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Irula snake catcher people. Wikimedia

Chennai, August 23, 2017: A novel project, ‘Fantasy Homes’ was initiated to rehabilitate families of Irula snake catchers in a complex that will house more than 300 people, who are trapped at the helm of debt bondage.

Irula is an ethnic tribe of Indian states – Tamil Nadu and Kerela. Traditionally, the primary occupation of Irula was snake and rat catching.

According to the non-profit International Justice Mission, an estimated number of 463,000 bonded labor were tricked into submitting themselves for work as collateral for a debt inherited from a relative which takes ages to return. The government data estimated 100,000 Irula people subsisting in Tamil Nadu.

Notwithstanding the 1976 ban imposed on bonded labor, many of them are still the victim of debt bondage and face slavery at places like rice mills, brick kilns, and brothels.

Last year, the government took some measure to reduce debt bondage, as a part of which they devised plans to rescue 18 million bonded laborers by 2030. To tackle with modern slavery, it also increased compensation for rescued workers by five folds.

However, it was hard to ensure the safety of Irula people as their fundamental work has always been snake catching and live in makeshift homes. Owing to no permanent shelter and limited job opportunities, the snake catcher community becomes easy targets for intermediaries seeking for cheap labor and more vulnerable to slavery.

The rehabilitation project was a brainchild of Prabhushankar Thangaraj Gunalan, a junior bureaucrat in the Tamil Nadu government.

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Gunalan, a medical doctor by training, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, “There were hundreds who were being rescued and sent back home, and the onus of their rehabilitation was falling on us.”

“When they came back, they didn’t have a home we could send them to. The existing rehabilitation process was piecemeal. I wanted to create something sustainable.”

A venom extraction unit, charcoal making unit, brick kilns, and traditional medicinal herbs nursery will accentuate the inherent strength of the community and generate employment.

Devi and Selvam, members of the once-Nomadic Irula tribe, will be among the first residents of Abdulkalam Puram, a “rural gated community” outside Vandavasi in Thiruvannamalai district to own a house of their own.

“In a few months, this will be our home,” said Devi.

“For the first time, we will live in a house where the thatch roof doesn’t fly off in the rains, and there is a proper door, instead of a torn cloth we hang to ensure some privacy.

Devi and Selvam find the process incredible. “It looks nice,” they murmured as they watch the houses being painted.

“It’s been two years since I first thought of the project and today there is this satisfaction that something has been accomplished,” Gunalan said. “The Irulas are getting what is rightfully theirs.”

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