Not many things take you to Coimbatore. Located on the banks of the Noyyal River, the city is surrounded by the Western Ghats making its acres of coconut trees quite a sight for sore, city eyes. It was my visit to Native Medicare Charitable Trust (NMCT) that brought me here for the first time. Set up in 1988 by Mr. and Mrs. Sankaranarayanan, NMCT works for deprived communities, mainly tribals and Dalits. It was during their college days that they witnessed many incidents that made them realize that Tea-estate and Resort owners were clearly taking advantage of the tribals’ illiteracy. Moved by their plight, they decided to do something about it.
The organisation’s work thus spans across a gamut of activities for tribal people – from increasing livelihoods through activities like sheep and calf rearing, to supporting HIV/AIDS infected people, to empowering women to earn a living through tailoring skills, to a shelter for children who need a stable, caring and loving home.
Surrounded by dense forests, the area the organisation works in is remotely located. A majority of the residents here belong to the Irula tribe. According to Wikipedia, “Traditionally, the main occupation of the Irulas has been snake and rat catching. They also work as labourers (coolies) in the fields of landlords during the sowing and harvesting seasons or in the rice mills. Fishing is also a major occupation.” I learnt from Mr. & Mrs. Sankaranarayanan that the Irulas survive primarily on dry agriculture; they follow a single cropping pattern.
So, it’s quite clear that the life of a tribal is not an easy one. Livelihood, health, education and social development are just few of the problems that plague them.
One of NMCT’s most unique activities involves giving them fruit trees so that they are able to grow and sell their own produce. In an effort akin to a Farmers 101 marketing class, they are even educated on taking care of the same. From doing research about the value of their crop by visiting the markets themselves, to forming a collective with others farmers to get the right price for their crop, tribals are educated so that they may get the right income for their efforts.
Identified through their field staff, help is given only to those tribal folks who are known to be hard-working and will be conscientious about watering the plants. After all, apt care of the plants is essential for their survival. Mrs. Sankaranarayanan also shared with me how they once told tribals to clean and sell “imly” (tamarind) rather than selling it as is; so that they may add the price of their labour too, into their product. NMCT also helps them fence off their land to guard it from deer and wild elephants, both of which are rampant in the area! Due to decreased rainfall over the past 2 years, the organisation has also been giving them a tank to place at the corner of their lands, and replenishing the same with water twice a week, which needs to be used for watering the plants.
This may all seem like very basic help but it isn’t; simply because of the “personality” of the tribals. Their lifestyles have never required them to plan for the future. So, if the monsoon is poor one year due to which they do not have enough produce, they will sell 1-2 goats from their cattle (all of them have cattle, which belongs to their family). Before they know it, they are cattle-less too!
Their community lifestyle has not honed their business skills either. So, it comes as no surprise that they are not aware of the market price of crops. If they go to the village to sell something from their fields, they will sell it for the cost of the bus ticket to go-and-come-back to/from the market, not thinking of any profits that they should ideally be making off the sale. NMCT’s intervention helps them think through these all these details.
It is thanks to this intervention that lands once considered wastelands and non-productive have become productive and sustainable assets; resulting in a substantial rise in the income of these farmers. All done in the hope that they will not sell their land for Rs.1-2 lacs to tea-estate/resort owners, rendering them landless in the long run! This project currently covers 750 tribal families in 18 villages (in 2 panchayats) of Coimbatore. It also receives support from the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD), Chennai.
Another project targeted at these same 750 families revolves around supporting AIDS/ HIV+ patients. It started when a baseline survey revealed the intensity of AIDS/HIV+ in the area. As Pollachi is on the border of 2 states i.e. Tamil Nadu and Kerala, a lot of transport/truck drivers make a pit-stop here. Further, a lot of film shootings happen in the area – bringing all kinds of workers to the area for days at a stretch.
The purpose is to help victims lead as dignified a life as possible. Women like X and Y and Z. Having contracted the disease from their husbands, who have now passed away, they all had a similar story – no one willing to give them a job, no family support, and no children either. NMCT not only gives them monthly rations but also helps them procure Rs. 1,000 due to them under the Tamil Nadu Government’s Widow Pension scheme.
In all cases, NMCT has not been able to pull them drastically out of poverty. They yet lead difficult lives. But had it not been for their intervention, they may not be alive today. Which means that NMCT has literally saved their lives!