In 2006, a visit to Varusanadu Hills in Theni district to study the impact of globalisation on the lifestyle of the Paliyar tribe was a life changing moment for S Thanaraj, a Madurai-based adivasi activist. The way tribals revere nature and co-exist with it impressed him. But, what irked him the most was the deprivation these tribes faced, due to lack of awareness about the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 that was enacted to ensure the right of tribals over the forest and its produce. The realisation inspired Thanaraj to work for the welfare of tribals. And he has never looked back since. Thanaraj travels almost 8,000km across the district every month, primarily to sensitise tribals about their rights under the Act. He also helps them with legal issues, apart from providing them assistance in conveying their grievances to the government or the media. He has so far reached out to tribals in almost 300 villages of TN. "I have also reached out to more than 1.5 lakh school and college students," he says. Even though Thanaraj started by working with the paliyars, since 2008, he has been working for various other communities like the kadar in Valparai and Anaimalai areas; malasar in Amaravathi, Udumalaipettai and Anaimalai; muduvan in the remote forests of Theni and Valparai; and mahamalasar in Anaimalai and Topslip. "There are lessons to be learned from the adivasis in regard to forest conservation," says Thanaraj, 38. "For instance, an adivasi would never kill pregnant animals. When they collect roots, they plant more. They never cut living trees and instead use dead ones for their use. They treat their women equally and encourage widow remarriage. There is no dowry either," he adds.
Thanaraj’s has a strategy in empowering the adivasi community — creating leaders in the community, uniting them to retrieve their rights over the forest and teaching them to defend themselves from exploitation. He, along with the organisations he has worked for, has helped tribals in various areas in the state in getting housing facility and agricultural land. Recently, the kadar tribe from 24 villages in and around Valparai in Coimbatore finally got 10 acres of land after protests. Thanaraj has also participated in various nation-wide protests to ensure the rights of adivasis. In 2014, he led a group of 150 people in a protest against government land acquisition policy in New Delhi. That apart, the activist organises the Adivasigal Cultural Festival, mostly on August 9 every year to mark the International Day for World’s Indigenous People. The event that creates awareness on the tradition, culture, music and food of various tribes, was held in Dindigul last year. Hailing from the dalit community in Radhapuram of Tirunelveli district, Thanaraj, witnessed caste discrimination at a very young age and chose to stand up against it. A law graduate, he has worked as an activist in various areas like youth empowerment, environment and liquor prohibition with organisations like CESCI, Ekta Parishad and People’s Education for Action and Liberation. He is helped in his endeavours by his wife K M Leelavathi, the daughter of a tribal leader from Coorg. Currently, he is working with the Centre for Justice and People and Ekta Parishad.