Thursday, November 06, 2008

Narikuravars: Chapter 3

CHAPTER 3 – Occupation/ Livelihood

Traditionally hunters and gatherers from the mountains, the trapping methods used by the Narikuravas have been documented by Madras Christian College’s Gift Siromeney. He wrote, “Adept in the art of catching animals and birds, Narikoravas can even trap a jackal, considered to be the most cunning of all animals. It is this ability, which gives them their name NarikoravaYour browser may not support display of this image.the jackal people. In order to catch a jackal, the man builds an enclosure made of net, sits inside and mimics the howl of a jackal. When the hapless animal approaches the net to investigate, he clubs it. To trap partridges, which are much sought after for the pot, the Narikoravas use domesticated birds, which act as decoys to catch the wild ones. This is the reason why they are also called Kuruvikaran, or the birdmen. In fact, supplying game birds to town dwellers has been one of their traditional occupations. With the implementation of the Wild Life Protection Act, the Narikoravas had to change their livelihood and they have consequently switched over to making beads and selling knick-knacks.”

Former Arts Editor, Economic Times and writer on critical issues of politics and culture recounted the incident when a stray fox had gotten into his compound. The thick underbrush surrounding the house complicated the process of its extrication and expulsion. The expert animal catchers couldn’t do it. So finally, two Narikuravas came to the rescue, when they snagged the creature in two hours, explained an amused Menon.

Last October, while on a field visit to the Thiruvanmiyur settlement, some of the young men sported catapults, ‘undikavv’, which they said they targeted squirrels and birds with. Soon, they revealed that the non-vegetarian elements in their diet were varied and ranged from cats to crows. A brave lad, Shiva even displayed a fox skin that he said he had killed only a week earlier.

As Dr. Gift mentioned, the enforcement of the Wildlife Protection Act left the Narikuravas ‘hunting’ for work. They found an alternative in bead making. But Lalitha, the wife of Injambakkam ‘thalever’, Vadivel, explained that ‘beads need capital.’ She explained that if you have some money to invest in buying beads, then bead making is an option. ‘When you are a rag picker and earn Rs 100 per bag, it is very hard to save money. So, you can’t think of investing in anything.’ It is a hand to mouth existence when you are a rag picker, she added.

But even bead making has caused its own problems. Business is irregular, and some families dominate the market. There is an obvious difference in quality, since better raw materials like beads and wires can be purchased with more capital. And money has altered the traditional distribution of power. The leader at Thiruvanmiyur, Kumar, was found drunk and asleep one afternoon in September, in his little hovel with a colour TV. Further probing explained the curious contrast between his modest but ‘pucca’ abode and the bigger ‘pucca’ house opposite. The family living in the ‘pucca’ house was one of the most economically successful families there. Rakamma, the ‘thalever’s’ wife, said that they even governed more respect. She lamented that as a result her husband had taken hard and fast to the bottle.

On another visit to the Thiruvanmiyur settlement on Diwali, 2005, the holiday spirit was broken by the emanating murmur of work. From grandparents to grandchildren, many gypsies were seen hard at work, breaking bulbs, collecting metal bottle caps and stripping plastic insulation off wires. All this to earn a few rupees from the scrap metal, one of the older busy bodies explained.

Exnora, an NGO, guided by the watchwords "EXcellent, NOvel, and RAdical," claim to have improved to economic and social standard of the Narikuravas by training and hiring them as ‘street beautifiers’ in Civic Exnoras. The website now boasts “They, therefore, on their own started segregating the wastes into a number of categories, consolidated the recoverables and sold them to the waste recyclers. This helped every street beautifier earn a profit of about Rs. 500-600 per month, which augmented their monthly salary of Rs.900 per month...”

But Lalitha from Injambakkam explained that the Panchayat Board has hired staff to clean the streets. “So now we find it is very hard to find litter on the streets. Before we could earn about Rs 150 a day. Now it has become very hard,” she stressed. Even in the private sector, giants like Onyx have drastically reduced the areas where the gypsies can salvage a living through rag picking.

Situated in a school compound, all the Injambakkam settlement residents are rag pickers. They shifted residence due to overcrowding in the Thiruvanmiyur settlement. 19 children, who used to go to school at Thiruvanmiyur, have now stopped their education. Now, none of the children go to school. Lalitha said that she would like any job… other than picking papers. “You need to be able to pay for school uniforms,” she added.

Most times, the children are rag pickers themselves because they need to supplement their parents’ income. Besides, there are health hazards to rag picking like TB, Asthma and cancer.

At the Avadi settlement, the dominant occupation is the making and selling of plastic flowers and soft toys. In the Kotturpuram settlement, there are a few gypsies who train animal and birds for the movies. The white doves used in the movie ‘Chandramukhi’ are also here, along with their trainer.

From the accounts above, it seems obvious that they have yet to carve out a niche in the modern world. The transitional occupations of rag picking, bead making, soft toy making and training animals have not enhanced their socio-economical condition. Rather, these have just allowed them to subsist.