Dressed in tattered clothes, living in abject poverty, doing odd jobs to eke out a living and perennially sidelined. This is how one could describe the Narikkuravar community in Tamil Nadu. They have been waging a silent battle for over 50 years to be included in the Scheduled Tribes list in Tamil Nadu.
With a population of around 2 lakh across Tamil Nadu, the Narikkuravars, also known as the Kuruvikkarars, are nomadic in nature. They move from one place to another in search of food, shelter and employment. The Narikkuravar Colony in Pallavaram houses at least 300 members of the community, who negotiate discrimination as a part of their daily life.
The Narikkuravars are placed in the Most Backward Classes category in Tamil Nadu, where they are made to compete with groups like Gounders and Chettiars, who wield more power in social and economic standing.
Speaking to TNM, Devadass, the president of the Narikkuravar Sangam, said that since the community is grouped with MBCs, they do not enjoy certain concessions offered by the government. “Our people used to live on the hills. Now due to modernisation, they are living in cities. But since they have no culture, economy or education, their condition remains unchanged. The government has not done anything for their development,” he said.
A Bill to include Narikkuravars in the Scheduled Tribes list was introduced in the Lok Sabha in 2016, but has not seen any movement since then. Though there has been speculation over the delay in passing the Bill in Parliament, experts point to a report submitted by the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes, which specify certain criteria for any tribe to be classified as Scheduled Tribe. The set of criteria includes ‘shyness of connect’, ‘primitive traits’, ‘geographical isolation’ etc. For Narikkuravars, who have been forced to live in the periphery of big cities like Chennai, these conditions do more harm than good.
Dr Sumathi, head of the Anthropology Department, University of Madras, told TNM that the lack of definition for 'tribe' in the Constitution of India is the root of the problem.
“... that’s where the problem arises. But characteristics of a tribe is spelt out in the Preamble of which isolation is the first trait. There are also other traits like ‘shyness’. All these are very subjective,” she said. Though the size of the group is small, she pointed out that the culture of Narikkuravars is rich, and hence their vulnerability must be prioritised and addressed by the government and policy makers.