The tribal people who live in the forested hills of south India are entitled to many welfare benefits – but they rarely arrive. Dea Busk Larsen and John Dalton explain.

The Palliars, the indigenous people of south India, are one of the most excluded, marginalised and poorest communities in India. Their means of livelihood as hunter gatherers is disappearing; yet they are far from integrated into mainstream society. Older people remember that in their youth they subsisted on the forest and had little contact with outsiders. It is only in the last two generations that their semi-nomadic lifestyle has changed to living in settlements.

There are Palliar hamlets where people are outside the cash economy, without shelter, and with not a single child going to school. Many families live in a situation akin to bonded labour. They take loans from landowners and are then obliged to work at half the usual wage rates.

About half the families collect forest produce for sale. These products command a good price, but they are forced to sell them for much less than their true worth to middlemen with the connivance or coercion of forest officials.

Two-thirds of the families lack the documents and registration needed to receive the many government benefits available to tribal people. These include decent housing, allocation of land, village services such as roads, electricity, clean water, toilets, lighting and sanitation, school scholarships, and village health visitors.

Munthittu

Most of the Palliars are landless. Many do not even own the plot where they live and eviction and migration are common. Many hamlets lack clean water supply, sanitation, road connection, housing, and electricity.

Officials dealing with social welfare and child protection have little idea of the exceptionally deprived status of Palliar families. Even when the authorities engage with tribal communities they often side with landowners, traders and even some NGOs who contribute to the denial of Palliars’ rights and entitlements. For instance, forest officials deny legal rights in the forest and the right to sell forest produce. Funds earmarked for tribals are diverted to other uses. Bribes are required for all sorts of facilities. Officials are indifferent or put off by genuine difficulties in working with isolated communities.

Our partner, Arogya Agam, works with Palliar villages by setting up Village Development Committees. The committee members attend training sessions at Arogya Agam to learn about rights, applying for government benefits, legal advice and more. The objective is to train and support the people concerned to go to the authorities themselves. It is much more effective to enable, motivate and empower the people because they will create a lasting change within their communities. Arogya Agam has been active in 11 Palliar villages for five years. It plans to extend its activities to 25 hamlets over the next five years.

This work is funded by the Miriam Dean Trust and Kindernothilfe of Germany as well as VST.

India’s poorest people in struggle for their rights