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The Plight Of Adivasis In Tamil Nadu Has Worsened During The Covid-19 Pandemic

Thousands of tribal families do not possess Government Ration Cards and so they are unable to enjoy the benefits of the public distribution systems. In addition, they are unable to sell seasonal forest produce due to the ongoing lockdown.

Selaiyur Paliyar tribal village in Theni district, Bodi taluk. Here, 13 out of 70 families do not have a government-issued ration card.

The government recognizes every family as a unit and issues Family Ration Cards to them so they can access affordable food grains, fuel, and sugar/tea. It is an important basic resource for the government and the people. The Tamil Nadu Civil Supplies Corporation has been issuing electronically activated smart cards. This card is essential for availing basic resources like rice, dal, oil and other food items. The government gift kits and cash for festivals are also distributed only based on the ration card. But almost 40,000 tribal families are left stranded without the cash benefits and basic food grains because they do not have ration cards.


Out of the 7,94,697 tribal population in Tamil Nadu, more than 6,60,280 people still live in dense forests and rural areas. And most of them have been living out of the scope of the government machinery.

Paperless Tribals

Tribal people are the original inhabitants of the world. But in today's modern society, they are backward and voiceless. It is a travesty that such people are denied basic goods from the government simply because they do not hold ration cards. There are about 32,883 cooperative societies (that function under the cooperatives act), 483 other cooperative societies, The Tamil Nadu Civil Supplies Corporation and 1455 women Self Help Groups who run about 35,244 fair price shops (ration shops) in Tamil Nadu. A total of about 2,02,31,394 smart cards have been issued to the people.


The Tamil Nadu government has been using these shops to distribute the Covid-19 relief package of Rs. 4,000 and 14 different food grains. Apart from the needy, government employees, government pension beneficiaries and income taxpayers have also received these relief benefits.


But, despite the availability so many schemes, thousands of tribal families are unable to access affordable food as they do not have ration cards. There are many reasons behind this: Adivasi communities suffer from illiteracy, are unaware of Aadhar Card, lack birth certificates, and do not have address proofs. On top of all this, they are shy by nature that makes them hesitant to visit government offices.


There are other impediments too: Adivasis are unable to bribe officials and get their work done, they do not have access to Internet services, and they are not aware of changing rules and regulations governing the disbursement of rations. Tribals find it difficult to apply, receive and maintain the ration cards. This has clearly effected the access to food and has pushed them further into poverty.


Sources of income have decreased

The pandemic has brought umpteen challenges in terms of trade. In the past year, tribal people have not been able to conduct their businesses. They were not able to sell seasonal (April, May and June) forest-based products like honey, pepper, spices, tubers, nutmeg, mustard, gooseberry, and wild mango. They have not been offered jobs in NREGA nor have they been able to sell other agriculture products in the market. The situation in the past year has been miserable and it continues to be so. At this time, the government’s Rs. 4,000 Covid relief package would have been a substantial help.

As most tribals live in forest areas that are far away from towns and cities, they find it extremely difficult to buy basic goods like rice, dal and other food items. Although the government along with volunteers and other NGOs have come forward to help in some places, it cannot be said that such help was offered in all the places that are in need.

Panaikaadu, Kodaikanal taluk: Vazhaikari Paliyar tribal people share rice from the fair price shops which were procured in bulk. Here, out of the 42 families, 22 do not have ration cards.

Government schemes are in a quandary

Last year, the then ADMK government promised an extra cash amount of Rs. 1,000 for tribal people as a Covid relief measure. Only members of the Tribal Welfare Board were made beneficiaries. However, most tribal people are not members of the now-defunct organization. Moreover, even the members have not updated their details with the organisation.


Eventually, the government realised the mistake and issued orders that all tribal people will be beneficiaries of the relief package. This relief money, however, was not duly distributed to the tribal people in many places. Many complaints were reported in which people said that they did not receive any relief. Action was duly taken against the errant officials. It is reported that officials were demanding money in return of the aid saying that they have spent money on fuel and food to travel to these remote areas.


Practical Problems are making it more difficult

Bhuvaneswari from Katpadi village has been unable to procure a ration card for the past five years

Bhuvaneswari, wife of Vijayan from Katpadi village has this to say about the problems:

“We have been married for five years and have a four-year-old girl Nivetha. My husband and I have been farming our land in the forest. We have tried at least 10 times to apply and get a ration card since the time of our wedding. Every time, we have to walk 7 kilometres through the dense forest to the powerhouse, catch the bus to Ankalankurichi and then switch to the Udumalaipettai bus. We have to travel almost 80 kilometres by bus and 10 kilometres on foot to reach the government office. I have travelled back and forth more than 10 times with a toddler in my hand. We will not be able to return in a day as well. We still haven’t gotten the card yet. I’ve already lost hope. But the people who bring and give rice at the powerhouse say that they can get us a card for Rs 2000. I’ve told them I don’t want to get that card by bribing. We also don’t have the birth certificate for our daughter. So we were not able to apply for an Aadhar card as well. When others get rice, dal and relief money, I feel sad that we are not able to get those. It is disheartening. We only eat the ration rice. We get it from my mother and use it for our family.”


Measures have been taken so that ration cardholders need not travel more than 1.5 kilometres to buy their essential items. Special attention is paid to opening fair price shops in areas where people live in difficult terrain. The government’s Citizen Charter states that it government is taking steps to relax the rules and open new fair price shops wherever necessary. But there is a big difference between actions and mere words.


The Continued Plight of the Tribals

Thangaraj has been unable to get a ration card despite many attempts

Thangaraj (age 32), leader of Pailyar tribes of Madurai district outlined as follows:

“ I come from Azhagammalpuram. Our ancestors come from the Kudithai Malai that is west of the village. In my father’s time, we were evacuated and denied permission to live in the hills. Our village is the Azhagammalpuram village in Seelanaickenpatti panchayat, Usilampatti Taluk in Madurai district. It has been almost four years since I got married. I have applied for the ration card many times. They will not process and allot the card immediately. They’ll make us come back and forth many times. They’ll give us some reason or the other. And by the time we do all that is asked of us, the government official will leave. We’ll have to start the process all over again. The new officer will make us come back and forth again. Sometimes I think if all this is for the money. We have about 25 families in our village; 11 of them do not have ration cards.”


There are many instances like this throughout Tamil Nadu. Especially in the plains where Irular tribes live in Cuddalore, Villupuram, Chengalpattu and Kanchipuram districts. In the forest areas of Coimbatore, Tiruppur, Dindigul, Theni, Madurai and Virudhunagar, these instances are prevalent.


A Scheme is successful only when common people benefit from it

To fulfil the directive principle enshrined in the Indian Constitution that asks the State to raise the level of nutrition and the standard of living of people, it is important to ensure food security. Therefore the Tamil Nadu government must ensure food security for all the people living in the state.


The Public Distribution System, which has been in place for the past 40 years, has been extended to all sections of the population, regardless of income level or social status. Although the National Food Security Act (NFSA), 2013 has been implemented in the State since 01.11.2016, the nature of the Public Distribution System for All has not changed and is being implemented as per the provisions of the Act. The Tamil Nadu policy note document also points out that the system of public distribution for all is being admired by all. These statements are amusing, to say the least.


In the financial year 2020-21, on a trial basis, family ration card holders from two districts of Tirunelveli and Thoothukudi were allowed to procure their essential items from any fair price shop in the state. This was implemented from February 1, 2020. Yet, about 10 to 40 percent of the ancestral tribal people have not been provided with the ration cards. Thus, about 50,000 families are suffering without the ration cards.

A house with no number. How will the residents get a ration card?

It is only when laws and schemes benefit every last person at the edge of society that it can be considered to be a success. This should be the yardstick for good governance.


We hope that the newly elected DMK government in Tamil Nadu will definitely take action in that regard. Yes, the government should immediately issue family ration cards to tribals who do not have a card and provide them with relief assistance and food. This is not going to be a huge burden on the state’s finances. The tribes of Tamil Nadu hope and believe that the Tamil Nadu government will not abandon them.

This article has been created as a part of the Adivasi Awaaz project, with the support of Misereor and Prayog Samaj Sevi Sanstha.

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