Thursday, November 06, 2008

Narikuravars: Chapter 5


Kofi Annan, Secretary General of the United Nations once said, "Education is a human right with immense power to transform. On its foundation rest the cornerstones of freedom, democracy and sustainable human development."


The Gypsy English School was started in 1991 using funds from various organizations and Mr. Rajkumar’s own contributions. But it had to be closed in 1993, when Anna University wanted to expand its premises and the Government seized the ‘patta’ a temporary land lease. In the Kottur settlement, a gypsy school is currently under construction.

At present, there is a tuition center in Thiruvanmiyur, where the enrollment is poor. Some of the children from the Avadi settlement go to the nearby corporation school. The Injambakkam children have no such luck. Because of discrimination, they are not allowed to enroll in the corporation school. Prince, the son of pastor James Pandian had worked with these gypsies two years ago. He explained that the main problem was that the gypsies don’t maintain their cleanliness and appearance. Even his father, Pandian, a pastor in the Church of south India said, that he had to bribe the children with food, to get them to cut their hair. Tradition, he added, prevented them from doing so.

But Vadivel, the Injambakkam leader said that even after they decided to change their ways and cut the children’s hair, the schools didn’t allow them to join. “We live on the streets after all,” he said. The lack of water and housing facilities further hampers these attempts, he added.

But Christian influence has been more successful in other places. In Avadi, the resident pastor has set up an evening school for children of all ages. One teacher takes classes in Math and Tamil in the one roomed, concrete chapel with an asbestos roof. The children know the English alphabet. But the high drop out rates are prevalent here as well.

Considering the number of Narikuravas in Chennai, the number of children enrolled in corporation schools is poor. The girls are the major contributors to the high drop out rates observed at the various educational centers.

Most can’t afford the expenses of buying textbooks and uniforms. As Kaniappan, the Poonjeri settlement leader said, putting one child through school costs Rs 800. The nomadic nature of the tribe complicates the matter further. While it is true that the gypsies have settled down, they frequently transit to Gujarat and Delhi to buy beads. Also, like in the case of the Injambakkam and Poonjeri settlers, some are forced to move out of the bigger settlements at Thiruvanmiyur and Kotturpuram because of overcrowding and also to search for a market. This causes a high drop out rate, because the children move with their parents and do not stay back to finish their education.

Most children come from families who are too impoverished to put them in schools. So, they usually help their parents put enough food on the table for the family. From bead making to breaking bulbs, they do it all.

B.M Rajkumar, the resident representative of the Gypsy Christian Welfare Society (GCWS), has become the leader of the Thiruvanmiyur settlement. During the September visits, he stressed the necessity of these tribes acquiring ST status. He said that it was the only way that the people could move up the social ladder. The link between educational benefits and ST status is important, he explained. Only when the gypsies are recognized as tribals can they avail the educational reservations in institutions. As MBCs they are entitled to only economic benefits. But in the long run, only education can guarantee them a better life, he said.

Social worker and freelance journalist D. Manikandan disagrees. Resolving the problem of their categorization will take too long. By the time the gypsies get to reap the benefits, far too much time will have passed. He said that that the only way that the gypsies can move up in society is with the help of NGOs.

He recounted how, along with an NGO – ‘Contact’, much was achieved for the social upliftment of another marginalized group, the street performers – ‘Kazhaikoothadigal’. He said, “We provided water facility with the help of the local panchayat at Madurantagam. We also got them pipelines. This was the first time they got water supply through the Panchayat because even though the Panchayat was ready to give them the connection, they had no funds for pipes.”

He continued, “About 180 people were provided with one meal a day, at night for about two years. This we did to stop these people from going to sleep with empty stomachs every night. Altogether, we sent 72 children from Medavakkam, Madurantagam and Thiruvanmiyur to corporation schools. We bought them uniforms; got them admissions; spoke to the local school authorities. At first they refused because they thought that the parents would not be able to pay the fees and buy the necessary materials. We paid their fees and bought the materials.”

Manikandan, who obtained an award, from the Lions Club in 2004, for his social work, has reported about and also helped a lot of fishing communities along the East Coast Road to set up SHGs. But he said that he had never come across any Narikurava SHGs right from Thiruvanmiyur till Mamallapuram, a 40 km stretch.

The problem with the aid that has been reaching the gypsies is that it has come in spurts. Church of south India’s James Pandian along with his son, Prince, were unable to continue distributing biscuits and food packets to the Injambakkam settlers because of lack of funds. The sponsors had withdrawn, largely due to the fact that they were foreigners and had simply left the country.

Even the Poonjeri settlers recounted instances of European tourists helping them by sponsoring their food for a few months. But this kind of aid is limited and regulated according to the tourist season, which lasts for just a few months, from November to February.

State intervention has failed in some instances. For example, the Center for Development Studies – CIEDS Collective, formed in 1976, recounts how when state intervention failed with the ‘Hakki Pikkis’, the Karnataka counterparts of the Narikuravas, turned the tables by building on their traditional knowledge.

With the support of CIEDS – Deepa and Vimochana, women’s organisation that involves women from within and outside the Collective, the ‘Hakki Pikki and Iruliga Adivasi Sangha’ was formed in 2002.

“The Hakki Pikkis have worked with different kinds of natural fibres for weaving very fine bird trapping nets and sleeping mats… As part of its attempts to regenerate traditional craft and skills and make them more viable both in the local rural and larger urban markets, the Sangha has begun to explore the possibility of using banana and other natural fibres like corn and Kathale to weave bags and other utilitarian and aesthetic products like mobile covers, table mats, coasters etc.”

The gypsy school in Saidapet is no corporation school. It seeks to build on the existing knowledge of the gypsies. But the geographical location of the school prevents most gypsies from availing the facilities there. It is far away from most settlements and as Kaniappan from Poonjeri explained, the bus fares are too exorbitant for the gypsies.

After filling Manikandan in on the problems faced with educating the gypsies, he replied, “The state government should build night schools at each center, so that during the day, they (the children), can go to work. Also, water facilities should be provided so that they can improve their hygiene. Like in the street performers’ upliftment programme, there is a need for an NGO to act like a buffer between the state and the Narikuravas, for their situation to improve.”

But, without a constant NGO presence, in the crucial initial stages especially, he warned, things might revert. Even though the NGO, Contact withdrew after two years, he said, on follow up visits, he had found that the children had stayed in school, even though their parents were away in search of work. He said that even the water facilities were still functioning well.