Irulas are a tribal community living in different parts of India. One of their habitats is in the Thiruvallur district of Tamil Nadu. Their population in this region is estimated to be at least 25,000. They are a recognized Scheduled Tribe (ST) by the Govt. of India.


The origin of the word "Irula" is not clear. One surmise is that it could have been derived from Tamil word, Irul either implying the dark complexion of the Irulas or their being constantly spotted by villagers in the ancient past as distant silhouettes in the forests.

Anthropological literature says that Irulas belong to the Negrito (or Negroid) race, which is one of the six main ethnic groups that add to the racial mosaic of India. Negroids from Africa were the oldest people to have come to India. These people are now found in patches among the hill tribes of south India (Irulas, Kodars, Paniyans and Kurumbas) on the mainland. Unlike the survivors in the Andaman Islands who have retained their language, Irulas in Thiruvallur have adopted the local regional languages, namely Tamil and Telugu.

The Irulas lived in the forests and until about three to four decades ago maintained a system of mild interdependence with the neighboring villages. They used to sell honey, honey wax, firewood,etc. and in return get village products for their use. Their food was obtained mainly within the forests - the vegetation and wild animals.

Following the Forest Protection Bill of 1976, the traditional homes, livelihood and lifestyle of the Irulas had become illegal. The Irulas started moving to the neighboring villages in hope of rebuilding their lives.

Current Status

Irulas as a tribe are traditional snake and rat catchers. This is no longer their means of living, and over these years of existence they have been unable to find a sustainable occupation for themselves. They are unskilled in doing any kind of job. They earn their living by doing `coolie' work. This could be either by working as laborers in the fields of the landlords during the sowing and harvesting seasons or by working in the rice mills. They also do some work in the landlord's house. Fishing is also an occupation in some of the Irulas' villages. Some of them also collect firewood from the forest to sell. The problem of these people is that, only some get money while the remaining just get some rice or other things in kind as a payment for their labor.

Their economic hardships are also due to the fact that the society at large has been neglecting them over the years. The landlords under whom they work treat them as bonded laborers in many of these villages.

The rice mill laborers live in appalling conditions. They stay, work, eat and sleep in the rice mills, as they have no other place to live in. Moreover the fear of the outer world, forces them to continue their livelihood within the four walls of the mills. This is also due to the fact that they have no money or savings with which they could start a living. Lastly for those who are able to live outside, the owners have been acting as obstacles, as they would be losing extremely cheap labor.

Non-rice mill workers are equally worse. They don't have a fixed means of livelihood. The living conditions in the villages are not favorable. Many of them don't even have a land certificate for the place they stay in. Due to this they are unable to draw any benefits that may be forthcoming to them from the government. As a result they don't have basic amenities like electricity and roads connecting their villages. Luckily they seem to have water supply, mostly through tube-wells. Another problem being commonly faced by the Irulas is the apathy of the authorities towards their concerns. They are not even given the Schedule Tribe certificate that may help them in getting some benefits extended to them by the government. Some children who manage to study and go through the exams don't get the certificates.

These circumstances have resulted in a situation where the Irulas are virtually cut off from the mainstream of the society. They are totally ignorant about the happenings in the external world to the extent that they don't even know the benefits that they are eligible to receive as a Schedule Tribe. This state of affair is the result of their illiteracy. Taking advantage of this, the landlords cheat these people into signing the land granted to them by the government against paltry loans given to them by the landlords. As a result they have lost whatever assets they have possessed.

The above stated facts is only a tip of the iceberg of the kind of life that the Irulas lead. It would suffice to say that this community needs a lot more attention from the government and the society at large. 

Dinesh G Dutt

This document is culled from the Irula Project Proposal and site report.
Last modified: Fri Apr 21 05:29:06 PDT 2000