Why are Tamil expatriates from Sri Lanka struggling for survival deep in the Gavi forest of Kerala?

Now, the government putting pressure on the expatriates to move out, accepting a meagre compensation package.

ByK A Shaji

Published Aug 06, 2023 | 9:30 AMUpdatedAug 06, 2023 | 9:30 AM

Gavi forest in Kerala

There was chatter and a lot of activity all around Kaliperumal when his boat left the shores of Ceylon early one morning in 1966. As the passengers settled down and the boat headed north toward the horizon, talk became sparse.

Occasionally, a child posed a question, loud and clear over the constant rumble of the waves. The responses were brief and often monosyllabic. Kaliperumal, then 11, and the other children, were curious to know what was in store for them when they reached their destination.

The adults, too, wore curious and worried looks. They have received promises of a better life in a land where they had their roots. Yet the land was foreign to them, far away from their familiar plantations.

Kaliperumal was both excited and worried. But somewhere deep down in his mind, he knew something was amiss, he would recall decades later.

Several such boats had left the shores of Ceylon since the then Indian prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri signed an agreement with his counterpart in the island nation, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, in October 1964, to take back the “estate Tamilians”.

DS Senanayake, the first Ceylonese prime minister had stripped the estate Tamilians of their citizenship in 1949, a year after the country gained independence from the British. Successive governments tried to remove them from the country, culminating in two pacts between Ceylon — now Sri Lanka — and India: One in 1964 and the second, 10 years later with Indira Gandhi.

The two countries agreed that estate Tamils would go to India over 15 years. Kaliperumal and his family were among those Tamils, forced to cross the Palk Straits, the same waters between Tamil Nadu and Jaffna, that their predecessors had crossed in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The British had then taken them to work at the tea, cardamom and coffee estates in the central province of the island, also known as the teardrop of India.

A new identity

A few days later at a camp in Tamil Nadu, Kaliperumal and others hit the road. They travelled further north, across the plains and crossed the state where they once had their roots. Kaliperumal felt the landscape looked similar to that back home as he had the first glimpse of the mountains in Kerala.

Gavi forest in Kerala.

Gavi forest in Kerala.

They were taken to Gavi, a little-known place deep in the forests, then in the Idukki district. The estate Tamils were asked to clear the forest, dense and deep, and to engage in cardamom farming. Left with no other option, they relented. After all, it was something they knew.

Life was not easy for them, They braved wild animals, inclement weather, and frequent jungle diseases. The moist land and climate, however, was suitable for cardamom. The plants flourished, the clusters of leaves sheathing the flowers and pods that grew close to the earth, sometimes even hugging the land.

The estate Tamils, too, adapted to the new environment, and like cardamom pods, they also became close to the new land. Yet, they were now considered as one section of Keralites. They were given a new identity — the Sri Lankan-Tamil settlers.

They remained cloistered in the forest, aloof from the mainstream society. Even after Gavi became a part of the newly carved out district Pathanamthitta in 1982, it remained relatively unknown until a Malayalam movie, Ordinary, hit the screens in 2012.

Alien in God’s Own Country

As she inches close to the retirement age of 58, storekeeper Stella Rajeswaran at the defunct cardamom plantation of the Kerala Forest Development Corporation (KFDC) in the now-popular Gavi forests has reason to believe that her gods have stopped smiling.

As the estate lacks any agricultural income and faces accumulating losses, she and her four-member family depended solely on the small earnings as casual workers for the KFDC’s ongoing ecotourism initiative in Gavi.


A Tamil repatriate settlement inside Gavi forests in Kerala. (KA Shaji/South First)

Her husband Rajeswaran, already retired, also forms part of the ecotourism project as a driver.

The three children who completed their graduation from faraway colleges feel directionless in the face of the inability of the family to support their continuing education.

“I will retire in another few months, and then we have to vacate the estate quarters allotted to us. Then there would be no land for us to relocate,” said Stella, whose forefathers were taken from southern Tamil Nadu by the Britishers to Sri Lanka, then Ceylon.

“We are quickly realising that we are landless, and our children cannot even get educational loans in the absence of any collateral,” she told South First.

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Over time

Along with the many pristine forests of South India, Gavi, which forms a crucial part of the present-day Periyar Tiger Reserve, was opened up to create a cardamom estate under the KFDC. It was created exclusively to rehabilitate families from Sri Lanka.

Stella with repatriation documents. Photo: K A Shaji

Stella with repatriation documents. (KA Shaji/South First)

“Back then, each evicted family was provided ₹20,000 as cash compensation. We pledged everything, including that compensation amount, with the KFDC to get placement in Gavi and four other estates of KFDC,” Rajeswaran said.

“In all these years, we earned nothing but neglect. The company started accumulating losses due to mismanagement. Often, the employees were blamed for the losses. Our children and we had a near-animal existence inside these forests, thanks to adverse weather conditions, and especially because there is no school, hospital, phone access, and other basic facilities even now,” he told South First.

For a full day’s work with the tourism project, a person is paid ₹450. Other than the living quarters, which have not seen any repairs for over three decades, the families get no assistance from the authorities.

Those who studied in faraway colleges using the meagre savings of their parents now feel the going is tough as the families do not have much to invest in them.

Achu Rameswaran, who landed in Gavi from Sri Lanka at the age of one, is also directionless about the future. He is now 47.

“Once we vacate these houses, we have no land or other means of survival. The rehabilitation proposals from the state government are very meagre. But there are moves to merge Gavi with the surrounding forests, so the authorities are keen on removing human presence here. We are ready to move out, but rehabilitation holds the key,” he said.

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Ground reality

It has been half a century since the Gavi settlement was created for Tamil repatriates from Sri Lanka.

Almost half the families have left the forests, searching for alternative means of survival in different parts of Tamil Nadu. There are hardly 183 families left, spread across the Gavi, Meenar, and Pamba estates of the KFDC.

As there is no cardamom production, these families have temporarily been assigned jobs under the ecotourism facility, which includes boating, safari rides, trekking, and jungle camping.


The lone defunct primary school in Gavi. (KA Shaji/South First)

Though the quarters of the beneficiaries are in disrepair, giving rise to questions of safety, the KFDC has rooms, tents, and log houses to accommodate tourists who arrive either through Ranni in Pathanamthitta or Thekkady in Idukki.

According to the KFDC officials, the older generation is hesitant and nostalgic about the proposal to vacate Gavi; the youngsters prefer an early escape from the inadequate facilities in Gavi.

Kaliperumal, who crossed the Palk Strait as an 11-year-old boy, is now 68, He spent almost his whole life working on the plantation. The excited anticipation of the little boy to experience the new evaporated long ago. He now has only one wish.

“I prefer die here, where I gained nothing, but experienced a lot,” he told South First.

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The younger generation

The situation in the KFDC’s other repatriated Tamils’ rehabilitation projects — like those in Kulathupuzha and Arippa in Thiruvananthapuram, Thavinjal in Wayanad, and Nelliyampathy in Palakkad — is almost the same.


Tourists now flock Gavi after a Malayalam movie, Ordinary, captured its pristine beauty. (KA Shaji/South First)

In all these locations, those who found permanent plantation jobs upon arrival from Sri Lanka would retire without land ownership or other privileges in the coming years. They would get meagre retirement benefits.

In most cases, the younger generation has worked as temporary hands.

Since they are located far from towns and villages, the children of these plantation workers have been unable to get a proper education.

Once their parents retire, these temporary hands must vacate the housing lines and leave the plantations.

“I have been allotted land at Angamoozhy in Pathanamthitta under the state government’s LIFE Mission housing programme,” said 43-year-old Manikandan.

“However, my employment prospects are limited there, in the rubber-dominant interiors of Pathanamthitta district, and I will have to travel over 60 km daily through forests to work at the cardamom plantations in Idukki,” he explained his travails.

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Authorities confused

The KFDC officials, too, appeared confused over the future of Gavi, with the lease period of the plantation set to expire by 2025. Privately, they confided that the rehabilitation amount promised is meagre.

Prakriti Srivastava, a senior forest officer who retired on 31 July as the state special officer for the Rebuild Kerala Initiative (RKI), said as many as 601 non-tribal families living in settlements inside the forests had been relocated under the “Navakiranam” voluntary relocation scheme implemented by the Kerala Forest Department so far.

She said as many as 894 more families would be shifted under the scheme, including those from Gavi.

The state government announced the project in 2019 to relocate people facing attacks from wild animals and landslide threats in isolated forest areas. As per the scheme, a couple owning up to two hectares of land with title deeds will get ₹15 lakh as compensation.

She said as a special case, KFDC employees who lack land or title deeds would get special consideration under the project.


The road to Gavi. (KA Shaji/South First)

“The scheme is compensating people as units. A family will constitute three or more units under the scheme. Each unmarried adult above 18 will get ₹15 lakh each, while each differently-abled family member will get an additional ₹15 lakh, irrespective of age,” Srivastava told South First.

She added that the project had been implemented in 26 out of 34 forest divisions in the state.

“After implementing the project, the Forest Department received over 4,000 applications from various parts of the state. A total of 894 applications are in the final stages of being processed, and the families will be relocated within two months. Over 2,000 families will be relocated from the forest through the scheme within a year,” said Srivastava.

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Repatriates want more

But the Tamil repatriates said they could not purchases land with the meagre amount even in the remote corners of Kerala.

They demanded a compensation of at least ₹25 lakh a unit, considering the prevailing land prices in Kerala.

Most repatriates retain the documents of their repatriation, which continued till 1983, when the ferry service between Talaimannar in Sri Lanka and Rameswaram in India was suspended due to militancy in northern Sri Lanka.


The reservoir at Gavi. (KA Shaji/South First)

According to data from the Union government, as many as 4,61,630 Tamil repatriates live in India now. They belong to 1,16,152 families.

Of these, 3,33,843 were repatriated under different bilateral agreements. The remaining represents a natural increase.

Among the people who returned to India, 4,639 families were moved to Kerala, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh, and rehabilitated in projects that the respective governments started. The rest are working with tea plantations in Tamil Nadu.

“For many of us, Gavi was a new world where even the language was different. It was an arduous task to create cardamom estates inside the forests known for rains throughout the year,” 58-year-old Durailingam told South First.

He said the KFDC’s ecotourism initiative is now making profits, and tourists are reaching the pristine destination daily.

“If they can properly expand the project by adding more attractions, they can easily utilise us. We already proved we can do wonders in ecotourism. Now the roads are in good condition, and efforts are on to install mobile and internet towers. Why don’t they use the changing scene in a way favourable to us,” he asked.