The Dark in Darkness

Irulas in their settlement

By Shreya Haridas

Chennai, Sep 22: The December 2004 tsunami is still a nightmare to India’s coastal states. Official estimates state that around 10,000 people were killed in India in the tsunami. However, the tsunami was a blessing for the Irula tribe of Nemmeli, a village 30 km from Chennai. “Because the tsunami ate our kutcha huts along the coast, the government relocated us here and built us brick and mortar houses. We were employed for the same and got wages too.” They gratefully look at the matchbox buildings with cracked walls, algae dotting them from top to bottom. “These houses were built in someone’s name but we don’t know who…we don’t even know if they are alive. There is no valid proof for showing that these homes are ours.”

Irulas are a Dravidian ethnic group found in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Though the tribes have been marked as Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group (PVTG), their population has remained stagnant at 1,89,621 in Tamil Nadu and 23,721 in Kerala. Their lives are like their name– full of “Irul” or darkness.

Life is tough for the Nemmeli Irula settlement. The settlement of 36 families is in a secluded area, where there are no roads, but just sand trails made by clearing grass. The road which turns marshy during the rains cannot be accessed by any vehicles, including ambulances. There are 2 common water pipes for the tribe, which supply water only in the morning; that too, if it is not summer. There have been 13 child deaths in the past three years owing to malnutrition. They get dirt and stone laden rice and oil from ration shops, if anything is left after distribution to the higher castes (which includes Naickers, a shudra caste).

The government has built them 5 public toilets, but there is no closet, water supply, door or room for squatting. “We do our business in the open near the eri (backwaters). Snakes and other animals come there often, so we have to be careful,” says an old, cataract-blinded Pushpa who doesn’t know her age.

Toilets built by the government

This is ironical, given that the traditional profession of Irulas is snake-catching. “We don’t want to continue the profession. Only two men in our settlement know how to catch snakes. They have been given license for snake catching by the government, but that is of no use– they don’t get reimbursement if they are bitten and have to undergo treatment,” said Pushpa. “I also know how to catch snakes!” says the four-year old child of a snake catcher who wants to be like his father.

“Our men do not keep us from going to work. We used to get jobs under MGNREGA till a few years back. But now neither that nor the compensation is given. People sometimes call us for daily wage jobs. Only one among us has a constant job as a house maid. She gets a salary of Rs 5000 and has to spend Rs 70 daily just for transportation,” says Kamala who is in her early 30s, cradling her 22-year old daughter’s toddler.

The Irulas strive hard to progress with the world. Even when they are on periods, they wear sanitary pads and go to work, leaving behind the traditional methods of using cloth pads and sitting at home. Child marriage is also not practiced in this settlement. They force their children to go to school, but sadly they are not interested. “We want our kids to speak English. But the government school does not teach them English,” said Kiran, who does BCA from a nearby college. He is the only person to have studied beyond 10th grade and is the pride of the village. “I want to become an engineer after this,” he says.

It is not that everyone has forgotten about this colony. Every election, some politicians come and promise them roads and permanent jobs. The women have Aadhaar card, ration card and even a bank account, but know to use only the ration card. “We don’t even know how to count money. We are illiterate. Sometimes people cheat us with money calculations,” said Kamala.

The case of Irulas is one where discrimination has been normalized. “We don’t have any problem with the upper castes here. We have different wells for drawing water, we are not allowed into their temples, and have a separate cremation ground. But that is not discrimination.” When asked about whether the police help them in anyway, they open their mouths in awe. They cannot fathom the idea that police exist in real life and not just in serials and films.

Commenting on the Nemmeli Irulas’ condition, Prof V K Raghunathan of Asian College of Journalism says,” You can’t just blame the government for everything. These people have electricity connection, mobile connection and dish antenna TVs. If they wanted good toilets, they can easily afford that too.” But Prof Dr M Srinivasan, Head of Department of Criminology, Madras University makes interesting observations. He says, there is no statistics of any kind regarding crimes against Irulas. But sex trafficking is rampant among these women. Bonded labour of Irulas in rice mills is another major crime, and this is still prevalent in places like the Red Hills.

But all is not dark for the Irulas. The Madras Crocodile Bank, Vada Nemmeli and Guindy National Park, Guindy, have employed Irulas for maintaining the reptiles, which is in connection with their tradition. Irula Tribal Women’s Welfare Society (ITWWS) is an NGO which works for the betterment of the Irula women. Recently, they have started Project Kannnamma, employing 25 deaf and dumb Irula women to make sanitary napkins for government school girls using Arunachalam Muruganantham’s pad-making machines.