First Irula Girl to Study for PhD in Botany
Battling a lifetime of adversity, Roja’s studies honor her culture’s traditional use of medicinal plants
K. Roja, the first Irula girl to ever try to complete a doctoral degree was born in a hospital--unlike her two siblings who were born at home--but has seldom set foot in one since. A member of the indigenous Irula community of Tamil Nadu in Southern India--a marginalized group who have been pushed from their ancestral forest homes by government regulations--she and her family have lived their entire lives free from modern medicine.
“Pharmaceuticals have side effects and chemicals,” she explained. “Plants do not.” Growing up in the Marur village near Tindivanam, her father and grandfather passed down their knowledge of medicinal plants to Roja, spurring her passion to get her master of philosophy in botany from Madras Christian College (MCC). At 25, she is in her first year of study for her doctorate at the same school, taking classes like biotechnology and researching herbal remedies for diabetes—an unheard of choice for a girl her age who in Irula culture is expected to marry young. Her younger sister who is 18 is already married with one child, and her 21 year old brother quit school after grade 10 to work as a laborer.
Her family first saw potential for her to continue her education when she was 14. They had approached a human rights activist in Tindivanam, Professor Prabha Kalvimani to help them obtain a community certificate—a common grievance for Irula as most have no records of origin and accordingly few rights in the society. Their daughter had scored slightly below 50% on her report card, a poor score normally, but for an Irula girl who has grown up in a community of illiteracy, it was exceptional. Kalvimani helped the family see her through to her twelfth standard where she scored a 60%, high enough to go to college and get her bachelor’s in botany from the government college in Villapuram. She went on to graduate from her master’s program at MCC with distinction, writing her thesis on an ethnobotanical study of the Irulas community and finishing first in her department.
“When I told my parents I wanted to continue and get my PhD they said no—they believed it was time for me to start working and raise a family,” she said with a twinge of remorse. “I had no support.” She once again approached Professor Kalvimani who had helped her seven years ago. He and another Irula activist, Rajesh Deena, collected money and opened a joint account to support her studies but the funds are not enough. During semester breaks, she is forced to do hard manual labor with her family in a brick kiln to pay for her school.
After she finishes her degree, she wants to work overseas because there are few opportunities here for her to find a prestigious job with good income. However, after she obtains financial security she said she plans to come back and use her skills to help others in her community. When I asked her what was her biggest hope for the Irula she replied simply, “education.” “It is my hope for my community to be educated.”