The tribal people of the Union Territory of Puducherry, spread over 138 habitations in three regions, have all the five characteristics required to be notified as a Scheduled Tribe under Article 342 of the Constitution – primitive traits, a distinctive culture, shyness of contact with the public at large, geographical isolation and social and economic backwardness. But 61 years after Independence and over five decades after the merger of the four enclaves of French India – Pondicherry, Karaikal, Mahe and Yanam – with India, these people, belonging to more than 1,300 families, have not been given this status. In the absence of a Presidential notification, the Central government has declared that no community has been specified as a Scheduled Tribe in Puducherry.
The Madras High Court, in an order on October 24 on a writ petition filed by a native of Lakshwadeep belonging to a Scheduled Tribe, observed that there could not be any reservation for Scheduled Tribes in the Union Territory of Puducherry so long as there was no Scheduled Tribe population there and so long as there was no Presidential notification.
The tribal communities of Puducherry – Irular, Kattunaicken, Malaikuravar, Yerkula and Kuruman – who have been living for generations in Puducherry, Karaikal and Yanam, quietly bear with their fate in the midst of poverty, illiteracy, lack of basic civic amenities and administrative negligence. Many among these tribal communities do not have even a roof above their heads and are often forced to seek shelter in cashew and mango groves. There are others who have been pushed out of their farm lands and homes by influential land-owning communities and now live in tiny thatched huts in remote areas or on the outskirts of the villages where their families had lived for generations. Most of these habitations do not have power supply, potable water or sanitation facilities.
The strict implementation of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, and the shrinking natural scrub jungles have forced tribal groups to give up their traditional occupations of hunting in many places. They work as farmhands and take up low-paid jobs such as strengthening bunds in fields, weeding, collecting cashew fruits, peeling cashew nuts, cutting cane, making baskets and mats and cleaning poultry farms. For instance, members of the Irular tribe and its sub-castes, Villi and Vettaikaran, who are known for their hunting skills, now eke out a living by trapping hare, squirrels, tortoises, field rats and mongooses. They have virtually given up snake-catching.
According to the president of the Pondicherry Scheduled Tribes People's Federation (PSTPF), K. Ramkumar, the Irular, Villi and Vettaikaran tribes live in 63 villages in the Bahour, Mannadipet, Nettapakkam and Villianur communes and in areas under the Karaikal municipality. Members of the Kattunaicken tribe reside at 22 villages in the Bahour, Villianur and Nettapakkam communes and in areas under the Oulgaret municipality in the Puducherry region and certain areas in Karaikal. Kurumans belong to nine villages in the Mannadipet commune and areas within the Oulgaret municipality. Malaikuravans live in 35 villages in the Villianur, Bahour, Nettapakkam and Mannadipet communes and areas under the Oulgaret and Puducherry municipalities. Yerkula tribes live in a total of nine villages in Puducherry and Yanam.
Interaction with residents of the tribal settlements, including those at Kalapet, Vadanour and Irulan Sandai, vindicate anthropologists' view that certain of the core elements of these people's culture are still intact.
The tribal people see the non-issuance of community certificates as the major stumbling block on the road to progress. Among other things, it means their children do not get a chance to pursue higher studies.
The condition of the Irular people in Kalapet, close to Pondicherry Central University, is appalling. Addiction to liquor is a major problem among this tribal group. Most of them make do without a roof over their heads: they leave the children and the aged under the shades of cashew trees. Their clothes are hung on the branches and they cook, eat and sleep in the groves. But even this shelter is uncertain. "Once the cashew groves are auctioned, we are not supposed to stay here," said K.Boominathan.
L. Kanniamma and Govindamma said they were allowed to work in the groves and were given Rs.15 for collecting 100 cashew fruits. Most of the Irular people engaged in peeling the hard outer shell of the cashew nut complain that the anacardic acid it contains burns their fingers. P. Manjula said she was paid around Rs.100 a day for cleaning poultry.
Safe drinking water is rare in many tribal habitations. The tribal people of Kalapet depend on a pond close to the Akkamittar Aiyanarappan temple in Kollimedu to quench their thirst, along with the livestock of adjacent villages. The tribal people of Irulan Sandai rely on the excess water drained from paddy fields for bathing and for washing utensils. The quality of water drawn from a borewell in the area is so bad that rice cooked in it turns yellow. Thirty-two families have put up thatched shelters, but residents said they had not received land pattas from the government.
Unlike Kalapet and Irulan Sandai, where the percentage of school-going children is low, in Vadanour, around 60 tribal children, including 20 boys, attend classes from lower kindergarten to Standard IX at the local government high school. S. Krishnan and S. Sudhakaran were among those who could not proceed with their studies after completing Standard X, in 1984 and 1997 respectively.
The residents of the new habitation, which has come up close to the original one, has 55 families of four tribal groups – Irular, Vettaikaran, Yerkula and Kattunaicken. They live in harmony while maintaining their separate cultural identities. S. Sivakumar said, "We seldom seek the help of the police as all our disputes are settled amicably at the Adivasi Kula Panchayat comprising representatives of all the four groups."
But the tribal groups faced stiff opposition from other communities when they built shelters at the Vadanour settlement, even after the government issued house site pattas in October 2007. In an attempt to prevent the settlement from coming up on the outskirts of the village, these communities pitted Dalits against the tribal people. The problem was sorted out with the timely intervention of the local activists of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), with the government also playing a proactive role, said R. Saravanan, a State Committee member of the CPI(M).
Feedback from the functionaries of the PSTPF, Dean of the School of Social Sciences and International Studies of Pondicherry Central University, T. Subramanyam Naidu, Lok Sabha Member M. Ramadass, and leaders of the Congress, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the CPI(M) and the Communist Party of India revealed that the issue of community certificates had reached a deadlock because the Registrar-General of India (RGI) had vetoed the proposal to recognise the tribal people of Puducherry as Scheduled Tribes.
According to the guidelines approved by the Central government in June 1999, claims for inclusion in the S.T. list can be considered only if they are backed by the State/UT government, the RGI and the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes (NCST).
Professor Subramanyam Naidu, who conducted an ethnographic study on behalf of the UT government in 2000, is of the view that the problem has its roots in the post-merger era of the 1950s, when the administration identified no tribe as an S.T. on the grounds that there was no hilly terrain or thick jungles in the four regions of Puducherry.
The Puducherry government tried to take corrective steps subsequently, following representations made by tribal organisations. It argued that the tribal population in the UT, though numerically small, deserved a share in the welfare measures and constitutional guarantees, such as reservation in employment and education. When the issue was raised in Parliament, the UT government was asked to conduct a detailed ethnographic study. Subramanyam Naidu, who undertook the study, described the work as "an attempt on the lines of Edgar Thurston's efforts in publishing 'Tribes and Castes of Southern India' in 1909".
"These tribes were rather small in number because they were only relics of larger communities that had been enslaved while they themselves had escaped, or because they became separated in the forests and hills of South India, and in course of time, developed into different tribal societies. Moreover, their hunting and collecting mode of life forced them to live in small groups…" Subramanyam Naidu pointed out in his report.
The report identified five tribal groups – Irular (including Villi and Vettaikarn sub-tribes), Kattunaicken, Malaikuravan, Yerkula and Kuruman as original inhabitants and Malayali and Konda Reddy as migrant tribes. Successive Chief Ministers pleaded with the Centre for S.T. status for the tribes, especially after Subramanyam Naidu's report.
In February 2001, the Puducherry government notified the Irular, Vettaikaran and Kattunaicken and the migrant Konda Reddiars as Other Backward Classes. In May 2003, the government decided to earmark 1 per cent of the vacancies in civil posts and services for Scheduled Tribes. The UT Assembly adopted a resolution in September 2001 pleading for recognition of these tribes as S.Ts. Now the government has come forward to start special schools, besides constructing houses for the tribal groups.
Subramanyam Naidu's report was accepted by the UT Cabinet in August 2002. Subsequently, the Assembly and the Lieutenant-Governor gave it their approval. It was sent to the Ministry of Tribal Affairs on October 7, 2002, for Presidential notification. After obtaining the comments of the RGI, they were communicated to the Puducherry government on February 2, 2005. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Home Affairs and the NCST, after visiting the UT in 2005 and 2006, respectively, also supported the demand for recognition of these tribal groups as S.T. The Backward Classes Commission of Puducherry had acknowledged the fact that these tribes existed in the UT even before the French left in 1954.
The PSTPF, which has been making representations to the Central government, the NCST and the RGI for two decades, prepared a documentary film portraying the life of the tribal groups. The federation referred to J.J. Chabrelie's lithographic editions of 1827 and 1835 on the social life of the Kuravars, Vedars and Irulars in areas including French Indian territories. Several agitations were launched on the issue of S.T. status.
But the RGI raised questions on the claim and described the tribal groups in the UT as migrant tribes. A detailed reply to the RGI's queries has been forwarded to the Centre by the UT government. Subramanyam Naidu and the federation activists have cited the existence of places bearing the names of the tribal groups, such as Irulan Sandai and Kurumbapet villages in the Puducherry region and Vettaikaranpudur in the Karaikal region, even during French rule as proof that these tribal groups have lived in Puducherry for generations.
It was also pointed out that geographically the UT regions were surrounded by Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh and the boundary marks in the survey map were nothing but lines of political and administrative divisions that were drawn after the French occupation. The tribal groups in Puducherry had matrimonial relationships with their kin in the three neighbouring States.
The Parliamentary Standing Committee (Home) expressed concern over the issue in 2006. The RGI's views on the five criteria for recognition were "not pragmatic and hence might be dispensed with", it said, recommending the issuance of the notification in view of the existence of the tribes in Puducherry before 1954.