Keeping Head Above Water: The Irular of Pichavaram

The pristine Killai backwaters—also known as Pichavaram mangrove forest—are a few kilometres from the temple town of Chidambaram on India's east coast situated at the confluence of Kollidam (Coleroon) and Vellar rivers.  The Pichavaram is the second largest mangrove forest in India, spanning an area of 1,470 hectares (Selvam et al 2003).  Apart from its scenic beauty and ecological importance, the backwaters are the lifeline for communities living in about 20 hamlets located along it. MGR Nagar—home to the Irular—is one among them.

The pristine Killai backwaters

The Irular of MGR Nagar believe that their ancestors migrated from the Andhra country about 200 years ago and settled down along the coast from Pulicat to Cuddalore, including areas close to Killai backwaters. Recognised as a Scheduled Tribe by the Government of India, the Irular hunted snakes for their skin, caught rats from paddy fields, and gathered paddy from rat holes. However, they had to give up snake hunting when it was declared an illegal activity. They relied on small hunting and bonded wage labour in coconut groves and casuarina plantations to survive.

When the landowners of Killai area silently started pushing out Irular families from their coconut gardens in light of the Tamil Nadu Occupants of Kudiyiruppu (Protection from Eviction) Act, 1961 and other laws supporting tenancy rights, the evicted community came together and settled at a place called Panankunju (locality of palm trees). There they began working as day labourers in paddy fields and in groundnut cultivation. In 1977, Irular representatives met the former chief minister of Tamil Nadu, M G Ramachandran (MGR), who purchased about an acre of land on his own expense and gifted it to 21 families.1 Later, the government allocated more land to settle several more families here. The settlement was named "MGR Nagar" as an act of gratitude to the former chief minister.  Another positive development for the Irular took place in 1997 when the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) implemented a Joint Mangrove Management Programme in the area along with the Forest Department of Tamil Nadu to rejuvenate the degraded mangrove forest.  The Irular benefitted from the project in terms of a primary school, employment, and aquiring new fishing boats.

The Irular adopted fishing as a source of livelihood

In spite of these positive developments, the Irular struggle for survival.  Their fishing techniques are rudimentary. One of the common methods of fishing adopted by them, especially by Irular women, is gleaning of prawns with their bare hands, moving on their knees in the shallow waters during low tide.  It is a hazardous activity because it causes several adverse health problems.  Gradually, the Irular have shifted to improved fishing techniques mostly using non-motorised small-size boats, although some have fallen prey to private financiers and moneylenders in the process. To make matters worse, a tsunami in 2004 drastically reduced productivity, compelling Irular fishers to search for new fishing grounds in the lagoon while trying to diversify their livelihood options and survival strategies.

Keeping head above water; the grueling gleaning of prawns by Irular women

A more complex issue that has arisen in recent times is the collection of polychaete worms in the waterlogged areas close to the river banks or in private ponds used for aquaculture. These worms are used as live feed in shrimp farms in Kakinada in Andhra Pradesh.  And because the demand for the product is always increasing, agents are organising the Irular to gather worms in places along the Palk Bay, including Pudukkottai and Ramnad districts.

The arduous search for polychaete worms in the wet mud of abandoned ponds

The activity has, however, resulted in serious conflicts between the Irular and other fishing communities. As one Irular fisher woman put it:

Irular generally migrate to Palk Bay region from mid-April to mid-August. It is also a low productivity season in the lagoon. But people face resistance in the localities where worms are being harvested in the Palk Bay zone. Local fishers in these villages say that the rich availability of worms in the shore will facilitate the proliferation and multiplication of prawn population in the sea bed. It is a rich natural feed for prawns in these localities. If it is blindly removed from the soil, there would be a prawn famine in the sea. Local fishers perceive the harvest of worms by Irular supported by company agents as a grave danger to the marine environment and a great threat to their livelihood. In addition, local fishers say that they are unknowingly entangled in these pits dug-out by the Irular, often injuring themselves. The local people have also taken up these issues with the forest and olice departments, who have issued warnings to the Irular to stop the work and vacate the places.  However, as it is a survival need, Irular continue to migrate to Palk Bay for worm collections, amidst the growing tendency of local resistance and conflicts!

A catch of worms at the end of a hard day’s labour

The Irular have been in search of a stable livelihood for centuries.  Legal restrictions, natural calamities, social tensions and economic conflict have forced them to survive in a perpetual condition of precariousness. Although they may have ultimately found a place of residence to settle, they continue to barely keep their head above water, and they head towards an uncertain future. 

The Irular continue to struggle for life and livelihoods.

Editor's note: the video has not been edited by the staff.