Activists Angered as Kerala Government Backtracks on Agastyamala Women's Entry Issue

While the government had first said women would be allowed to trek through the Agastyamala Biospehere Reserve from this year, they have now postponed it to 2018.

Agastyamala, also known as Agastyakoodam or Agastyarkoodam, is an 1868-metre tall peak that derives its name from the mystical sage Agastya, who finds mention in the Indian epics and puranas. It is also Kerala’s most exotic trekking site, popular among adventure seekers and pilgrims alike. The peak is part of the Neyyar wildlife sanctuary, which falls within the Agastyamala Biosphere Reserve, established under the UNESCO’s man and biosphere programme. The Agastyamala Biosphere Reserve was also designated a UNESCO world heritage site in 2012.

The trekking season at Agastyamala is generally limited to about 50 days every year, beginning with Makar Sankranti and ending on Shivaratri, according to the Hindu calendar. Trekking is allowed briefly in the off season as well, but in limited numbers and at a higher cost. Expeditions on this two-day, 24-km trail are undertaken from Bonakkad – 50 km from Thiruvanthapuram – with a base camp at Athirumala, 16 km off the final stretch.

The Agastyamala trek made it to primetime news last year after the observations of Supreme Court on the Sabarimala temple entry issue. The crux of the matter is the denial of permission to women to embark on the trek. The then forest minister of Kerala, Thiruvanchoor Radhakrishnan of the United Democratic Front government, had announced, in principle, the decision to overturn the circular issued by his department and permit the entry of women from the following year.

However, the circular issued on January 5 this year explicitly states that women need not apply. The forest secretary initially justified the circular citing some obscure practices. After the matter gained controversy, minister-in-charge K. Raju of the Left Democratic Front government sought to clarify the issue and downplay its significance at a press conference on January 13. Refusing to withdraw the circular, he claimed the ban on women was necessary merely on account of practical difficulties.

Women’s organisations like Wings, Anweshi and Gargi have jointly taken up the matter, holding protests in Thiruvananthapuram and Kozhikode in days after Raju’s announcement. Noted ecologist S. Faizi wrote an open letter to the minister, demanding the circular be withdrawn and pointing out the multiple legal provisions prompting the government to do so. Speaking to this reporter, Faizi contented that the matter was not only a breach of Articles 14 and 15 of the constitution, but also in contravention to the Convention on Biological Diversity to which India is a signatory, that affirms “the need for the full participation of women at all levels of policy-making and implementation for biological diversity conservation” in its preamble.

Off the record, Kerala forest department officials said that letting women trek to the peak in this season would be disrespectful to the sentiments of the local tribe known as Kanikkarans, who perform special rituals for their deity Agastyamuni in the intervening period. But activists have challenged this contention, pointing out that the shrine atop the Agastyamala, with Agastyamuni’s idol, is blanketed in a thick cover of trees and entry to it can be barred if needed, as opposed to the blanket ban on women citing tribal sentiments.

Subhashini Ali, president of the All India Democratic Women’s Association, the women’s wing of the Communist Party of Indian (Marxist), is among the voices lending support to the activists demanding gender equality. Speaking to this reporter, she said the flimsy grounds on which women are being kept away cannot be condoned. Annie Raja, general secretary of the National Federation of Indian Women, the Communist Party of India’s women’s wing, has also written opposing the gender discrimination that is being overlooked by a minister hailing from her party.

In a telephonic conversation, Raju said the matter was being considered by the government and came up for discussion in the state cabinet meeting on Wednesday, January 25. It was learnt at the time of publication that the cabinet decided, in principle, to allow women on the trek from 2018. Raju added that all issues should be ironed out by then. He also reiterated that his party and the Left government believe in equality, but the government must ensure protection and requisite facilities before giving the go-ahead to women trekkers.

Activists are also demanding an overhaul of the entire trekking timetable. As of today, despite the huge demand, there is only a short window available every year for nature enthusiasts and others to make it. In 2017, there was an unprecedented rush in online booking that resulted in tickets for the season running out in a span of a couple of hours. Faizi reckons that trekking should be allowed throughout the year – save the rainy season – to solve this. He also believes the current ticket rate of Rs 500 can be raised so that the Kanikkarans, who are employed as guides for the trek, benefit more.

Currently, about 3,000 Kanikkarans of the approximately 32,000 Kanikkarans live in the buffer zone and transition zones of the Agastyamala Biosphere Reserve, while the others have gradually moved out and integrated with other communities.

The Pinarayi Vijayan-led government in Kerala will have to take a call soon, as this matter is likely to gather further momentum rather than die down in the days ahead.

Anand Kochukudy is a freelance journalist who writes about Kerala politics.