Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

More on the Venom Trade

September 21st, 2009 · 5 Comments

IrulaSocietyIn one of our recent posts regarding the troubled Pakistani snake-venom industry, we opined that government price controls were making the black market too appealing for Sindh Province’s snake charmers. As it turns out, a similar scenario is playing out far to the south, where India’s snake-catching Irula tribe is suspected of selling venom off the books.

For the uninitiated, the Irulas are tribals whose traditional job has been killing and skinning snakes. When this practice was outlawed in 1972, the Indian government decided to make the Irulas the nation’s official snake catchers, for the purpose of supplying the antivenin industry. (Plenty more background here.)

Alas, the government hasn’t always been efficient at gauging how much venom the Irulas need to sell to achieve economic contentment. And so when demand has been set artificially too low, the Irulas have allegedly given in to temptation to sell poison privately:

Every year, by November the society used to sell lyophilized venom powder to the tune of Rs. 90 lakh. But, this year due to delay in the issuance of orders from the wildlife authorities, the society had sold venom only to the tune of Rs. 25 lakh so far, Mr. Rajendran pointed out.

A gram of the rarest venom apparently goes for a princely $1,650 per gram, so there’s not much incentive for the Irulas to cut production merely to satisfy government orders. Such is one of the great downsides of monopolism, we reckon.


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5 Comments so far ↓

  • Jordan

    a) Central planning fail!

    b) Given the stated end of the caste system, it’s kind of weird to see the government effectively reshaping a caste into an economic entity. But then so do the quotas for Dalits, in a twisted fashion.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Jordan: Your point b) was initially gonna be the central point of this post, but I couldn’t find a clever way into the issue. But, yeah, that struck me as odd, too–the govt.’s argument was that if they didn’t give the Irulas a snake-handling monopoly, they would all starve b/c no one wants to hire them for other tasks.

    The caste system is so antithetical to the American ideal, it’s a little hard for me to wrap my head around it. Tough to imagine existing in a society where the chances of personal reinvention were absolutely nil–ostensibly for the common good.

  • scottstev

    How is caste identified and the related strictures enforced in India, anyway? Unlike Jim Crow (whose laws became as baroque and muddled as the pseudoscience behind them), I don’t see how you could tell who belonged to which caste aside from self-identification.

    I seem to remember an NPR story where Dalit’s were converting to Christianity to escape the stigma and some other were passing themselves off as Dalits to take advantage of government set-asides.

  • Even More on the Venom Trade

    […] the heels of yesterday’s post about the snake-catching monopoly enjoyed by India’s Irula people, we thought we’d turn our gaze slightly east and see […]

  • Jordan


    My sense is that caste systems come out of one extreme end of the nature vs. nurture debate. If everything is nature, then it makes perfect sense that you should do what your family has been doing since time immemorial. On the other hand, our country vacillates, but, I think, ultimately leans towards the nurture end. There is an unspoken but almost fundamental right in America to make yourself into the person you want to be. It’s somewhat counter to social stability, but public rhetoric aside, we do tend to come down on the side of the individual more often than not. It seems like that’s one of the main reasons people from other countries find America to be so weird and incomprehensible.


    Caste is a rather complicated subject, to put it mildly. Early on there was some correlation between skin color and caste (lighter was generally better), but it’s branched off into a byzantine system since then. Self-identification played a large role in the system because the religion encouraged people to remain in their place. So people tended to socialize and marry within their caste.

    You’re right that it’s become even more complicated now that the caste system has been legally abolished. There is obviously a lot of cultural overhang (to the point where people will sometimes be physically assaulted for crossing those cultural barriers), but change is occurring. Definitely one of the more interesting bits of cultural evolution to watch over the coming decades.