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India’s large population of nomadic tribal peoples often remain outside any form of official government classification and are therefore denied basic services like education, health, and social security benefits. Shankar is developing a system that legitimizes India’s nomadic peoples as actors in the informal economy and as members of trade unions. By giving this population an identity already recognized by the State, Shankar is providing them access to social services and creating a negotiating platform from which to advocate for further progress in human rights and social justice.

This profile below was prepared when Manikkam Shankar was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2006.


India’s large population of nomadic tribal peoples often remain outside any form of official government classification and are therefore denied basic services like education, health, and social security benefits. Shankar is developing a system that legitimizes India’s nomadic peoples as actors in the informal economy and as members of trade unions. By giving this population an identity already recognized by the State, Shankar is providing them access to social services and creating a negotiating platform from which to advocate for further progress in human rights and social justice.


Shankar is creating a new identity for India’s tribal populations by incorporating them into the trade unions movement. Beginning with the nomadic Narikurava tribes of Tamil Nadu, a sub-group of the Vagiri tribe spread out all over India, Shankar has created the Handicrafts Trade Union and the Nomads Society, both of which are now securing for their members a host of citizenship rights and a dignified existence by virtue of their trade union membership.

New occupations are adopted based on traditional skills that the nomadic tribes possess. Tribes are afforded more formal status through the Tamil Nadu Manual Workers Act and Manual Workers Social Security, which afford easier access to government programs for employment, education, health care and housing.

Shankar is stepping up his movement to cover 30 districts throughout Tamil Nadu and through collaborative networks is spreading his model to the states of Andhra Pradesh, Pondicherry, and Karnataka. He has organized tribal conferences incorporating all the southern states to spread his idea. With plans to move up to the national level, Shankar is creating a database of all groups of Vagiris, called differently in different states, to list them under the Vagiri umbrella and campaign for a National Bill to be tabled in Parliament. The model, if successful, will be applicable to all groups of tribal peoples that are currently denied basic rights due to the ambiguity in their status.


Throughout the 20th century, India’s censuses have noted a remarkably wide variation in number of tribal peoples in the country: 22 million in 1931, 10 million in 1941, 30 million by 1961 and nearly 68 million in 1991. Yet only nine states have officially recognized scheduled tribes, leaving about half of India’s tribal population unrecognized, uncounted, and without citizenship rights. This lack of recognition by the Indian government means that they are denied many of their basic rights as Indian citizens. Even when they are legally recognized, definitions and entitlements vary across different states, and recognition in one state does not ensure recognition in another. Indian law requires the designation of tribal peoples as official “Scheduled Tribes” for them to receive public benefits, official tribal land, and entitlement to positions in schools and legislatures. Yet the determination of minority groups as “Scheduled Tribes” rather than “Backward Classes” or “Scheduled Castes”, is controversial, loaded with economic and political implications. Tribal disempowerment in India has a long history. In 1871, the British Government passed the notorious Criminal Tribes Act, which “notified” certain tribes as “criminals”, including nomadic cattle grazers, wandering singers, acrobats, etc. In 1952, the Indian government officially “de-notified” the stigmatized ones without making any provisions for their livelihoods or rights. Since 1961, the Indian government has been publishing statewide lists of “De-notified and Nomadic Tribes” which have only resulted in police harassment whenever there is criminal activity in an area where such nomadic tribes are present. Throughout Indian history tribal land has been given away or sold, a practice that continues even today in the form of judicial court transfers of tribal land to non-indigenous peoples.

These unrecognized peoples remain outside the scope of the Indian constitution because of their nomadic lifestyles and non-traditional occupations. This problem is in part caused by the migration of nomadic groups from one state to another, which has resulted in their losing the identity that proves their links to officially recognized ethic groups. This fragmentation leaves these groups without a unified voice with which to advocate for their rights. Because most nomadic tribal peoples are currently banned from practicing their traditional occupations, such as hunting, animal trapping, snake charming and venom extraction, and trading skins and hides, they have been reduced to living in extreme poverty. For hundreds of years, these peoples have lived through sustainable symbiotic relationships with their forest homes, yet today they are viewed as “encroachers.” India’s Forest and Wildlife Acts of 1927, 1972, 1980 etc. see tribal communities as poachers. As a result, they have been evicted from their ancestral homes, leading to a major loss of livelihood in recent times. Compensation promised by the government rarely reaches the indigenous communities.

For example, the Narikurava nomads, with whom Shankar has started his work, were essentially hunters by occupation. In the 1960s, the district administration of Tamil Nadu granted gun licenses to the community. As permanent addresses were required for the licenses the nomadic community started settling down in areas near the forests. This however proved detrimental to their livelihoods since mobility was now restricted and they could hunt only in government demarcated areas. This soon led to stiff competition within the community as their livelihoods now depended on products made from animal fur, skin and bone, hunted from the fast depleting government-specified areas. In 1995, the central government withdrew the licencing as they were reported to have become a “threat for wildlife in the forest” with no provisions for compensation.

Those working in tribal areas have always stressed the importance of education as the key to tribal upliftment. However government focus on primary education in tribal areas and reservation for tribal children in middle and high schools and higher education institutions has had mixed results. Recruitment of qualified teachers and determination of the appropriate language of instruction also remain troublesome. Commission after commission on the “language question” has called for instruction, at least at the primary level, in the students’ native tongue. In some regions, tribal children entering school must begin by learning the official regional language, often one completely unrelated to their tribal tongue. This results in huge numbers of drop-outs, often because of the lack of bilingual teachers or those willing to work in remote tribal areas.


Shankar has adopted a two-pronged strategy to advocate for the recognition and rights of nomadic tribal communities: encouraging trade union membership and creating alternative professions.

Through trade union membership, Shankar is offering tribal peoples a common identity and an assured place in government classification and censuses. This has given the communities a common platform from which to fight for their rights to be listed as scheduled tribes with a unified voice and social welfare benefits. Their trade union membership cards also give them a definite identity when they travel to other states, whether as migratory labor or otherwise and give them access to trade unions in those states. Shankar has already enlisted over 1,000 members in four districts in Tamil Nadu.

Shankar’s organizational structure begins from an elected village committee comprising seven members including the traditional headman and women and moves up from district level federations to the state level. Shankar has identified youth leaders in the areas he works in order to spread awareness of emerging occupations and the importance of becoming trade union members. He trains them in mobilizing communities, disseminating information on potentially beneficial state laws and analyzing how community needs are being met by the government. The youth leaders also help community members to secure access to basic needs such as housing, water, electricity, ration cards and voter ID badges. Working directly in 12 districts, his work is already spreading to almost 30 districts, and he hopes to cover the entire state in two years, with a network of state federations connected to a national level federation.

Registration of tribal handicraft workers’ unions in the Tamil Nadu Manual Workers Welfare Board is being done alongside organizational membership drivers. This particular membership helps them secure existing benefits such as accident relief, life insurance benefits, assistance for maternity, marriage and education of children etc.

Shankar is also collaborating with other unorganized workers through the Unorganized Workers Federation to access the Pension and Sectoral Tripartite Boards at the local, district and state levels. His work at the national level is being initiated under the umbrella organization—National Campaign Committee for Unorganized Sector Workers—to secure a Central Bill for securing a three percent budget allocation for tribal social security.

The second part of Shankar’s strategy is linked to his creation of alternative professions. Identifying the Narikurava tribe’s skill in handicrafts, he has encouraged them to adopt professions such a bead-making, graduating to ethnic jewellery for the export market, and livestock rearing in the form of rabbit and goat rearing and pigeon farming. However, alternative professions cannot be created overnight and without the proper inputs or resources. Shankar has therefore set up the Nomads’ Society, under the Societies Act, driven mainly by women. This decision came from the realization that while a trade union allows one to fight against the government for one’s rights, various social welfare schemes and benefits offered by the government can be accessed more easily through a registered Society. SIVAA (South Indian Vagiri Artisans Association) is a unit of the Nomads’ Society, which trains tribal members in adopting new designs for their crafts, marketing them through tribal handicrafts fairs held regularly and negotiating fair prices.

The Society is also helping establish non-formal education centers, alternative occupation training institutes and providing access to micro-credit loans. It functions as a nodal body which monitors the formations of women’s self-help groups (SHGs) that can access benefits from the government and donor agencies. It also works to improve conditions in the areas of healthcare, childcare, eradication of child labor, education, etc. The involvement of women in the Society and the SHGs is furthering their empowerment by building leadership and inculcating savings habits among tribal women.


Coming from a very poor Narikurava family, Shankar’s mother, a bead-maker, managed to give him a decent education. While in high school, Shankar motivated the youth in his village to come together and form a social organization that would look into the evils plaguing the community. The society started by campaigning against alcoholism, child marriage and promoting awareness about education for all children. He almost dropped out of school because of his involvement in the society but his parents forced him to go back, camping out under a tree outside his hostel in order to keep an eye on him. During this time, Shankar also initiated the setting up of a Gypsy Bead Centre with 25 tribal families by enlisting the help of a citizen organization, in order to promote the craft practiced by his tribespeople.

He continued his activities while in college, using the already formed village society to set up the Narikurava Tribal Society in 1986, travelling to other villages in the districts to set up branches. However his long absences away in college proved detrimental to the Society’s functioning, with office bearers lining their own pockets, leaving the rest of the community to slide back into their original state of penury and illiteracy.

However, Shankar continued to try and find ways to improve the situation. In 1996, he came across an article on a construction workers’ rally and began to study the Trade Union Act along with observing major construction union meetings. He discovered that the Trade Union Act was a better tool with which to reorganize his community since the government could shut down a Society at will if it was displeased with it. In 2000, he set up the Handicrafts Trade Union for the Narikurava community.

Shankar lives in Vizhupuram in Tamil Nadu with his wife who has a major role in his work.