Fifteen-year-old Valiamma (name changed) sat on the street in Mappedu, on the outskirts of Chennai, surrounded by stagnant water and flies buzzing around. She cradled little Sivagami, her youngest sister. Valliamma had been going to school till a year ago, but as soon as Sivagami was born, her parents asked her to drop out as there was no one to take care of the baby.

Valiamma, who belongs to the Narikaruvar community, a semi-nomadic tribe, is aware that the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha recently passed a Bill to include Tamil Nadu's Narikuravars in the ST category, a move that her ancestors have been waiting for almost five decades. But Valiamma doesn't seem too excited about it. “What change will it bring in my life?” she asked. While many in the Mappedu community have welcomed the move, they are not really sure if this will have any bearing on their lives at all.

It was in 1965 that the Lokur Committee first proposed the inclusion of this gypsy community in the ST list. But due to questions and confusion over the nomenclature, there has been a huge delay. In the process, almost two generations of Narikuravars have lost the opportunity to be educated and make a decent living.

The Narikuravars are traditionally a hunting and gathering society. But due to restrictions on hunting over the years, they have had to resort to other means of survival. The community, especially the women among them are extremely creative and are skilled bead makers. For anyone who has travelled by the sub urban trains in Chennai, until a few years ago, it was a common sight to see women from the community selling their artistic bead jewellery on trains. But they were barred from doing that as well. Now, a majority of the community in Chennai has been forced into ragpicking.

Mekhala, a mother of three said, “we are mainly hunters, we eat whatever we find. But now there are so many restrictions because of the wildlife conservation act. We have rations cards, but we don't get proper food, we don't get enough kerosene, we don't have houses. What's the use of getting ration cards, Aadhaar cards or voter ids when we don't have food to eat?

"We try to send our children to schools, but they are always looked down upon, always discriminated against by the other kids. They look at us as if we're not human beings. Our children study under street lights, we don't have electricity or houses. When they go to sleep, the rats eat their books.

“One of our main occupations used to be bead-making and we would often travel to other states to buy beads. At times like this, we can't leave our children behind, we have to take them along with us, so again, their school attendance gets affected. I don't know how exactly the ST status will help us," she added.

"We used to sell jewellery in trains, but the cops chased us out. Now we're not allowed to do that. We tried to sell it on the streets, but we were chased away from there too. A big fancy store has come up where we used to sit. Now, in our desperation, we have started ragpicking. But that is no easy job. We are often chased by dogs or by cops and we are accused of stealing if anything gets lost, even though we're innocent.

“A lot of children have dropped out of school due to family circumstances. The community in Mappedu has been living here for five generations, but there is always road construction so we can't really grow. Even last month, about 30 families had to vacate after their huts were demolished due to the expansion of the road. We don't even have bathrooms to relieve ourselves.

“During COVID, the municipality hired us to clear the trash. We risked our lives and went ragpicking, but we were never paid properly. As soon as the lockdown ended, they ended our contract and didn't even pay us what we were promised," she added.

Prince Solomon, a Chennai-based social work professor who has done extensive research on the community said, “it is a good move that they have got ST status from Most Backward Class. However, it is a late move. At least two generations of people have lost education and other privileges which all tribals should get, in spite of having the MBC status."

He added, "In the 70s and 80s, the Tamil Nadu government recognised the community and gave them reservations. There are claims that they were even given guns for hunting, but later, due to the wildlife conservation act, they were no longer a hunting and gathering community, they started living as urban natives. Today, they live together in small communities near towns.

“A lot of them moved to bead making and other jewellery making. They are a semi nomadic tribe who travel to places like Agra, Rajasthan and Delhi to buy these beads and come back with beautiful designs.They have such artistic minds. But a lot of families have even quit this and have become mere ragpickers.

“Some of them have come up in life, but not as a community together. Many have sold land that was given to them by the government or leased it due to extreme financial constraints."

He added, "We have to wait and see if the ST status will make any difference to their lives. It is nevertheless going to be an uphill task. If we really want to empower them, more needs to be done. There should be intentional programmes for scheduled tribes and livelihood opportunities, with their skill sets being encouraged. The government should tap that potential as an asset creation.

“They are very skillful, they are small in number. We can easily identify and work with them. The urban livelihood mission can work on new schemes based on their new status. They are aliens in spite of having people around them.

“They are discriminated against because of their identity and their practices. They need hand holding especially in education, health and livelihood. We need to use the integrationist approach, that is they need development but without losing their identity."