For the residents of Narikuruva colony in Thiruvanmiyur, Chennai visits by social workers, journalists and researchers are not too uncommon a sight. This attraction is partly due to their unique history of being a nomadic tribe and the fact that within the urban setting they are quite awkwardly placed. Their warm hospitality and openness towards outsiders makes them quite accessible too.
Being prized research material has not improved the lot of the residents of this colony who are often referred to as gypsies by the people of Chennai. Loads of plastic bottles and other recyclable refuse are placed outside almost every household. The unhygienic source of livelihood that is rag picking, seemingly the last thread holding the urban poor from starvation and beggary, has the entire locality in its grips. Every household is engaged in this work. “On average each household makes around rupees 1000 a month by selling the plastic bottles etc. to the local shops. We use this money to cover costs related to children education and medical expenses,” says Maari, resident.
Stigmatized by the British administration as a Criminal Tribe during the pre- independence era, the Narikuruvas’inclusion with ‘Narikoravan Grouped with Kuruvikaran Community’ on the list of Scheduled Tribes in Tamil Nadu is a long pending demand of the Tamil Nadu government before the Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs. Such inclusion will grant them reservation benefits in matters of public employment and other welfare benefits which accrue to Scheduled Tribes under Center and State plans.
In this area there are 68 households. A narrow lane cuts through this congested colony which has mostly single storey pucca houses. The usual slime and debris of slums is missing due to adequate sewage facilities. There is a hand pump for every three to four houses. There is an attach toilet in each house. Water supply is erratic during summers though within tolerable limits.
Most of the houses here have television sets and cable connections though the number of mobile phone connections is fewer.
All the households have ration cards and most of them are registered as Below Poverty Line families. A redeeming sight is the number of children who are engrossed in their studies. “We have received a lot of support from the school to be able to continue with the education of our children”, says Veliamma who lives in a one room cum kitchen house with her family.
Saraswati madam, a social worker is a trusted name for the residents here. “I help them to understand the importance of education for their children and try to prevent cases of drop outs,” says Saraswati.
However, the condition of girls is not the same as boys. Among many others, Veliamma’s own daughter dropped out of school after sixth standard. “We felt nervous after her puberty and she also declined to continue with her studies” she explains. Asked about the reason for quitting studies, the girl who is now 17 years old says, “The school had no toilet and that made it difficult.” Recently, a visiting social worker offered her to come to her place for studies but she declined. “I am too big now. If I had some support then maybe I would have stayed in school. But I cannot go back now,” she says.
The children study at the Theosophical Higher Secondary school in Besant Nagar and the transportation costs average around rupees six hundred a month for one person by auto rickshaws.
A number of organizations claim to be working for the upliftment of Narikuruvas. Not all of them have confidence inspiring credentials. Narikuruva Friends Association under Isabel Reiss, is curiously based in Zurich, Switzerland and is raising funds through its website for the welfare of Narikuruvas in India. The group remained unresponsive to the email requests asking about the details of the project.
Primary source of livelihood is bead making. Unlike their Vellore counterparts they do not have arms licencses for hunting purposes. The material for bead making comes from places like Mathura and areas adjacent to Delhi. They sell their products at exhibitions etc. which are held at irregular intervals, therefore the financially the bead makers experience a lot of volatility. They lack the knowhow of accessing bigger markets.