Missing toilets of Kolli

In spite of the toilets provided by the Government as a part of the rural housing scheme, the villagers of Kolli hills  seem to prefer open defecation – an age old practice which has poor implications on their health and sanitation.

In order to abolish the practice of open defecation and hence uplift the hygiene of people living in rural areas, the Central Government made the construction of toilets mandatory under its rural housing scheme, Indira Awaas Yojana (IAY), last year.

Under this scheme, villagers can avail the allotted funds (Rs 1 lakh) only if their newly constructed house meets the required conditions, of which a toilet is a significant one. Officials are appointed to conduct audits and order changes if the house does not meet the IAY guidelines.

Bowed down by debts and low income, the villagers adopt wicked practices to retain the little money they are given by the Government. All of them wait until the audits are complete. Once the money gets transferred to their accounts, they deconstruct the toilets to convert them into store rooms and the like.

However, the scarce income is a secondary issue according to Dr. R. Jagannathan, Namakkal Collector, who said, “For them (villagers), defecating in the open is a social activity. They go as a group to the forests for their morning ablutions. It’s all about their mindset.”

Aiyyasamy, a villager from Sellipatti, who has converted his toilet into a store room for his field produce, said, “This whole forest is my toilet. If suddenly someone asks me to defecate in a 5*5 space, I can’t. I feel claustrophobic.”

According to Venkat, MS Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) employee, the inclusion of toilets under the scheme has come with little thought. “Is a building enough? Where are the water pipelines? Where is the sewage line? Why is the government not taking care of all this?” he questions.

The responsibility of the Government seems to end with the construction of a toilet. The sewage lines and water pumps which are required to make it usable remain missing. The fact that the amount is disbursed without ensuring these facilities is simply inexplicable.

A change in policy that would ensure the provision of sewage/water lines before crediting the money; frequent audits; and more importantly, awareness campaigns for the villagers against the ill effects of open defecation would help better the situation of the ‘missing toilets’ in Kolli.

(With contributions from Vignesh Radhakrishnan)


Time will heal, so will Sidha

Sidha healers residing in the mountains are usually picturised wearing saffron dhotis with uncombed voluminous hair falling all over their face. The chief healer of Kolli hills, Mooligai Selavaraj’s image does not concur with any of it.

He zooms around in his bike, participates in all the cultural extravaganza during festivals and weddings, pets two dogs and a kitten, indulges in gardening and to top it all, walks around in his white dhoti, a casual checked shirt and a red cap.

Aged 49, he admits to have been in the profession of Sidha since he was just 24. His ancestral inclination towards medicine did not leave him many options.

He grew up running through the Kolli forests, smelling and spotting the medicinal herbs. This explains much about his eloquent rendering of all possible scriptures which have reference to health and medicine.

“There is no disease without a cure,” he says with a confident smile.

Selvaraj is a busy man. Ignoring the continuous buzz on his phone, he shows us a pamphlet with the names of all Sidha Rasams (medicines) used for curing diseases ranging from a simple knee pain to the fatal ones like Cancer and Aids.

He frankly admits that only 75% of the cases he attends succeed. Cases fail when the patient does not take the medicines as prescribed or when the medicine simply does not suit the patient.

“One should have patience while the medicine acts on him,” says Selvaraj. “Most importantly, one should be kept detached from ones family and in complete care of the healer,” he adds.

The trend of allopathy medicine has invaded Kolli as well. But Selvaraj is not against it. He says that for an emergency, allopathy is always advisable.

However, what disappoints him is that villagers opt for Sidha medicine when nothing else works on them. “Most of the cases cannot be cured because they come one hour before their death,” he says.

While he is not attending to patients, he is busy training researchers from all over Tamilnadu. In the two month training, charged at Rs 2000 per head, he practically shows them how to prepare the medicines – the ingredients of which he fearlessly obtains from the sacred forests – an act which could sin him, according to the natives.

Determined to keep the Sidha tradition alive, he says, “I am ready to impart my knowledge to anyone who is ready to receive it.”


Where culture meets nature

Amidst the dense growth of wild bushes and trees, a foot massaged path led to a small patch of land. Three men clad in faded brown veshtis sat there in lotus position, deep in meditation. Each of them clutched a bunch of Agarbattis in their hand, the scent of which combined with that of the wet mud and herbs gave a heavenly aroma.

The prayers and agarbattis were being offered to a small oval shaped clay model rested within a cave. The model represented Goddess Kolli Pavai. The killer of demons. The Guardian of Kolli.

Surrounding the idol were poles which had small pieces of cloth tied to represent cradles. Belief has it that a sincere prayer in this form can bless a couple with a child.

We were at the Attaiyar Kannimar sacred forest in the Vallapuranadu panchayat. This was one among the 15 roofless temples, or the sacred groves of Kolli hills – the result of an effort by the ancestors to conserve the Sholai ecosystem.

Barefoot and cold, the short trek towards the altar felt like Paulo Coelho’s concept of purification through self-flagellation.

“Kolli in Tamil means death,” said Balakumar, a guide from MSSRF who accompanied us. The goddess is believed to have protected the landscape of Kolli from the demons in the past by seducing them with her lustful appearance and then destroying them. Reference to Kolli Pavai can be found in the Sangam Literature and the Tamil epics, Silapadikaram and Manimekalai.

“No one touches these trees for domestic purposes,” said Balakumar pointing at the huge trees which lay flat on the ground unattended. “They fall off when they are old and years later turn into manure.”

The sound of the bell at the altar turned our attention to one of the three men who now swayed on his feet and groaned like an animal. “Kolli amma has possessed his body,” said one of his friends. His eyes were still shut when he swooned and fell on the ground.

“Cases of position syndrome can be seen all the time. This reassures their faith in Kolli amma,” said Balakumar, as we made our way out, aghast at what we had just witnessed.

Of sacrifices and celebration

A short ride from Kannimar took us to the  Iyanarpatnam sacred forest, home to the exotic varieties of trees like Kattu Vilacham, Moolam, Pani, Pala, Arali, Jatika, salem pazham, Naval pazham which could reap in crores if used for trade in Kolli.

However, not a bark is touched.

“Few who dared to disturb the sanctity of forest had to face the wrath of Karupu Sami, lord of the Iyanar forest. They ended up with broken limbs,” said Nallasamy, one of the forest guards. The victims had to sculpt clay models of the deity as an act of repentance.

Entry to the altar is restricted except for the Brahmin priests who perform the pooja.

One can see several stones strategically placed in groups of three to form a stove. Women from around 100 households, dressed in white saris, gather here during the September festival to make pongal as an offering to please the lord. Women undergoing their menstrual cycle are strictly prohibited.

“Any agrarian crisis can be solved here,” said Nallasamy confidently. “All it takes is to sacrifice a goat from ones household, offer its blood, and the lord would bless them with double the harvest and protection of cattle as a bonus.”

Though the forest lands appear unaffected by encroachments and construction, the forest official, Rathnavel said that the forest area has reduced from 33% to 17%. “Agriculture and estates have slowly encroached into forest space,” he added.

Also, there has been a decline in the species of tigers, foxes, wolves and bears.

Around 30000 snakes were released to the forests so as to restrict the entry of poachers.

Although the ‘sacred’ attempt seems to offer some monitoring, the natives fear that the greenery of the forests will wear off in the future, mainly due to education, migration and a decline of lineage.



Kolli Sheds Calories

The change in the socio economic needs among the Malayalis, the local tribe of Kolli, Tamil Nadu, has brought a shift in the indigenous agriculture. As a sign, food crops are being replaced by cash crops. While it serves as a quick money minting method, the question of food security remains blotted.

Dhanpal, a villager from Sellipatti, was offered one lakh by the Government under the Indra Awaz Yojna scheme that provides housing for rural people. However, this amount was insufficient for construction and he ended up taking a loan of 2.5 lakhs from others.

Unable to repay, his paddy fields were taken away.

He worked for four months in the fields of Erode and Salem, and brought home 40% of the produce – which should last his family until the next harvest.

This story pertains to most of the farmers in Kolli.

Dhanpal made meager profits through pig rearing and started poultry for self consumption. He raised goats and sold its milk to Aavin Milk Corporation in exchange for rice and pulses.

Saroja, the Kaveriamman women’s self help group representative said, “Only kids until the age of three consume milk here. No one travels 3 km to the milk corporative society just to fetch a litre of milk from the corporation.”

The papaya fruit which grows in Dhanpal’s garden is neither sold, nor eaten. “We are bored of it,” he sighs. The Guava, orange, bananas and Jackfruits which are grown in house gardens are never consumed by the villagers. Instead they are sold to middlemen at a marginal price.

The intake of proteins among villagers has decreased over the past 10 years with the shift in cultivation from Ragi to Tapioca. “Tapioca provides for immediate income, but not for sufficient nutrients,” said Kateshwari, a nutritionist working with M S Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF)

Probably not a direct result of shift in cultivation, but “monthly health check camps conducted in Primary Health Centres showed that most children are underweight, the women are anaemic and majority of them suffer from Calcium and Iodine deficiency,” she said.

Malayali women take less than 50 grams of meat a month. “As per the tradition, a woman eats only after her whole family is done eating. There are times when we do not get enough,” said Senthamarai from Alavadi village.

Fish, a major source of Vitamin A and proteins, has never been a part of their diet. As an MSSRF initiative, several varieties of fishes were released in the community pond and steps are being taken to educate women on how to cook fish.

As a quick fix to the problem, the agriculture department introduced rice varieties from the plains. According to Balakumar, an agricultural scientist working with MSSRF, this was a failed plan since those “did not suit the soil here and hence gave low yield.”

“The rising expenses, increasing population, deforestation and lack of interest among the young to learn the indigenous agroforestry system are a threat to food security of Kolli,” he added.