Lack of access to education, poor socio-economic conditions have denied the Pulayas a level playing field
Education continues to be an uphill task for the Pulaya tribals of Tamil Nadu as even their current erroneous Scheduled Caste status seems to be an unyielding fruit.
They remain at the mercy of a long government process to grant them Scheduled Tribe status.
The Pulayas are a tribe of hill dwellers in the Kodaikanal hills of the Western Ghats. They were originally identified as a Scheduled Tribe at the time of independence but the 1976 SC/ST Amendment Act removed their tribal status and notified them as Scheduled Caste instead.
However anthropologists and experts have recorded their views after research that the Pulayas were mistaken for the Cheraman Pulaya of erstwhile Travancore region of Kanyakumari and Nagercoil.
Field studies have been conducted by the state in the 32 Pulaya villages of the Lower Palani hills around Kodaikanal. Awaiting recognition of their tribal identity, bracing themselves against the social injustices, the tribe is committed to preserve their customs and culture.
The Lede has already written at length about the community’s fight for its identity.
The KC Patty high school is atop a hillock on the Adalur–Thadiyankudisaighat road, first laid in 1978.
“There are four Pulaya children studying here,” the government clerk looked into the school register and stated.
“In Mangalamgombu school there will be a comparatively good strength,” he added.
Mangalamgombu village is over an hour’s journey, 30 kilometres from here along the ghat road.
With a total strength of only 48 students across class six to class ten, the KC Patty high school has a poor pass percentage as well.
“Even there, (Mangalamgombu) students from the deep interiors are sent back home early after lunch is over. They have more wildlife there, especially elephants,” the clerk said.
“At some point of time, there was only one student who cleared the public exam,” Boopathi Mondikuppan, 28, told The Lede. Boopathi belongs to the Pulaya tribe.
He said that it is a 50-50 chance for a student to pass high school every year with an average class strength not greater than 10.
Boopathi started working in plantations after he failed in the tenth public exam. Like most Pulayas, he too is well versed in climbing trees, clearing branches, pruning and so on.
In the 1960s, there was no road up here in the hills except in Kodaikanal, which is now a six hour journey along the ghat roads from Adalur.
Those days, they had to trek all the way to schools in Perumbarai every day, along the woodland pathways.
Now roads have been laid and so schools are in their proximity. Yet education seems an uphill task.
While students are from the hills, the teachers are from the plains. They stay in Dindigul, Batlagundu or Oddanchatram and reach the school in the first bus every morning.
They are at the mercy of the daily weather and the season. A valley bound rain cloud, descending like a sponge loaded with water, more often than not ensures that schools do not function.
For teachers, it feels like more of a punishment placement.
Last year, the Gaja cyclone destroyed the area. All the hills, from Pachalur to Pandrimalai and Perumbarai to KC Patty, remained blacked out for over 15 days.
They were completely disconnected from the plains not only due to the power cut but also because transport services ground to a halt.
Fallen trees and landslides blocking roads meant a number of days for a semblance of normalcy to return.
The samsaaris and rich plantation owners send their children to convents in cities.
The samsaaris are the traditional plantation owners who migrated uphill in the last century. They normally own between five to ten acres of plantation.
On the other hand, some peasants and farmhands, who value education, but cannot afford more, send their children to hostels in Patti Veeran Patti, a small town in the plains that is immediately downhill from Perumpaarai.
Children who leave their houses in summer come back only during school vacation.
The low ratio of 4 Pulayas to 48 students in schools in the hills gives hope that other Pulaya children are likely to be somewhere in the plains attending to their education.
The Kadayamalai village with over 50 houses, account for around 70 to 80 families. The KC Patty High School is situated just 15 minutes away uphill.
Low representation of Pulayas in the school, which is comfortably closer, means that the community has no hope in the quality of schooling over there.
It also means that they are spending a lot towards their education by sending them to hostels in plains, paying for their food and accommodation. Yet there is neither any government servant nor a student with a professional degree holder in the Pulaya community from these parts.
The Gilgal Mission Trust in KC Patty conducts skill development courses like tailoring for the young women in the community.
Some youngsters leave school and head towards Tirupur to look for employment in the spinning mills and allied textile industries there.
Other than that, there remains no probable employment avenue for youngsters other than plantation labour and the rural employment scheme, MGNREGA.
Simply put, the steps taken by the community as well as the government are not enough. The SC reservation has not worked out for them so far and they are yet to receive their dues from their spending towards education.
There is no other reason for this poor performance except poor socio economic development, lack of access to education, exposure and awareness about the avenues in education and employment.
In Tamil Nadu, the reservation quota for SC (18%) & ST (1%) denotes that for every ST candidate, there are 18 SC candidates in the state.
It means that the Pulayas though being a tribe, yet notified as SC, are compelled to compete with students from over 70 other SC communities. They are spread across the state, greater in number and are mostly from plains, with greater access to quality education.
The Handbook on Social Welfare Statistics, September 2018, gives an account of the pass percentage of SC and ST students all over India.
In 2010, while 19 lakh SC students cleared high school public exam with 69% (pass percentage), it was not more than 7 lakhs in case of the ST students at 62% (pass percentage).
Having been labeled SC, according to experts, they are naturally at a disadvantage. They face stiff competition in terms of numbers as well as socio economic status.
And now they are to preserve their heritage also. They fear their identity is likely to be compromised in the digital era. If they fail to preserve it, they naturally stand to lose their identity, which is the only ticket to their claim for ST status.
Having dropped out of school over a decade ago, Boopathi is attempting to pick up new skills. Classes are conducted at Kadayamalai for all the present generation Pulayas every Thursday evening after they are home from work.
Durairaj Palaniandi, 62, travels all the way from Sembadi Oothu to teach youngsters like Boopathi the history of their community, their customs and culture.
They have taken notes in small notebooks, the ones they would have used in their school days.
Durairaj ensures that the traditional knowledge somehow stands relevant in the future – an ode to their tribal identity.
The last generation, that of Boopathi’s father, still has the ST certificate which was first issued in the 1960s.
It did not, however, land them a job they claimed to deserve and they finally ended up in plantations.
Their claim for ST status however is not received well among the other communities in the hills.
“They are said to be SCs who migrated from the plains, brought here to work in plantations. But this is only my predecessor’s version, I am not sure of it,” said the government staffer.
“Ten years back, there was a government study to verify this. Even they have reported negatively, it seems,” he added.
“Pulayas are developed now. It has already been five decades now, since they have started living near villages, with access to roads and schools. I don’t feel they need ST status,” said Palliyar tribe chief K Perumal, 70.
He has recently migrated out of the deep woods in Kavichikal leading his group to settle uphill near Pandrimalai.
Completely cut off from civilisation, he made the move to gain access to government schemes and welfare measures.
The Palliyars still have intact the caves of their elders in their woodland hamlet at Kavichikal.
They were the lost brethren of the Palliyar community in the Thandigudi hills and were missed out when the state issued community certificates and the forest rights passes for minor forest produce, to their community at large in Thandigudi.
They had to fight it out with the government officials to get back their rights over the forest by proving that they are in fact related to their brethren in the Thandigudi hills.
Their family’s first ‘graduate to be’ has entered college only recently after he was issued with the ST certificate.
On the other side, the small land owners of Adalur, known as samsaaris reflect a different perspective on the Pulayas’ claim for ST status.
Adalur is a commercial hotspot for spices in Western Ghats (within Tamil Nadu) famous for cardamom and Robusta coffee plantations.
Though having employed the Pulayas for long in their plantations, the community at large does not acknowledge the Pulayas’ claim to ST status.
The casteism and oppression in the hills remained isolated from the plains and served the ends of caste Hindus. The Pulayas too remained silent.
Durairaj is not quite sure about whether his knowledge transfer is working but he continues to do it out of compulsion.
He feels that even the tribal welfare officers who come from Dindigul district as well as the Ooty Tribal Research Centre, take their case for granted.
“Around ten years ago, when they came for verification, they did not show that interest. They sat under the tree, at the village entrance, asked some questions and left for the next village,” he said.
It was much later that Durairaj learnt that the claim was rejected after that study. However there was another team which visited their community in 2012.
“Maheswaran sir’s team visited the villages, collected many details, customs, practices, like how we conclude marriage alliances, and so on. But even his report was not provided to us,” Durairaj said.
Dr C Maheswaran was the former director of the Tribal Research Centre at Ooty. An anthropologist, specialising in tribal linguistics and ethnography, he is conducting research in archaelogical anthropology at present.
By the end of his tenure as director, he completed studies on five communities’ claims for ST status in Tamil Nadu. The Pulayas were one of them.
“Exclusion of a community from the ST list (Union list of Scheduled Tribes Gazette Notification) is quite easy but re-inclusion is tough and a time consuming process. It might also turn out to be a political issue,” Maheswaran told The Lede.
The Tribal Research Director should conduct the field study to verify the claims of communities.
It is a scientific approach which comprises collection of evidence to show their primitiveness, geographical isolation, distinct culture, economic backwardness and that they are shy of contact with the community at large.
“We classify it as Agam, Puram – Evidence which is tangible like material and relics and intangible such as custom and culture. While the tangible evidence (puram) is susceptible to modernisation, the intangible remain unchanged, for it is their heritage they might not want to lose,” Maheswaran said.
Once the Tribal Research Centre concludes the report, it recommends the same to the state government. From there, the file moves to the Registrar General of India (RGI). The RGI conducts a detailed study of the report.
They also raise queries which are communicated back to the Tribal Welfare Directorate for clarifications. If the RGI is satisfied with the clarification, the file travels to the ministry and then to Parliament, where the ST list gets amended for inclusion after the assent of the President.
Subramanian, Director of Tribal Research Centre, Ooty, told The Lede that Maheswaran’s report forwarded by the state government is now pending with the RGI.
“The RGI has raised certain queries. They might conduct a detailed ethnographic report to look into the tribal characters in the society. We consider elder people in the community as key informants because of their participatory observation of their culture and custom,” Subramanian said.
Education in reality is an uphill task for the hill dwellers, an arduous task for the next generation. Merely attending schools would not be sufficient but performance matters and that is perhaps the only thing that could bring down the school drop outs.
The Pulayas’ road to education now depends on the long Constitutional process and it is this right of reservation that can educate and empower their tribe at large, to ensure protection of their socio economic rights and dues in the society.