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Elephant in the room: Wayanad tribals weigh priorities in poll time

Elephant in the room: Wayanad tribals weigh priorities in poll time

By T G Biju (Eds: Recasting story, adding info ) Wayanad (Ker), Apr 4 (PTI) Wayanad may be the centre of heated political debate with Congress chief Rahul Gandhi choosing to contest elections from the constituency but people in the hill district have many other things on mind -- food, shelter and marauding elephants. Tribals constitute around 18 per cent population of Wayanad district, famed for its forests and hills, which has been propelled into the national electoral map with the Congress president's decision to reach out to voters in the South by contesting from the Wayanad parliamentary constituency. The Lok Sabha seat has two Assembly segments -- Sultan Bathery and Mananthavadi -- which are reserved for tribals. Issues of everyday survival such as food and drinking water as well as lack of roads, ownership of land and the man-animal conflict that has led to increasing instances of elephants trampling their homes and even killing is what troubles them.The main issue is fighting elephant attacks, said one tribal woman, highlighting the pressing problems of shrinking habitat and the many instances of man-animal in the state. "We face problems due to attacks by elephants at our homes inside the forest. We won't cast our votes this time. There is no use participating in elections," she said.According to forest officials in Wayanad, a forest watcher and two tribals were killed in attacks by wild elephants in the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary area."We don't have shelters or good habitation. There are no roads and no proper drinking water. We do not have much hope in them (politicians)," said a tribal man living in the forests of Wayanad.The area has been home to tribals for centuries. They belong to the Paniyas, Kurumas, Adiyars, Kurichyas and Kattunaikkans ethnic groups."Traditionally, Wayanad is the land of tribals. They were never bothered about owning the land in their name but now they have become aliens in their own land," Dr Jithendranath, who has been working for the tribals in Wayanad for over four decades, told PTI.The Sulthan Bathery-based doctor said issues like malnutrition are still prevalent among tribals in the area. And this is not just because of lack of food but also because of a fundamental lack of understanding of their way of life.The staple food of the tribals is meat and fruits, but the government distributes items like milk powder and rice through its various programmes, forcing the people to change their food habits, he said."They cannot survive merely on such food items. They have no use for milk powder or rice. Malnutrition is highest among them," he said.Jithendranath asked party leaders prepping for the elections in Wayanad to first learn their dialect as he feels it is the only way to understand and solve their basic problems."Please don't see them as vote banks," he said.The Left Democratic Front has fielded CPI candidate P P Suneer from the seat. The NDA candidate is Thushar Vellapally of the BDJS.Congress' M I Shanavas, who died last November after long illness, has been a two-time MP from the seat. He won the Lok Sabha elections of 2014 by defeating CPI's Sathyan Mokeri by over 20,000 votes. PTI TGB MINMIN