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Home / Lok Sabha Elections / Lok Sabha Elections 2019 /  Wayanad's hills may shelter Rahul Gandhi, but who will save its people?

WAYANAD : When this correspondent’s bus arrived in a local market in Kerala’s Wayanad on Tuesday, the customers of a tea shop were tinkering with the poll buzz. “Rahul Gandhi is coming! What will you do now?" Sandeep, the hotel worker, teased at a communist party worker coming to the shop. As an afterthought, Sandeep, who claims to be a supporter of Bharatiya Janata Party mentor Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, added: “Our guy (BJP candidate) Thushar Vellappally is coming too! You guys are going to lose." The communist party worker immediately shots back: “So is Rahul Gandhi going to solve all your problems?" For a moment, there was an awkward pause. Either everybody seems to know the answer of that question or nobody knew how to tackle it.

In a theatrical style, powered with roadshows and winged by Priyanka Gandhi on his side, Congress scion Rahul Gandhi is expected to arrive in Wayanad on Wednesday, a day ahead of filing his nominations for the polls. Gandhi’s contest may have put the place on a national spotlight, but many here do not imagine him to understand their problems, let alone solve it.

“At the end of it, nobody seems to be interested in what to demand from politicians. For all we know, if Gandhi wins from both Wayanad and Amethi, he is going to leave Wayanad and there will be another election. So how is he going to help us? Why the fuss then," asked a young man, who did not want to be quoted, from Wayanad who has built several tents near a forest range with the idea of renting it out to tourists. Isolated, greeny, squeezed between the forests and the hilly parts of Western Ghats, Wayanad is one of the most beautiful places in Kerala. It is a place outside time and history. But the beauty of the foggy hills masks a third world wretchedness and backwardness which the young man thinks is not going to change with one election.

The usual progressive development indicators of Kerala takes a backseat in Wayanad. It has one of the lowest per capita incomes, lowest literacy rates, poorest infrastructure and medical facilities. Just to compare, the neighbouring Malabar region looks ages ahead. Back in 1956 when Kerala was formed, the Malabar lagged substantially behind the other two regions, Travancore and Cochin. But today, with appropriate state intervention and a windfall remittance money send by migrants leaving for West Asia through its airport every year, the differences have disappeared.

On the other hands, for indigenous people—Wayanad district is home to the largest concentration of tribals in Kerala, at 18.55%— the houses are still crude; many of them made of clay and wild cane. People walk barefoot. This is the least populated district in Kerala, but there are hardly enough schools, colleges, medical dispensaries or even water and electricity in some pockets.

Not just the tribals, the outsiders or the early cultivators who later settled in Wayanad and form the majority of the population now, are equally upset over the bad performance of the district. The floods in 2018 ravaged the existing roads, houses and farm lands, some of which are yet to regain into its original shape. Last decade, a crisis of falling prices and glut in the market gripped the small land holding farmers who work the soil of Wayanad, considered as one of the most fertile; hundreds died of debt and starvation. It is how Pulpally in Wayanad came to be known as Kerala’s Vidarbha. The crisis forced many to move out of farming, but its shadows still loom large. Only five days ago, a farmer killed himself in Thirunelli in Wayanad owing to over 7 lakh in debts taken for both farm and personal use.

Wayanad’s rolling hills are also known for making some of the best of south Indian coffee, and is one of the main employment opportunities (apart from tourism jobs, small business and rural employment guarantee scheme). But in the large landed estates, biggest of them run by corporates such as Harrison Malayalam, the workers receive very small percentage of the profits. According to the Socio Economic and Caste Census, 2011, the main breadwinner of the rural households in Kerala who earned less than 5000 per month have the highest concentration in Wayanad (79.67%).

Human-animal conflicts are regular. It has peaked after the recent Bandipur forest fire, locals said, and as recent as last week an elephant entered one of its towns and killed a person. Prosperity for the region is also dependent on lock placed by the geography. It is one of the only two Kerala districts not connected by a railway line. It takes only a single vehicle to breakdown to create a long chain of traffic block, taking hours to unblock, on the main mountain pass with several hairpin bends that connects Wayanad to the outside world. To be sure, even with these characteristics, Wayanad is still miles ahead of Amethi, the other constituency held by Gandhi family for years.

Yet, Gandhi's contest has created a powerful vitality. Coffee shops, roads, buses are all filled with energetic discussions on the young man, seen as the next probable prime minister, as a saviour. “Who knows what he can or cannot do," says Sandeep after the pause to the local communist worker. Wayanad, clearly, has not lost hope.

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