The Kadars of South India have significant economic problems due to their remote forest locations, according to two different articles published last year in the journal Studies of Tribes and Tribals.

In an article published in July 2005, Seetha Kakkoth indicates that 320,967 people in the State of Kerala were listed as members of Scheduled Tribes in the 1991 census (the 2001 census figures were not yet available). That figure represents about 1.1 percent of the population of the state. The government of India categorizes members of Scheduled Tribes who subsist primarily on pre-agricultural technology as Primitive Tribal Groups. The PTGs in Kerala, where most of the Kadars live, amount to about 5.3 percent of the Scheduled Tribe population, or around 16,000 people. They consist of five different societies, one of which is the Kadar.

The author focuses on basic social and economic data. The Kadar population in Kerala in 1991 was 2021 people who primarily speak a dialect of Tamil known locally as Kadar bhasha. They have a largely monogamous society, though sometimes polygamy does occur. Some people still hunt and fish on a small scale, their traditional occupations, though many now are also cultivators, laborers, basket makers, or collectors of non-timber forest resources.

Almost all of the Kadars (95 percent) live in 15 settlements, where they endure such health problems as TB, malnutrition, scabies, anemia, and a lack of access to safe drinking water. Kakkoth concludes that major problems for all of the PTGs include deforestation, the influx of non-tribal peoples, the lack of economic opportunities, and harm to the ecosystem.

In December 2005, the same journal published another, more detailed, article about the Kadar by M.S. Mahendrakumar. It focuses on the 624 residents of three “colonies” (the term used by the Kadar themselves) in the Parambikulam Wildlife Sanctuary, which is located in the forested mountains of the Eastern Ghats, on the Kerala side of the border with Tamil Nadu.

The author says that the Malayalam words Kadan or Kadar (singular and plural) simply mean forest dweller, an apt name for this society. They subsisted traditionally on gathering, hunting with the assistance of dogs, and collecting honey in season. In the past, they also gathered various forest products such as turmeric, ginger, and medicinal roots to sell to the lowlanders.

All of that changed for the Kadars in the Parambikulam area in 1973 when the Parambikulam Wildlife Sanctuary was established. The tribal groups living within the boundaries of the park lost their traditional rights to economic subsistence from the forest. An assistant wildlife warden was posted near the settlements.

But they have adapted. They fish, with restrictions, at a reservoir formed by the Parambikulam dam, and they continue to hunt and gather, to some extent anyway, on their traditional forest lands. They have some wage labor employment for three months of the year from the Forest Department, doing jobs such as cutting wood, planting trees, working on fire lines, and the like. A few have jobs as watchmen or as guides. Most are not able to live on the income from the work, however, so they still gather in the forest to supplement their resources. Some of them also raise cows for the sale of milk, though predation by tigers is a problem for them.

Mahendrakumar indicates that their gods live on the highest mountain in the area, Karimalagopuram, a 1440 meter peak, though they also worship other important gods of South India such as Bhagavathi and Lord Ayyappa. The author writes that the Kadar in Parambikulam speak Tamil, Malayalam, and a dialect that mixes both languages.

He describes some of the problems that bother the Kadar. Some have evidently promoted the need for better road access to Parambikulam, but others have opposed the idea, arguing that roads will cause them to lose their forests and will unbalance the ecology of the area. The Kadar have many problems with health and sanitation, though several doctors have helped to improve their medical situation.

“The Kadars are very friendly and very receptive to all development activities,” the author states (p.101). They want to get into agriculture, but their lack of land inhibits that goal. They would like to have laboring jobs in Kerala cities but their isolation and lack of access roads prevents that.

Mahendrakumar unfortunately displays a strong bias against the traditional ways of the Kadar in his article. “The Kadars are obviously kept away from the busy world, and they have got preserved more or less in the similar miserable condition of earlier times. They live inside the Wildlife Sanctuary and they are suffering a lot due to partial isolation” (p.103). If the government would only build an adequate road into their settlements, he argues, they would have the ability to make progress. Apparently he is not troubled by the contradictory experiences of other isolated communities that have had unexpected problems thrust on them when access roads have been constructed.

Aside from blinders about the unadulterated virtues of building roads, the article does provide some insights into the adaptations the Kadar of Parambikulam have made to the changes thrust on them since 1973.

Kakkoth, Seetha. 2005. “The Primitive Tribal Groups of Kerala: A Situational Appriasal.” Studies of Tribes and Tribals 3(1): 47-55. Available as a free PDF on the Web

Mahendrakumar, M. S. 2005. “Ecocultural Adaptation of the Kadars of Kerala.” Studies of Tribes and Tribals 3(2): 99-104. Available as a free PDF on the Web