But no. As with thousands of villages, legal access has never been an issue. All fields have narrow raised earth boundaries, and it is accepted practice to walk your ploughing bullocks on the embankments. Of course, you couldn’t trample standing crops with your cart or tractors but once the fields were harvested, all fields werel free thoroughfares. Of course if you had a truck to drive to your field, you couldn’t for the terrain was too uneven or would be ruined by the truck.
When I began to talk of a ‘legal’ way for me to be able to take a van or a truck to the pointReturn site, everyone thought such a notion unusual and typical of the man from the city. ‘Just keep going the way we all do,” they said. That seemed generous until I heard of several festering trespassing disputes between neighbours.
When I offered premium rates for a legal right of way however, their attitude changed to hard bargaining positions. To make me sweat a bit, the mother and son declined to meet me for several weeks and made me talk to her father as a filter for discussions. He was a good man who encouraged me to believe a deal was possible.
But he was alarmed when I informed him of the legal implications of informally trespassing the brothers’ field: if someone bought the property he’d be perfectly entitled to fence it off. He pondered the matter and insisted I had a deal with the brothers before he’d consider one with me. So jumped into a 25 year old problem, the two neighbours disn’t care to sort it out. I could see how it was convenient for me to labour on it and also pay them well finally.
The brothers shared their property equally but were not on talking terms with each other. They had two identical petty shops in the proximity of Madurantakam’s noisy, dusty bus-stand. It took me all of a day before I persuaded them to sell me an eighth of an acre that would connect the two parts of the mother-son properties. I’d propose a plan to a brother; he’d listen and decline or propose another or modify mine. I’d then repair to the shop next door to have the other brother review the plan. He’d decline, modify or propose anew. So it went on for better part of the day. Finally around 4 p.m. I had a consensus plan. It cost me a tidy sum and was subject to mother-son agreeing to an integrated path for all of us neighbours-three.
A session of hard bargaining with the mother-son duo followed. They could see I had sewn together a legal access that benefits all but that did not stop them from extracting a staggering price. I consented. I had to.
On December 21, 2006, the five of us signed a deal at the Sub-Registry in Cheyyur. The deal was enabled by a cast of many bit part players: brokers who set up meetings, mediators who interceded, a lawyer who gave constant counsel and produced several draft deals but most importantly ther was Manoharan, my 34 year old fisherman friend. He travelled everywhere by buses, exercised his charming diplomacy and interacted with officials to collect land records and documents.
Was the deal necessary at all? Could I not have gone with the way of the village, informally walking over bunds to get to the site? Was wanting a motorable way right up to the site justifiable in a restoration project? Did I not spray money on a culture to get me way?
I asked myself these questions several times and my answer is as follows: If the project was to merely plant a lot of trees and walk away, no, I didn’t need the way. But pointReturn is going to be driven by several people, paid and volunteering, resident and visiting. All of them cannot be expected to endure a tiring access. Materials have to be ferried. Eventually, a experimental centre and a resident school are to function there. There will be several children. The project also expects visitors in search of alternate lifestyles.
It was clear to me a legal way from the east to the hillock in the west was needed. Now, happily, there is one now.