About 230 km (143 miles) away from Bangalore lies the Bandipur National Park in the district of Chamarajnagar. Tucked around the stunning Western Ghat Mountains in Karnataka, Bandipur National Park is regarded as one of the most beautiful parks in India and is home to many types of wildlife including tigers, elephants and gaurs (a type of bull) as well as the predominantly indigenous communities that surround the park. Together with Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary in Tamil Nadu, Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary in Kerala and Nagarhole National Park in the North, it creates the India’s largest biosphere reserve popularly known as the ‘Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve’ and is an important part of India’s efforts towards eco-conservation.
Bandipur National Park was founded in 1974 under the Indian Government in efforts to conserve the tigers and wildlife community, however, in the process of establishing the park the tribal populations who has lived in the forests of the reserve for centuries were moved off of their land and into the villages and hamlets that surround the park. They had lost access to their traditional way of life as forest dwellers and were moved into subsistence farming on dry plots of land.
These tribal communities known as the “Adivasi” (an umbrella term for a heterogeneous set of ethnic and tribal groups considered the aboriginal population of South Asia) make up 8.6% of India’s population or 104 million people according to the 2011 census and about 43% of the population of Mangala Gram Panchayat are of Adivasi descent. Among the poorest and most disenfranchised people in India, they are also faced with very low literacy rates of only 45% (men 52% and woman only 38%), gender inequality, malnutrition and unending poverty.
Today, there are 15 villages in the Mangala Gram Panchayat and all are within one kilometer of the park boundary making human/animal conflict an important factor in everyday life of the villagers as well as poverty, lack of education and opportunities.
Within the backdrop of the Bandipur National Park sits a tiny government-run school (named the Mangala Government School) l that serves the predominantly tribal children who live in the community that border the forest. When humanitarian and wildlife photographer Nithila Baskaran first visited the school, it was in rough shape with holes in the ceilings, lack of usable desks and a high attrition rate of teachers and children which reinforced the vicious cycle of high illiteracy (The Chamarajnagar district has high illiteracy rates of 50.87% ) and severe poverty. After visiting the school, Nithila realized that there was tremendous need however there was also hope.
Nithila Baskaran was born in a place called Dharapuram, close to the city of Coimbatore in Southern India however she moved every couple of years due to her father’s career and lived all over India. She grew up spending tons of time in the forests of South India especially Bandipur as her father is a conservationist and both her parents are birders who loved to spend all their holidays in the wild. Her love and passion for the area has been an important part of her life which continually brought her back to the region to photograph wildlife and enjoy the beauty of the forests.
After receiving a master’s degree in Clinical Psychology, Nithila realized that she did not want to work in a clinical situation and decided to pursue a more broad-based degree in Education. During her studies, she was introduced to the writings of Dr. Ambedkar and several feminist writers who helped her see the injustices and inequities in society through the lens of caste, class and gender. This inspired Nithila to dedicate her life to working in human rights and development with a focus on class and gender issues.
In 2007, Nithila was working with Actionaid doing community-based rehabilitation and post disaster rehabilitation and rebuilding when she and her husband by chance visited the Mangala Government School that serves the children who live around Bandipur National Park. They began talking with the people who lived there and were struck by the challenges the community faced especially in regards to education. The student/teacher ratio was extraordinary high, good teachers did not want to teach in such a remote place, it was difficult for children to get to school, the children had no suitable desks, and there was little access to alternative schooling systems. Further complicating matters, there was an enormous disconnect between the children and the forests around them. Despite the fact that almost half of the children came from tribes who traditionally lived off the forests, since they had relocated to outside, the forests were something they rarely entered. Efforts to conserve the land and wildlife around them were low.
Nithila realized she had landed on an opportunity to do something different that would change her life. Although she loved the work she did with Actionaid, she wanted to do more hands-on work and be in the field. It was her chance encounter with the community and Mangala Government School that inspired her to found Vanam.
The Vanam Foundation is an independent, not-for-profit organization that works in the area of education and the environment with the mission to promote socially just and ecologically sustainable development. By working with the government and other non-profit organizations, Vanam has helped increase student attendance and achievement, gender equality, wildlife and environmental conservation, and overall improvement of life for the communities who surround the Bandipur National Park.
Vanam has helped help the school and community by:
- Hiring teachers and paying their salaries. The school has 140 students grades 1-8 however initially only 1-2 teachers would stay.
- Promoting science, wildlife and environmental conservation by providing workshops and enrichment programs for the children to learn about the forest around them.
- Placement of English teachers in the Mangala Government School.
- Provision of scholarships to students in order to encourage the children continue their education.
- Provision of new student desks with the help of Bloom & Give, a social enterprise that supports girls education in India.
- Addition of a school bus: This has made one of the biggest differences in attendance because children now have a way to safely, and easily get to school. The school bus picks up 75 children traveling distance of 55 km daily. Before the school bus, children had to walk miles through he wildlife park and many refused to come because they were afraid.
Nithila’s work with the school builds upon her philosophy that good education should be available to all children of India regardless of class, caste, gender and socio-economic status. The government school network in India has the largest reach and is free and open to anyone regardless of their socio-economic background. But to a large extent it is a broken system that lacks quality teaching. Her goal is to place efforts towards fixing the system to create the best opportunity for making a difference for the most marginalized communities in India.
Nithila also makes a huge effort in enriching the existing curriculum by conducting workshops on science, wildlife and conservation; keeping in mind that in one generation people from this area have lost access to the forests that once were their home. In Nithila’s words: “The view that people living in close proximity to forests are the enemy of wildlife and that conservation can only be possible in so called “inviolate forests” is problematic. People, especially the Adivasis have always lived here, they have co-existed peacefully. If today the human-animal conflict is on the rise, perhaps it is time to reexamine the government’s conservation strategies”.
In the month of June, 100% of Bloom & Give’s net profits went to fund new desks for the Mangala School. The new desks are built in long rows that seat six children and have a place beneath to store their materials. Although it may be small, it is one step in improving the quality of education for these children.
It was an immense honor to interview Nithila via phone all the way in India to learn more about the inspiring work she and her team is doing to help make the world a better place. I also appreciate the dedication and passion by Bloom & Give’s founders, Partha Raghunathan and Madhu Rajendran, who are an inspiration as well.
How you can help:
Every purchase you make at Bloom & Give goes to help fund girls’ education either through Vanam Foundation or Educate Girls To learn more about the initiate, click here.