The recognition for Vadivel Gopal and Masi Sadaiyan of the Irula community, who are among this year’s Padma Shri recipients, has put the focus on the Irula Snake Catchers’ Industrial Cooperative Society, one of the major anti-snake venom (ASV) producers in the country. Expert snake catchers Mr. Gopal and Mr. Sadaiyan have been part of this cooperative society.
The society’s journey began in 1978 when wildlife conservationist Romulus Whitaker helped a group of Irulas form a venom centre in the form of a cooperative after snakeskin exports were banned in 1976. Mr. Whitaker’s vision was for the society to provide income-generating employment to Irulas by using their traditional skills without over-exploiting any taxa of wildlife. The cooperative, started with 11 Irulas, now has 350 members, including 160 women.
The Irulas from Chennai, Kancheepuram, Tiruvallur and Chengalpattu districts capture snakes from farmland, scrub forests, houses and lakes and bring them to the society, where the snakes are weighed, measured and checked for injuries. Only snakes that pass the health check are used for venom extraction, which is done once a week, and are released back into forests after 28 days, said C. Munusamy, a member of the cooperative. The venom is then powdered and stored at a specific temperature to be sold to pharmaceutical companies.
The expertise of Irulas is legendary. The tribespeople know the places where snakes hide — from experience and instinct — and can find snakes by their track, smell and droppings. They treat snake bites with pachai elai marundhu, a herbal medicine, and avoid going to hospital in most cases. Mr. Munusamy said most Irulas still live in poor conditions around waterbodies. “It’s true what they show in films. Irulas are picked up for theft cases. Because no one will raise their voice for them,” he said.
“Our people living throughout Tamil Nadu don’t have proper houses,” said Mr. Vadivel, who has been with the cooperative for 30 years. Both the Padma Shri awardees live in thatched houses in Chenneri, Chengalpattu. In 2022, 443 Irula families in Kancheepuram district were given house site patta in five locations.
Mr. Munusamy, who lives at Mambakkam in Chennai, raised concern over the displacement of the tribe. He was given a small piece of land, around 300 square feet. “The land given was not in our village, but in a neighbouring village where we are unwelcome,” he said.
The society members are allowed to catch snakes only between August and March, and after the government issues an order setting the number of snakes to be caught for the year. Mr. Munusamy explained that while earlier there was only one government order a year, over the past few years, the annual quota is split in two orders. In 2021, the order was released just two days before the end of the financial year, making it difficult for the members to work. “Only after an order is issued can we prepare our members. Sometimes, because of the delay in government order, they might go for other work,” Mr. Munusamy said.
One challenge society faces is the long process of selling the ASV. Once a company shows interest in buying it, the society raises a transfer permit, which goes through the Forest Department. Finally, a forest ranger is deputed to oversee the ASV being weighed and packed. The entire process takes around 30 days, according to an official of the society.
Another challenge is sales stagnation. Pharma companies at times don’t buy much ASV, leaving a considerable portion to be stocked at the society. The stock is then cited as a reason for reduced snake quota. The government, which is equipped to make its own ASV injections and provide them to primary health centres across the State, has not aired any plans of buying the ASV directly from the society.
The government order for this year will be released this week. “We are scrutinising it at the moment,” Chief Wildlife Warden Srinivas Reddy told The Hindu. “A suggestion was raised for holding an auction of the ASV to find the real market price; otherwise, rates are arbitrarily fixed,” Mr. Reddy said. The Department of Industries and Commerce, which works with the society on sales and accounting, says there are no plans for an auction. “We are aware that the society is only one file among hundreds in the desk of officers, but this is our entire livelihood,” Mr. Munusamy said.