Narikuravars are people who can be considered nomadic tribes, given their lifestyle, say anthropologists. Around 110 families belonging to this community live in Thirumullaivoyal, a suburb of Chennai in Tamil Nadu. Their livelihood comprises selling needles, handmade chains, balloons and earrings in the streets of the state capital. Due to the pandemic-induced lockdown curbs, like the ban on public gatherings and festivals, the community is unable to lead their life as before, and are being deprived of any government benefits as they are still not categorised as Scheduled Tribes. A visit to their habitat showed how the tribal community is struggling in the city.
Area where Narikuravars live at Thirumullaivoyal, near Chennai, Tamil Nadu.
BACKGROUND AND LIVELIHOOD
In earlier days, the Narikuravar community was primarily dependent on forests for their livelihood. But, at present, many of them have settled in urban and rural areas, doing odd jobs to eke out a living. According to various reports, there are around 30,000 people from the Narikuravar community across the state, who are living without access to government welfare schemes, as they don't have essential documents, such as ration cards, Aadhaar cards and birth certificates.
A motor tricycle for selling balloons parked aside since there are no sales.
One of the local residents provides free tea to the Narikuravar people every morning.
Petchiammal, a Narikuravar, who has been living in Thirumullaivoyal since 40 years, told NewsClick: “We could not do our work because of the curfew. Earlier, we set up temporary shops and sold our handicrafts, toys and earrings at temple festivals. On normal days, we would pick up scrap metal from the roads and get some money from it. But, now, we are unable to step out of the house due to the lockdown restrictions. We also face difficulties in getting free ration and corona relief packages given by the government, as we do not have ration cards. Someone -- individuals or non-government organisations -- comes and helps us from time to time. I have two children. At times, we do not even get food.”
Petchiammal said she wanted the government to come forward to help the community. “We don’t know how to read or write. At least our children should be educated. We want to live in our own place with pattas and houses. Our present houses are like brick kilns. The construction of a sound drainage system will also be helpful. There is no proper supply of water and electricity. We want reservations in jobs for our community. But, no party or government considers our issues", she said.
Petchiammal near to her home in Thirumullaivoyal
Ravi, another person from the community, said: “Our livelihood was different earlier. Now we make small craft items, but tGST (goods and services tax) has been imposed on the raw material. We can’t afford the price. Before GST, we just sold the items for less than Rs 30, but now we are unable to sell for same price.”
Ravi involved in handicraft
Professor Sumathi, a researcher and an anthropologist at the University of Madras, who has studied Narikuravars, told NewsClick that “36 communities are listed as Scheduled Tribes, but Narikuravars are not included. If you compare the list of communities that have been mentioned in Tamil Nadu with Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and other such states, there will be a lot of variations in this list. When we see from the cultural perspective, they can very well fall within the category of Scheduled Tribes. Hence, ethnographic studies and socio-cultural anthropologists have constantly recommended that they be on the list of Scheduled Tribes. But this process is very long, and their population is not big enough for politicians to have some interest. Hence, these people have been neglected.”
Explaining the layers within layers of the reserved communities, Sumathi said: “Claiming themselves and falling into the category of Scheduled Tribes, the number of ST communities in the list will be 37, as far as Tamil Nadu is concerned. Again getting into the competition with communities who are already seeking or grabbing reservation facilities is not simple.”
She said the Narikuravars were being deprived of basic living rights. “There are other facilities also. The Central government is coming up with a lot of facilities, and a lot of funds have been allotted for STs. The ministry is also giving a lot of funds. So, they can become a beneficiary of that. But falling into the line of (Most Backward Classes) MBC and competing with groups in the state like Vanniyars, Thevars and Piramalai Kallars is impossible, because all these categorisations and claims ultimately revolve around the developmental component in our country. And every individual who is part of the community always thinks that they should be dominant. That is the reality.”
Therefore, she strongly advocated that “the culture, language, and the kinship patterns of the Narikkuravar community have been strongly supporting the case that they should be categorised as Scheduled Tribe,” so that they are not excluded from government benefits.