While most of us would flee or become transfixed at the sight of a venomous snake like the king cobra, Durai (name changed), a short-statured, unassuming man spends every day actively tracking these deadly creatures. And when he finds one, all he uses are his bare hands to catch it, no fancy gear, no protective equipment.

Durai is one of the four people in a tiny hamlet in Mambakkam, Chennai to hold a government licence permitting him to catch snakes. He's been around snakes all his life, and as far as he can say, so were his ancestors. Durai is a member of the Irula tribe, one of the most primitive tribes of Tamil Nadu, who were snake catchers once, but have now moved on to other daily wage jobs.

There are more than seven lakh Indigenous people in Tamil Nadu, categorised under 36 scheduled tribes. The largest tribe is the Malayalis, the second is the Irula tribe. Some of the other prominent tribes are the Kurumbas, Kanikaran, Kammara, Kota and Toda. Other tribes like the Malasar have a small population, of only about 1000 families.

While some of these tribes like the Malayalis and Kota have developed to a great extent over the years with most of them having access to all basic facilities, other tribes still haven't received the benefits of schemes meant for their development. For instance, over the years, Malayalis have been able to procure government jobs, but it is only the tribes that are already developed who are continuing to develop because they already have the connections and manage to get their friends and relatives jobs as well. The other tribes are largely closed off from accessing any of these jobs.

Another example is in the Nilgiris, where there are three recognised tribes. Say the government has proposed a new scheme, all the benefits by design go only to these three tribes. Tribals who live in the plains don't really get anything. They will continue to work with goats and cows.

The Irulas are also identified under the Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups. The name Irula means people of darkness and could refer to their dark skin or the fact that all their festivals and events happen in the darkness of night. The Irulas were originally forest dwellers and relied a lot on the forests for their livelihood. Later, they were forced to migrate from the forests and look for other employment opportunities. Traditionally snake catchers and hunters of rats, porcupines and other wild animals, today they are mostly employed in daily wage jobs like house construction, basket making, selling pepper, honey and medicinal plants.

The Irulas who live in interior forests still speak the Irula language, but those who have migrated to the urban or semi-urban areas have forgotten their language and have started speaking Tamil. Since they have migrated away from the forests, most of them do not have land of their own and make their own temporary structures around public water bodies. In Tamil Nadu, the Irulas are scattered across five districts and all of them live in really poor conditions. As they live in low lying areas close to water bodies, they are often the first to get affected during natural disasters like floods.

The Irulas are also most prone to being entrapped by the bonded labour system. Almost 90% of the rescued bonded labourers are from the Irula tribe as they are easily allured by giving advance money. They are mostly rescued from brick kilns, stone quarries and rice mills. Some of them have been trapped in bonded labour for generations, forced to pay off the alleged debt of their ancestors.

The Irulas are talented musicians and singers. They are also known to make their own percussion and wind instruments. All their festivals and events involve folk music and dance. They are also known for their knowledge of traditional medicine. Most Irulas still don't visit hospitals and rely on their ancestral wisdom to heal themselves. They live close knit and generally don't step outside their hamlets or encourage anyone to enter inside.

And they continue to be exploited and ill-treated because of their innocence and lack of awareness.

For instance, around 28 Irula families live together in the Kelamabakkam hamlet. Speaking to The Citizen about their history, Ravi, the chief of the hamlet said, "There used to be around 45 families here. We didn't have a proper route into the hamlet, none of us had any proof of identity. We used to live like slaves. You know the yokes that are put on bulls while ploughing the fields? Years ago, when there were no bulls available, our people were used to carry the heavy yokes and plough the fields. We didn't have electricity, even now very few houses have electricity. They would make us work as house helps, and if we didn't go to work for even one day, they would beat us up bad. It was like that until 2015."

"We were often also falsely accused of crimes we never committed just to torture us. Once somebody complained that we had caught fish in a pond nearby. We were then taken to a room and beaten up. We kept telling the authorities we didn't do it. But no one believed us, or maybe they didn't want to.

"After a point, I was so frustrated that I stopped defending myself. I started accepting all the accusations. I told the authorities 'Yes, I did it.' But I told them I did it for the people who had complained about us. I said I only did what I was told and all the profit went to my bosses. I had to lie and make up a story because they didn't believe me when I told the truth. That was the only way I could get out."

"I then called all my community members together and said this can't go on, we need to work together. We can't expect anything from the government. We need to help ourselves. Since then we started collecting some amount every month from all the families, and whenever any one of us is in need, we use a portion of the fund to help them. That's how we managed to get electricity in many of the houses here. We even set up our own water tank and built our own houses.

"We don't go out and no one comes here either. We hardly go to hospitals either. My daughter has completed nursing, so if there's a need in the community, she does whatever she can."

This practice is common in all Irular settlements. John, founder of Forever for All, an NGO that works with the Irulas said, "The Irulas have an association called the Irular tribe association. Every member of the tribe is a part of it. There is an annual subscription of around Rs 600. If any of the members have a sudden medical expense or a death in the family or marriage expense, they will use part of the fund to help each other out. They don't save money for themselves. This association works as a self help group. They don't expect help from the government or anyone else."

While the main occupation of the Irulas used to be snake catching, after the Wildlife Protection Act came into effect in 1972, most of them lost their source of livelihood, including the export of snake skin. Then, in 1978 the Irula Snake Catchers Industrial Co-Operative Society was formed to catch snakes to extract venom. This provided some relief for the community as they were and continue to be the only society authorised to provide anti-venom in the entire country.

However, in the last few years, there was trouble again as the state forest department drastically reduced the number of snakes they were allowed to catch. But as the yearly deaths due to snakebites in the country reached almost 58,000 and with a shortage of anti-venom, the state forest department, in March, allowed the Irulas to catch snakes again.

Meanwhile, due to the risky nature of the job and impact of urbanisation, many Irulas have moved on to daily wage jobs, where they continue to be exploited. Explaining how bonded labour is a huge problem among the Irulas, John recalls the story of one of the girls he helped.

"There is this girl who has now completed her BSc in chemistry. But when she started her course, she was sponsored by another group and just because they sponsored her education, they treated her like a slave, asked her to wash their clothes and even asked her for sexual favours. Her father had died in her childhood and her mom married again. Her stepfather didn't take care of them. So she was very eager to study and immediately accepted when the sponsors said they could pay for her education.

"She had no idea what she would have to do in return. They even set up a business by making her take tuitions and taking all the profit. When she wanted to get out of there, they said she was obliged to them as they were sponsoring her. She managed to escape and since then we have been supporting her. She was about to quit her studies in the second year, but she has overcome everything and finished her studies now."

John added, "The education level is very poor among the Irulas. Parents themselves are not ready to send children to school. They are just happy with what they get everyday, they don't think about the future or the future of their kids, because of which kids are also not showing interest in education. It is only because of the constant push by some NGOs that the children are starting to go to school."

He further said, "In the Kelambakkam hamlet, there are 28 families, out of which hardly 12 families have all their identity cards, ie Aadhaar, voter id, ration card, etc. They don't take the effort to go get these documents because they don't understand the importance of it."

Durga, a 28-year-old mother of three said, "We have been living here for generations. My husband is a driver. I sell appalams (papad) and if needed, I work as a maid. We have a ration card, but many of the people here don't have it. We just help each other out."

Durga is also concerned these days because the government has allotted another land for the people in her hamlet, just less than a kilometre away, as no residential buildings are allowed around water bodies. While many social workers consider this a beneficial move as they will have better access to facilities like schools, women like Durga are apprehensive as they have spent their whole lives in the hamlet and have hardly ever stepped outside.

Speaking to The Citizen, M Venkatesan, State Policy Outreach Secretary, Tamil Nadu Adivasis Federation said, "According to an HC order, those who live near the water bodies should be given another place. The state government has given three lakhs for one house under the tribal sub-plan. Instead of staying here in these makeshift huts, they can go live in a proper house. But they're used to the way of life there, so they don't want to move.

"Anyway, they will get used to it. It's just one kilometre away. The land value of the place they will inherit is at least worth Rs 8 lakh. It's just a few people who are trying to discourage the people from accepting schemes that are good for them. We need to change that. They don't try to understand that if they continue living like this, they can never develop."

According to Venkatesan, "There needs to be more effort to create awareness among them. Take education among the Irulas. There's a lot of dropouts among them, especially after COVID. The parents don't encourage them either. But there is some change now, thanks to the NGOs. Children need to study well if there needs to be change.

"The second step is to create awareness about the schemes. For instance, the govt had announced 200 crore for tribals to set up cement factories, but even I didn't know about it until recently. Whenever there is a government order, the order copies need to be sent out to the tribal heads, but that is not being done."

"There was a state government gazette a few years ago which provided employment for tribals. It's been so many years, but more than 2,000 of those slots for tribals haven't been filled. It's because the local officials don't want them to come up in life. They know that if these schemes are implemented, things will change for them. If these vacancies were filled, that itself would be a huge development for the tribals."

"Many of them are illiterate and unaware of the schemes that are available for them. The officials will only take effort to give them the funds if they ask for it. But when they don't even know that the schemes exist, how can they go ask? In fact, the officials purposely don't let the people know about it because they don't want them to come up in life."

"If there is a scheme, it needs to be made known to all the people who can benefit from it. If you take the national tribal schemes, the ads are only given in the English and Hindi papers. How will the tribals here know about it if we don't see the ads in Tamil newspapers? As it is, only few of us even know to read Tamil. But at least if those few know about it, they can tell the others."

"Even if there's a meeting for tribal welfare, nobody gets to know about it, or what is discussed in it. In the last three years, the Directorate of Tribal Welfare noted that out of 1,300 crores allotted for welfare of tribals in Tamil Nadu, at least 265 crores were returned to the centre and state governments. The reason cited was that people didn't file petitions. We recently found out about it after filing an RTI.

"There are many schemes like these that the tribals are not even aware about. According to the Forest Act, the tribals have rights over forest land. They have the rights to first access the broom grass and cashews. The government even gives the machine to separate the cashewnuts from the fruit. But not everyone is aware of it.

"The Irulas have suffered because they don't own land. At least in the last few years, there have been some positive changes. Chief Minister Stalin, after watching the movie Jai Bheem which revolves around the life of Irulas, was moved and announced land deeds for 500 families. In Thiruvallur and Kanchipuram districts also, some people have received free land deeds. These are some positive things we have seen recently."

Experts feel there are other steps that could be taken to help the community. According to a report by the Social Work Department of Madras Christian College that has worked extensively with the Irular tribe in and around Chennai, "smart hamlets are the need of the hour as it will address the importance of shaping the Irulas as better citizens, making them live in proper housing structure will all legal entities. They will also be exposed to the best governance methods and policies."

Dr Sudharsan, a professor of the Department of Social Work at Madras Christian College added, "We have also been recommending a separate ration card for particularly vulnerable tribal groups, under which the Irulas fall. With the normal ration card, one can purchase wheat and rice. But that is not the staple of the tribals. They are used to eating millets. In fact, what most of them do now is that they sell the rice and wheat they get in ration and buy millets instead. The government should consider giving them a separate card that will cater to their food habits. We had given a letter to the district collector with research evidence and recommendations and even some petitions to the NHRC. Even in Wayanad, Kerala, we found that the tribals are getting rice and wheat. But that is not their food."

He added, "The enrolment rate in schools is very poor among the Irulars. The parents want them to go for work and earn money and hence do not encourage the children to study. The government has to take major steps to build a strong community. They should follow the smart colony model that was implemented in Thiruvanamalai district. The model that included about 40 houses became a huge success with a milk animal shed, brick kiln, community hall, solar panels and other innovative facilities. Each hamlet should have these smart colonies, it would bring them together and enhance social capital."