Kerala’s age cut-off has left over 1100 Tribal Promoters worried over their livelihood

Many Tribal Promoters, who served as a link between their communities and their access to welfare facilities and schemes for decades, now do not know what else to do to earn a living.
COVID 19 campaign in tribal colony
COVID 19 campaign in tribal colony
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Forty five -year-old Vinod of the Kaanikkar tribal community in Vellarada, Thiruvananthapuram district, started working as a Scheduled Tribe Promoter in his mid 20s. Though it was initially a one-year contract, it kept getting extended every year. After 20 years of his service in December 2021, he was informed that he will no longer be an ST Promoter when that year’s contract ends as he was among the 1,182 promoters whose contracts the government was not going to extend. Vinod had been receiving a monthly honorarium of Rs 13,500 but was left in a lurch as he is not sure what job he can take up now. “This was my life all these years — working for the community and living with the honorarium I get. Suddenly I am clueless, after all these years of service, what will I do?” Vinod questioned.

ST Promoters, appointed by Kerala Scheduled Tribes Development Department (STDD), act as a link between tribal communities and the government. Ideally, they are responsible to bring out the problems faced by the communities and work along with the department as well as local self government to ensure the welfare schemes reach the communities. They are also responsible for ensuring proper medical treatment for those in need and other facilities to the tribal communities.

Tribal Promoters’ play a crucial role in facilitating their communities’ access to welfare measures. For instance, Jaya, a Tibal Promoter from Wayanad district, said that she carried groceries and food kits during floods to the tribal colonies along with others. “During the pandemic, we did a lot of awareness campaigns, arranged COVID-19 treatment centers. We made sure they had enough food and medicines,” Jaya said. Apart from emergencies, Promoters also play a role during day to day crises for adivasi communities, many of which do not have easy access to basic facilities. “When a child was sick we walked a few kilometers and got him to the hospital. I was in the hospital as many days as the child was admitted,” Jaya added.

However, many Promoters who have spent years doing these services now find their livelihood threatened due to a rule which has lowered the cut off age for being a Tribal Promoter, thus excluding many who have been doing this work for years. When the STDD called for applications for new Promoters on February 7, 2022, one of the requirements was that applicants should not be over 35 years in age. Prior to the recent order, the prescribed age was between 25 years to 55 years.

“Many of the Promoters who were appointed in 2017 are of higher age than the cut off of 35. The department is implementing the policies that are required for the new era. Apart from that, it is required to intensify COVID-19 containment activities. But the Promoters working currently are not able to handle these duties well,” says the government order from December 2021. The order said that the contracts of the current Promoters (which expired in January, February and March months), will not be extended.

‘After decades, what job can we do now?’

Like Vinod, many other Promoters who had been doing this job for many years do not know what else to do.

“For many years, the STDD had been extending the yearly contract. When the government changed, they conducted interviews and selected candidates again, retaining those who were doing good work. In Thiruvananthapuram district, only seven promoters among us are under 35 years of age. The other 50 are above the age limit now,” said Vipin, another Tribal Promoter from Vithura, who lost his job.

“Those who spent more than a decade in this job have no option now to seek other work or go for a new study. Most of us ran our families with this income; moreover, we loved working for our community,” he added.

Vinod also warned that this will be a cycle and the new generation who get into this job will also have the same fate as theirs.

“Suppose a 25-year-old got this job. Just like us, he can also work up to 35 years by getting an extension. What will he do after that, when the age limit to try for a government job or studies is past? Even in private firms they consider age. With this experience, where else will he get a job? After being a Promoter for so many years, will he be able to go for daily wage work?” Vinod argued.

Jaya, a Promoter from Kannur’s Kudiya community, says that when she first became a Promoter in the early 2000s, her honorarium was Rs 1,000. “I was happy with the money because I worked for the community. Gradually, it increased. Now I am 49 years old. Since I had been a Promoter, I didn't get work under the MNREGA. So, I don't know any other daily wage work. What will I do to survive?” she says. MNREGA or the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act guarantees 100 days of wage employment in a financial year to at least one member of a family who can do unskilled manual labour.

Another Tribal Promoter Latha from Malappuram district said that it was they who struggled for the community during difficult times. “When somebody is ill, it was us who were at the forefront of ensuring that they reach hospital on time. During floods and the pandemic, we worked day and night,” she added.

STDD justifies move

An STDD officer from Thiruvananthapuram, who sought anonymity, told TNM that being a Promoter is not a job, and those applying for it shouldn’t treat it as one. “This is not a job but community welfare. The contract is for a year, after which they can go for other work,” he said. When asked about the fact that it was the department that had been extending Promoters’ contract for years, the official said, “In my personal opinion, extending for so many years is a mistake. Maybe for one or two years, they can work and seek another job. Let the youngsters get the chance.”

However, Vipin argued that the one-year time period may not be enough for a Promoter to do substantial service. “Within a year or two what changes can a Promoter bring in the community? Besides, while doing this work, we won’t get time for another regular job,” he said.

The STDD officer added that they are prioritising to youngsters after complaints of some Promoters not dispensing their responsibilities properly. “There were many complaints from the community against Promoters and their inactions such as influencing local political leaders and using their clout, and not carrying out COVID-19 containment activities properly. Age could be the reason behind this — since they had been doing this work for many years, they would have now lost the enthusiasm. Perhaps youngsters will make a difference; we need them to be active in social work,” the officer said.

A chance for the new generation

Chithra Nilambur, a tribal activist and president of an adivasi welfare collective called Kerala Adivasi Aikya Vedi, told TNM that the new decision will give opportunities to youngsters, but Promoters with over a decade of experience should be rehabilitated. “There are many who did this job for two decades or more, and so, they are not used to any other work. It is the responsibility of the STDD Department to give them some other jobs,” she added.

“There should be opportunities for youngsters. Also there are many instances of some Promoters' contracts getting extended year after year due to political influence. But the of age limit of 35 years cannot be justified. It should be extended to 40 or 45,” she said.

Chithra pointed out that a contract for one year is also not useful as the promoters do not get enough time to work among the community. “A five-year contract is more practical. It takes a year for a promoter to get to know the community members, collect details, etc. So when they can actually begin the work, the contract will end. So a five-year contract is reasonable,” she added.


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