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Social activist Rajesh and professor Prabha Kalvimani speaking to a group of Irula families, who live near the Gingee Fort.  

As they have no Aadhaar or ration card, members of the semi-nomadic tribe have not been able to avail themselves of basic services

Over 72 years after India became an independent democracy, a number of people of the Irula community which falls under the Scheduled Tribe (ST) list and within 1% of the Tamil Nadu’s ST population, live without ever having voted in elections.

Around 40 Irula families, a semi-nomadic tribe, spread across Villupuram district do not even have a community certificate or possess any official document to avail public services. A group of families living in the forest land at Olakkur say they have no official documentation to prove they are citizens of India.

It was only after social activist Rajesh, who works closely with Pazhangudi Irular Paathukappu Sangam, found these families and ensured that their children received Aadhaar cards and were admitted in nearby schools.

Ezhumulai, who couldn’t guess his age, said though his parents have voted in elections, he still hasn’t voted so far. “We have lived here for many decades. My grandfather had a ration card and voted in elections. But, this generation does not have any identification or documentation. We do not have voters’ ID, ration card or Aadhaar card,” he said.

The story of 12 other Irula families in Jaggampettai, where they live on a small piece of ‘porombokke’ land within a waterbody in Tindivanam, is similar. They have been living without ration cards despite being a stone’s throw away from the district’s Sub-Collector office. Though the families live in extreme poverty, they are forced to buy rice and other essentials from regular shops in the town. While the children are studying in schools, they don’t have access to electricity.

Threat of eviction

“The owners of agricultural fields gave us this land since we were working for him. We paid him money and he gave it to us in writing,” said Sanjeevi, 36, who has been living in Jagampettai for the last few decades. However, they are always at the mercy of the State government as they live within a waterbody, he added. “The officials once came to this place and told us that we might have to vacate this place,” he said.

Sanjeevi is the only person among the 12 families in Jagampettai, who has a community certificate and an Aadhaar card. “I had to get it because of my son who is studying in Singanoor. The rest don’t have these. We have applied for ration cards, but we haven’t gotten a reply,” he said. Women in the settlement say they don’t have access to electricity and live amidst a swarm of mosquitoes.

In a small piece of private land adjacent to the Gingee Fort, around 18 Irula families claim they did not have any official documents until recently. “Only 8 of us have received our Aadhaar cards,” said Albert, an activist working with the Scheduled Tribe Welfare Association. A young woman, who has been living in the private land owned by an agriculturist, said none of them have ever voted, including her parents.

Without any official documents, the elderly, women and children do not have access to the public health system. “We just get tablets from the medical shops and buy rice from ration shops in the black market,” she says.

Revenue officials said they were surprised that the Irula families did not have any documents for this long. “We are doing everything we can to identify such cases. It is tough to identify families as they live in remote places but we do our best given our limited budget,” an official said.

Asked about what needs to be done to quickly rehabilitate the families that have remained outside the government machinery, Prabha Kalvimani, founder of Pazhangudi Irular Paathukappu Sangam, who is closely working with these families, said, “The government has to the implement the SC/ST Act without fear or prejudice. They should take efforts to hand out community certificates. Due to protests, a substantial number of them have received community certificates. Around 50% still remain without documents,” he said.

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