Life Outside the Woods has Turned Oppressive for Iruligas

Capstone Health Karnataka

In the wake of a prolonged protest, only 43 Iruliga families received new homes after they were relocated from Ambigahalli forest. Still, basic facilities remain elusive.

With orange-tinted saree and a sky-blue weaved blouse under a pouring bright sun, Boramma sits chewing betel leaves, fingers tracing their paths across the leaves. Two months have passed since she lost her husband. No emotions reflected on her face as she had no time to grieve. “The heavy rains and this makeshift house took my husband away, she explained. Every day we had to drain the water from our hut and despite the destruction, we had no choice but to remain here,” she said.

A native of the tribe, Krishna Murthy is the first PhD holder from the tribe. He has been actively contributing to creating awareness about the tribes in Karnataka for many years now. He said that a protest was held following the death of her husband, and only then did the district collector provide two acres of land.

 Murthy explained that their former location was so congested that two families shared one house, but at their current location each family has its own house. 

For 14-year-old Laxmi, reaching school every day is a challenge even after being relocated. It’s not just the education that’s inaccessible but also basic needs like water. “I have to walk for 2 kms back and forth every day to attend school and to fetch water”, she said.

Ratnamma another tribal woman said that it was necessary for her to travel. Even during her pregnancy, she walked over two kms just to get water. “Our drinking water is contaminated. My children’s health is badly affected due to lack of sanitation.” 

Suddhasattwa Barik, Ministry of Panchayati Raj (MoPR) said that the problem lies within the Constitution of India today. During colonial times, tribal communities were simply included in the Scheduled Group to simplify administration and governance. In India, this led to years of oppression and deprivation against tribal communities.

In the constitution, the word backward communities still stand for it. Even after independence and many Constitutional amendments, we are unable to eliminate the word Backward when describing Schedule Tribal communities. There is still a colonial mindset among the duty-bearers, policy-makers, and other decision-makers who are responsible for the upliftment of Schedule tribe groups in India. This includes the Iruligas.

“My children don’t get adequate nutrition, they keep falling sick often, and the clinics are far away,” Ratnamma sighed, wiping away tears of anger. My sister suffers from respiratory problems and there are many others who have various skin conditions. We have made our bathroom from makeshift leaves. Living conditions have deteriorated to the point where a chance for better hygiene and safe drinking water is like a dream hanged by a thin thread, she said.

Like Ratnamma, Sylvia Karpagam, a public health doctor and researcher, said that there are many other women who are susceptible to diseases which can cause adverse effects. Health is a major concern among the Iruliga tribes. In addition to that, there are also a number of traditions they follow which can add to serious respiratory and heart problems for the Iruligas. 

Murthy said that 28.5 percent of the tribe constitute in Ramanagara and 14.28 percent of tribles in Kanakpura of which 30-40 percent among them live in poverty.

The National Policy on Tribals recognizes that a majority of Scheduled Tribes continue to live below the poverty line, have poor literacy rates, suffering from malnutrition and various diseases and are vulnerable to displacement. There is urgent need to address each of these problems in a concrete way. At the same time, it is important to take measures to improve their health condition.

In a recent study, it was stated that the most common diseases among the Iruliga population were skin diseases such as scabies, tropical ulcers, dysentery trouble, and STD of all kinds. Almost every year, epidemics like chickenpox and whooping cough occur. Besides showing poor health, hygiene, and sanitation, this also shows the vulnerability of the Iruligas to communicable diseases and the lack of health services.

Among Iruligas 80 per cent of the deliveries take place at home with the assistance of traditional tribal mid-wives or an aged woman. Poor nutrition of the mother, unhygienic surroundings and improper child care lead to high infant mortality rate according to the report.

The people – Iruligas

Iruliga is one of the oldest tribes of Karnataka. The tribals community is also found in Kerala, and Tamil Nadu. They strongly believe in nature and worship it as their god. In spite of technological and scientific progress, this tribe continues to live life in accordance with its basic traditions and rituals.

As Murthy puts it, the Iruligas are primitive groups. Therefore, the government must do more than acknowledge this community, but also engage with the community. 

“In order to participate directly in administration and development, the tribes need to be educated. Government policies that are aimed at the community’s welfare must reach the community directly. Non – governmental organizations (NGOs) should not be used as intermediaries,” he added.

Land has not been granted yet

As part of the 2006 Forest Act, the Supreme Court clearly directed for these tribes to be given land and basic facilities in the areas where they were uprooted and rehabilitated, regardless of them having the required documents or not. Although the court ruled in 2012, a correction was made to this ruling, and the land was granted to the tribes. 

District authorities and governments are yet to implement this initiative despite having been introduced a decade ago. Forest act implementation is hindered by a lack of knowledge among officials and a lack among tribal members.

Lakshmamma, one of the protestors of the Forest Rights Act said, “The makeshift homes where we live do not have toilets.” We have to use the farms of other communities to go to the bathroom, for which we get abused every day. We bear the insults with no other choice.” 

The current situation with the implementation of forest rights act

Shivraj, Secretary for the Iruligas Association from Kanakpura taluk, said they have been protesting since the Forest Act was introduced in 2006. The protest began at the Handi Gundi forest on August 2021, but even after 300 days of protesting, no action has been taken by the district authority.

Despite Iruligas’s constant appeal for filing of the required documentations to the forest department committee, there has been zero action taken by the respective authorities.

The Batta Forest, another place of habitat, the concerned authorities are not responsive, instead give dissenting answers.

Mahadevaiah, president of the Forest Rights Committee, Bannerghatta, said in a report that many Iruliga families are struggling for proper survival. “There are Iruligas spread across Kanakapura, Ramanagar, Magadi, Channapatna and Bannerghatta.

In the same report it was stated that as of August 2021, there are 47,722 applications across the state from forest dwelling tribes. In case of traditional forest dwellers, there are 2.4 lakh applications, of which 1986 have been approved. “The government needs to speed up the implementation of Forest Rights Act. They have also asked for 75 years’ proof of residence, which dates back to the pre-Independence period. This clause needs to be reviewed,” he added.

Murthy explains, historically, whoever gave them land to stay, they would work for the owner as bonded laborers. This tradition has continued till today. But there has been some progress in the recent years. Some of the youth, the first generation of educated people, are recognizing all the Iruligal need consistency communities and spreading awareness about education, law, and the forest act among them.

A news report stated that 50 members of the Irula tribe, who were forced into bonded labour in eucalyptus groves on the northern outskirts of Bengaluru, were rescued. Agents of Shivamogga and Krishnagiri, Tamil Nadu, trafficked 15 workers, including women and children.

“Working 12 hours a day to cut Eucalyptus trees used in paper and cloth production, they suffered. Their pay ranged from Rs 1,000 to Rs 2,000 per week, and they carried out rescue work in different eucalyptus groves around Bengaluru,” said Ignatius Joseph, a member of the rescue team. 

The report added that several workers fell into debt bondage from 2018, but others had been enslaved for 15 years. They lived in tents made of tarpaulin sheets in the name of housing. In case of an emergency, they had to leave their children behind as a surety because they weren’t allowed to visit their native village. Besides rescuing the labourers’, police also arrested the owners of the eucalyptus groves. FIRs under IPC section 370 (trafficking of persons) and the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act were registered. 

About the livelihood

Iruliga community is identified by various names as Irula’s, Irula, Iruliga, Irular, Pujari, Kadupujari in Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.

Tribal cultures tend to base their values on concepts like women and nature being intertwined. In tribal wisdom, the earth meets not only the needs of humans but also those of the entire creation. Forests and nature are the mother of the Iruligas. For Iruligas, joining with nature is a celebration which all of them celebrate together as festival. 

Among Ramnagara’s Iruliga tribe is the Ambigahalli forest, a favorite spot for bee hunting. Honey is collected by chasing the bees until they locate their hive. Wood apple is a popular fruit. It is during their leisure time that they come around and pluck these apples to eat. 

Krishna Murthy, Shivraj, along with other activists continue to speak out for their tribe community.  “We are also establishing an organization to assist, protect, and restore our community” they added.

Barik said that as Local Self-Government, Gram Panchayats can play a significant role in uplifting such communities and addressing their needs, but the problem still belongs to the Government.

“So, unless and until State officials are not disclosing their roles and duties towards these groups, the situation will never change except by having affirmative action and protective discrimination.” It is also important to point out that we have the Panchayats (EXTENSION TO SCHEDULED AREAS) ACT, 1996 PESA Act, which recognizes traditional local bodies and gives them specific powers to serve tribal needs, he added.

Kaveri Gaurav, an anthropologist said that it is important that Intergovernmental Organizations (IGOs) mainly UN agencies, Civil Society Organizations (CBOs), Academies Institutions, and Journalists, who can actually raise the issue in the political sphere, form a dialogue group.

“Especially who can negotiate with the government machinery as well as to motivate and educate tribal youths to raise their voice for sustainable development of their own community. Youth movement might bring social change for the upliftment of them.”


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