India, like many countries around the world, is prone to disaster. And those who face the greatest threat often live without secure tenure along the coast or river banks. Additionally, social stratification and inequities hinder people’s abilities to prepare for, live through and recover from disasters. That’s why Habitat for Humanity India is focused on promoting a holistic ecosystem of disaster resilience measures and policies. And at the root of our strategy is increasing access to land. Increased access to secure land tenure can lead to increased disaster resilience, greater social equality for marginalized people, economic stability and access to infrastructure like water and sanitation.
Habitat India has been working with the Irula tribe, a group of people particularly vulnerable to the impact of disaster. The Irula tribe has faced significant discrimination as they have been deemed part of the lowest caste, or “untouchables,” by society. They are among the most marginalized groups in the state of Tamil Nadu.
Land rights are at the basis of people’s access to shelter, livelihood and cultural practices. However, the Irula tribe, along with many other tribes, has been disenfranchised from equal land rights. They have been and continue to be frequent victims of land-grabbing schemes by the government, corporations and those in the upper castes.
Irulas lived in the forests in the state of Tamil Nadu for centuries until the 1980s when the 1976 Forest Protection Bill made their homes, livelihood and lifestyle illegal. The state excluded tribes from land rights, citing the need for environmental protection against forest use, a historically unfounded and prejudiced concern. The state banned traditional tribal use of the land and forest, including their collection of bamboo, brushwood, honey and other forest products forest dwellers traditionally rely on.
Since, Irulas and other indigenous communities have been pushed out of forests to live along river banks and in floodplains, prone to the risks of flooding and disaster with homes built from materials that can’t withstand these risks. For example, indigenous communities bore the brunt of destruction caused by the Kerala flood in 2018.
Rejected from their traditional practices and excluded from the formal economy, Irulas subsist on rat and snake hunting, though snake hunting is now also banned by the state. Many work as bonded laborers in the fields and rice mills of wealthy landlords. Stripped of their traditional land, livelihood and cultural practices, the majority live in extreme poverty with almost 240,000 Irula families in need of access to secure land and shelter.
Habitat India has worked with Irula families to advocate for land titles so that families won’t be forced from their land and so they can build more permanent homes to withstand disaster. Habitat India has helped form community committees of Irula tribe members, including women, youth and community leaders.
Habitat India supports these committees as they navigate avenues to advocate for land rights from the government as well as build knowledge within the community of the processes to obtain land titles. Habitat India acts as a bridge between the Irula community and other actors, particularly district-level government authorities.
Recognizing that they cannot do this work alone, Habitat India has developed a coalition with a variety of stakeholders, including other civil society organizations, members of the private sector and allies within various levels of government. Habitat India has leveraged the Solid Ground campaign as a framework for tying the necessity of land rights to housing, disaster resilience, gender equality and economic development—issues that the government has committed to address.
Habitat India and the Irula tribe have seen success. Through advocacy efforts, 206 families in the disaster-prone villages of Cuddalore, Villupuram, Thiruvallur and Kanchipuram have received titled land plots, while another 4,000 applications are pending. The district government issued community certificates to 1,510 Irula families, enabling them to legally access government resources. Habitat India helped 55 Irula families build disaster resilient houses. 224 Irula individuals received loans from the bank for the first time, while 220 Irula families accessed sanitation infrastructure through a district subsidy. These gains could not have occurred without Irula community members and Habitat India together demanding more equitable treatment under the law.
However, this success came with significant pushback from those who oppose Irula equality. After Irula families initially gained land rights and officially broke ground on their new houses, influential upper-caste leaders halted construction, claiming that the Irula were living too close to upper-caste individuals. In response, Habitat India appealed the issue to district authorities. Habitat India held talks with upper-caste people to get them on board so that the change could be socially sustainable. As a result, district authorities agreed to provide necessary protection and alternative land plot allotments for Irula families so that they can access their homes without fear.
Habitat India plans to continue working with Irula families and a wide variety of stakeholders to promote land rights, access to shelter and disaster resilience. Habitat India plans to replicate our holistic strategy across every district in Tamil Nadu, as well as influence national land and housing policy.
Although our work continues, Habitat India has greatly impacted the lives of many Irula people. As Masilamani, an Irula homeowner of Tamil Nadu, said, “I never imagined that one day I would be having a house of my own. This land and house has given me and my family a future to look forward to.”