Irula - Economy

Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The earliest reports indicate that the hoe-using Irula of the eastern Nilgiri slopes obtained one crop of millet in a year from shifted plots, involving a growing period that coincided with the westerly monsoon. They then depended upon garden produce, gathered edibles, and hunting for survival once the harvested grain had been consumed. That these Irula were probably named after a yam species is indicative of how important yams were to them when they turned to gathering. Several wild yam species were available. Irula are still well known for the gathering and supply of honey to their neighbors. Despite sculptured representations of bows and arrows in some Nilgiri dolmens at higher elevation, it is noteworthy that the Irula seem always to have used nets and spears when they hunted. Our record of at least eighty species of plants growing in Irula gardens testifies to the past and continuing significance of gardens to all the Irula. That at least twenty-five of the identified plants had a New World origin also proves the willingness of the Irula to incorporate introduced species into their economy. The continued cultivation of finger millet ( Eleusine corocana ), Italian millet ( Setaria italica ), and little millet ( Panicum sumatrense ) and no dry rice by the Irula on the higher slopes may in itself represent a Neolithic survival, because the cultivation of dry rice has in Southeast Asia widely replaced the earlier cultivation of the Italian and little millets from China. The Irula still commonly grow these two species of millet together and then harvest the Italian millet when the little millet is far from maturation. Very small sickles are used for harvesting individual grain heads. When finger millet (grown apart from the other two) is to be harvested, the plants are visited periodically to permit the removal of grain as it ripens. Another economic pursuit that may have continued from Neolithic times, during which cattle rearing was widespread in southern India, is the manner by which lowland Irula in forested areas keep cattle for their neighbors (Kuruvas included). The few Irula who still manage to practice shifting agriculture set fire in April or May to the vegetation they have cut, so the cultivation of millet will then take place during the westerly monsoon. The barnyard millet ( Echinochloa ), bulinisti millet ( Pennisetum ), common millet ( Panicum miliaceum ) and sorghum millet ( Sorghum ), all of the lowland, renowned for their drought resistance, and thus typically grown on dry fields, are cultivated with the aid of plows and mainly in the season of the westerly monsoon. Now with the cooperation of the Forest Department, the Irula gather forest produce (including medicinal plants) for sale. Since most Irula of the Nilgiri slopes currently work as plantation laborers, plantation managements starting with those in the time of the British Raj had to provide periodic release time for those Irula who needed to perform their own agricultural chores. The Gandhian quest to improve the lives of members of the Scheduled Tribes is demonstrated by the manner in which the government has enabled Irula of the eastern Nilgiri slopes to establish coffee and tea gardens of their own, and at Kunjappanai the Silk Board of the government of Tamil Nadu is now providing financial assistance to enable silkworm farming among the Irula. From 1974 the government gave small plots to Irula on the eastern slopes, and the Cooperative Land Development Bank (an agency of the Tamil Nadu government) at the nearest town (Kotagiri) was by 1979 helping to finance the growing of coffee and tea in nurseries, so that the Irula could have their own commercialized gardens. While a few Irula who wisely managed their granted lands and loans prospered, many did not manage their endeavors well and the return payment on loans at a low rate was eventually ended in many instances by a special bill passed in Madras by the Tamil Nadu government. It is primarily the cooperation of the government, with the Forest Department of Tamil Nadu playing an important role, that has enabled more lowland Inula to become involved in the annual cultivation of irrigated rice. Hallimoyar, Kallampalayam, and Thengumarahada (with its Cooperative Society), in which the Irula live close to the members of several castes, have irrigation networks. One rice crop started in March is harvested in June, and the second crop started in July is ready in December. In 1978 a newly constructed rice mill became operational at Thengumarahada. Irula living to the south of the Nilgiri massif are also involved in wet rice cultivation. There, apart from irrigation water from surface flow (Coonoor River is the most important), subsurface water is now being obtained with electric pumps. The main rice crop is grown from June into January or February, and the growing of short-maturation rice enables the production of a second crop from February to May. As lowland population increases, the majority of the lowland Irula (who own no land) are increasingly beset by the problem of obtaining work wherever possible. Some are employed in the irrigated areca groves near Mettupalaiyam, reputed to form the largest human-made forest of its kind in the world. Post-World War II dam projects, including that of Bhavani Sagar, created temporary work for others. Many Irula have entered the general job market in the Coimbatore-Mettupalaiyam-Ootacamund region and are employed in a wide array of jobs in the public and private sectors. Such jobs include positions in air force and army camps, nationalized banks, the income tax office, the Post and Telegraph Department, the Railway Department, the Sugarcane Breeding Institute and Pankaja Mill, both in Coimbatore (the only mill that employs Irulas, out of twenty surveyed), the cordite factory at Aruvankadu, and the Hindustan Photo-Film industry near Ootacamund. The Irula have cattle, chickens, dogs, goats, and sheep, and a few of them may keep buffalo, pigeons, or pigs. Pigs, dogs, and chickens serve as scavengers in some lowland hamlets. Jungle fowl, Nilgiri langurs, parrots, peacocks, quail, and assorted squirrels appear to be the most commonly tamed wild creatures.

Industrial Arts. The Irula make their own drums and wind instruments for their musical enjoyment. The Kota of the upper Nilgiris generally no longer supply music as they once traditionally did, so the Irula are now frequently employed as musicians at Badaga and Toda funerals.

Trade. A kind of bartering trade has persisted for generations between the Kina.r Kota of the upper Nilgiris and the nearby Irula. The Kota obtain honey, brooms, winnowers and baskets made of bamboo and banana sheath strips, punk used to light fires (Kota priests may not use matches to light fires) and resin incense from the Irula in return for iron field and garden implements made by Kota blacksmiths.

Division of Labor. Women still perform all the household-related tasks. While males perform those agricultural tasks requiring more strength, such as plowing or hoeing the earth in preparation for the sowing of grain, women also perform many agricultural tasks. Males typically do the sowing, and women often do the most boring of tasks such as weeding, reaping, and the carrying of loads of harvested garden produce or grain. Both males and females are hired for a host of laboring tasks. Because infant care thus becomes a problem, it is not unusual for women to take their infants to workplaces. Older children not attending school are often taken care of by the elderly in extended families.

Land Tenure. Members of the Thengumarahada Cooperative Society cultivate allotted amounts of land. A few of the Irula own title to land, sometimes in the form of patta (land ownership) documents. Gaudas and Chettiars in particular have taken over Irula land through loan manipulation, and some thereby now also have Irulas working for them. Many Irula lease land from landowners.

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