What links Chennai’s infamously ill-maintained airport, Maratha king Chhatrapati Shivaji, and Tamil Nadu’s nomadic community of Narikuravars?
The answer may surprise you.
In an effort to rid the airport of the pigeons that thronged both the domestic and international terminals, officials decided to hire the Narikuravars - “jackal-hunters” in Tamil - because of their “technical skill” in catching animals.
“We had already tried and exhausted all possibilities,” says a senior airport official. “We turned to the Narikuravar community because they have the skill to not only catch the birds but do so without killing them.”
This is the first time that an airport authority has contracted a Scheduled Tribe group for what essentially amounts to pest maintenance.
A nomadic community, the Narikuravars are said to be descendants of foot-soldiers in Shivaji’s army, who migrated south in the 17th century after the Muslim conquest. The language they speak - “Vagriboli”, a mixture of Marathi, Tamil and Telugu - is proof enough of their mixed heritage.
“We were told that that passengers complained a lot about the pigeons,” says R Babu, one of the three Narikuravars who was hired by the airport from their settlement in Kotturpuram.
“So we dealt with the problem by luring them onto the ground with seed and catching them in our nets, before releasing them beyond the airport’s boundaries,” he adds.
The 50-year-old agreed to go work at the airport because of the guarantee of three square meals a day.
“We worked there for a week and got decent food and Rs 300-400, which is better than most day,” Babu, who usually helps his wife in making colourful bead necklaces to sell, says.
“We were picked because we know how to catch the birds without killing them,” agrees another Narikuravar, who did not wish to be named.
“But some local TV channel took photos of us with the pigeons in our nets. Ever since then we’ve been getting complaints from welfare groups like Blue Cross. But we didn’t harm a single bird,” the 38-year-old swears.
The feathered menace was a regular sore point for passengers at the airport, especially those who decided to get a meal while waiting for their flight.
“The pigeons would find a way inside the terminal and steal their food,” admits an airport official. “Or worse: Defecate on it.”
Hiring the community, unorthodox as it may be, seems to have done the trick: No pigeons have been seen in either of the two terminals, though it may be too early to tell whether their absence is a permanent one or not.
Equally uncertain is whether the Narikuravar community, many of whom live below the poverty line in slums in Chennai, will be given more work of this nature.