Move to classify Cholanaikkans as Near-Extinct Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group

The rocky hills in parts of Nilambur have been home to a small tribe called the Cholanaikkans for several years. Until a few years ago, the Cholanaikkans lived in caves, ate what the forest gave them, and lived by their own laws. The government classified the tribe under the Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups to make them beneficiaries of various schemes to protect the Cholanaikkans. Recently, a draft proposal to include the Cholanaikkans and a few other tribes under a special Near-Extinct Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups was moved at a meeting of the National Advisory Council headed by Sonia Gandhi.

“A draft for development policies targeting the most vulnerable among tribal groups was presented at the last meeting. A paper is being worked out and the plan will be discussed further at the next meeting of the NAC,” said council member Virginius Xaxa.

Government schemes have brought them from homes built into small caves in the hills into brick houses built for them in the forest. Schools have also come up near Cholanaikkan settlements and the government has picked tribal volunteers educated in schools. Food, clothes and other essential items are brought to their settlements in jeeps once a week or so.

The need for steps to protect the tribe has been heightened by their dwindling numbers. As per the 2001 census, only 384 members of the tribe lived in parts of Nilambur. Their numbers have now fallen to below 250.

Members of the tribe have their own language, but speak Malayalam when among outsiders. The tribe elects a ‘mooppan’ or an elder as the leader. Cholanaikkans do not practice agriculture, but live off the forest, catching fish or gathering herbs. In the recent years, some of the tribesmen have found employment as lumberjacks in plantations nearby.

“Tribespeople traditionally extract honey from beehives in the forest and consume it. Today, they also sell honey for a living,” said Sibi Zacharias, professor and researcher. “But they are being cheated by others because they cannot read or do not know the ways of the outside world, ” said Dr. Zacharias, who visited the Cholanaikkan’s settlement at Alackal colony in Nilambur as part of his research.

Dr. Zacharias feels the new classification, if it came into being, would give top priority to the development of the Cholanaikkans while also protecting their unique language and way of life.

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