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Thuruthi Protest: A Highway Over Dalit Homes
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Shyma Pacha

The bulldozer of National Highway (NH) expansion is set to crush over 29 houses in Thuruthi Dalit colony in Pappinisheri in Kannur, Kerala. The residents are telling society: “Our words are like stars, they will not burn away. The ones who are set to sell their sky and earth wouldn’t care to understand what sustainable development means. Each granule of sand in Thuruthi throbs with the memory of the ancestors of its people. Their ancestors’ blood flow in the rivers. We request all the lovers of democracy to unite with us in our protest for existence.”

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Reconsider the proposed NH alignment which will displace the Dalit families in Thuruthi

Thuruthi is a dalit colony in Pappinisseri Panchayat, Kannur. The place stands a bit raised from the surrounding wet land. The Pulayas of North Malabar are a community which has had to face the pains of unparalleled atrocities and social alienation as part of agrestic slavery. The globally acclaimed knowledge tradition of Kaippad farming including potta krishi and purambokk madakrishi belong to the Pulaya community. The first generation of settlement in Thuruthi consists of 17 families which includes the prominent Pulaya, Thekkan Karathan. From Kaippad farming and fishing as modes of survival they moved to industrial work spaces with the coming of Aaron tile factory and Western India plywood. Very few, who had obtained education with the support of missionaries, also got into government jobs.

Thuruthi is a part of the hundreds of Pulaya settlement colonies kept out of regional histories and studies on Pappinisseri and Kannur. The wetland/mangrove ecosystems are part of their lives which need to be understood sociologically and ethnographically. Their work culture, food, beliefs etc depend on the wetland culture they are part of. There are various references in the regional histories of Ezhome, Morazha, Mattool, Madakkara, Madayi, Kunjimangalam etc of the resistances against the cruel assaults of the feudal caste system. It was the discriminatory rule of casteism that had forced them to settle in this marshland. They are a community which has traditional rights over the organically rich mangrove/wetland resources.

Bypass Alignment and Kudil Kettu Protest

The proposed alignment is the third one by the development authority as part of NH expansion. While the first two alignments didn’t propose any curve and was not directly detrimental to any particular group, the third one was planned in such a way as to evacuate 90% of the dalits living there. A curve was deliberately planned in the 500 metre length from Velappuram to Thuruthi so that the lives of 29 families are directly impacted. As a response to the notification of the specific alignment that came out in 2016, the families in Thuruthi drafted a letter to the NH Development Authority communicating their opposition to such an alignment. However the letter was not met with any consideration. Although these family members approached the Panchayath authorities, district collector and the thahasildar in various stages their complaints fell on deaf ears. Thus Thuruthi natives formed an action committee.

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The request to withdraw from uprooting a community instead of constitutionally supporting them was constantly declined. To the RTI query as to why the first two alignments were ditched in such a way, the authorities concerned replied that it was due to the intervention of come VIPs. The reconsideration of the respective curve newly added to the third alignment would save the 25 families from displacement. However when this was pointed out for the consideration of those including the committee district collector, the response was that there cannot be any more discussion on the issue. Following this, on 27th April the dalit families of the colony started their kudil ketti protest in Thuruthi. The blatant anti dalit/ecological stand and the unsustainable developmental policies have invited criticisms from the various Dalit organizations and citizen rights groups whose support to our protest has been overwhelming.

Police arrest of dalit families in Thuruthi

On 9th May 2018, the bypass survey authorities came and arrested hundreds including women and children who were protesting, took them to the station and completed their survey in the absence of the property owners. The survey that was to have been held in the presence of the property owners ended up in police arrest and harassment. The 29 families who are under the threat of forceful eviction won’t be the only victims of this conspiracy of the consultant company, land mafia and savarna developmental lobbies. The destruction of the wetland and the accumulation of the construction debris will destroy the organic nature of the drinking water as well as impact on hundreds of homes and fields forcing the people to flee from their home and land. Precedents of such developmental hazards are aplenty. Such a realization has led to the forming of the action committee and its actions against evacuation.

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The destruction of wetlands

The Ramsar environment summit of 1971, identifies various ecosystems that are sensitive. Thuruthi, in the north side of Valapattanam river, and which is part of the alignment is home to various micro organisms and plant species including upootti, kannambotti, machintho and branthan mangrove which comes under the sensitive wetland category. This ecosystem controls and determines the changes to the river beds and banks. It is crucial in maintaining ecological balance and influences global warming, food safety etc. In short, the anti Dalit/environmental policy of the bypass alignment is a violent and anti-people one which would have serious impacts on the ecosystem of the region.

Dismantling of the Pulaya Temple

The place has a 400 year old worshipping site, Sri Poothiyil Bhagavathy Kshethram belonging to the Aringaleyan tharavadu in Thuruthi. It is a place of worship of the native people. The customs, rites and beliefs of Pulayars would be under threat if the temple is destroyed with the arrival of the bypass. The native people are in fear over the hijacking of development over their beliefs and customs. The temple committed has decided to stand with the samarasamithi and the demand to reconsider the alignment no matter what.

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Bypass Wall and the multiple levels of ecological destruction

When the bypass passes over the extremely sensitive ecosystem of Thiruthi wetland, the Valapattanam river and its organic habitat, where history resides, would be outrooted. Labourers engaged in collected shells, thadukkal, valayilakkal, chemeen thirakkal, vakkakal etc would have to withdraw. Fish, prawns, crabs, malinjilukal, wetland birds and countless number of such various organically rich lives would be extinct. Apart from this, the sand required for the bypass construction would have to be collected from the neighbouring Panchayaths. This will lead to extensive destruction of hills. Valappattanam river will become a memory in the future. Wetlands would be destroyed completely. This would lead to floods and scarcity of water. Multiple levels of ecological destruction would ensue.

Who are the VIP’s who intervened in the alignment?

There are several questions that this protest raises. Who had intervened to alter the first two alignments and changed it in such a way that it became anti Dalit and anti ecological? Who are the VIP’s that RTI reveals? The government and the NH developmental authority are answerable to the people of Thiruthi.

Demands of the Action Committee

What the Thuruthi protest points out is that the government and the NH Development Authority have to rectify several things. These 29 families have only the minimal right to land obtained through homestead rights and houses built with the sweat of a lifetime. By deliberately opting for a curve the government is ensuring the eviction of these Dalit families. This is the result of having bowed down to the narrow interests of various traders, business tycoons and prominent caste groups.

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Instead of ensuring the protection of the dispossessed groups as guaranteed by the constitution, Dalit culture and environment are under threat due to unscrupulous developmental strategies of the government and the Authority. The vested interests of the wealthy are being protected. The Samara Samithi is not against development. Either the authority has to follow the first or second alignment. Otherwise by constructing an overbridge it has to protect the habitat, the people and the ecosystem. This is the demand of the Samara Samithi.

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Shyma Pacha teaches at Payyanur College, Payyanur. She did her PhD from the University of Hyderabad, researching the negotiations of Thiyya caste in the making of the cultural realm of Kerala, especially in Malayalam Cinema. Her recent translations include Kuzhur Wilson’s Letters to Violet and Rupesh Kumar’s novel CinemaScope.

Illustration by Sreejith Mattool. Pictures credit: the internet.

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