About Tribal groups:
We work with 4 Tribal groups. All are classed as 'Particularly Vulnerable Primitive Tribes’, having declining or stagnant populations, low literacy and health indicators. (In Kerala only Kurumbas and Kathu Naickas are so defined). Mulla Kurumbas: Live mainly in larger villages and practiced shifting cultivation of grains such as ragi, chamai etc over large areas as well as paddy cultivation. In addition they frequently went hunting with bow and arrow for wild pig, deer etc, though this is very rare now due to restrictions by the Forest Department. They are much more forward than the other groups, are predominantly well educated and have benefitted from government programmes and job quotas.
Paniyas: Numerically the largest group. Traditionally roamed the forest collecting food and practiced small scale cultivation and hunting. Latterly they were employed as “bonded labour” by local landlords. Under this system, they were provided with the wherewithal to build a hut, clothes, paddy rice and leave at festival times. The degree of exploitation or paternalism depended on the individual landlords. Now the Abolition of Bonded Labour Act has introduced the cash economy and most work for daily wages. Though some are educated to higher level, very few have been able to get good jobs.
Kathu Naickas: Made a living by collecting honey and other forest produce. Said to have practiced black magic. A few members have got jobs in Forest Department and elsewhere.
Betta Kurumbas : Also live in larger villages of sometimes very poor huts. Many were artisans producing bamboo baskets, umbrellas, pottery and steel axes, knives etc. Some have acquired further education. A number of them work in the Forest Department with elephants.
In the past, the area was only inhabited by the Tribes, Wynaadan and Moundadan Chettys and a few other big landlords. They were fairly Isolated from the outside world and were to some extent interdependent on each other bartering goods and services. It was said the only things needed from outside were cloth and salt. Few outsiders came to the area because of malaria, however in the 1880’s the British established tea plantations and kept malaria under control by draining swamps. They brought in labour from outside the area, but there was still plenty of space for Tribals. In 1956 with the formation of linguistics states, the area became part of Tamil Nadu. The next wave of incomers was from Kerala in response to the governments ‘Grow More Food’ campaign of the late 60’s. Many people flooded into the area and settled on any available land, including land the Tribals traditionally thought of as theirs. Later large numbers of Sri Lankan repatriates were settled in tea plantations on what had once been virgin forest land. These influxes of migrants have put great pressure on land and have also affected the environment, culture and traditions of the Tribals. From being a predominantly Kerala culture with wide open spaces, it has become much more a Tamil one with pressure on land.
In times past when there was lack of food from the forest, animal or other confrontation, it was common to simply move somewhere else, avoiding the adverse situation. These characteristics of shyness, timidness, backing off from adversity and living only for today still predominate and affect progress and development. Many older, and some younger people too, have been unnable to cope with these changes and alcohol abuse and suicide are not uncommon.
Some cultural traditions have died out in the last 30 or 40 years, though 3 of the groups preserve their own distinct languages, young and old. There have been attempts and legislation by government to protect Tribal land and other interests as provided by the Indian Constitution, these have largely failed. Many Tribals are now dispossessed of land and work for daily wages. These are often quite high, but the saving habit and the subsequent benefits are not there.
Pandalur taluk where we work has the highest percentage of Tribal residents in the state. According to the 2011 census this was around 10,000