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A cultural crisis by Dharmalingam Venugopal in HINDU

Author: Sendhil Kumar Halan
Article Category: Community, News
  Published on May 06, 2006 : 08:09:41 PM
The tea crisis is threatening the badaga way of life

A cultural crisis

by Dharmalingam Venugopal, The Hindu April 23, 2006

The tea crisis is threatening the badaga way of life.

COMMUNITY AT THE CROSSROADS: The Badagas. Photo: D. Radhakrishnan

AN economic crisis is brewing a cultural crisis in the Nilgiris. The youth, including women, are leaving the hutties, Badaga villages, in droves seeking employment in the neighbouring plains.

This has never happened in their history. Says Prof. Paul Hockings, a leading Nilgiriologist, In many of the other mountainous terrains, some of the local inhabitants have found it necessary to emigrate from their homeland... No such pattern is evidenced among the Nilgiri communities... .What made the difference was primarily the existence of plantations which required substantial amounts of labour.

Prolonged crisis

Ironically, it is the plantations which are responsible for the current exodus of the Badaga population. The tea crisis in the hills is entering the sixth year with no solution in sight. With no source of income or employment in the hills and laden with debt, the youth are forced to migrate to nearby towns. Even subsistence has become a problem for many families, who had in the heady days of the boom, converted even their back yard, where they have traditionally grown a variety of food crops for family consumption, to tea.

The crisis, if it persists too long, will seriously undermine not only the fragile economy and environment of the Nilgiri Hills but also destroy the unique culture of the Badagas whose population is already declining thanks to their voluntary adaptation of the small family norm. That more than 60 per cent of the families are still joint households is some consolation. Badagas have survived many a crisis in the hills in their long existence. But what they face today is a different kind of challenge market reforms, liberalisation, globalisation which has no respect for culture or tradition.

The Nilgiri Hills have repeatedly been a victim of insensitive planning in the postcolonial period with disastrous results. In the 1950s the ecologically irreplaceable grasslands were commandeered to raise eucalyptus and wattle for the sake of a couple of industries in the plains. The industries have long closed, leaving the plantations mute witness to the damage they have wrought on the environment around them. In the 60s an Indo-German Development project was launched with a lot of fanfare to kill a potato pest. It killed instead the potato which has been the staple here for more than a century. In the 70s the much-touted public sector undertaking Hindustan Photo Films turned out to be requiem for the Queen of Hill Stations that Ooty was till then. In the 80s tea was propagated as a perennial source of prosperity, only to end up a calamity for the whole district once the boom burst.

Long-term measures

Several ad hoc measures, including payment of subsidies, have been taken in the last five years by the Central and State Governments to provide relief to the small tea growers. What is required now is a concerted package of measures to contain the crisis. The past few years have seen several positive trends also. There has been an improvement in the quality of green leaves. Market forces have initiated a welcome process of consolidation among the private factories. What is needed now is a major confidence building measure that will convince the beleaguered growers, particularly the small growers, that the crisis can be tided over.

In the long run, however, the small growers have to explore a slew of options such as promotion of domestic demand for Nilgiri teas, price insurance and crop diversification in order to make their economy more stable.

The author is the coordinator of Save Nilgiris Campaign. Email: devenu@vsnl.net.

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