Two first-time candidates from the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagm (DMK) and All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam(AIADMK) will go head-to-head in the Gudalur constituency in the Nilgiris district.
The DMK, which has won four of the last six elections in Gudalur, is fielding S. Kasilingam, while the AIADMK is fielding Pon Jeyaseelan. Both Mr. Kasilingam and Mr. Jeyaseelan are Sri Lankan repatriates, a group that makes up the largest voting bloc in the constituency.
The Sri Lankan repatriates, along with the Adivasis in Gudalur, are primarily employed as labourers in the large tea, coffee and pepper estates, with very limited land ownership.
State convenor of the Vivasayigal Thozhilalargal Munnetra Sangam (VTMS), M.S. Selvaraj said that land reform should be at the forefront of the candidates’ election manifesto.
“For instance, TANTEA was formed to offer employment to Sri Lankan repatriates. Now there is talk that these estates will be closed down and returned to the forest department. One of our primary demands is for the land to be redistributed to the labourers, who are landless even after 50 years since returning to India,” he said.
Sobha Madhan, a tribal rights activist and district co-ordinator of the Nilgiris Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (NPVTG) Federation, concurs. “Many people, including estate workers and Adivasis live on Section 17 lands under the Gudalur Janmam Estates (Abolition and Conversion into Ryotwari) Act of 1969.
This means that they have no pattas to these lands and can’t even get basic services like electricity and water connections, while they are also not allowed to cultivate the lands that they are occupying,” said Ms. Madhan.
Activists said that the large tea estates in the constituency, which are operating on forest land where the leases have expired, should be returned to the forest department.
“A portion of these lands, once returned, should be distributed to the labourers and the Adivasis from whom it was taken,” said Ms. Madhan.
Another key issue in Gudalur and Pandalur is the increasing number of problematic human-animal conflicts, caused by large tea estates occupying important corridors used by elephants to move between small patches of reserve forest. “Not only are these major estates located along important corridors, but also continue to encroach on remaining forests. There needs to be a comprehensive, scientific plan formulated to ensure that elephant corridors are restored,” said a conservationist living in Gudalur.
Gudalur also lacks in quality healthcare and education, said S. Sivasubramaniam, general secretary of the Gudalur Centre for Consumer Protection. He said that the Gudalur Government Hospital should be upgraded, as residents have to travel to neighbouring Kerala or to Udhagamandalam in case of medical emergencies.