Keeping head above water: The Irulars of Pichavaram
Ethnographic film (2018) (11 min.) Authors: Sashi Sivramkrishna, Naresh Allika, Priya Kumar, R. Manimohan and S. Velvizhi
Among the many communities who eke out a living in the pristine waters of the Pichavaram mangrove forests – located on India’s east coast in the southern state of Tamil Nadu – are the Irular. They are a tribal people who have lived a nomadic life over generations based on earnings from hunting snakes for their skin and catching rats from paddy fields to working as day labourers in paddy and groundnut cultivation. All this changed when the former chief minister of Tamil Nadu, Mr M.G. Ramachandran gifted an acre of land to twenty-one Irular families in this region.
Later the government allocated more land to settle several more families. Another positive development for the Irular was 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 as wage workers and through the acquisition of new fishing boats and a primary school. Despite these positive developments, the Irular struggle for survival. Their fishing techniques are rudimentary; one of the common fishing methods adopted by them, especially by Irular women, is gleaning prawns with their bare hands, moving on their knees in the shallow waters during low tide. It is a hazardous activity that causes several adverse health problems. Boat fishing in the lagoons is also under stress; without access to institutional credit, the Irular have fallen prey to private financiers and money lenders who charge exorbitant interest rates. The 2004 tsunami drastically reduced the productivity of the lagoon, compelling Irular fishers to search for new fishing grounds while trying to diversify their livelihood options. One of the new activities that have arisen in recent times is collecting polychaete worms in 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. As the demand for the product is ever increasing, the Irular are being organised by agents to gather worms in places along the Palk Bay. As in the past, the Irular continue to struggle for a stable livelihood in the present, even as they head towards an uncertain future.
The film was made in collaboration with Foundation to Aid Industrial Recovery (FAIR), Bengaluru, the University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK, M. S Swaminathan Research Foundation, Chennai and FishMarc, Thiruvananthapuram.