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Project Title: Empowering the Inferior and Irular Tribal Community (Snake Snatchers) to Sustainable Livelihood

I. Project Summary: This project provides seed capital for self help groups for income generation projects spinning rope and handicrafts from coir—(fibers from the husks of coconuts). Coconuts are found in abundance in village communities and are a natural resource that can be used to create many types of products. This project aims to support snakesnatchers, former beggars, and women’s groups. Additionally, one women’s group has chosen to raise goats with their seed money. They will sell the offspring of the goats.

II. Statement of Need or Issue Area of Concern:

Located about forty-eight kilometers from the temple city of Madurai, this project is in Manamadurai. It is semi-arid area. Manamadurai is noted for the production of the classical music instrument ghatam. It is also famous for its SIPCOT industry and the manufacturing of bricks and clay pots. Unfortunately, these industries do not benefit the community whom Ananda Foundation is serving. They are nomads who do not have land or assets to their credit.

Here, Ananda Foundation’s partnership with the local NGO- SERD is to serve the poor Irular community. People of the Irular community are traditional rat and snake catchers. The tribals of "Irulas" have been practicing this art for generations. With the help of a simple stick they catch the snakes from the fields or houses. They are also known to eat some of the snakes they catch and are very useful in rat extermination in the villages.

India is often called the land of snakes and is steeped in tradition regarding snakes. Snakes are worshipped as gods even today with many women pouring milk on snake pits (despite snakes' aversion for milk). The cobra is seen on the neck of the Hindu deity Shiva. Vishnu is depicted often as sleeping on a seven headed snake. There are also several temples for worshipping cobras, i.e. Nagraj-King of Snakes. It is believed that snakes are symbols of fertility. There is a Hindu festival called Nagapanchami each year for offering prayers to snakes. On account of all these, snake charmers had a fair amount of respect in the society. Once an icon of Indian culture, snake charmers today are struggling for survival.

Large numbers of snake charmers once could be seen walking the streets of cities and towns carrying snake baskets or wearing snakes on their body like ornaments. The exotic sight of these mystical men enticing snakes to dance to the soulful music of gourd flutes has long captured the imagination of people even in the West. Large numbers of snake charmers once could be seen walking the streets of cities and towns carrying snake baskets or wearing snakes on their body like ornaments. The exotic sight of these mystical men enticing snakes to dance to the soulful music of gourd flutes has long captured the imagination of people even in the West. The dexterity with which the charmers handle deadly snakes such as cobras and vipers has added to the allure of the street-side performances. But such sights are increasingly rare now in India because of the enforcement of strict wildlife laws and strident initiatives taken by animal-rights activists. Though the Wildlife Protection Act came in to existence in 1972, it was not fully implemented until the past decade.

Our target population belongs to this community. Displaced from the forest area and being unable to continue their profession in the open, they have come down to the villages and occupied Government wasteland. The Indian government banned keeping of pet snakes and street performances. “Snakesnatchers,” as the people refer to themselves as are on the verge of starvation since they can only make street performances on the sly for fear of getting arrested by the police. The adult population is totally illiterate; snake charming performances have been the only source of income for the families. SERD has adopted four such settlements near Manamadurai with Ananda Foundation’s support. Since they do not have any land there is no option to switch over to agriculture. Learning an alternate skill is the only option left. They are willing to learn a new skill if someone is there to show them the way.

III. Previous source of income/occupation of parents

Women: When the community had free access to forest land, women’s responsibilities were restricted to household chores and child care. Food was not a problem. After settling in the villages, many women started working as domestic servants. It is hard for them to find regular jobs because people are reluctant to employ them on account of their caste and traditional profession.

Men: Most of the men are snake catchers. They used to get money by selling snakes and venom. Street performances were also a good source of income. Now thy do not have regular income, some of them are continuing the profession for survival because they do not have any other skill. The younger generation is gradually moving on to small business and other jobs.

Annual Income of Parents

Occupational diversity of the parents at present is makes it difficult to calculate their annual income. Snake charmers occasionally make a maximum of Rs.1000/- @ $22 USD per month. Their annual income is approximately Rs.5000 ($110).

Income of domestic servants ranges from Rs.3,000- 15,000 ($75- 300). Few petty traders are making Rs.24000- 36000 ($500-750). The maximum number of families comes under the first and second categories.

Average number of children per family: The average number of children is two, with few exceptions where there are five to six children in a family.

Percent of children in each AF project village being who are enrolled/attending formal school

100% children in the school going age (5-14 years) in the four settlements are enrolled in schools. This is a great achievement of Ananda- SERD intervention.

IV. Social issues faced by Kattunayakan community (i.e. discrimination, social mobility)

Our beneficiary group is the Irular community in four settlements in Manamaduarai. This is a tribal group who are traditional snake charmers. They used to make their living out of snake selling and snake performances. They used to have a nomadic life. Their traditional source of income has reduced due to stringent laws and media influence that created better awareness on reptiles among the public. This community is now forced to find an alternate source of income. The major problems faced by this community are:

  • Illiteracy
  • Lack of productive & income earning skills
  • Non-acceptance by the larger society. Social integration would take many years.
  • In many families adult men are either handicapped or died early due to snake bite.
  • Even though Irular women are ready to work as domestic servants, they are an unwanted in other communities.
  • Health problems, specially, tuberculosis is very common here.
  • They are constantly under the threat of forest department officials for continuing their traditional job in hiding.
  • Being a tribal group, they are eligible for special provisions under Indian constitution. For this, they should possess the “community certificate” from the Government which has not been issued to our groups.

V. Project Goals

  1. To provide economical and educational opportunities to facilitate a better quality of life and sustainable livelihood with dignity for the Irular Tribal community of snake snatchers.
  2. To provide the opportunity for an alternate source of income in stead of snake-catching.

VI. Project Objectives:

  1. To empower the Irular community socially
  2. To empower the Irular community economically
  3. To align the community with collective strength & encourage participation in self-help groups
  4. To develop leadership skills and democratic values
  5. To enable women and children to enjoy their rights and to foster equitable status in the community
  6. To enable Irulars to achieve social & economical capital required for a sustainable livelihood & life of dignity.

VII. Project Specifics:

  • NGO Partner: Social Education for Rural Development
  • Project Type: Educational & Economic
  • # Of Beneficiaries: 212 families in four settlements with a total population of around 800 people
  • Timeframe: This is a multi-year project

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