By Rajan Samuel
My tryst with the Irula tribal community began in 2015. This was after the devastating floods that ravaged Chennai and large parts of Tamil Nadu and our disaster response work was underway. I was appalled to see their primitive and inhuman living conditions.
The term ‘Irula’ refers to either the dark complexion of the people or to their spotting in the forest as silhouettes. Irulas are indigenous people and DNA tests reveal their close ancestry to African populations. The Irulas lived in the forests and eked out an income by bartering or selling honey, wax, herbal medicine and firewood to local villagers.
More than their knowledge, the unusual diet of the Irula people, which includes rats, is often talked about. Their skill of tracking and catching snakes is unmatched. In 2017, the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission invited a few expert snake catchers from the Irula community to help them remove pythons from the environmentally sensitive areas of Florida (USA) .
The profession of the Irula people took a toll on their health resulting in heart, skin, eye and respiratory problems. The Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972 had an adverse impact on their livelihood as forest access, food gathering and hunting became difficult due to restrictions. The Irulas had to move out of the forests and were forced to work as bonded labourers. They had to live in mud huts with straw roofs and dirt floors. Most Irula people do not have the legal right to occupy land, their huts do not have electricity and they continue to live in fear of being evicted by the so-called ‘upper-caste’ communities.
As I made my journey back to the city of Mumbai, I could not get the Irula community out of my head. The government has liberated many families from the bondages and introduced welfare schemes such as access to land, housing and livelihood among other areas for their development. I kept thinking of ways for a 360-degree engagement with Irula community to place them on the path to durable and sustainable growth. The answer lied in the core of work we do.
At Habitat for Humanity, we have witnessed over the past 37 years that a decent home opens the door to improved health, greater economic opportunities and increased community cohesion. Over 4.7 lakhs families have built or repaired a home in partnership with Habitat for Humanity and those homes have played a foundational role in helping them build a better future; freeing them from instability, stress and fear. The United Nations has found that there is a strong correlation between improved housing and poverty reduction.
We decided to work in partnership with the Irula tribal community in Tamil Nadu through our Solid Ground Advocacy Campaign. When it comes to advocacy, we presume it means campaigning against the government or its policies. However, that is not what Habitat does. We wanted to work along with the government machinery, as working to uplift one of the most disadvantaged indigenous tribes needed a collective effort.
After listening to the needs of the community, we joined hands with community-based organisations (CBO) in Cuddalore, Kanchipuram, Chengalpattu, Villupuram, Tiruvallur and Tiruchirappalli districts of Tamil Nadu. The first and the biggest obstacle in building a home is access to land. After studying land entitlements, we placed the demand for the land title and community certificates for the Irula families. We have initiated District Level Forums and a State Level Coalition to work together for a common demand for Land and Housing. We engaged with the District collectors’ offices and the State Government Departments and their support has been admirable.
Although the process looks simple on paper, in reality it takes a great amount of human effort and collaboration. Let me give you a glimpse of the work involved:
- First, we visit the village to meet the leaders and conduct a Baseline Survey to collect information about the demographic and socio-economic profile of the community.
- Then we organise community meetings to interact with the families and collect data such as land tax receipts, beam notice, house or roof tax receipt, electricity bills, Aadhar card and other land related documents.
- If Irula families are living in objectionable areas, we seek help from the Government officials to identify alternative liveable land in the nearby areas. This entails working closely with the Revenue Department and the Panchayats to pass the resolution and inform the community members about the application for the Patta i.e. the land title.
- The resolutions go to the District Collector and then we follow up the matter with the District Administration.
- We motivate Irula families to participate in the Grama Sabha meetings organised by the Panchayat.
Outcome: Building a Solid Ground with the Irula Community
- 5000 families have been empowered to apply for land titles.
- 354 families have land titles for the first time in their lives.
- 120 families are first generation homeowners.
- 24 families have received subsidies under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana.
- 220 families received subsidies to construct sanitation units.
- 68 families have availed multipurpose loans.
- 3 Irula housing colonies built with access to sanitation, water and road.
The women and men are actively participating in the community affairs (at the decision-making levels) – we have more than 10 panchayat elected members, 3 village panchayat Presidents in Tiruvallur district.
When we handed over the home to Santhi, she was in disbelief and entered her own home through the back door; so much has been the effect of centuries of oppression. That was the last time she used the back door to enter her own home. Jayaraj, the son of fisherman Chinnarasa and Parvati, is the first graduate of his village in Swamy Nagar with a major in Mathematics. He aspires to become an IAS officer and even helped our local team in fieldwork. Vidhya a 13-year-old student aspires to become a nurse. Kavitha is now forming a community group and encouraging other women to become decision makers.
Once considered untouchables, the Irula community is now improving their quality of life. They want to educate their children and build a better future for their families. We need to pave the way for such holistic community development programs for Irulas and other vulnerable communities in India.
(Rajan Samuel is managing director of Habitat for Humanity.)