlements.
Cases of children born out of wedlock have been regularly reported from this remote and isolated area of Wayanad district ever since the police crackdown on Naxals in the late-1960s. At the time, Thirunelli was a major centre for Naxalite activists.
The anti-Naxal squads of Kerala police and the CRPF ruthlessly suppressed the tribal armed insurgency. The cops let loose a reign of terror, ravaging hamlets, pillaging tribal habitats and raping tribal women. The policemen deployed to check radical activities were chiefly responsible for creating a new class of unwed tribal mothers and their children.
In the years that followed, it was the turn of revenue, rural development, education, excise and forest officials to exploit tribal girls — all of whom had been deputed to undertake various welfare measures for the tribal community as part of the efforts to wean them away from Naxals. Tribal girls recruited as casual labourers in the neighbouring tea and coffee estates also started being sexually abused by their masters and fellow workers in the 1960s. Many settlers and traders also turned predators, making Thirunelli village panchayat infamous for having the largest number of unwed mothers. This state of affairs continues till this day. Once the girls become pregnant, they are left to fend for themselves. Many are forced into prostitution for the sake of survival.
The main source of information about unwed mothers and their children is the admission register of different tribal kindergartens in and around Thirunelli. When schools reopened in June last year, 16 new fatherless children were admitted. Their mothers are usually victims of seduction or one-night stands. In most cases non-tribal men entice them with false promises of marriage.
Valli of Thrissilery gave birth to two children even before she reached marriageable age. She is now about 25 and still retains the cheap bangles presented to her by a non-tribal youth who was working as peon in a nearby government office when she was 15. Those bangles were enough to win her over. When she became pregnant, the boy abandoned her. Rejected by her family, Valli found shelter in another Adiya hut where she gave birth to her first child.
When her case came up before the court, it was rejected on the grounds that she was “a woman with loose morals”. She gave birth to another child two years later, allegedly fathered by the same man. Two years ago she approached the State Assembly Committee on Tribal Welfare with the complaint that the youth was planning to marry another girl, and sought the committee’s help to persuade the man to take care of their children.
The girls are usually victims of seduction or one-night stands. Non-tribal men entice them with false promises of marriage“The Adiya and Kuruma tribal communities of Thirunelli are known for their extreme level of morality. Family values are very strict among them. In spite of all the social and community barriers, their women are enticed by non-tribals. Excommunicated by their families and tribe, these unwed mothers then lead harrowing lives on the peripheries of Thirunelli,” says K. Lakshmikutty, caretaker of a tribal kindergarten run by the government’s Social Welfare Department. Lakshmikutty is known for her selfless work among the tribals in Thirunelli, working to ensure better rehabilitation for unwed mothers and punishment for those who abused them. It was her effort that brought this odious phenomenon to the attention of the State Women’s Commission and various NGOs and forced them to look into the matter.
No tribal community in Wayanad is ready to accept a woman who bears the children of a non-tribal. ostracised by the society, most of them end up as easy targets for sexual exploitation.
“It is a shame for a high-literacy state like Kerala that these unmarried tribal women continue to live in a state of penury and neglect, years after their problems came into public attention,” says author and activist K. Panoor. Both Lakshmikutty and Panoor point to the disturbing trend of an increase in the number unwed mothers.
Death of tribal women on the abortionist’s table is not uncommon in Thirunelli. Three years ago, 26-year-old Subhi, who was 7 months pregnant, bled to death at a tribal healer’s makeshift dispensary, leaving behind two little daughters. Faced with public indignation, the police was compelled to arrest the man responsible for her pregnancy. But in July this year, a local court freed the accused “for want of evidence”.
Often, money helps the perpetrators escape justice. A boy from the upper-caste Nair community seduced 23-year-old Rajani who belongs to the Adiya community. When she became pregnant, local political workers took up the issue and made the boy agree to marry her. But his parents paid off Rajani’s father.
Offenders usually have little to fear, since the police collude with them. Says a police official: “Wayand is a punishment posting for every policeman. His job commitment is low. He does not view the Adivasi problem with any degree of seriousness.”
Crude and inhuman methods are often employed to kill unwanted infants. “Even if cases of sexual exploitation can be settled by giving money, a living child born out of such relationship will pose a constant threat. Hence, they resort to brutal methods of eliminating newborn infants,” says Lakshmikutty. According to tribal promoters deputed by the state SC/ST department, at least 24 children of unwed tribal mothers have died in the past two years in Wayanad “under mysterious circumstances within days after delivery”.
Though official figures put the number of unwed mothers in Thirunelli at 99, unofficial surveys conducted by NGOs and social workers estimate the number to be at least six times as high. Many victims are too afraid to complain. The Kerala Women’s Commission, which has been tracking down unwed mothers over the last decade and fighting for their cause, has made some headway in alleviating their plight and bringing the perpetrators to book.
The commission, which has received 103 complaints in the last three years — 85 from tribal women and the rest from dalits — is now getting dna tests done to establish the children's paternity. Of the 18 cases it has taken up, four of the alleged fathers who were summoned for blood tests owned up to their paternity without going in for tests. Three agreed to marry the victims while one, who is already married, is willing to pay a monthly allowance.A Kerala Legislative Assembly committee submitted its report on the problem in 1997, after which — and after the intervention of the late Industry Minister Susheela Gopalan — a textile manufacturing unit was started in Thrissilery.
The unit now provides training to at least 24 unwed mothers every year, after which they are hired as employees by the factory. The state government’s decision to appoint educated tribal girls of the area as “tribal promoters” to create awareness among the different tribal groups about issues and problems facing them is showing results. The success of these initiatives is significant, since earlier, when sewing machines and cows were given to women to rehabilitate them, non-tribals would often take these away.
“We visit almost all the hamlets to collect information about the problems facing them. We also help abused women to lodge a complaint with the police and to seek government aid,” says Radha, a tribal promoter who belongs to the Adiya community herself. “Our main goal is to make minor girls aware about the possible traps laid by people from outside. We will not allow the number of unwed mothers to increase.”
“Much of the problem seems to stem from the increasing alienation of their land and shrinking the traditional sources of income leaving them at the mercy of the greedy settlers from outside. Their tribal heritage does not equip tribal groups to resist exploitation by outsiders. Over the decades, they have been swarmed by hordes of settlers who addicted them to alcohol, dispossessed them of their lands and sexually abused their women,” Lakshmikutty points out. Adivasis were in the majority in the Wayanad region, but over the years, they have shrunk to a minority, and now constitute only 17 percent of the total population of the district.
The mushrooming number of tourist resorts in and around Thirunelli is a matter of concern for Lakshmikutty. These resorts promise well-paying job opportunities to young tribal women, but the men folk are not allowing their women to work in resorts as they are apprehensive about the resort owners’ real intentions.
Recently, a tribal woman working in a tourist resort committed suicide by dousing herself with kerosene and setting fire to herself. Her husband had created a scene at the resort office because she had not reached home by eight in the evening.
The tribal population is not benefiting much from the development efforts in the area. “Earlier, children had to walk to the nearest high school 32 km away, now it is 22 km away. There was no up-gradation for the local tribal primary school. However, the number of resorts is steadily increasing,” Lakshmikutty says.
She shares the tribal community’s concern that resorts would encourage sex tourism. She is now engaged in uniting political parties, tribal organisations and NGOs in their fight against resorts, which don’t hold much promise for either Thirunelli’s fragile ecology or its tribal population.
(Tehelka, Nov 04 , 2006)

An Indian woman returns with the Taliban chapter of her life

Their story began in Russia, got caught in Cold War when they moved to Kabul, became a nightmare later


KOZHIKODE: Sushmita Bandopadhyay married an Afghan and went to Afghanistan, lived under the Taliban’s ultra-fundamentalist thumb and escaped to tell her story.
Dhanya Raveendran married an Afghan and went to Afghanistan, lived under the Taliban’s fundamentalist thumb and stayed on to tell her story: of wearing a burqa and secretly teaching children, of witnessing the end of fanaticism and the birth of hope.
Dhanya was back home, in Pozhuthana near Vythiri in Kerala’s Wayanad district, with her husband Humayun Khoram, their three-year-old son Naveen and two-year-old daughter Mallika. In fact, she was in India when the Taliban captured Kabul in 1996.
‘‘We were spending our holidays here. An Indian Airlines flight from Amritsar took us back to the city one cold January morning, just days before Mullah Mohammed Omar started imposing restrictions on the presence of women in public places. The flight crew asked me to cover my head at least with a big shawl before leaving the plane,’’ Dhanya, a employee with the office of International Red Cross in Kabul, told The Indian Express.
‘‘When I reached the airport, I noticed that a group of bearded religious men had replaced the staff. They directed me to destroy all film song cassettes, photographs and handicrafts purchased from India,’’ the 30-year-old recalled.
Dhanya’s is a love affair that unfolded against the backdrop of the Great Game that was being played out in Afghanistan by the Soviets and the Americans. She met Khoram in St Petersburg in Russia in the early nineties at the Civil and Architecture Institute. They went to Kabul a year after their marriage.
The couple’s Russian connection ensured that they were put under stringent surveillance by the Taliban. ‘‘After all, my wife was a foreigner who follows a different faith. And we both were graduates from Russia. This was a time when the Taliban were hellbent on burning chunks of Russian literature,’’ 36-year-old Khoram, who now works as a translator with a business magazine Ire Tabat, said.
Dhanya was cut off from her parents during the five-odd years that the Taliban lorded over Afghanistan. ‘‘We didn’t have any telephonic or postal communication with Dhanya’s aged parents in Wayanad,’’ Khoram said.
He didn’t just have to abandon his Western attire, but also his engineering job because of a freeze on construction. Khoram had to start trading in iron rods to get by. While Dhanya, now concealed under a burqa, risked her life, like so many other Afghan women, and held clandestine spoken English classes for children in the neighbourhood. But Kabul remains the place Dhanya calls home, and she now has reason to return.
‘‘The dark days of Taliban rule won’t come back. The common people and the international community are adamant that fanatics won’t be given another chance to rule Afghanistan,’’ she said.
(The Indian Express, January 14, 2003)


Kerala’s catch hits FTA barrier

India’s free trade agreement with Thailand has already hit the fisherfolk of Kerala hard. As the catch dwindles, fishermen here are left to fend for themselves

KA Shaji / Kochi

After the adverse impacts of import policies of the Union Government effected the suicides among farmers, it’s the turn of fishermen. The country’s coasts are all set to witness similar suicides with the free trade agreement (FTA) with Thailand coming into force.
Though the FTA, which permits tariff-less fish import, has been in force since September 2006, the coastal regions have started experiencing its full effect only since January 1, 2007. The FTA permits intermediaries in the field to import 86 commodities and products, including commercial and non-commercial value fish species, without paying any import duty, including sardines, mackerels, anchovies and crabs. The import influx have affected fishermen, especially along Kerala’s coast, since the fishworkers here depend largely on oil sardine and mackerel. The cheap availability of other popular varieties like cuttlefish, squid, shrimp, halibut, sole, sea bass and pomfret also dampened the hopes of the sector to ride to recovery.
“Duty-free import has drastically affected the price of local catch. Fishermen would have the same fate as those of the farmers of Vidarbha if the government continues to permit import of fish, whether raw or processed,” warns Lal Koyiparambil, president of the Kerala Independent Fishworkers Federation.According to him, the only FTA beneficiaries would be the big seafood industry players. The availability of cheap fish from Thailand would not only take away the right of local fishermen in fixing the price of their catch, but also affect the scope of export. According to Joseph Xavier Kalappurakkal, secretary of Kerala State Boat Owners’ Association, most seafood manufacturers are now negotiating with Thai firms to buy cheap fish. “Who would prefer the local products if mechanisms for cheap import are in place,” he asks.The impact is visible in major fish landing centres like Neendakara, Vizhinjam, Puthiyappa, Vypin, Beypore and Mappila Bay. Even local distributors are quoting the lowest prices in fish auctions.With a near total absence of sea food processing units in the auction process, prices of most export-oriented fish varities are dwindling. Sardines and mackerels are the worst affected varieties. “It’s a crisis with many dimensions. With no income to support our families, we have no choice other than committing suicide,” says T. Dasan, president of Arayasamajam (Collective of Fishermen) in Puthiyappa near Kozhikode.To justify the government decision, the Marine Products Export Development Authority had conducted seminars along the coast. “Though the seminars revolved around conditions in the FTA, most of our queries regarding the very survival remained unanswered,” pointed out Kalappurakkal. “The WTO Doha round reclassified fish and fish products as ‘Non Agricultural Market Access’ products. Now, it looks like the end of the road,” says Koyiparambil.Compared to other states, the FTA’s direct impact would be severe in Kerala as one-fourth of the one million active fishermen spread across nine states are here. Six lakh people eke out their living in fish vending and processing and they have started realising the FTA’s adverse implications. Kerala, which has 28,000 country rafts, 27,000 mechanised crafts and 5,000 trawlers, contributes Rs 12,000 crore per year as foreign exchange through marine export. Most leaders of the fishing community are blaming the Union government for their plight. According to them, there is no unified Union ministry that could look into their problems.“Four ministries — agriculture for fishing, commerce for fish export, food processing for fish processing and finance ministry for funding — handle the fisheries sector. Multiple control ends in lack of coordination,” says Koyiparambil.
(Published in Tehelka)


Marriage Mirage in Kerala

Married and cast away shortly after honeymoon by their Arab husbands, hundreds of poor Muslim women in the state’s northern coastal districts are cursing their fate .

KA Shaji

From Malappuram to Kasargod along the Malabar coast, poor girls are married to Arabs for a paltry sum as meher .

Thirty-nine-year-old Kunhamina has no identity of her own. “Take a taxi to Kuttikattoor and ask for the ‘Arabian bride’ Kunhamina. She is famous there because of her ludicrous marriage. And no need of a postal address or phone number,” advises a senior special branch police officer attached to the City Police Commissioner Office in Kozhikode.
In Kuttikattoor, about 20 km from Kozhikode city, Faizal Abdulla Quid Ahmed and Ahmed Abdulla Quid Ahmed refuse to be photographed. “Policemen regularly come knocking on our door, threatening us with deportation. My mother has been running from pillar to post for the last 14 years, trying to get citizenship for my younger brother and me. No photographs please as they mean nothing but further humiliation,” says 21-year-old Faizal, an engineering graduate.Kunhamina holds a slightly different view. “I will continue to strive for Indian citizenship for both of my children. They have no place to dwell other than India. You take any number of my photographs if they can ensure citizenship for my children,” she says.
Kunhamina’s husband Abdulla Quid Ahmed, a Yemeni national, is an exception among the hundreds of aged Arab men who come to Kerala every year and marry poor Muslim women of the region. He spends about six months each year in Kuttikattoor with his Indian wife and children, and supports them financially. Kunhamina is very worried that her two teenaged sons are neither citizens of India nor Yemen.
The problem began when Ahmed, who was 60 when he married for the third time, took his 16-year-old Indian bride to Sharajah where he worked in a private firm. Kunhamina returned to India with her children years later. Now, however, the three feel extremely insecure as they have no ration card, no passport and no official permission to undertake any job. They have to renew their temporary permission to stay here annually for a fee of Rs 1,400.
Two of Subaida’s three daughters face the same problem. Subaida, who lives in Vattakundu near Pallikandy, however has no husband to turn to for moral and monetary support. In 1987, when she was twenty-four, she was married off to Haji Farooqui, a 60-year-old Iranian and went to live with him in Dubai. Subaida returned to India with her three children nine years ago. There has been no word from her husband for the last five years, and she is not waiting anymore.
Her children Fathima and Azna, who do not have Indian citizenship, are facing deportation. After many years of representation to various governmental agencies, she has lost all hope. “As a last resort, I met Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan last week and pleaded for his intervention. He promised maximum efforts on the part of state government to persuade an otherwise unwilling Union Government,” she said. “Since a large number of children of Arab marriages were born in Middle East and came here with their Indian mothers, they do not have the citizenship in either country and face deportation, when they become adults,” points out VP Suhra, president of nisa, a voluntary agency that works with Muslim women in Kozhikode.
In fact, the issue of citizenship is just the tip of the iceberg. Married and cast away shortly after honeymoon by their Arab husbands, hundreds of poor Muslim women in the northern coastal districts of Kerala are cursing their fate. “Arab marriages are taking place clandestinely in north Kerala even now, though there is widespread propaganda that they are not taking place in this literate and progressive state. Barely an year ago the Kozhikode police arrested two Arabs on charges of marrying teenage girls and sexually abusing them,” says a top police official who wishes to remain anonymous.
From Kasargod to Ponnani in Malappuram district, poor girls along the coast have always been married to Arabs in return of meher worth a few hundred rupees. Such marriages are rampant in Kozhikode, especially in Kuttichira, Mughadar, Pallikandi, Kampuram and Kappakkal — places where slums dot beaches, the men-folk are usually fishermen or timber workers, and women work as housemaids in city homes.
K. Shuhaib, a social activist in Kuttichira, introduces us to Ayesha, who at 34 has already been married four times. None but one lasted beyond 60 days. She fails to recollect her second husband’s name. She has two children, fathered by two of her former husbands.
Fathima alias Arakkal Pathu of Chappayil has a similar tale of woe. Forty-five-year-old Mohammed from Qatar married her when she was only 12, and abandoned her and their son three years later. She married a Saudi Arabian national later and he too left her without even waiting for the birth of her second son.
“I have never seen my father. I have no clue about his whereabouts. Even the name and address he gave to my mother’s family were fake,” says Pathus’s second son Abubacker, a headload worker. Pathu is fortunate in that she has only two children to take care of. Other women in a similar situation often have to raise many children fathered by different men. As per rough estimates, there are more than 900 such forgotten children whose fathers came from across the sea, in Kuttichira alone.
Sixty-seven-year-old TT Bhathimayyi of Thangal’s Road recalls that her father got Rs 200 as meher when she was married off to the Bahraini national Badre Mohammed Ahmed Rasheed 52 years ago. No communication was possible, as her husband only knew Arabic and she Malayalam. They lived as man and wife for three months. Her son Mohammed Mustafa now works in Bahrain after he obtained his citizenship there with the help of his step-brothers.
About 15 years ago, Subaida of Mughadar came to know of the death of her Iranian husband Hussain Mohammed in a shipwreck near the African coast. She was six months pregnant when Hussain had abandoned her. Now, she lives with her two daughters and a son. “Now, I am struggling hard to forget the bitter experiences of the past,” she says.
“My father, Yusuf Mubaraq, has done nothing for us. But his three sons in Oman helped us a lot financially after his death. However the extreme humiliation and neglect by the society had already crippled my ambition to excel in life,” says Ramla, daughter of Amina of Kozhikode South Beach. A school dropout, Ramla is now working as a housemaid to look after her 13-year-old daughter. Like her overseas father, Ramla’s Indian husband divorced her without any reason some years ago.
There are scores and scores of such ‘Arabian brides’ in the densely populated, poverty ridden coastal area; the story of Aminas, Suharas, Subaidas and Bhathimayis is repeated over and over again.
Now things are done secretly. The secrecy is the result of a number of arrests since 1985. The people living in the coastal belt know marriages take place, but will not tell you where, when, how or who is getting married. The logic is simple: “It is poverty that makes these girls get into such marriages. Sometimes a kindly Arab might look after the girl for a lifetime. Why prevent that?”
The social reason behind these ‘sales’ is directly linked to the dowry system. The girl’s family has to shell out a huge dowry in cash and gold in Muslim marriages. Girls who get married to aged Arabs come from poor families. And the meher Arabs give, which could be as little as Rs 3,000, is a boon to the family. The sanction by the clergy is another cause why the practice continues. The male-dominated clergy is least bothered about the poor women and their unfortunate children. All this, coupled with general lack of education and awareness, has made intervention by social organisations difficult. “If anything worthwhile is to be done, poverty should be wiped out. There can be no cosmetic changes,” says Suhra.
Fearing the clergy’s wrath, no political party in Kerala is taking up the issue. When the National Women’s Commission organised separate sittings on Arab marriages in Kozhikode and Malappuram last year, the State Women’s Commission — comprising nominees of the previous Oommen Chandy government — decided not to cooperate with it. The body has come under sharp criticism by women’s groups. Suhra is demanding a multi-pronged approach by the government and the civil society to address the problem.(Tehelka, Sep 30 , 2006)


V S Achuthanandan

Colas, Windows, Techno Parks, what’s next in his line of fire? Wait and watch. Kerala Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan believes it’s this fiery Marxism that endears him to the people, writes KA Shaji

Kerala is not Venezuela and Velikakathu Sankaran Achuthanandan, the Kerala chief minister, certainly is not the tough-talking Hugo Chavez. But for the grassroots-level cadre and Kerala’s working class, Achuthanandan has more than a few shades of Chavez and commands a standing diametrically opposite to that of his West Bengal counterpart, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya. The aura of this school dropout, who lost his mother when he was four and his father when he was 11, has introduced new meaning to Left politics in Kerala.
The CPM veteran’s decision to enforce a blanket ban on the production and retailing of Coca Cola and Pepsi in the state may have been quashed by the Kerala High Court, and his attempts to go on appeal before the Supreme Court may also not succeed. But, as a doughty fighter, he has succeeded in winning Kerala’s public consciousness in favour of his decision to ban the colas, whose manufacturers’ exploitation of the Palakkad groundwater has forced the residents of the district to walk miles to collect potable water. As a recent opinion poll conducted by a television news channel found, Achuthanandan’s decision to ban colas has only increased his popularity. He is yet to take to task the party’s youth activists for attacking cola godowns in the state saying they would not allow the mncs to re-enter the Kerala market.
Apart from being the first chief minister to impose a ban on Pepsi and Coke, Achuthanandan, affectionately called VS by his comrades, is also making headlines by logging the mighty Microsoft out of Kerala schools and saying a firm ‘no’ to investors with shadowy backgrounds. That the Achuthanandan effect is hitting where it hurts most was evident recently when US Undersecretary of International Trade Franklin Lavin wrote to the Union commerce secretary warning the Centre of a possible fall in US investment if US companies’ interests were not protected.
Following Achuthanandan’s decision to promote free gnu/Linux software, nearly 1.5 million students in the state’s 2,650 government and government-aided high schools will no longer use the Windows platform for computer education. About 56,000 high school teachers are now acquainting themselves with the Linux platform as a result. “There is no ban on any it company in Kerala. However, we wish to make Kerala the foss (Free and Open Source Software) destination of India,” said Achuthanandan, in response to criticism. In 2000, as Leader of the Opposition in the state Assembly, he was the first Indian leader to have discussions with free software guru Richard Stallman. Stallman is now one of Kerala’s it advisors, much to the embarrassment of Achuthanandan’s party rivals led by state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan. Vijayan’s group had favoured introducing Microsoft software in schools during the AK Antony regime. However, Achuthanandan stuck to Linux and warned Antony against Microsoft.
His decision to re-examine the Internet City proposal with Dubai’s Tecom Group to set up a smart city and an exclusive global it park in Kochi over a 100-acre area at an investment of $ 300 million also evoked widespread criticism. Achuthanandan detractors accused him of taking Kerala back to the Stone Age. But, to the utter shock of his adversaries, the promoters agreed to strike off clauses in the agreement they signed with the previous government that were found objectionable by the new chief minister.Achuthanandan’s copybook Communism has been the reason why his rivals can’t stand him. But the same quality had them begging him to start their poll campaignHis opposition to the Internet City clauses has now drawn supporters from unexpected quarters. This week, the Union commerce ministry has its guns on the abuse of Special Economic Zone (SEZ) incentives. Predictably, some of his other decisions have led to Achuthanandan being labelled an anti-development CM. Like when he directed the state labour department to ensure that all companies in the state should shut shop on August 15. Objections raised by bpos located in Technopark in Thiruvananthapuram and at Info Park in Kochi had no effect. He still opposes the Rs 7,000-crore express highway project and another multi-crore venture for mineral sand mining along the Alappuzha coast. Both projects have severe environmental consequences and his opposition to them has earned him encomiums for being a ‘green chief minister’. The lobbies, which influenced the previous udf governments to sanction the two controversial projects, are now active, and as a result some of his Cabinet colleagues have started diluting their opposition to these projects. But Achuthanandan is not ready to relent.Born on October 20, 1923 to Sankaran and Accamma in Alappuzha, Achuthanandan faced poverty from a very young age. Orphaned early, circumstances forced him to discontinue his studies in Class vii and join his elder brother working at his tailoring shop. Later he earned his living meshing coir at a local rope factory. “I may have been able to continue even without buying books but I didn’t have the strength to starve in school everyday,’’ he has said. However, he has remained an ardent reader. He began his political career as a trade union activist and joined the Congress in 1938. Like most Congress leaders of that time, he was attracted by Communist ideology. He joined the Communist Party of India in 1940 and soon became the Alappuzha district secretary. As a freedom fighter, he was imprisoned for over five years and spent a further four-and-a-half years underground. He found a position for himself in the history of the Communist movement in Kerala by actively participating in the Punnapra-Vayalar uprising where a police bayonet was driven through his leg. And now he is one of the three surviving leaders of the undivided cpi, who walked out of the national council in 1964 to float the CPM.The CPM veteran is also a hardliner in his personal life. Known for his strict sense of discipline, his day begins with 20 minutes of pre-dawn yoga followed by a breakfast of three idlis. Lunch is a handful of rice and vegetables; dinner (always before 6pm) is three rotis and a banana. He sleeps for exactly five hours a day. “My strict diet helps me walk kilometres and climb hills even at this age,’’ he said once. He is not a fan of either music or films. Recently induced to watch a Malayalam movie with a heavily political theme, he later revealed that he was watching a film for the first time in 30 years. His wife Vasumathi worked as a nurse; she retired about 15 years ago. Son Arun, an mca holder, is deputy director of a government firm in Thiruvananthapuram. Achuthanandan’s daughter Asha holds a PhD in pharmacology and works at the Rajiv Gandhi Institute of Biotechnology.The main reason for Achuthanandan’s popularity is his simplicity and straightforwardness. Also, it is said that he has never been known to hesitate to raise his voice whenever he discovers irregularities. And if later proven wrong, he has always been quick to publicly acknowledge it. Whether it is the drinking water scarcity in Plachimada or the multi-million dollar mnc software war, Achuthanandan is heard with rapt attention because the Kerala voter is confident of him. He has relentlessly pursued corruption cases and harassed mafia that deal in ganja, sandalwood and land. The sand mafia and the sandalwood mafia, the plantation companies encroaching on public land, the tourist resort operators who ravaged God’s Own Country to fill their coffers, the sex lords who exploited women and minor girls, the private hospital owners who built a business of trading in human organs — all have met their match in this diminutive man. Political leaders, who compromised with these elements for their personal safety and growth, cynically describe Achuthanandan as a fool who rushes in where angels feared to tread. “I have gone after several of them... like the owners of the steel smelting factories... the cola factories, looting groundwater when people did not have water to drink. So, these forces opposed to me have sent agents here to ensure that my votes could be bought over. But the people’s political reasoning cannot be bought like that,” he told this correspondent during the last Assembly election when asked about the free flow of money to ensure his defeat from Malampuzha constituency.Nearly 1.5 million school students will no longer use Windows for computer education. About 56,000 teachers are now brushing up their Linux skillsThe chief minister is also one who believes in doing his homework. Two months ago, Agriculture Minister Mullakara Ratnakaran said in the Assembly that no death was reported from Kasargod district following the spraying of the killer pesticide Endosulphan. The statement irked Achuthanandan, who as Opposition leader had campaigned vigorously for the over 300 people crippled by due to use of Endosulphan in state-owned rubber plantations. Within a week, he went to Kasargod with Ratnakaran and asked him to verify the official data with the victims’ families. The minister tendered an apology and, days later, Achuthanandan announced a compensation and rehabilitation package.His appointment of economist Prabhat Patnaik as vice-chairman of the state planning board is perceived to be an attempt to address the agrarian crisis plaguing the state, which has seen a large number of farmers’ suicides in Wayanad district. The government is now floating an agricultural commission, a debt relief commission and a price stability commission to tide over the crisis. As immediate relief, he ordered the waiver of all loans to farmers who had committed suicide and a moratorium on all agricultural loans. As with his anti-cola stance, the courts stayed the implementation of the Bill on self-financing educational institutions but it boosted the morale of dalits and economically weaker sections. The Bill had set aside 50 percent seats in professional colleges for Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes, Other Backward Classes, Backward Classes and economically weaker sections. The Kerala Assembly passed the Bill unanimously but the private college managements appealed in the Kerala High Court and the Supreme Court.But the challenges from his party colleagues are yet to ebb. Should Kerala have a Buddha-type pro-reform CM like Pinarayi Vijayan or a doctrinaire and Stalinist VS, asks http://www.pinarayivijayan.org/, a new website promoted by his party rivals. In the 1996 Assembly election, his adversaries ensured that Achuthanandan lost in Mararikkulam constituency even as the party won a thumping majority. He first won Malampuzha in 2001, but the Congress-led United Democratic Front took the Assembly majority. In the run-up to the state elections earlier this year, the pre-poll drama saw his rivals try to cold shoulder him by denying him a ticket. The cadre, however, saw it as punishment for doing all the right things. Ultimately, his popularity forced the Vijayan faction to eat humble pie and the party declared his candidature from Malampuzha. On the day he was to take over as chief minister, the party’s Malayalam mouthpiece Desabhimani carried photographs of all ministers on page one except Achuthanandan’s. The paper also carried a front-page advertisement from a business tycoon wishing the new government luck. This tycoon is not known for his transparent dealings and had been on Achuthanandan’s wrong side. Party sources say the businessman splurged crores to ensure his defeat.It is Achuthanandan’s copybook non-pragmatic Communism that has been the reason why his rivals and critics can’t stand him. The same quality endowed him with such influence that rivals, MA Baby and TM Thomas Isaac, begged him to visit their constituencies and inaugurate their campaign. As a disciplined party cadre, Achuthanandan went and spoke for about three hours in each constituency on the party manifesto. At the end of the speech, he urged voters to cast their ballot for party candidates.Achuthanandan’s supporters range from tribal leader CK Janu and women’s leader K. Ajitha to women and youth. To Kerala’s Marxists, he is one of the last of the galaxy of stalwarts like AK Gopalan, BT Ranadive, Pramode Dasgupta and EMS Namboodiripad. His politics is also known to be shrewd and one that doesn’t favour opportunism. The CM’s political line was proved correct when former Congress leader K. Karunakaran’s Democratic Indira Congress (Karunakaran) was denied entry into the ldf. There was considerable pressure from the Vijayan group to ally with Karunakaran. According to Achuthanandan, such an alliance would smack of political opportunism.“Those who are opposed to my political philosophy and style of approach never missed opportunities to shower me with abusive language. Comic programmes being aired by Malayalam television channels are also trying to portray me in poor light. On most occasions, they stoop to the level of character assassination. However, I have no vengeance against anybody who is involved in such activities. There is no need to be insensitive to the artists behind these comedy programmes, who make a meagre earning out of them to support their families,’’ he said in response to the public outcry against television programmes, which showed him in poor light.Achuthanandan may be the lone CM in the country who has no friends in any industrial house. And unlike Buddhadeb, he is proud of his Communist lineage. Addressing a rally in Hyderabad recently, he remembered the sacrifice of more than 4,000 Communists who took part in the Telangana rebellion.“I wish to salute the martyrs who bring me courage to decide in favour of the poor. My government would strive to achieve what the martyrs of Telangana dreamed about,” he said.(Tehelka, Oct 07 , 2006)