“Covid is a rich man’s disease,” say Irulas of a remote village in Tamil Nadu

Pudukadai Irula community recieving Covid relief aid from volunteers | Picture by arrangement

Irulas are a Dravidian ethnic group dwelling in Southern India. They are heavily concentrated in the northern region of Tamil Nadu. The term Irular means dark people. Surprisingly, not a single Covid-19 case is recorded in the community with its closely lined thatched huts. A TCN Ground Report looks at the ways the community lives amid pandemic.

Shalini S | TwoCircles.net

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TAMIL NADU – Sixty-year-old Muniyamma from Pudukadai, a remote village in the Cuddalore district of Tamil Nadu remembers a time when her father would leave their hut early in the morning with a crowbar and a cotton bag in his hand. All family members who preceded her were snake or rat-catchers or bond labourers. Her grandchildren, Soundarya (13) and Sowmiya (8) are the first in her bloodline to be enrolled in schools. “It’s good that they are getting an education,” said Muniyamma impassively.

She lives with one of her two daughters, Valli (26) in Pudukadai. The village is spread loosely over 248.4 hectares of land. It is difficult to map Muniyamma’s house as it lies in the Irula settlement (comprising 25 families). Their settlement is established a little outside the hamlet, not to face hostility from the dominant caste members. To reach their settlement one had to ask “Where do the kaatukaranga (people who dwell in the forest) live?”

Irulas are a Dravidian ethnic group dwelling in Southern India. They are heavily concentrated in the northern region of Tamil Nadu. The term Irular means dark people. Scholars trace its etymology to the tribe’s skin colour or the dark jungles that they used to inhabit.

Muniyamma is a stoic woman, who couldn’t hide her perplexity with how things have changed for the better. “We didn’t have any clothes to wear when I was a child. My parents hunted snakes for their skin and sold them in scrap shops. As they didn’t know how to catch a bus, they walked all the time and came back home late at night. They will buy uppu and milagai (salt and chilli) with the money made. We will wake up in the morning and have Kanji (gruel). There used to be no toilets or bathrooms. We defecated in the open and bathed in streams. ”

Irulas of Pudukadai started settling in the hamlet during the late 2000s. 

According to the Irulas, they were forced out of the forests after the government declared many of the places they lived as reserved or protected. To eke out a living outside the forest, they became bonded labourers to the brick kiln or rice mill owners, and engaged in manual cutting of sugarcane in the fields or guarded the paddy crops for the landowners.

Sundaramoorthy, 48, a local activist told TwoCircles.net that “Irulas do not stay in a place for a long time. Even now, few leave their hut to be bonded labourers in other districts. They move when they feel like it. As they started settling one by one in Pudukadai, we were able to get ration cards and community certificates for a few families with the help of the village sarpanch.”

Valli recalls the days when her family didn’t have a ration card. “We used to go inside the village and buy the extra ration rice sold by the villagers for 5 rupees (per kg). When I was much younger we collected rice from the rat burrows in the fields.”

When Muniyamma is asked if she ever wished to go to school, she said, “My parents didn’t know how to put me in a school. My days were spent worrying about food and shelter.” 

In contrast, the younger generation, consisting of 20 children, are now enrolled in schools through the Free and Compulsory Education Act.

Divya, 18, studying in 12th grade at the Government Girls Higher Secondary School, Nellikupam (few miles away from Pudukadai), said “Keerthana, Sangeetha, Revathy and I are in 12th standard. We share one phone to listen to online classes.” 

She said the younger ones from the community find it difficult to sit through online classes. 

Sathish, the first person to enrol in a college from their community quit as no proper instruction was given with regards to adopting the digital medium of learning.

However, enrolling in schools for them wasn’t easy. 

Amarnath, who is a Puducherry based life skill trainer and social worker, and has worked with the community since 2015 said, “When I first met them, their very basic necessity was food alone, even for the kids. They didn’t think of education. We conducted camps and small workshops for them. With the help of Sundramoorthy sir, we got a few children into a government school in Kattupalayam (a village next to Pudukadai). The children complained of discrimination, where they were asked to sit alone on the floor and were verbally abused.”

Later they helped the children to enrol in other local schools in the Cuddalore district. 

Irulas hardly get out of their colony. The dominant caste people from the village physically assault the Irulas if they accidentally cross their fields. The village people have verbally abused me too. They would say “Why am I wasting my time by helping or educating the kaatukaranga?’ The village people stopped bothering eventually as the Irulas came to possess ration cards and community certificates.”

Three generations have passed. Muniyamma has seen her community’s lifestyle change. The younger generations cannot imagine skinning a snake, as they are “scared of it”. Nevertheless, according to Muniyamma, one thing that has scoured Irulas is that they are immune to medical prognosis.

She said that Irulas were not only snake catchers but vaidyars (traditional doctors) who understood the medicinal values of herbs and fruits in the forest. “Our staple food is nandu, naththai, Kaadai malli kizhangu (crab, snails, quail, and tapioca). It keeps us healthy. We hardly go to the doctor. We do not get sick. If we do, we heal ourselves.”

Valli added, “Covid is a rich man’s disease. Lockdown is no different for us, except it is difficult to control these children at home. And there is no income to prepare any kuzhambu (curry/broth) for children. So it’s just kanji all day. Sometimes we pluck tamarind from the trees, mix it in water and pour it for rice. Few people from outside gave us saaman (groceries) to manage in Covid.”

Surprisingly, not a single Covid-19 case is recorded in the community with its closely lined thatched huts. A couple of doctors this reporter spoke with opined that, though there is a strong possibility that they might be immune to the virus because of their dietary habits and lifestyle, it cannot be said to be true of Irulas from other regions without proper research.  

“It is very ironic how ‘social’ distancing has become a medical concern at present, while tribal communities like Irulas have been shunned and forced into reclusive lives even before Covid-19 for different reasons. Not contracting the virus is the only good that comes of it,” added Amarnath.