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How Poor Implementation of FRA Deprives Tamil Nadu's Irulas of Livelihood

Irulas, the scheduled tribe who got famous through the movie 'Jai Bhim', are facing a crisis in Tamil Nadu.

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"I have abandoned farming because we can't get electricity connection to irrigate our land," said Dharman, a resident of Kumbalam village in Tamil Nadu's Krishnagiri district. Dharman comes from an Irula family who were awarded titles to forest land under the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006. But Irula tribe members like Dharman fail to cultivate their land because Tamil Nadu does not recognise the FTA.

Importance of Agriculture for Irulas

Even as so many farmers abandon agriculture, why does this scheduled tribe strive to become cultivators?

Irulas were formerly occupants of the Eastern Ghats but were forced to move by the changes in its ecological characteristics. They had to make a living by serving the dominant communities in the periphery of villages surrounding the forests – sometimes by catching rats and snakes in farmlands. This forced occupation has come to define them in popular imagery, such as in the 2021 movie Jai Bhim.

Often harassed and penalised for dwelling in the forests and utilising its resources, the tribe found new hope after the enactment of the Forest Rights Act in 2006. Under the provisions of the Act, tribals and forest-dwelling communities could legally own forest land. But poor implementation of the Act in Tamil Nadu has thwarted the hopes of this tribe to adopt agriculture.

"Our families had moved out of caves just two generations back. We have been practicing rain-fed farming since then. We were given land deeds for forest land and we began farming here using a borewell and a generator. But without 'chitta' (a state-issued ownership document) we are refused power connection, which is crucial to use mechanical equipment for irrigation. If our farms have access to electricity, then we can grow crops like beans, chilli, cauliflower, etc."
Sivaraj, Resident of Kumbalam village

Sivaraj is still better off than his other tribespeople who haven't even received land deeds.

"There are 36 houses here. But only 7 families have been issued land titles till now. None of the other own any land," said Muniyamma, a resident of Chinnakuthi village of the same district. "Even though I have a land title, it is impossible for me to do farming on it because there is no water. Forest guards stopped me from digging a borewell too because I do not possess a chitta," she added.

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Sorry State of FRA Implementation in Tamil Nadu

The above cases of Irulas are proof of the fact that Tamil Nadu is the fifth worst performer in the country in the implementation of the FRA, as per the latest government data.

Until October 2021, out of the 1,194 individual applications received at the grama sabha level, only 71 were issued titles – a rejection rate of 94 percent.

Tamil Nadu had first put off implementing the FRA for a decade, citing a Madras High Court interim order, and began issuing titles only in 2016. While the total number of titles issued are small and the rejection rate is high, even those who are issued titles, like Muniyamma, Sivaraj, and Dharman, find it difficult to enjoy the benefits of the land deeds.

'We Have Given Up Now'

Irulas, who once saw agriculture as a means to a stable livelihood, are now forced to abandon it due to the state's inaction.

"I have approached every office and met every officer for this. Many officers came here and promised action but nothing has been done. I am now rearing cattle," added Sivaraj.

Dharman said, "These land titles are of no use to us if we don't get electricity connection. We ran around for two years. Now we have given up."

States such as Maharashtra and Odisha have already instituted measures for the convergence of FRA titles with other government schemes. But Tamil Nadu is yet to do so.

(Jeff Joseph is a researcher with Land Conflict Watch, an independent network of researchers studying land conflicts, climate change and natural resource governance in India.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:  Tamil Nadu   Forest Rights   Irulas 

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