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Irulas bite back casteist slurs

Monsoon is never a lone visitor in certain pockets of Tamil Nadu’s Manali New Town; it’s commonly accompanied by snakes seeking warmth.

Published: 18th November 2017 11:34 PM  |   Last Updated: 19th November 2017 08:12 AM   |  A+A-

Irula community members in Sadayankuppam, Tamil Nadu | P JAWAHAR

CHENNAI : Monsoon is never a lone visitor in certain pockets of Tamil Nadu’s Manali New Town; it’s commonly accompanied by snakes seeking warmth. However, residents here now know better than to turn to the Irula families at Sadayankuppam, known for their snake-catching skills, to get rid of the reptiles.
The 38 Irula families here are no longer willing to chase their snakes out, mainly because of two reasons, one far more upsetting than the other.

“If we help the residents, they not only make it a habit, but also start calling us extremely demeaning names based on our caste and our profession of catching snakes. If we chase a snake away now, it will be only because it entered one of our own houses. Let them (residents) chase snakes their own,” said Ettiyappan S, who belongs to the community.For a community that has been catching snakes for around 3,000 years and is known for their knowledge and dexterity in tracing the reptiles, the Irulas at Sadayankuppam have decided against putting their skills to use.

It all started after the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, which brought snakes, especially venomous ones, under the list of protected species and banned the export of snake skins, once the primary source of income to the community. The families here turned to fishing following the Act.
However, the Act was not the only reason why they have refrained from using their expertise to help someone in need in the neighbourhood. Irulas used to earlier chase away the snakes as favours, but that has ended, thanks to name-calling. 

“It has been that way for a long time; I’m sure our fathers and grandfathers would have had these slurs thrown at them. But, we don’t want to put up with all this,” said Suresh (name changed).Getting rid of a reptile could fetch them around `400 a snake or more, depending on the type. However, though they would do well with the added income, considering that fishing fetched them only about `6,000 a month, they have decided it wouldn’t be worth the insult.“None of the children here know how to catch snakes. They have not been taught because firstly, it ceased to be profitable. Secondly, why should they listen to the casteist slurs?” said Mariamma P, a member of the community. 

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