The Sustainable Socioeconomic Advancement of Malayalis


The Sustainable Socioeconomic Advancement of Malayalis


Documenting the tribal advancement in Health, Nutrition, Agricolture based livelihoods and Education

Kalrayan Hills Area

Kalvarayan hills is an high mountainous area located in one part of the Eastern Ghats and it is very close to the western side of the Kallakurichi taluk in Tamil Nadu, South India. In the perimeter of this area there is Athur taluk in the Salem district, Chengam taluk in the Villupuram District.

Inhabitants of this land have been called with different names. According to the information reachable on the web, the most common is Malayalis (lit. mountain people). Another label given to this people is Karalans; however Dr. Doss (2011) claims that, nowadays, they prefer call themselves Malayala Goundars. They are constitutionally classified as a tribe located in Tamil Nadu. It counts a population of 310,042 units and they are considered the largest social tribal aggregation.

If we consider the recent discovery of this people and of this land, the Malayalis’s historical background is fascinating. In fact, Kalvarayan Hills are supposed to be existed in isolation for 400 years and only in the 1976 the indian government took this area under its control. Before of that, the area was under the control of local rulers called Jagirdars, and they have kept the hilly people as slaves. De facto, the land could be compared to a sort of Medieval feud. Since the 1980, the community has undertaken an huge change as a consequence of acculturation. However the hierarchy is still well entrenched inside their social structure and, as Dr.Doss (2011) claims, “it is implicitly expressed through various socio-cultural practices of rituals and religious rites that enable some groups to exercise control over the rest of the community in a very subtle way”.

The “hills” still have weak connections with the commercial and main routes. This kept this land still partially isolated from the rest of the Indian region with diverse range of effects. The economy, for instance, is far from being well represented by the indian development phenomenon. Here, in fact, 80% of the people still depends mainly by subsistence agriculture. It is followed by others type of activity, such as fishing and hunting of rabbits and other animals inside the dense forest.

Regarding the spoken languages, this people speaks Tamil. Most of the people are illiterate and they do not understand, speak or read the Hindi and the English. The latter is vaguely spoken and understood by children who are lucky enough to go to school.

This photograph shows the difference between the Tamil alphabet and the English one. The number of letters and phonemes is dramatically huge. Tamil is one of the longest-surviving classical languages in the world and, in India, is the official language in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu and the Indian Union Territory of Puducherry. In spite of this, many parents with a good economic status prefer send their children to international schools, where only English is spoken. In this structures is even possible pay a penalty if the student try to speak his mother tongue, the tamil.The result of this is that the new generations are losing their ability to write and read properly in Tamil language.

Situation Analysis of Kalrayan hilly block of Villupuram District

There are 14 village Panchayats spread across 173 habitations in the block. Total population of the block is 49,526 with the female to male ratio of 935. ST population is predominant in the block occupying 93.78% of the total population. As already said, tribals who live in all these villages are called ‘Malayalis’. The main social problems detected in this geographic area are connected to the field of health, education, livelihood standards and gender discrimination.

Regarding the health issues the maternal mortality (MMR at 2.9 per 1000 ), still birth rate at 17%, low birth rate at 20%, and also the anemia at 70% for the woman are the main problems that should be solved. Health problems are feeded also by poor infrastructure namely lack of transportation where only 85 out of 164 habitations are connected with roads and bus facilities which influences people’s access to health services. The existing facilities in PHCs can only undertake normal deliveries, and for critical cases are referred to hospitals in Kallakurichi, Salem etc, which is about 2 hrs journey.

This mother holds her daughter who just did the vaccine against measles, mumps, and rubella

Educational issues are characterized by a school dropout at 25% against the district average at 17.95%; 18% of children not even enroll at school and the literacy rate is 24% against the district average at 72%. Literacy rate show, moreover, a more dramatic situation for little girls because of a still active gender discrimination. Causes of this phenomena is given by teacher absenteeism, migratory pattern among parents, quality education, limited community ownership towards formal education system, girl children drop out, low accessibility to hostel facilities and also high irregularity and corruption within the education system.

Transportation coast and the absence of Institutional mechanisms to sell agricultural commodity directly in the regional market cause issues within people’s livelihood standards. More than 80 % of areas are cultivated under rainfed farming and 87.8% are constituted by small and marginal farmers. Exploitative interest rates by money lenders and middle man eludes better price of the products produced by the farmers. Moreover, due to water and fodder scarcity, managing livestock and cultivated area are always vulnerable.

Last but not least, the gender discrimination problem. There is a deep lack of awareness among the women about their rights and their privileges. Social customs make them vulnerable namely early child marriage. Exploitative system at work front leads to physical and social abuse. Furthermore, alcoholism among the men leaves women vulnerable to domestic violence.

A social and holistic approach for improving the actual socioeconomic status

The strength of DHAN Foundation field officers is their approach of organizing the community and building the capacity of the people to address their development needs and issues. They are a sort of facilitators so that the communities could prepare themselves for the long-term reconstruction. They claim to fight the poverty, build people and institutions through an holistic prospective that acts like an invisible hand, letting people to conquer, by their own efforts, their development. For the tribal people, this means a gain of value for their own obtained development. Furthermore, it works as stimulation for a personal and constant development in a sustainable way.

Tribe village during the night. There are no light systems.  The rhythm of people’s lifes is still determined by sunrise and sunset.

A suistainable project

Letting the social development be economically sustainable is one the main elements in which DHAN focused on. That is a very important point because be successful in this aspect will mean to continue a proper social advancement without external funds, currently distributed by Please Sound NGO. In other words, a sustainable project will mean an autonomous grow for this tribe community.

So, how is possible do that ? DHAN’s answer is “through the promotion of of women SHGs and its Federation”.

“The poor women will be identified through participatory process in the shortlisted in villages of Kalrayan block organized into 15-20 member groups (Kalanjiams) and they would be federated at the block level as a registered Trust to continue its development agenda with the effective governance of poor women with self sustainability at the end of the fifth year. The leadership abilities would be built among the women for effective governance and collective leadership through systematic training and exposures. The federation would be a strong social capital to continue its development agenda for alleviating household poverty.”

“Women will be encouraged to do savings since beginning in their groups as it is the capital base for meeting their credit needs through internal lending and binding factor for promoting ownership. Under financial inclusion approach, the women SHGs will be linked with formal banking system for accessing affordable financial services and other technical services to improve their livelihoods and enhance their incomes. The groups will be given financial literacy to effectively use the banking services and sustain the collaborations with the banks for continuous access. It is one of the critical components of the project to promote financial sustainability in the federation. The groups and the federation would manage their cost of operations from sixth year onwards. Community banking integrates three financial services such as savings, credit and insurance the first three services will be given focus during the project period.”

Gender focus for DHAN stems from its mission of building people and institutions for addressing poverty from a holistic perspective and the core values of grassroots action, enabling, collaboration, innovation, excellence and self-regulation. The ultimate goal is poverty reduction, self-reliance and empowerment through collective action with gender-centred four generation strategy of enabling model of microfinance. The first generation process is social intermediation, followed by financial intermediation in the second generation, livelihoods intermediation in third and civic intermediation in the fourth generation process. Economic empowerment is seen in as a tool to bring social development and gender empowerment.

Women of a tribe village sketch their village on the street for rating, through their collective judgement, the houses of the poorest between them.

Livelihood Promotion for better standard of living

DHAN would like to undertake assessments to identify the appropriate livelihoods services needed to restore and strengthen the existing livelihoods to enhance the family income. As the area is with mix of agriculture and non-timber Forest, more focus want to be given for skill building and promoting agriculture based livelihoods. They want to be given attention to bring different mainstream and private stakeholders to contribute for economic development of the poor. Furthermore, linkages with departments, training institutions, and markets would like to be explored for stabilizing the livelihoods.

Last expedition on the Kalrayan Hills (Febraury 2017) has allowed me to see a good start in their work regarding this field. They have been created the first producers groups among farmers, giving them thousands of new plants and, moreover, it has been teached how to fight drought periods through new irrigation techniques. For giving an example, it has been seen a demonstration of silver oak seedlings plantation during the dry season. A precious help, i think, considering that i have been there in February and people told me that they do not have rainfall for months.

In that place, the drought could be always a serious problem not only for agriculture but also for animals and , in some cases, even for people living in rural area, on the top of the hills and without roads.

Apart this agricultural aspect, it has been observed some cases of improvement regarding household assets. An example is a basic solar panel system builded to some rural huts of the poorest, for giving them electrical light. Indeed, household assets development is part of their project objectives in which 50% of the loan portfolio would be maintained at the group level for livelihoods enhancement resulting in generating household assets. The example mentioned could be likely connected to this.

These two men are practicing a special seeds plantation technique for fight the problem of rainless seasons.

Health care for better quality of life

Huge work it has been observed regarding the health issues thanks to the convergence between DHAN and the Tamil Nadu government medical activities. The main goals of the development project is building the knowledge, attitude and practice related to health, anemia control, malnutrition among women and girls. Moreover, reach 1000 adolescent girls through organizing them into small health groups.

Changing a culture is a long path, but it has been observed interest and participation between women and girls. The latter, during some interactions observed between DHAN medical staff, seemed to be active and prepared to the questions about anemia issues.

During the journey it has been seen a so called “medical camp” where healthy foods and diseases solutions have been promoted (such as the anemia). Summarizing, every village under the development project receives a medical camp every three months in which medical tests to poorest people are done, moreover it is taught health education on food, self-hygiene, and healthcare practices through behavioral change communication.

Paramedic is checking anemia level on this woman. She holds her child, with clear malnutrition problems.

Education for All

The education system on the Kalrayan Hills suffers different issues of which it has been discussed at the introduction. It has been observed an huge difference between private and public school and not in terms of quality. On paper, private schools have an higher quality education against the public one. However, in a country where everything has a price, even the law, private schools fall easily in the web of corruption for keeping his status quo of “better school”. A child with low school performance in a public school is forced, before or after, to drop out for searching a work instead to continue the study path.

Developing the education for everyone means help everyone, of course, but with a focus with the latter situation, the public school.

So as written in the develop project, also in practice DHAN has started to organize and promote some remedial centres for coaching the school going children on specific subjects by engaging tutor with teaching methods and materials to arrest dropouts. Even if we are far away from western standards due to different reason such as the school infrastructure, what i’ve seen is a good forward move. A good progress to help children that, otherwise, would been left alone.

Teacher at work during a postmeridian class in a remedial school.

Gender Empowerment

Last point, the gender discrimination. Main goal here is to enabling women to be bread winners in order to build self esteem and capability for managing the problems in life. Earning money and earning emancipation can dramatically change the social role of the woman within the tribe community. Interviews done with few of them of which, already now, earning money through their self-group businesses and savings, confirm my point. Furthermore, their increased mobility to other places for meetings and interactions without support of others in order to promote their capability to participate in important decision making dynamics both at family and at group level.

Mom and her child. We are at Talveniour, one of the tribe village far from the impaired road network within Kalvarayan Hills.  Without a guide is almost impossible arriving there.


A socioeconomic advancement of a tribe comunity is difficult. It requires, first of all, a change of habits that is everything but easy. This social advancement should be economically suistainable in three years. This means that self-group business and savings powered by tribe woman will funds their social advancement. The system work as an invisible hand. People are gaining their advancement through their efforts but that, without a facilitator, could be an impossible reality because of their cultural habits. With time, they will attribute more value to what they have obtained creating a new values system that will lead them to a new feature.


  1. Kalrayan Hills – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. at <
  2. Doss, M. 2011. “Rituals of life: A study of the people of Kalvarayan Hills”. Mankind Quarterly 51, 297–329 (2011)
  3. DHAN Foundation, July 2016. Proposal on “Sustainable Tribal Advancement in Health & Nutrition, Agriculture Based Livelihoods and Education (SUSTAINABLE) for Please Sound NGO
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