Economics of the caste divide in Vembar by suparna roy

Vembar, January 19: St. Sebastian Church stands tall acting as a demarcation for the two most prominent communitiesin Vembar; the Paravarand the Nadar caste.

Vembar, a coastal village in Tuticorin district of Tamil Nadu knows fishing as its main occupation apart from Palm-jaggery manufacturing for a certain part of the year.

It isunique that this small village with around 6000 residents has two panchayats for administration. The village was divided into North Vembar and East Vembar (the area along the coast) with separate panchayats after they faced a riot in 1972.

Nadars dominate North Vembar, predominantly a trading community, whereas the Paravarcaste livesin East Vembar. People from the Paravarcaste predominantly engage in fishing apart from working as daily wage laborers in off-season.

There is a cold tiff between the two communities. The reason for this cold war traces back to the rapid economic growth that the Nadar community achieved in the 1960s.

The Paravars are the sons of the soil for Vembar, who possessed large land holdings where they cultivated palm trees. They employed the Nadars to work on the fields for palm tapping. Being residents of a coastal land, the men from Paravar caste knew fishing as their only skill.

The Nadars, relocated from nearby districts and the neighboring state of Kerala in search of jobs. Gradually they prospered with hard work and smart economic management, outperforming the Paravars.

“People from the Nadar community pick up skills very fast,” says Father Sahayaraja, the priest of the Sebastian Church, while explaining how people from the community got into the fishing business by assisting the Paravars.

Therefore, gingerly, the Nadars took over the main profession of the Paravars and that was the start of the rising economic divide between the two castes. The Paravar community began to languish as their men started losing jobs to the Nadars.

Interestingly, the political situation of Vembar around 1970 was such that then Chief Minister K Kamaraj, a Nadar, supported the Nadars, who were in a minority. Peppin Kago, the village head of East Vembar, said: “Now that the tables have been turned and the Paravars have become the minority caste and there’s hardly any political support for us. The parties still support the Nadars as they are wealthy.”

The hostility between the two castes have grown to such an extent that they have separate exclusive places of worship and education. The Paravars do not send their children to schools owned by Nadars. Even though majority of the population of Vembarare Roman Catholics, they have separate churches.

The Paravars allege that the Nadars have taken their jobs and now they have also started settling in their part of the village. The village hasn’t faced any communal riots since 1972, but the old scars remain unhealed.

According to the Thalaivar or the head of the Nadar village, there has not been a single case of inter-caste marriage so far in his caste. People from the two castes attend weddings and family functions in both communities, but inter-caste marriage is still a taboo.

S. Vinarasi, a Paravar,explained the economic hardship faced by her community. Women from her community take loans from any bank that offers a loan to them, mostly gold loans. These women make sure that they repay the loan on time otherwise they would not get a loan next time. These loans are used for day-to-day expenses of the households.

The women are forced to take loans because the husbands, the fishermen, seldom get good catch.The Paravar fishermen are poor andthey fish with traditional boats which aren’tequipped to go deeper into the sea like the fishermen of the Nadar community who use trawlers which can go 10 miles into the sea.

To add to the woes of the Paravars, the Nadars have started employing them to work on their boats on a daily wage of Rs 200.

Men and women of the Paravar community encourage their children to pursue education in the hope that they will be able to get them out of this vicious circle. The men of this community are not able to get a good catch, forcing the womenfolk to take loans, and without a good catch it is difficult to pay back the loan, which leads to another loan. Thus, these families get stuck in a debt trap.

Most money lenders are wealthy fishermen with mechanized boats from the Nadar community. The Paravars take loans from them and they have to repay them by selling their catch to the said money lenders itself. They cannot sell it to anyone else and this has become a norm now. Due to this the Paravars make less money as they are underpaid. The loan amount is deducted when they sell their catch.

K. Bhohreni (23), had to drop out of school after her father passed away in 2008. She has five other siblings. With six children in the family it was very difficult for her mother to manage the finances. Two of her elder sisters are married now. Her younger brother and she both work in the fishing industry. She works in a sea food processing company in Vembar, where she peels off prawns. For every 1kg of prawns she gets paid Rs 4. In a day she is able to peel around 70-80kgs.

A lot of girls like Bhohreni, drop out of school and work either in local shops or at the local sea food processing company. The families want their sons and daughters to study but the children are forced to drop because of financial difficulties at home. “My mother wanted me to study and even I wanted to, but how could I spend money on education when there was hardly any money to spend on food?” says K. Bhohreni.

Alcoholism is prevalent in Vembar which adds on to the financial crisis that the people face. A. Rayam (43), a widow, said that her husband died four years ago due to liver failure. The man would earn about Rs 800- Rs 1000 a day with a good catch but Rayam would only get Rs 400 in her hand for handling the household expenses. Most fishermen of the Paravar community in Vembar spend more than 50% of their income on alcohol.

A ray of hope for the Paravars among this debt trap is the 45-day period from April 15 to May 29 every year when the Tamil Nadu Government puts a ban on fishing by trawlers and fibre boats. The ban is imposed during those months as it is the breeding season for the fishes. Only the Nadars are able to afford these boats and due to the ban they are not able to go out fishing. Thus, all the catch belongs to the Paravars during this period as small boats are allowed.

The men are able to get a good profit being the sole fishermen during that period of time. At other times of the year, along with the maximum catch, the Nadars also decide the base price of the fishes before auction. Therefore, the moneylender himself decides the price and then underpayment is the consequence.

Kago says that even education is not of much help because jobs hardly reach their village. There are peoplefrom the present generation who have gone for higher education and have professional degrees like engineering but they haven’t found jobs which further discourages them to study.They were forced to come back to fishing.

In such a situation it is indeed difficult to keep the youth motivated. The previous generations regret knowing just one skill, fishing; which is why they want their children to acquire knowledge and widen the skill set of the community.


Suparna Roy

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