Excerpts from an article I read
Muthamma lived with her husband in the forested and hilly tribal areas surrounding Coimbatore. About 20 years ago, she and her husband started working for a yoga ashram in the area as a daily labourer. Subsequently, she had three children – two sons, now 24 and 19 years old, and a daughter who is 20. They have also been working in the ashram since their childhood and continue to do so today, as does her husband. Muthamma says that those that get work sporadically earn between Rs 250 and Rs 300 daily, while those doing regular work earn about Rs 130-150 a day. Muthamma herself stopped working at the ashram when she joined one of 18 self-help groups (SHGs) set up by a local NGO about ten years ago. She remembers that when she left, she was earning Rs 15 a day.
The SHG collapsed after a few years when its members were told that they would have to ask for tenders to have access to the forest produce and this was beyond their means.
The ashram stepped in and started using Muthamma and others like her to accompany its members into the forest to share their inherited knowledge of medicinal plants. Once this knowledge was transferred, they were abandoned and, since they were ‘illegal trespassers, it was the ashram members, armed with the traditional tribal knowledge that they had accessed in an underhand way, who were given access to the forest and its bounty.
Along with the nearly 200 tribal families, Muthamma and their newly-found allies put in an RTI application and gained copies of the documents connected with the 44 acres of land. They then approached the district administration to allot the land to them for house sites, which they needed desperately
The tribals are not alone in the struggle against the activities of the ashram. The Vellingiri Hill Tribal Protection Society filed a PIL in the Madras high court in March against the unauthorised structures that have been constructed on the wetlands at Ikkarai Poluvampatti by the ashram.
But the ashram has powerful friends. It is owned by the Isha Foundation headed by Jaggi Vasudev, who is now as much in the news as any of his fellow celebrity ‘holy men’. Just a few days before the March PIL was filed, the prime minister himself unveiled a 112-foot-high bust of the ‘Adi Yogi’ Shiva at the ashram – despite being requested by environmental activists not to be present at an occasion when a new violation of building norms was added to a long list of earlier violations.