The upper castes still consider them untouchables

Keralas Koraga tribals remain where they are funds go into politicians pockets
news Saturday, September 19, 2015 - 12:43

Fourteen-year-old Ashoka’s experience in school is symptomatic of how welfare measures for the Koragas tend to fail, leaving the community entrapped in a circle of poverty, ill-health and misconceptions.

Ashoka lives in the Koraga colony in Badiadka village which is one of 42 Koraga settlements in Kerala’s Kasargod district.

When this reporter visited the colony, Ashoka was playing cards with his friends. Unlike other Koraga children who go to the single-teacher school run by the state Tribal Affairs Department in tribal colonies, Ashoka studied in a regular government school. He dropped out after Class 5 because he was constantly humiliated.

“Students teased me. After a class in which the teacher spoke about different people (races) of the world, they called me ‘Negro’. One teacher always called me Koraga, she never called me by my name. I was unable to study like others, so they harassed me a lot,” he says, going back to his card game.

Prejudice

People of the Koraga tribe mostly live in parts of Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu. They are easily distinguishable by their skin colour, texture of hair and facial features, which are unlike those of other communities, and because of which they have been ridiculed and humiliated by society.

 

Traditionally, they have been experts with bamboo and creepers, able to make baskets and other articles out of the grass.

“They mainly depend on basket making. But since the forests are vanishing they don’t get enough raw material for it,” says Gopalan KA, a tribe promoter for Koragas in Badiadka village appointed by the Tribal Affairs Department.

 

Even as their traditional livelihood is not enough to support them, finding work outside is difficult as other communities practice untouchability against them.

Angara (32), another resident of the colony in Badiadka says: “In this area the land is mainly owned by upper caste Hindus and they treat us very badly. They do not hire us for work. Even if they do, they will not give us water to drink or allow us to use their toilets. Even other tribes here consider us as untouchables.”

According to Dhanalakshmi M, Tribal Extension Officer for six colonies in Badiadka, the total Koraga population in the district is less than 1,500, and has been decreasing every year.

Although the central government changed the original classification of “Primitive Tribal Groups” to Classified as a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group in 2006, a mere change of name does not mean a change in approach.

Balakrishnan K, the teacher at the single-teacher school in the Badiadka colony, says Koraga children come to school only to have lunch. “Neither they nor their parents are interested in studies.”

 

This is not the only type of prejudice or misconception that people of other communities have about Koragas. “Their behavior, nature and all activities are very primitive, it is really difficult to bring them to mainstream,” says Dhanalakshmi, reflecting the government’s inability to understand the people who they are supposed to be working with.

For instance, the Koragas in Karnataka and Kerala speak Tulu, a language of coastal Karnataka, but they have a language of their own, which few people outside the community know. In their language, the community does not have words for dowry or widows. People of the community are named after animals, creepers or plants.

Health

Lack of work has had a direct impact on their health, starting with poor nutrition. Sixty-four-year-old Chaniyaru says that in the past, the community consumed the meat of animals which were found dead in the forests, but they have stopped that now, and shifted to rice. Now they are completely dependent on the government for rations and other provisions.

 

According to Gopalan, there is “extreme addiction” to alcohol among the Koragas. “If small kids are sick they use alcohol as a medicine as they don’t have money get proper medication,” he adds.

Coupled with poor nutrition, there is a high prevalence of diseases such as pneumonia, tuberculosis and even cancer. “These diseases have our lives. We want some work at least to get medicines for our kids,” says Ballu a resident of the colony.

Declining numbers

Social ostracization which has contributed to their educational and economic backwardness along with health issues have perhaps had an overall impact on the community’s numbers.

According to the 2011 Census, the tribe’s population in Karnataka is 14,794 and 1,582 in Kerala. But in 2001, there were 16,071 Korage people in Karnataka and 1152 in Kerala.

Corruption

Classified as a PVTG by the central Tribal Affairs Ministry, the Koraga community is entitled to several benefits from the government including rations and welfare schemes which are either rendered useless because of poor planning, or fail to reach them because of corruption.

“A huge amount of money has been released for the welfare of tribes by the government, but only a very small portion of it reaches them due to corruption,” says Jagannatha Shetty, the Perdala Committee Secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

 

One such scheme is the government housing provided by the state Tribal Affairs Department. Badiadka colony (also known as Perdala) is one of the largest Koraga settlements in the district with 40 families and a total of 135 people. Most of them live in two-roomed huts built by government. Other colonies have less than 20 families.

The beneficiary of a partially constructed house – courtesy insufficient funding from the government – Chermu (28) has shifted her meager belongings to a newly constructed toilet, also built by the government.

Next to a muddy commode – never used for the purpose it was meant for – is her kitchen and bed. She says the toilet was in better condition than the house that was built for her. Now, she lives with her newborn baby in the toilet.

 

Circumstances like those Chermu’s make for good newspaper headlines. Many a journalist has come and gone, but little has changed for the Koraga people.

Chaniyaru pointed out to this reporter, a 28-year-old woman with a “modern name”. Shoba, she said, was the only person in the colony who had passed Class 12 in the Badiadka Colony.

However, all that Shoba would say was: “We are fed up speaking to authorities and media. Everyone deceives us takes away all our allowances, I don’t want to speak to anyone, just get away.”

Photos : K Rajashekar

 

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