Thursday, November 06, 2008

Narikuravars: Chapter 4

CHAPTER 4 – Lifestyle

Daniel Meshack and Chris Griffin in the introduction to their book ‘Conservation & Mobile Indigenous Peoples: Displacement, Forced Settlement and Sustainable Development’ sum up how they feel the Narikuravas have been displaced and forced to settle, even though they are nomadic in nature.

It reads “This chapter examines the displacement in Tamil Nadu of former Outcaste forest-dwellers known as Narikuravas, Vagri or Kurrivikaran, and the problems they face. Since they are neither agriculturalists nor a 'service caste' (see Mines 1984), or for that matter classified 'tribal' or 'indigenous' with an historical claim to stewardship of, or access to, particular country, they fall outside the social space usually examined by anthropologists. Rather, they are commercial nomads, peripatetics or Gypsies 2 who (like Gypsies else-where) have traditionally lived physically apart from surrounding populations and with little sense of identity or attachment to one particular locality (Werth 1993).

This raises the conceptual issue of whether 'displacement' and 'forced settlement' are appropriate terms to apply to such inveterate wanderers? And we will say they are. We will argue that 'displacement' here refers not to induced dislocation from time-honoured places per se but instead to displacement from a specific ecological niche without geographic boundary - namely, 'the forest'. Furthermore, we maintain that because such dislocation has compelled many Narikuravas to opt for more permanent settlement than previously, the term 'enforcement' is also appropriate.”

Even after being forced to settle, the hardship is far from over. The five settlements visited displayed varying degrees of pathos - the worst at Injambakkam. On entering the field, a school stands in the center. The ground was scattered with gypsies huddled outside their plastic sheeted tents. Our requests to talk to the leader alone were met with silent nods, but a group of 20 curious gypsies never left his side. The clannish sentiment of a tribe is hard to change even after years of urbanization.

While they hung on to every word and movement made, their leader, Vadivel, said that there were about 60 people (10 – 15 families) living in the compound of a school. He continued, “We came here six months ago. Before this we were living in Thiruvanmiyur. We came here to work because it was too crowded there. We have no ration cards because we have no door numbers. He then added, “It is the Republic of India, but we don’t have a place to stay. The government doesn’t care about us.”

The settlement at Poonjeri, three kilometers away from Mamallapuram, is slightly better off. The leader there is Kaniappan, a self-proclaimed martial arts expert. He told a circle of ten listeners how his clan had moved to Poonjeri ten years ago. Before that, he said, we were in Mamallapuram, opposite the Sea Shore Temple, for 25 years. The government promised us houses if we relocated to Poonjeri, he continued. After we did, in three years, a private contractor managed to half construct 100 houses. But before he completed the houses, he ran away, Kaniappan explained. In the summer, it gets very hot here. And we have no roof to protect us because all our houses are only half complete, he said.

In Mamallapuram, there were too many mosquitoes and our houses were too small, so Poonjeri is better, he continued. But there are no facilities here. There is only one hand pump here with irregular water supply. There is no market here to sell our beads, no hospital, or school either, his wife, Meghala interjected. All those were available in Mamallapuram, she said.

There are about 300 of us here and all of us have ration cards, he went on and the ration shop is in Mamallapuram. From April to June, we stay in Injambakkam or Thiruvanmiyur, Kaniappan continued. After that we all come here to find a market for our wares. There are 15 children here, out of which six go to the school in Mamallapuram.

The Thiruvanmiyur settlement has about 47 families who reside in the three rows of mainly brick houses. A few ‘pucca’ houses sprinkle the garbage-strewn lanes. Some houses here have electricity. The presence of trees around the settlement makes the weather bearable, some residents explained. They also told us how the lower caste hutments were towards the far end of the entrance, while the higher caste houses are towards the front.

From the beaded finery that some women displayed, another hierarchy was made obvious. The gypsies who earned more by selling their beads were the owners of the ‘pucca’ houses. Even the leader, Kumar, lives in a smaller house than them. There was a marked difference in the quality of the jewellery as well. The paint on one necklace purchased did not stand the test of water, whereas the necklaces purchased from the house opposite the leaders’ has lasted more than six months.

The 150 shelters here have only seven toilets. Cats, chickens and four feet tall bags of garbage add to the chaotic disarray on the lanes between the tidy rows. When you approach the end of the rows, where the lower caste people live, an old dilapidated board on the only two-storey building there, displays a faded sign – ‘Exnora.’ Here, the sanitation is at its worst.

In the Kottur settlement, most houses sport a colour TV. B.M. Rajkumar, a Christian missionary who moved here with his two kids eight years ago, is the leader here. Part of the Gypsy Christian Welfare Society (GCWS), he explained how the gypsies needed education and not economic benefits like television sets. The houses here were mainly made of brick with thatched roofs and had electricity connections.

The lack of tree cover here, however, makes the heat unbearable, complained some of the residents. Earlier this was a forest area, they explained. But they cleared up many forest areas in the process of urbanization.

The Avadi settlement lies just behind the bus depot. There are 25 hutments here. A pastor from the GCWS resides here as well. His house has electricity. He said that the government had originally given the land that they were living on now, to the police force. After they vacated the area in 1979, the Narikuravas came and set up camp there. There are also some other marginalized groups from Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka here. But he said that there was no interaction between the gypsies and these groups because they frowned upon the Narikuravas.