How the Narikuravars around Madurai are surviving on the sidelines

A lesser known nomadic tribe, the Narikuravars are trying to survive the lockdown on the outskirts of Madurai, with help from good samaritans and NGOs

Last year during Deepavali, Akiba Subahani saw a group of Narikuravars by the bank of river Vaigai. About 80 of them, from infants to old people, had left their shanties in Sakkimangalam, on the outskirts of Madurai, and come to the temple town in search of jobs.

The lockdown had accentuated their misery as the nomadic tribe was robbed of their livelihood of making bead ornaments, telling fortunes, pachai kuthu (tattooing) and hunting. They frankly admitted that they feared poverty, hunger and deprivation more than the virus.

Akiba, who has been running the U Can Foundation for the last seven years, decided to help them. First she convinced them to have a bath in the Vaigai. No one wanted to accept the clothes she got them as they feared if they wore new clothes, they would not be able to seek alms. Akiba managed a biryani feast for them, sponsored by several biryani sellers. Once their stomachs were full, out came the stories of how COVID-19 had restricted their mobility and affected their earnings.

Living on the edge

Founder of Green Walk and activist S Muthukrishnan, who was among the first to research the Narikuravars, says that during lockdown 1.0, he arranged monthly kits of grocery and other essential items for 400 families in Sakkimangalam. The community is also seen in Samayanallanur and Nellaiyur nd and are mostly dependent on local NGOs for their survival now. “The pandemic has totally cut them off. Some of them have turned wiser from experience and prioritised their spending,” he says. “They lead frugal lives on the edge and are in dire need of help.”

With doors of houses shut due to fear, their earnings through fortune telling had taken a beating. With no public participation in festivals and the biggest chithrai thiruvizha going on sans any crowd inside the Meenakshi Temple now, their goods have also remained unsold.

“To make ends meet, the Narikuravars change their small-time businesses according to the season, location, their skills and peoples’ interest,” says Akiba. Due to the migratory nature of their livelihood, the Narikuravars do not have the mandatory ID cards that enables the poor to draw benefits from Government schemes for free ration and other supplies.

While many Narikuravars took to begging on Madurai streets during the lockdown, Akiba arranged food for them. “If we did not get a sponsor, we cooked at home and fed them,” she said. When the lockdown was relaxed, many Narikuravars returned to Sakkimangalam. They did not, however, have essentials such as water, soap and sanitisers.

Two days ago Akiba received a distress call from members of the sattai adi thozhilaalargal (the whip lashers). Listed as a corona warrior by the city police, she was able to rush with sacks of rice, dal and other essential items in the volunteer car. Though she is fasting in this month of Ramzan, she carried on. “When I felt dehydrated, I simply poured a bottle of water over myself. I know the Narikuravars are facing severe hardship. Living in cities, we reach out only to those who are near and visible to us. The marginalised, who are also buckling under pandemic, are neglected,” she says.

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