Profiling Tarsh Thekaekara

A meeting had been set up inside Mudumalai with the Paniyas and Kattunayakans, two prominent forest dwelling tribes of Nilgiris. The Paniyas seemed willing to move out of the core zone of the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve. They were afraid that Tarsh, representing a pro-adivasi organization, would try to convince them against it as it’d hurt their culture, lifestyle and values. However, as he got an inkling of what was on their minds, he promptly told them he had no business objecting to that. His only concern was to ensure they knew exactly what the relocation package was, and were not signing anything without understanding the implications. The meeting was wrapped up and he was about to make a move when he overheard an old Kattunayakan man laughing it all off saying, “How can we move out of here? They’ll to arrange 4 buses just to move our dogs!” Tarsh was decidedly startled. He thought everyone was willing to move. He promptly asked the man, “You don’t want to move from here?” “No! We have always been here. They say Aiyankolly is not far, only 50 km from here, but anywhere that’s not walking distance is too far.” came the answer. It was a resounding negation that made a mockery of all his effort. So he asked, “Why didn’t you speak up then?” He casually replied, “What do we care? Over the last few years they have had hundreds of meeting. I don’t think anyone will ever move. We don’t bother with any of these meetings.” Concerned for their cause, Tarsh persuaded them with all his force to stay on for the meeting with the forest department and tell them they were not moving. None of the Kattunayakans attended the meeting. The forest department held that they had all agreed to move. Another round of negotiation and persuasion had to begin.

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It is difficult to find a beginning to Tarsh’s story, precisely because his story doesn’t begin with him. Life around him seems like a smooth continuum – of ideas, concerns and efforts – as if inspired by Biology. What was passed on to him has taken a respectable life of its own. He is an original, located in his own times and surroundings. And most importantly, he is not afraid to differ from anybody. Yet, his is not a story of landmark achievements or heroic feats. It is a story of a tireless negotiation, much like the one glimpsed above, where no answer and no position is final. That you keep your senses open to the changing equations is the only ask!

It didn’t start with Commutiny (www.commutiny.in) either. Tarsh had already set out for his journey, on foot. And then Commutiny van came and picked him. Then, the highly debated Forest Rights Act combined with the ‘Tiger Amendment’ (to the Wildlife Protection Act) arrived. It was an unprecedented legislation on wildlife conservation. If there was ever a chance for an activist to make a difference to the lives of indigenous people as well as wildlife conservation, it was here. Here was a legislation that didn’t pit the Adivasis against wildlife, sought to correct the historical injustice meted out to the Adivasis and saw them along with the forest department as an integral part of the conservation process. There was a crying need here to reach out to the Adivasis and listen to them, build an understanding between them and the forest department and help them decide what is best for both. That is the role Tarsh has been playing: discussing optional livelihoods, organizing Adivasis in the face of rising gram panchayats entirely represented by outsiders, dissecting the merits of moving to the buffer zone and having limited yet necessary engagement with the forest etc. Precisely, he is acting as a link between two historical enemies: a political Adivasi organisation and the forest department. Neither has been too willing to compromise on their respective historic positions. To work together under the new laws it needs someone in the middle. Someone, who is not going to give up.

As Tarsh himself says, there is nothing creative about it. One has to be ready to do some donkey-work, he has learnt. Evidently, working with Adivasis is pretty much devoid of any glamour. Theatrics – stylish, smart and loud – that we so often associate with leadership, are totally absent. You must talk plain and be willing to repeat yourself. To talk abstract, theorize or offer a conceptual understanding – things we condition ourselves to admire so much – turn out to be pointless. Also, you need to be rooted in the local context: this tree, this soil, this season, this insect…

Having been trained at IIT Kanpur as a technology graduate, it was a handy lesson for me. Nothing we were taught had any connection with the immediate surroundings. The aim of technology was always out there, somewhere in the future. Coming from there, to watch Tarsh explain how to use a GPS system to an Adivasi lad was truly heartening. The boy would get readings for a few villages daily and so would Tarsh, so that those villages that didn’t exist on government records could be plotted on the map and claimed rights for.

However, the grand scheme hasn’t crushed the little joys either. While at School for Adivasi children that his parent’s friends set up many years ago, Tarsh is in his element. Having been a student of the same school till eighth standard, he doesn’t want to lose touch with the children he taught physics regularly till a few months back. “That’s my classroom,” he pointed out towards a tree under whose shade he taught children. “How were your exam results?” he asks the children who passed out of the school after eighth standard and just got the results for their ninth standard exams, dressed up in colourful clothes for Pongal celebrations. Most don’t want to discuss the results and merely smile back or run away. To one bunch of girls, he gives his laptop so they could watch an animal documentary and submit an essay on it later. To another kid, he asks to submit an essay on honey collection. These are innocent kids, so unlike their urban counterparts. Their smiles are pure and they have little else to say. They neither wear confidence on their sleeve nor give firm answers. Another boy Tarsh met while riding towards the office and enquired about his recent absence from the school had only this to say in reply: “simply!”

What must be admired is that his engagement with Adivasi children is not entirely about teaching them Science on the lines of modern education. His concerns are much more deep rooted. Unlike many others around him, he thinks indigenous culture and values must be preserved and one important step for that would be to not run them over with our standard education, hence values too. An otherwise aggressive Tarsh is a changed man when asking the kids about what they are learning and requesting them to write essays. It doesn’t take much to see that while on this journey, he has been learning a few lessons for himself.

Of course it helps that his parents set up ACCORD (Action for community Organisation Rehabilitaion and Development) and the Adivasi Munnetra Sangam (AMS). Good doctors joined them and  set up a hospital exclusively for Adivasis which is also now managed by Adivasis. A few other young people who turn up to gather some experience often become collaborators in the cause. In the absence of a hierarchy and boss, they have a tradition of doing peer review on each other to monitor and fine-tune each other’s progress. Of course it also helps that he works with WWF India, and has the support of the Coordinator of the Nilgiri Eastern Ghat Landscape, Mohanraj; and the Conservator of Forests and Field Director of the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, Rajiv Srivastava. Both are not only able administrators, also accessible men willing to contribute to the cause of conservation without impinging upon the rights of Adivasis. Also, the fact that District administration and Forest Department is quite decent and much less corrupt as compared to some of its northern counterparts cannot be ignored. In fact, the Kerala govt. is often seen to be more progressive on adivasi rights than any other. For Gudalur, a town right next to Kerala border, where Tarsh is located, source of inspiration is not very far.

Through FRA and Tiger Amendment, the government is trying to set right many of its previous wrongs. The multitudes of wrongs have copulated to produce enough offsprings in the meanwhile for none to know too accurately the state of affairs. Add to that, the ambitious nature of science and its ruinous relationship with natural ecological balance over all these years. Inside the maze that there is, there are no easy answers anymore. If the Adivasis are to reduce their dependency on firewood from the forest, should they use induction heaters or LPG? Should honey collection, abandoning which is unthinkable to the forest dwellers, be allowed despite the core zone being in theory an inviolate space? Each of these small questions needs an elaborate process to be answered. So much so that two factors matter more than any agreement reached – first, that the people should feel they have had a say in the decision; and second, that no agreement should be taken to be final.

Here is a glimpse into how a routine negotiation would unfold:

In a meeting with the Field Director on the Tiger Reserve, the idea of stopping honey collection from the core zone to keep it inviolate, got some of the adivasi leaders rather worked up. As they’ve been doing that for ages and it is too central to their economics as well as religious belief system, the idea of not being allowed to enter the forest even for honey collection was totally unacceptable to them. They wanted an assurance right there from the FD that they would be allowed to continue this practise. Tarsh calmed their nerves and tried to explain to them that they’ll have to find a way out together over a period of time. As the FD, even he was bound by rules, and did not have the authority to overide the Wildlife protection Act and grant them rights. Some Range Officers suggested that the tribals all take up bee keeping (in wooden boxes),  and promised to get an experts to conduct ‘trainings’. Immediately, one of the Adivasis replied, “What do you know about honey? You will waste a lot of money, we know some good NGOs working on honey, and we’ll arrange the training ourselves!”

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Close to Masinagudi, Adivasis of the Irula tribe live in the buffer zone of the MTR. The forest department wanted to reduce their dependency on the forest and so was suggesting agriculture as an alternative  livelihood.Promptly, they did all they could to make it possible for the Irulas to start on agriculture. The Irulas were reported later as saying, “They say they have spent 7 lakhs on our village. They ploughed the land, built a check dam for water, and even gave us the seed, but we never wanted to do agriculture in the first place.” So nothing grew, and now the range officers complain that the adivasis don’t listen to anyone and can never ‘improve’.

When the traditions and beliefs of the peripherals are up against a central law, there is bound to be dissent. For our modern world that is running out of dignified dreams, not trampling over the indigenous values is a challenge that can only be met collectively. Also, being a true leader is about knowing when to come to the fore and when to step back and be ordinary. The inspirational bit in Tarsh’s story is that he is content being a mere link as long as it connects in the right direction; but never fails to ask the right questions.

We walked into Chembakolli, a village at the edge of Core Zone and quite far from Gudalur, where an Adivasi told Tarsh that Church had offered the adivasi kids, free of cost, a hostel in Gudalur town so that they could attend high school regularly. He sought advice from Tarsh who promptly responded, “The problem with free favours is that they take away from you the right to question how things function. Perhaps you should insist on paying a small fee and keep a stake in the way they look after your kids.” Yes, it is not easy to take positions on such matters. And that’s why even being an ordinary link to the right questions is so important.

Right questions. Tarsh tells me an old story when one day, walking along the road close to his house early morning, he found a dead leopard. Promptly, he passed on the information to the forest guards. In the evening, he enquired them about the post-mortem report. They exclaimed, “So it was you who found it in the morning! See, don’t tell anyone else now.  Otherwise we have to file a long report and answer a lot of stupid questions about how it died. It’s already dead. What’s the point? Who wants to know about the dead leopard anyway? We quietly buried it.” We have a bit of a laugh. The next day, he gets to know of another dead leopard. This time, many have seen it already. Injury, suffered in a fight with another leopard, is found to be the cause. We try to get permissions to take the school kids for the post-mortem, but fail.

The forest is full of stories. I tried to get close to as many as possible. Tarsh’s story is just one of those many. It has been inspired from many and even inspires some. We, at Commutiny, are blessed to have someone as committed as him among us. Together, we must ensure that what didn’t start with him should also not end with him.

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