Editor’s Note-Slow Conservation

Conservation science has long been seen as the domain of trained professionals. At CC, we have long acknowledged the role of indigenous knowledge, and published a special issue on the topic in 2013. We engage with this issue by visiting a fascinating project in the Nilgiris, a collaboration between Keystone Foundation, a local NGO and Cornell University, USA. Steven Wolf et al. provide an overview of the project which attempts to integrate research and practice towards conservation and sustainable development. Their article is linked to seven research pieces (online only) written by seven by pairs of student researchers including an undergraduate student from Cornell and a young Adivasi community member from the Nilgiris.

Kartik Shanker

Slow conservation in the Nilgiris Field Learning Center: an integrative model of education, research, and practice

Feature|Steven Wolf, Neema Kudva, Anita Varghese, Andrew Willford, Rebecca Stolzfus, Snehlata Nath, Pratim Roy | 12.4|

Early attempts at environmental conservation, as represented in the environmentalism of the 1960s and early 1970s were shaped by deep ecology arguments for the intrinsic value of nature independent of social and economic utility to humans. These values combined with newly recognised ecological risks to produce so-called “fortress conservation”, strategies premised on excluding people and economic processes from protected areas dedicated to nature conservation. The shift away from this position began in the 1970s as public agencies, donors, activists, and researchers confronted socioeconomic, political, and ethical problems linked to displacement of local people in efforts to arrest deforestation, loss of biodiversity, unsustainable fishing and other resource-extraction practices. The strategies that began to emerge aim to achieve and consolidate conservation gains by promoting secure livelihoods that allow local people to shift away from ecologically unsustainable practices. While there is considerable heterogeneity under this big tent of sustainable development, the relationships between human-centered and nature-centered objectives remain substantially unclear.

We need new approaches to conservation, and we need to reflect critically on experiments underway. At the Nilgiris Field Learning Center (hereafter NFLC), in partnership with the indigenous communities, we cross boundaries of disciplines, cultures, languages, organisations, scales, and the worlds of theory and practice as we pursue our goals. This is a collaborative project of a mid-sized NGO, Keystone Foundation, based in Kotagiri, Nilgiris District, Tamil Nadu, and a large higher education institution, Cornell University, based in Ithaca, New York. Our collaboration aims to create an integrative model of education, research, and practice focused on issues of environmental conservation and sustainable development. The sprawling Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve (NBR)—a global ecological diversity and endemism hotspot—provides an ideal setting for this experiment. It contains a broad range of landscapes from protected areas, wildlife sanctuaries and large tracts of reserve forests to thriving plantation and commercial agriculture, an active tourism industry and a real estate boom fuelled by India’s economic growth that is reshaping urbanisation in the hills, including towns like Kotagiri. The NBR also contains a great diversity of cultures and communities including more than 30 adivasi (indigenous) groups who, at about 16 percent of the total NBR population of 1.2 million people, are among the region’s poorest and most marginalised. The scale and complexity of challenges and changes we observe in the region provide an ideal setting to develop and test a new model of environmental conservation and sustainable development.

This article lays out a conceptual framework for this boundary pushing experiment. In the e-edition of Current Conservation, this article is linked to seven research briefs by pairs of NFLC student researchers— an undergraduate student from Cornell working with their partner, a young Adivasi community member from the Nilgiris. The NFLC research projects have been operating for more than 5 years. The briefs highlight aspects of the work students did over 15 weeks in spring 2017.

Connecting conservation to development: three approaches

At the scale of the globe and within the Nilgiris, our analyses of biodiversity, forest health, water resources, waste production, and the human welfare implications of environmental change and economic development indicate the urgent need for both environmental conservation and sustainable development. By many measures, historical processes of ecosystem degradation are not just unchecked, they are accelerating. The cumulative effects of degradation and feedbacks between multiple stressors compound the conservation challenge. The results of existing efforts to mobilise public authority (government), private interests (markets), and collective solidarity (community) to advance conservation are very modest when examined against the scope of the challenge. Against this backdrop, there is a need to think critically, creatively, and pragmatically about conservation and to explore a range of alternatives. Any project of critique and potential reconstruction must encompass both means (i.e. techniques, strategies) and ends (i.e. objectives, goals) of conservation.

Here, we will discuss three popular conservation strategies to highlight interplay between environmental conservation and sustainable development: Payments for Ecosystems Services (PES), Integrated Conservation and Development Projects (ICDP), and the Biodiversity and Community Health initiative (BaCH).

Payments for Ecosystems Services (PES), schemes that provide financial incentives to secure a range of goods and services humans derive from nature, have emerged as a dominant way to talk about conservation. The PES paradigm is strictly anthropocentric. The mechanism and the justification for securing ecosystems lies in the functional value of nature in relation to human security, wellbeing and prosperity. Under the logic of PES, the beneficiaries of healthy ecosystems pay for their conservation. For example, downstream cities pay upstream forested communities to conserve water flows and the landscapes on which these flows depend. Over time, PES has become increasingly integrated with efforts to address poverty, and it is now standard practice to identify these initiatives as “pro-poor” conservation schemes.

Explicit engagement with the economics of conservation is also represented in Integrated Conservation and Development Projects (ICDP). Originating in the 1980s, ICDPs are biodiversity conservation programmes that involve an economic development component. By attending to material needs and livelihoods of local people, these projects seek to restructure linkages between the economic behaviours of local people and the integrity of ecosystems. For example, Keystone Foundation, a core partner in the NFLC, advances livelihoods, enterprise, and environmental conservation through a programme of adding value and retail marketing of non-timber forest products including honey, resin, and spices.

Both PES and ICDP seek to align economic interests of local actors with environmental conservation objectives. These concepts are part of a larger set of ideas in which environmental conservation and socioeconomic wellbeing are pursued as interdependent and mutually reinforcing objectives under the overarching goal of sustainable development. Despite widespread agreement regarding the need for an integrated socioecological approach, we do not have fully developed models to guide investment, interventions and assessment. More importantly, case studies and reviews of PES and ICDP implementation have highlighted problems in terms of effectiveness, efficiency and equity. For example, these interventions often poorly reflect the interests and ambitions of local people, women in particular. Further, these efforts are difficult to sustain after the initial stream of investment from external funders comes to an end, and it is not clear that these place-based efforts can scale up to produce transformative change. Given the experience to date, we lack solid evidence that these models of an integrated approach can deliver ecological conservation and inclusive economic development at different scales and in a full range of contexts.

Our third example of pursuing integrated thinking is represented by the Biodiversity and Community Health (BaCH) initiative, a consortium of leading global organisations dedicated to achieving the goals of biodiversity conservation and food and health security. This group aims to “leverage … ecosystems and biodiversity as well as knowledge, skills and capabilities of the populations living in close proximity to biological resources.” They place special emphasis on employing bioresources and traditional knowledge in development strategies that explicitly brings in a health and nutrition dimension into the environment-development binary. This expanded focus also opens up issues of community engagement and local control over natural resources in different ways, including highlighting the importance of long term strategies of education and building community awareness of environmental changes and challenges.

These three integrated approaches to conservation highlight a range of binaries – considerations or categories that are traditionally set in an oppositional relationship. The ecology-economy binary receives the most attention, but we must also recognise other categories and boundaries (we list additional binaries that we identify as consequential in Infographic 1). Addressing these contrasting ideals and the relationships between them in specific places and contexts presents opportunities to relax tensions and to develop new ideas and practices. Through our work in the NFLC, we have developed curricula, community-engaged research projects, and ways of working that blur traditional boundaries and advance an encompassing integrated approach to conservation of people and nature. In advancing a next-generation approach to environmental conservation and sustainable development, we identify an opportunity to both broaden conversation and attract new actors, interests, legitimacy, and energy.


Radical collaboration: towards an ambitious integration for sustainability

The focus of the NFLC is sustainable development through radical collaborations. We pursue integration by focusing on blending and blurring categories identified in the figure above rather than by focusing on any one model that seeks integration across economy, ecology and health. The programme – which is bilingual – is premised on partnerships among Cornell University-based researchers-educators and undergraduate students from across disciplines, Keystone Foundation staff rooted in practice, and Adivasi students from the communities Keystone works with in the Nilgiris. Our ability to bring Adivasi students into these partnerships rests largely on collaboration with the Keystone Foundation and their relationships with 12 tribal groups, who make their livelihoods through a combination of strategies that include subsistence agriculture, growing small quantities of commercial crops like tea or coffee, wage labour in plantations and other regional industries, and gathering non-timber forest produce such as honey. The NFLC is intentionally structured around the expertise and experience of varied groups to integrate knowledge pluralism, experience, interdisciplinarity and diversity into every learning interaction. By bringing university students from the global North to Kotagiri to live, study and conduct field research with tribal peers from the Nilgiris, we invite and structure cultural collisions that present opportunities for fundamental reflections on what constitutes valid knowledge, the fluidity of cultural norms, and the range of social and ecological interactions that structure opportunities and constraints to conservation.

The multidimensional conception of conservation represented by the NFLC is illustrated by the set of seven research briefs published by NFLC students in the online supplement to this issue of Current Conservation. The articles address forest governance, human-wildlife conflict, sanitation, water resource management, nutrition, health and healthcare in the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve. In terms of research, the attention to ecological and socioeconomic concerns points to the integrated approach to analysis and development we seek to advance within the NFLC. In terms of pedagogy, bringing undergraduate research to publication – both Cornell and Keystone students’ – in a manner tightly linked to an educational programme is, itself, an example of crossing boundaries.

Are we succeeding in our efforts? Going by measures tracking learning outcomes for students in the short-term, yes. We track changes in student behaviour and attitudes as well as proficiency, skill and knowledge acquisition at the end of their 15 week programme in Kotagiri. The results, and the numbers of our Cornell students pursuing Honor’s Thesis when they return to Ithaca, make us cautiously optimistic that our curricular innovations are producing positive results for students interested in sustainable development. Our ability to recruit Cornell students to join the programme on a consistent basis remains an open question. The NFLC has a reputation on campus for being a rewarding but intense and demanding experience, and many students who seek to study abroad may be attracted to looser, less ambitious programmes. The Tribal Advisory Council convened by Keystone continues to support the programme enthusiastically, and the NGO partners at NFLC note two significant organisational impacts: they have moved into new programme areas in community health and human-wildlife interactions to further their goals of eco-development. They are also able to partner with and absorb talented Adivasi students into their work, even as they note being stretched in ways they had not anticipated. Progress on the collaborative research projects between Cornell faculty and Keystone staff, however, remains uneven due to a number of reasons including lack of faculty and staff time, difficulties in raising money to support collaborative research embedded in communities, and the challenges of combining the norms of scientific research with the practical demands of delivering support to communities. Our successes at creating an integrative model of learning and action that blurs boundaries allows us to remain optimistic, even as we continue to experiment in efforts to combine our strengths to develop pragmatic responses to the challenges of ecological conservation and sustainable development in the Nilgiris.


We acknowledge the valuable contributions of reviewers and editors supporting Current Conservation, and we thank Anna Callahan and Brian Hutchinson for editorial assistance at Cornell University. We want to recognise contributions of Paige Wagar of Cornell University and Vijayan, a NFLC student who lives in the Sathyamangalam region.

Steven Wolf teaches and conducts research on political economy of environment at Cornell University. Together with his Finnish wife he is raising two kids and working hard to keep one eye on socioecological problems and the other one on opportunities for enchantment.

Neema Kudva is an urban planner, architect and educator based at the Department of City and Regional Planning at Cornell University. Her research addresses community-based planning, small city urbanisation, and pedagogical experiments around citizenship and engagement. She is the current Faculty Lead for the NFLC

Anita Varghese is deputy-director at Keystone Foundation and is trained in forest ecology. Her interests are in plant ecology, sustainable harvesting of forest products, endangered species, traditional ecological knowledge and forest management.

Andrew Willford is Professor of Anthropology at Cornell University.  His research has focused on ethnic identity, the politics of development, and mental health in Malaysia and India. His publications include Tamils and the Haunting of Justice: History and Recognition in Malaysia’s Plantations (2014)

Rebecca Stolzfus is President, Goshen College, and Professor-Emerita, Nutritional Sciences and Global Health, Cornell University.

Snehlata Nath is one of the founder directors of Keystone Foundation and is trained in development economics. Her interests are in non-timber forest products, agrobiodiversity, indigenous people’s issues, and community well-being. She works with several field based organisations across South and South East Asia on issues of forest-based livelihoods.

Pratim Roy is one of the founder directors of Keystone Foundation, and is trained in ecology and environmental diplomacy. He is interested in bees, water, wetlands, advocacy, and the politics of environmental change. His vision of a collaboration with Cornell University has resulted in the Nilgiris Field Learning Center.

Jobin Varghese is a PhD scholar at IISER-Tirupati, figuring out the ‘hows’ and ‘wheres’ of bird movements in Western Ghats. He illustrates to preserve his sanity.




Human-Wildlife Conflict: The Case of Gaur in Kotagiri

Infocus |Kieran Micka-Maloy and Prasath. G |

Gaur grazing in a tea estate. Credits: Mira Kudva Driskell, NFLC 2017

Gaur are large herbivores found throughout the Indian subcontinent. In recent years, increasing numbers of gaur are moving through the town of Kotagiri for the first time since humans settled there. Gaur are known to attack people when provoked and can kill people. Although there are records of gaur straying into urban areas from as early as 1922, only in recent years have gaur routinely lived in human-dominated landscapes. Discussing gaur populations throughout the Indian subcontinent, Choudhury wrote “conflict between gaur and humans is not a serious conservation problem. It is mainly confined to some crop depredation, especially in the forest villages and encroachments.” (2002: 214).
Something seems to have changed since. In parts of Kotagiri—a town of over 35,000 residents rather than a “forest village”—gaur appear daily, and human-gaur conflict looms large in many people’s minds. People tell stories of gaur eating their garden plants, damaging their property, injuring people, and in a few extreme cases, killing people. The threat of gaur causes people to change their behaviour to stay safe—foregoing walking at night, for example. Other small urban areas close to forests are reporting similar experiences, and the intensity of human-gaur conflict is increasing.

A typical landscape in the study area: houses in the valley surrounded by tea estates. Credits: Kieran Micka-Maloy, NFLC 2017

During interviews, residents of our study area often expressed dissatisfaction with the current state of human-gaur interaction and frustration at the lack options for dealing with the issue. Studying gaur’s interactions with human settlements in a small urban area such as the valley shown in Map 1 has the potential to illuminate gaur behavioural patterns in response to human intervention on the landscape. Through gaur monitoring, stakeholder surveys, and mapping land use, fences, and other structures, we gathered results that speak to the relationship between humans and gaur in Kotagiri (see Map 1). We conducted 40 interviews of people in Happy Valley, a semi-urban settlement in Kotagiri, hoping to gain insight into how often gaur travel through the area, how people perceive gaur, how people interact with and take precautions against the animals, and how land use in the area has changed in recent years. We conducted our interviews by approaching homes and businesses within the study area, and interviewing willing adults who either lived or worked on the property. For stakeholders with man-made barriers on their property, we asked an additional set of questions about how and why they built their barrier.

The relationships shown in Figure 1 are drawn from the results of our field research. We start outside of the city, in the forest. One man painted a particularly bleak picture of the state of the forest: “even with restrictions, people are still cutting trees…many gaur are starving. There isn’t enough food for them. Gaur need 100 liters of water per day, but the environment cannot handle that.” In degraded environments, gaur are often attracted to the areas that also draw people, and for the same reasons: the presence of food and water sources.

People we surveyed in our study area see gaur herds on average about five days per week. While there is nothing inherently negative about human-gaur interactions, they can lead to conflict. From the proliferation of fencing, largely built to keep gaur away (Map 1),  to people’s perceptions of gaur, the concern with conflict was clear. Results of this conflict can range from the relatively benign, like someone being unable to put out laundry because a gaur is in their yard, to the extreme, like death. We found that more than 60% of our respondents consider gaur problematic. The conventional wisdom is that conflict flows naturally from the interaction between these two species, and we certainly found that to be the case in our study area.

From conflict flowed short-term solutions, meant to manage gaur’s presence in people’s lives. These solutions range from shouting and throwing rocks to drive gaur away to staying inside whenever a gaur comes into one’s yard and putting up fences to keep them out. These solutions do nothing to stop human gaur conflict (HGC) in the long term, and most are not very effective at avoiding conflict in the short term either. Furthermore, many of these solutions create more HGC, feeding into a cycle. For example, when someone throws a rock at a gaur as a short-term intervention to make it leave their property, the gaur may become injured, scared, and angry, making the gaur more erratic in the moment, more fearful of humans in the long term, and overall more likely to cause conflict. One woman told us of an incident where some men were chasing a gaur away by throwing stones at it. The gaur started running across a narrow path above her house to escape. It slipped on the slope and fell onto her roof while she was inside the house, causing serious damage to her home, and then ran away, breaking all of her fences on the way out. While the men only intended to make the gaur move on, they ended up causing much more damage than if they had let it be. Stories like this are common throughout our study area, and problematic—because chasing gaur away by either making noise or throwing rocks was the most frequent response when we asked people what they do when they see a gaur.

The repeated use of short-term solutions also leads to a sense of frustration and helplessness among communities struggling to manage their interactions with gaur. We found that use of such ineffective solutions as yelling at gaur and throwing rocks at them to drive them away seems to make it more difficult for residents to imagine effective long term solutions to the problem. The two most popular answers when asked how to deal with the issue of gaur were that the Forest Department (FD) should solve the problem and “I don’t know,” neither of which show confidence in communities’ own ability to effectively manage gaur. This also ties back to the role of the FD, which has little history of working with communities in human-dominated landscapes, but is nonetheless seen as the only actor equipped to deal with wildlife by many stakeholders surveyed.

Building barriers is another response to the frequent presence of gaur. In Figure 1, we drew two arrows heading out from gaur. The arrow to the left represents what happens when barriers are effective at keeping gaur away. Gaur are successfully deterred from entering human areas, but we do not know where they go instead. Since their traditional habitats are being destroyed, barring them from towns and cities could leave them vulnerable. Future research and conflict management strategies must cross this rural-urban divide, taking into account effects on gaur in both landscapes.

The arrow to the right leads through the barrier, representing what happens when barriers are non-existent or ineffective. Ineffective barriers lead to new conflict. The animal might be injured trying to cross, and people incur a monetary cost when they either fix the barrier or build a new one. Our research indicates that effective barriers can be good investments in certain contexts; however, barriers that gaur can jump over or ones that gaur break regularly provide little to no deterrence for the animals. This is concerning, as both our barrier mapping data (Map 1) and our survey results showed that even though gaur deterrence is the main reason people build barriers, ineffective ones, predominantly made of wire mesh or barbed wire by small landholders, have proliferated around Kotagiri. In our study area, as Map 1 shows, disconnected and spread out small residential development is interspersed with open areas of tea cultivation that gaur can easily move through. Large landholders (typically institutions), in contrast, have the resources to build effective barriers to make their campuses gaur-proof, building sturdier fences that are often a combination of stone, concrete and other materials. In doing so, they further channel gaur into smaller landholders’ spaces. As of now, there are still unbarricaded pathways that gaur use to access food, water, and resting areas, but this could change as more fences are constructed. We spoke with one man, for instance, who said he kept a lawn next to his house unfenced because it was one of the only ways gaur could access a water source from the forest. But this man is considering selling his land to housing developers. One thing that is abundantly clear is that there is no coordination between individual landholders to try to accommodate gaur movement, or even to agree on an effective way of keeping them out.

The final component of our research looked at potential solutions to Kotagiri’s HGC, looking at governance, land management, and urban planning solutions, and drawing on national and international examples. We found that by combining ecological and social aspects of land use planning, cities can reduce habitat fragmentation while bolstering their residents’ security and empowerment, thus creating mutually beneficial outcomes for both animals and people.

One way to reduce HGC is to focus on improving governance. Elliot & Molles (2016) argue that educating people about how to live amidst wild-animals is more important than managing animals themselves. Nepal’s equivalent of the FD partners with NGOs with sociological expertise and community connections. It has instituted a popular program that educates communities about crops to plant that do not attract elephants. Besides educating people, government should also work with communities to implement human-wildlife management solutions. India’s Elephant Task Force plan provides funding for communities to set and implement yearly elephant conflict-related goals in tandem with the government’s own interventions. By incorporating the Kotagiri community into planning processes and educating them on good practices for dealing with gaur, the FD could greatly reduce HGC.

Land use planning also offers solutions to HGC. Habitat fragmentation, which forms ecological traps that prevent animals from returning to the wilderness, causes human-wildlife interaction. Once habitats are fragmented, there is little chance of un-fragmenting them. To prevent habitat fragmentation, planning must shift to focus on ecological landscapes (and how cities affect them), rather than focusing only on urban areas. Wildlife corridors (WCs), connecting disparate habitat fragments with linear protected natural areas that animals can travel through, are one popular ecological planning intervention. Corridors can serve as tools not only for conservation, but also for natural education and recreation. Animals have been shown to utilize WCs for their intended purpose, but corridors are expensive to implement because they require buying large amounts of land, competing at market prices with more lucrative uses. In Kotagiri, corridors might connect forest areas where gaur rest with water sources, but potential paths are fast disappearing due to development. Smart Growth policies, which advocate channelling development into dense and compact areas, would aid WC implementation. Smart growth decreases human wildlife conflict by reducing the land area used by humans, thereby both conserving natural areas and reducing zones of interaction between natural and urban areas.

A major take-away from our secondary research is that coordination is necessary for any of these long-term solutions to be implemented. Given the mostly negative relationship between people and gaur in Kotagiri, such coordination is sorely needed, but it is often lacking. Our interviews and mapping showed that many individuals build poor quality barriers or throw rocks at gaur as short term solutions to HGC, which only exacerbate the problem. Meanwhile, the FD lacks the expertise required to work productively with the community. India’s large informal economy makes coordinated planning efforts more difficult, but the Elephant Task Force plan, which works with communities to implement long term landscape planning interventions, shows that it can be done effectively. If a similar long range plan were implemented to manage human-gaur interaction, Kotagiri would see greatly reduced HGC, and improved living conditions for both people and gaur.

Kieran Micka-Maloy is a graduate of Cornell University currently completing a William J. Clinton Fellowship in Khandar, Rajasthan

Prasath. G lives in the Gudalur Valley, Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve. He had completed 12th grade and is now graduate of the NFLC class of 2017. He continues to pursue his studies and is doing BSc from the Government Arts and Science College, Ooty.

Email: kf@keystone-foundation.org


Choudhury, A. 2002. Distribution and conservation of the Gaur Bos gaurus in the Indian Subcontinent. Mammal Review 32(3): 199-226.

Boequilha Leitao, A.and J. Ahern. 2002. Applying landscape ecological concepts and metrics in sustainable landscape planning. Landscape and Urban Planning 59:65-93.

Boone, R. B. and N. Thompson Hobbs. 2004. Lines around fragments: effects of fencing on large herbivores. African Journal of Range & Forage Science 21(3):147-58.

Dickman, A. J. 2010. Complexities of conflict: the importance of considering social factors for effectively resolving human-wildlife conflict. Animal Conservation 13(5): 458-66.

Lopucki, R., and I. Kitowski. 2017. How small cities affect the biodiversity of ground-dwelling mammals and the relevance of this knowledge in planning urban land expansion in terms of urban wildlife. Urban Ecosystems, 1-11

Map 1. Barriers to gaur movement in the study area.

Figure 1. Flow Chart of Human-Gaur Interaction. Credits: Micka Maloy and Prasath, NFLC 2017

Municipal Solid Waste Management in the Nilgiris

Infocus | Deepa Saharia and R. Gowtham |

Municipal waste collector. Credits: Mira Kudva Driskell, NFLC 2017

Since liberalization in the 1990s, India’s rapidly growing economy is seeing significant increases in production and consumption. This quick shift, combined with India’s widespread lack of waste and sanitation infrastructure, has led to unprecedented challenges in waste management. People are consuming packaged foods, bottled water and drinks, and digital technology in larger numbers than before. Some of this waste is recycled and proves to be an important livelihood source for several communities. Some of it decays within communities. In response to changes in the waste stream, solid waste management systems (SWM) are evolving to better match the national environmental policy and SWM rules put forth in 2016. These rules provide guidelines for separating and disposing of waste in environmentally responsible ways, but SWM varies greatly across different contexts. Change in the Nilgiris’ SWM system is slow and imperfect, creating negative health consequences for workers, residents and their environments, and exacerbating existing inequalities in the Nilgiris.

Our project focused on the SWM system in practice in selected villages in the Hubbuthalai Panchayat and in the small city of Coonoor, in the Nilgiris District. We followed the movement of waste from Point A where it is discarded to Point B where it decomposes or is turned into something new. We sought to understand the waste system and to understand the gaps in the waste management system, and why they exist. We built on preliminary work completed in 2015 and 2016 by student groups at the Nilgiris Field Learning Center (NFLC). This area is urbanizing rapidly and is populated by Sri Lankan repatriates, a thriving group of Badagas, small populations of Tamil speaking Adivasi, Scheduled Caste (SC) and other Hindu communities, as well as Muslims and a small number of people from North India. SWM and recycling in the Nilgiris serve as a case study for understanding the role inequality plays in the health and livelihoods of people who have to make decisions about waste.

Chart prepared for community presentation showing Municipal and Panchayat waste collection and disposal system. Credits: Saharia and Gowtham, NFLC 2017

We studied these questions using mixed research methods. We conducted surveys and examined drainage infrastructure inventories in peri-urban Hubbuthalai Panchayat to update inventories first mapped in 2015, as well as to further understand individual residents’ relationships to waste production and their responses to earlier SWM interventions. We also conducted open-ended interviews with all major stakeholders in the waste management system, including sanitation workers. We then surveyed recycling shops in the Coonoor Area, and connected re-processers—who break down recyclable materials for manufacturing—in bigger cities. Lastly, we mapped and documented types and comparative amounts of untreated sewage and solid waste dumped in the Coonoor River within the city boundaries.

Figure 1 Map of Hubbuthalai Panchayat and Coonoor City

Consequences of SWM in the Nilgiris

At our case sites waste comes from a range of places: households, markets, factories, hospitals, commercial establishments, tourist spots, and other institutions—all of which the local government recognizes as “waste generators”. The city of Coonoor, bordering Hubbuthalai, has a population of about 45,000 and produces 9-10 tons of waste daily including food waste, plastic wrappers, plastic vessels, papers, cardboard, cotton or plastic bags, packaging, clothes, and small quantities of metal or electronic waste. As residential and commercial establishments expand, they produce more daily waste in increasing amounts. While there are SWM systems in place in the Panchayat and the Municipality, the pristine SWM system described by government officials and wealthy citizens is far from the reality experienced by both densely packed urban and isolated rural residents who live near rivers and wetlands strewn with plastics, food waste, and fecal matter.

Figure 2 Waste trapped under a bridge in the Coonoor River (Source: NFLC 2017 Waste Team)

The river and air are contaminated by people burning waste behind their homes, using waste as fuel for cooking, or simply dumping waste in the drains next to their houses, on roadsides, and in water bodies. Unofficially dumped waste does not get picked up. Waste brought to a common government designated dumpsite is burned or eventually deposited in an unofficial dump site. Panchayat instructions shared with us by officials indicate that waste should be handed off to collectors—women who are employed with the task of managing waste.

The Panchayat employs Thoimai Mai Kavalars, or Neat Keepers, for 100 days each year under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA). The job requires that Thoi Mai Kavlars collect waste from at least 10 houses each day. A Thoi Mai Kavlar will start her day between 7 and 8:30 AM. Although she receives gloves, a facemask, and a smock, facemasks are not worn and gloves tear so easily that they are rarely used. A Thoi Mai Kavlar is supposed to collect waste that has already been segregated, but usually, she will spend time sorting the buckets of mixed waste discarded by households. After getting a significant quantity of waste, she will carry or drag the four sacks back to the Panchayat pits, which were often situated in a wetland or near a stream in our case villages. NREGA is meant to address rural underemployment and provide jobs, but the actual practices of collection and segregation are riddled with problems, including work safety issues, and the daily wages of INR 205/day have been inconsistently paid-out since demonetization in 2016.

Figure 3 Thoi Mai Kavlar sorting plastic from organic waste in a Panchayat pit (Source: NFLC 2017 Waste Team)

The Coonoor Municipality SWM system is supposed to operate in pathway similar to that of the Panchayat. But here, the SWM system is a public-private partnership. Half the wards use private contractors, employing fewer sanitary workers than the publicly managed areas, even though these wards include the main city centers and a larger workload. Eventually, the Municipality plans to outsource collection completely. Coonoor’s sanitary workers collect waste from households and bring it to municipality-owned bins. The city’s sanitary workers do not segregate the waste they collect and many households bring mixed waste to the bins independently. Unrecognized households and industries also produce waste that is not counted in the official 9-10 tons/day. The waste workers (employed by the private contractors and the municipality), are all women who are poorer residents and/or belong to Scheduled Castes (SC), spoke about being exposed to illness from the waste. Waste workers’ employment is precarious—it is partially regulated, but they do not receive health and sanitation protections or proper compensation.

At the next stage, waste is either decomposed or reprocessed. In the Panchayat, organic waste in the pits is covered with cow dung and wood ash to become manure and later sold. The city uses lorries to bring waste from the bins to a two-acre compost yard, where the organic waste decomposes. Inorganic waste, that often combusts, goes to an open landfill at the top of a hill outside of the city’s boundaries. The city has outsourced the decomposition process, too. Officially, Hubbuthalai Panchayat sends its plastic to other panchayats in the Nilgiris, to mix into tar that is used for road-building. But, unofficially, all the waste collectors bring recyclable waste for sale to the recycling shops in the Coonoor Market and keep the sale proceeds. These shops also send people out into villages and neighborhoods on a regular basis to buy recyclables. The differences between the waste management in the city and the rural areas are summarized below.


Coonoor Municipality Hubbuthalai Panchayat
Public-private partnership Public SWM system
Waste Workers

  • Sanitary Workers, permanently employed by the government or a corporation
  • Women workers
Waste Workers

  • Thoi Mai Kavlars, temporarily employed for under NREGA
  • Women workers
Waste dumped

  • in bins
  • on the streets
  • in the river
Waste dumped

  • in pits
  • on the streets
  • in the drainage
Organic waste decomposed in landfill and sold by corporation

  • Problems with combustion
  • Problems with contamination
Organic waste decomposed in pit and sold by Panchayat

  • Problems with participation
  • Problems with dumping in pit
Recyclables sold to shops by households, workers and municipality Recyclables sold to shops and local collectors by households and Thoi Mai Kavlars


Livelihoods from Waste: The Recycling Network in Tamil Nadu

Recyclable materials from the Nilgiris are aggregated and sent around and out of the region—as part of a complex network. Waste generators sort out those materials that can be sold, including old vessels, newspapers, cardboard boxes, leather, old clothes, sacks, tins, and plastics. Collectors, usually men, will purchase recyclable materials from the households and Panchayats, or collect them from roadsides. Additionally, formal sanitary workers usually hold recyclable waste aside to supplement their income. Then, recycling collectors transport materials to the recycling shops in the Coonoor Market Place or in Ottupattarai. At this stage prices are generally quite low.

Once these shops collect between 1 and 5 tonnes, they will rent a large lorry to bring the materials—separated by type and materials (plastics, metals, paper, etc.) —to the next stage of aggregation. Most of the aggregators at this stage are located in Mettupalayam, a town of about 65,000 about 30 kilometers away from Coonoor in the foothills of the Western Ghats.  Many of the men who own these shops and the workers who do the sorting are “Shets” (a term used for both local Muslims and for outsiders from North India). Despite the sharp pieces of metals, the broken bottles and the strong summer heat, few are concerned with safety during the sorting and aggregating process in open yards.

Both specialist and generalist aggregators sell their items based on type and quality. Loads of plastics, papers or metals move to the next stage of bottle companies, paper mills, foundries or material shredders in various cities within the Tamil Nadu state and travel across state borders in separate trucks. The usage of heavy machinery at this stage of reprocessing in units is high, compared to lower aggregators in the recycling chain.  However, we observed a similar lack of regard to safety both by workers and employers.

Recycling networks thus link small towns in the Nilgiris District to larger towns and cities across the state. Recycling is completely in the private arena. It is a cash economy largely operating in the informal sector, where regulation is slight. Despite this extensive and widespread network, policy makers in the Nilgiris are trying to address recycling issues with incomplete solutions. The Coonoor Municipality wants to purchase its own plastic melting machine because plastics pollute the river so heavily. But little thought seems to be given to the scale of plastic collection necessary to drive the process, the infrastructure requirements for effective waste processing, or the negative impacts this policy will have on the poorer, excluded populations of waste collectors or further along the network of Muslim and Shet recycling workers and owners.

The pathway of waste to the pit, the landfill, or the re-processor holds significant consequences for the people who work with waste and live nearby. In this study, we hoped to understand these consequences on people and the environment better, and set the stage for stronger SWM in the Nilgiris. The practical implications of our work are several and include needed improvements in precarious labor conditions of waste workers, the necessity for policy to consider unofficial dumping of waste, waste burning practices and the impacts of waste contamination on water streams that are fundamental for thriving forests and wildlife in the Nilgiris.  Our work demonstrates that the problem of ecological conservations is tied closely to the provision of effective basic services such as solid waste management.



We would like to thank our mentors Neema Kudva, T. Balachander, Gokul Halan and the faculty and staff of the Nilgiris Field Learning Center, the Keystone Foundation, and our translator for enriching our experiences and making our research possible.


Deepa Saharia’18 just graduated from the Industrial and Labor Relations Program at the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University. She can be reached at ds955@cornell.edu.

Gowtham lives in the Sigur plateau, Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve. He is a graduate of the NFLC class of 2017 and has a degree in civil engineering. Currently he is employed in the construction sector and works in the city of Coimbatore. Email: kf@keystone-foundation.org


Hygiene and child care in two Nilgiris villages

Infocus |Vanessa Rodriguez and Abhinaya|

Mother with child during an interview. Credits: Mira Kudva Driskell, NFLC 2017

Diarrhea is a major cause of death of young children, globally and in India (UNICEF 2017). In 2015, 5.9 million children under the age of five died (WHO 2016). With every episode of diarrhea, the body loses nutrients and body fluids. Chronic episodes can lead to malnutrition and potential death. Poor hygiene and sanitation contributes to repeated episodes of diarrhea and overall, poor physical development. In unhygienic environments, young children ingest bacteria—leading to gut inflammation, diarrhea and low nutrient absorption. All of these can inhibit growth and development (Ngure et. al. 2014). According to the World Health Organization (2008), improved water, hygiene and sanitation practices could decrease the global disease burden by 9.1 percent. We view disease and health, management of water and waste, and socioeconomic development and ecological conservation as interdependent. These connections exist at the level of individuals, households, villages and landscapes. This research addresses one small piece of this complex, multi-scaled challenge.

Our project focus was mother and child health in two non-tribal villages in the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve, with the purpose of understanding environmental hygiene at the child, household, and village level. We conducted a health survey in twenty-one randomly selected households with young children. The health survey, developed by Cornell faculty with Keystone Foundation staff, evaluated mothers’ perception of health risk factors and provided insight on mothers’ lives. The survey had been tested and implemented in tribal communities across the Nilgiris before we started our field work. In addition to conducting the health survey in our case villages, we made detailed direct observations of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) conditions in two households with children under the age of two.  Using WASH observation methodology appropriated/gleaned/repurposed from a fecal-oral transmission study carried out in Zimbabwe (Ngure et al. 2013), we observed two mother-child-pairs in their natural home setting for six consecutive hours. We recorded interactions between the mother-child pairs and their environments and water supply, including water use, handwashing events, and objects mouthed by the child. The child in one pair was two-months and the other child was two-years old. All participants provided written consent, and study protocols were approved by the Institutional Review Board for Human Participants at Cornell University.

Hygiene and sanitation at various levels affect child health —ranging from the general surroundings in the village to the area around the house, and the intra-household micro-environment around the child. We used a socio-ecological health model, adapted from Dahlgren and Whitehead’s health determinants model (1991), at three levels to illustrate this vis-a-vis child health:   

  • The Mother-Child Dyad level is the focus of the child’s hygienic environment. This level of analysis is concerned with questions such as “How and when do caregivers wash hands? Where are children playing, and with what?  What enters the mouth of the child?”
  • The Household level describes the immediate environment of the dyad. Our research focused on how this environment level was maintained with particular attention to the unique needs of a child. This level is concerned with questions such as “What risks of food or water contamination exist? Is the child able to play and explore without unintentionally exposing him or herself to bacteria?”
  • The Village and General Socio-Economic, Cultural, & Environmental Conditions level encompass the sociocultural practices and government services/interventions affecting the community. This level is concerned with questions such as “Where do people defecate and urinate? Where do animals defecate? Are defecation sites near water sources? How is the solid waste treated – is it left in the open, taken away, or turned into different matter?”

Using the socio-ecological model described, we analyzed our data to understand the risk factors associated with hygiene and sanitation practices.

At the general village level, the Government of Tamil Nadu (GoTN) built a public pit-latrine with the intention of stopping open defecation and preventing human waste from contaminating drinking water sources. However, the public toilet shut down within five years because it was not maintained. Villagers were left with the remaining options to either (1) build private toilets using GoTN-provided subsidies or (2) continue to practice open defecation. Of the mothers surveyed, 17 out of 21 reported owning and using private pit-latrines.

Bathing area with goat shed behind cross the main path from house, latrine hidden behind tree. Credits: Neema Kudva, NFLC 2017

In addition, we had access to Keystone Foundation data on the safety of the public water supply in both villages. Between December 2015 and September 2016, Keystone tested the water wells of both villages and found fecal coliform bacteria, indicating fecal contamination in the water supply. In 2015, Tamil Nadu experienced heavy rainfall which could have caused fecal matter to leach into the water supply. No fecal coliform was found in the water supply of villages as of March 2017—before the onset of the south-west monsoon rains.

At the household level, we looked specifically at the private water storage containers. The water stored is typically used for consumption, cleaning, bathing, and/or washing. All the houses had uncovered or partially covered storage containers of water – exposing them to potential contamination. The larger concern in water contamination is how mothers take water from storage units within the home, especially in the kitchen and in the adjoining bathing areas off the yards. From what was observed, mothers used a cup or small pitcher to gather water from the containers. This cup is exposed to potential bacteria when it is placed on the ground or when picked up by an unwashed hand. If the cup is not clean prior to each water gathering session, the contamination risk of the whole water storage container increases.

At the mother-child dyad level, we noted several gaps between knowledge and practice of good hygiene.  In our surveys, the mothers all agreed that handwashing with water alone does not clean hands. Yet, during our WASH observations, the two mothers almost exclusively only washed their hands with water. The only time we observed a mother washing her hands with soap was after she had cleaned kitchen vessels. Washing with water alone is only effective in removing some bacteria from hands. Research has shown that soap is the most effective in removing bacteria.  Washing with water alone reduces the presence of bacteria to 23%, but if hands are washed with soap the presence of bacteria can be reduced to 8% (Burton et al. 2011).

Young girl washing a cup at a standpipe. Credits: Neema Kudva, NGLC 2017

Mothers frequently washed hands that were visibly dirty. For example, they washed hands before and after food consumption, and after completing housework (Figure 1). Yet in one observation, a mother cleaned her child’s soiled bottom, did not wash her hands and then breastfed her child. This observation aligned with survey responses from mothers on washing their hands after handling children’s feces (Figure 1).

Children’s hygiene behaviors begin at an early age. We observed the 2-year old mimicking certain hygiene practices.  She washed her hands after eating without being directed. She played without apparent consideration of potential germs but swept up after playing with leaves. There were two instances in which the child’s hands were washed with help of a caretaker. A grandmother poured water over the child’s hands before she ate, and a mother washed her child’s face and hands during a daytime bath.

Young children are constantly exploring and learning about the world using their senses. Their curiosity to touch and put objects in their mouths outweighs their desire to be “clean.” During the WASH observation, the two-year-old was constantly touching different objects—from the walls to a mini wallet to a protractor. She would slam some of the objects on the floor and pick them right back up, frequently putting objects in her mouth regardless of where the object had been before. This is typical developmental behavior. But it carries the risk of contamination with it, and caregivers must be knowledgeable and vigilant to protect young children from environmental hazards.

Analysis of observations data revealed household practices that compromise hygiene and inadequate handwashing. Together these practices are not sufficient to limit the ingestion of bacteria even if households are well-maintained and water is safe. During and after heavy rains, household water sources may become contaminated. Despite knowing that soap is a crucial component in eliminating bacteria during handwashing, our study respondents did not use soap effectively. In order to reduce the spread of bacteria and improve the overall health of mothers and children, we must encourage the use of soap during handwashing and increase the frequency of handwashing in general—, particularly around potential bacteria-transmitting events, such as defecating, cleaning, handling food and eating. Our study sheds light on gaps and opportunities at multiple levels. It raises questions of how to influence mothers towards good handwashing practices, and how to improve the use of soap in hygienic protection. Focusing on these critical points can advance the interrelated goals of health, socioeconomic development, and ecological conservation.



We would like to thank our mentors Rebecca Stoltzfus, Sharanya Das, and Shubh Swain, the faculty and staff of the Nilgiris Field Learning Center, the Keystone Foundation, our translator and the women and children who shared their time with us for enriching our experiences and making our research possible.

Vanessa Rodriguez just graduated from the Biology and Society Program at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University. She is available at vr252@cornell.edu.

Abhinaya lives in the Pillur Valley, Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve. She joined the NFLC after a B.Com degree. Currently she lives with her family helping with the agriculture work on their land.

Email: kf@keystone-foundation.org



Burton, M, E Cobb, P Donachie, et al. 2011. The Effect of Handwashing with Water or Soap on Bacterial Contamination of Hands. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 8: 97–104.

Dahlgren, G, and M Whitehead. 1991. Policies and Strategies to Promote Social Equity in Health. Institute of Futures Studies 1-67.

Ngure, FM, BM Reid, JH Humphrey, MN Mbuya, G Pelto and RJ Stoltzfus. 2014. Water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH), environmental enteropathy, nutrition, and early child development: making the links. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1308: 118-128.  

Ngure, FM, JH Humphrey, MN Mbuya, F Majo, K Mutasa, M Govha, E Mazarura, B chasekwa, AJ Prendergast, V Curtis, KJ Boor and RJ Stoltzfus. 2013. Formative Research on Hygiene Behaviors and Geophagy among Infants and Young Children and Implications of Exposure to Fecal Bacteria. The American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. 89(4):709-716.

Prüss-Üstün A, R Bos, F Gore, and J Bartram. 2008. Safer water, better health: costs, benefits and sustainability of interventions to protect and promote health. Geneva: World Health Organization. Accessed June 2017. http://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/10665/43840/1/9789241596435_eng.pdf.

UNICEF. 2017. Diarrhea remains a leading killer of young children, despite the availability of a simple treatment solution. UNICEF. Accessed June 2017. https://data.unicef.org/topic/child-health/diarrhoeal-disease/.

WHO. 2016. Children: Reducing Mortality Fact Sheet. World Health Organization. Accessed June 2017. http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs178/en/.



. Source: Rodriguez and Abinaya, NFLC 2017


Community Capacity and FRA Implementation: Local Factors Mediating Recognition of Community Forest Rights in the Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve of Tamil Nadu

Infocus | Jake. H. Pero and R. Arul Kumar|

Village Leader speaking at Village Forest Council meeting. Credits: Mira Kudva Driskell, NFLC 2017


The Government of India passed the Forest Rights Act (FRA) in 2006 to remedy historical injustices borne by indigenous communities throughout India.  These unjust practices refer to the seizing of ancestral tribal domains and displacement of tribal communities from forests beginning in the period of British colonization. These policies have continued in independent India and contribute to the social and economic marginalization of tribal peoples. The FRA aims to rectify these injustices in part through the recognition of Community Forest Rights (CFR), which allow tribal communities to freely access, use, and manage their traditional ancestral domains (i.e., forest regions linked to the history of tribal communities). Establishment of CFR has the potential to strengthen community identity, livelihoods, and the application of traditional ecological knowledge in forest management. Formalization of rights through FRA can enhance the autonomy of communities and their ability to advance forest planning and management. As recognized by theories of common pool resource management, vesting forest management authority with local people dependent on forest resources has the potential to strengthen environmental stewardship (Ostrom, 1990). At the same time, the implications of decentralization of forest governance for people and for forests are subject to ongoing debate. The analysis and politics of FRA reflect and contribute to this important discussion.

 Path towards Village A. Credits: Jake Pero, NFLC 2017

Challenges in Implementation

Despite FRA’s widespread promise, its benefits have failed to reach tribes across India.  Of the land eligible for CFR, only 3% has earned this recognition (CFR-LA, 2016). We explored this policy implementation problem in the Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve located within the State of Tamil Nadu.  We chose Sathyamangalam because both its home district of Erode and Tamil Nadu have a tenuous relationship with CFR. Though the Central Government of India passed the legislation in 2006, the government of Tamil Nadu issued a stay (moratorium) on granting land rights via FRA shortly thereafter. And though this stay was recently lifted, the state has yet to grant any CFR claims.  While implementation problems of FRA may derive from political economic factors (i.e., unwillingness of the state and the forest department to cede authority to tribal people), lack of capacity to initiate and pursue a CFR claim, and lack of demonstrated capacity to assume responsibility for forest management (e.g., monitor and conserve forest health, water resources, and biodiversity) may be important constraints. While political-economic dimensions of FRA have attracted substantial attention from researchers and advocates for tribal communities, to date there has been little research on community capacity applied to FRA implementation.  

In order to understand the resources communities have at their disposal to advance CFR claims – and gaps in capacity – we conducted research in four communities in Sathyamangalam in spring of 2017. This research presents opportunities to understand and strengthen the way communities advocate for themselves and communicate with state officials on sensitive issues of land rights. A focus on community capacity complements the existing research on political economic explanations for FRA implementation failures.

What is Capacity?

In assessing capacity, we sought to identify the community’s strengths and weaknesses for securing CFR.  To do so, we drew on a conceptual framework that emphasizes village resources, social relations, and catalyzing beliefs as the foundation of community capacity to address challenges and opportunities (Beckley et al., 2008).  Resources are assets that the community can mobilize, including the financial, natural, social, or human capital. Communities deploy resources via social relations that structure interactions with government agencies, commercial actors in the market, and civil society organizations.  Catalyzing beliefs prompt the community to articulate goals and take initiative. Attention to these components of community capacity allowed us to make sense of empirical observations from the villages.


We made observations and conducted interviews in four villages in a 10km radius within STR. These villages are composed of families in the Irula tribe, with Village A having Shola representation as well. We primarily collected data through interviews with individuals in each village including the village leader, members of the Forest Rights Committee (FRC), and the president of the Village Forest Council (VFC). The FRA requires that each village form a FRC to organize the application process.  As such, we spoke to eight FRC members, where two served as secretary and president, and four were women. The VFC is a joint forest management mechanism between the community and the Forest Department regarding the marketing of forest products. Interviews lasted 45 minutes, on average, and they were conducted outside people’s houses or at a local forest products processing facility. While interviews focused on specific individual’s experience with FRA implementation, up to 7 local people participated in conversations initiated by us with the support of our field guide and a translator.


Because the histories and politics mediating governance and property relations – both within the communities and in relation to external actors such as the Forest Department – are essential to an understanding of a specific community’s capacity and interest in mobilizing in response to the opportunity to formalize CFR claims, we are not in a position to explain levels of capacity across the four villages. Our focus in this article is on establishing the relevance of each of the three capacity components and investigating relevant strengths and deficits we observed through reflection on this conceptual framework.

The data we collected highlighted that villages A, B, C, and D attach different levels of significance to CFR, thus impacting their willingness to employ resources to advance a FRA claim. Further, the communities’ relationship with the forest and CFR are highly varied. First, we found that the village leader significantly impacts the community’s ambitions and pathways toward attaining CFR.  The village leader represents a key resource in the form of human capital necessary for galvanizing community support, forging relationships with outside parties, mobilizing resources, etc. Looking deeper, we noticed that the leader’s actions shape community resources, but also social relations and catalysts. For example, in Village A, the village leader disapproved of CFR, seeing it as a rival to the VFC. It was reported that he coordinated with the local government to develop an incompetent FRC as part of a strategy to ensure the VFC remain the village’s primary governance interface with the Forest Department and the forest itself.  In this case, the village leader mobilized resources and social relations to prevent attainment of CFR.

Attention to the formation and engagement of the villages’ FRC highlighted the importance of villages’ social relations to capacity to advance effective CFR claims. For example, in Village B the FRC was formed by the Thalavadi Adivasi Munnetra Sangam (TAMS), an NGO active in tribal affairs in Erode district.  To this day, this FRC consults TAMS in all CFR endeavors, and this relationship allows the village to interact productively with government officials in relation to ongoing efforts to formalize CFR rights.

Lastly, we found attitudes of individuals in the village regarding the Forest Department were key catalyzing beliefs for setting resources in motion.  Attaining a degree of autonomy from Forest Department restrictions on forest access is at the core of CFR. We found that people’s feelings about the Forest Department is important for understanding their willingness to take steps to become more independent.  For example, in Village A, many people viewed their existing relationship with the Forest Department as a source of income and security, and thus had little interest in CFR. In Village D, however, people expressed reservations about the Forest Department’s forest management plan and described actions they had taken that contradicted the Department to maintain forest health.  This display of independence points to a potential for the community to secure CFR by showcasing an ability to play an active role in forest management.

Forest Department Gate at Hasanur. Credits: Jake Pero, NFLC 2017


Research on the capacity of communities to make effective claims under FRA and to develop/demonstrate the capacity to manage forests independent of the Forest Department is important for understanding the slow pace of FRA implementation and the implications of FRA for community wellbeing and forest ecology. Attention to local factors mediating policy implementation complements attention to the interests and actions of public authorities. In applying an existing conceptual framework (Beckley et al., 2008) to assess community capacity, we find that attention to resources, relations, and beliefs can usefully support analysis and interventions. We note that beyond attention to the specific categories, we must address interplay among these components. Resources internal to villages, including leadership, are tightly linked to external relationships of villages, including those with representatives of the state and civil society. These relationships are highly variable across communities, and complementarity and substitutability of elements of capacity are not understood, conceptually or empirically.

As we continue to research community capacity in relation to CFR in Sathyamangalam and try to make sense of capacities for development at a larger scale, it will be important to understand these feedbacks and interdependencies. Further, future research on community capacity and its role in mediating recognition of CFR should incorporate analysis of variation in the specific rights individuals and communities emphasize. Looking to other villages’ experience with CFR through the lens of community capacity and examining the role of local capacity in mediating policy implementation can support policy analysis and development assistance planning.


We appreciate the communities that shared their stories. We also thank the guidance given by Keystone and Cornell faculty Snehlata Nath, Steven Wolf, Anita Varghese, and B. Mahadesh.


Jake H. Pero is graduate of Cornell University currently living in New York City, jhp245@cornell.edu

Arul Kumar lives in the Pillur Valley , Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve. He is a graduate of the NFLC class of 2017. Currently he is pursuing his second year at engineering college in Coimbatore.

Email: kf@keystone-foundation.org



Beckley, T. M., Martz, D., Nadeau, S., Wall, E., and B. Reimer. 2008. Multiple capacities, multiple outcomes: Delving deeper into the meaning of community capacity. Journal of Community and Rural Development 3(3): 56-75.

CFR-LA. 2016. Promise and performance: Ten years of the Forest Rights Act in India.  Citizens’ Report on Promise and Performance of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights Act), 2006, after 10 years of its Enactment.

Ostrom, Elinor. Governing the commons: The evolution of institutions for collective action (political economy of institutions and decisions). Cambridge University Press. 1990.


Loss of Land and Identity: An Indigenous Health Story

Infocus | Shaalini Ganesalingam and Abhinaya Devi|

An indigenous healer preparing herbs for a mixture. Credits: Mira Kudva Driskell, NFLC 2017

Many indigenous communities, such as those within the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve (NBR), experience health and wellbeing levels below the national average. The various tribes of the NBR, collectively referred to as “Adivasi”, the South Indian term for “indigenous”, suffer as the health disparity continues to widen, fueled by a gap in healthcare services. Inequalities in health and health care must be addressed for the good of all; as stated by the United Nations, “ensuring healthy lives and promoting well-being for all at all ages is important to building prosperous societies” (United Nations, 2017). This has been one of the Keystone Foundation’s goals to improve Adivasi wellbeing.  At Keystone’s Nilgiris Field Learning Center, my partner, an Irula student named Abinaya Devi, and I conducted an ethnographic study in two areas settled primarily by the Irula tribe. Our initial goal was to evaluate the efficacy of Keystone’s community health worker programs, but ultimately we shifted focus and concentrated on delineating the underlying factors that have led to poor health and wellbeing in indigenous communities.

Our observations underscore the strong bonds between indigenous communities and their lands, both in the NBR and around the globe. Environmental changes within the NBR are the result of a series of historical policies established by British colonizers and, subsequently, the Indian government. Whether the value of land is determined by measures of commercial profit or biodiversity, policies have consistently marginalized indigenous communities and disregarded or explicitly barred traditional indigenous practices associated with their native lands, such as slash-and-burn agriculture. Policies dating back to the 1800’s have resulted in loss of indigenous lands, usufruct rights, and traditional livelihoods. These changes to the land have degraded indigenous Irula identity and, ultimately, undermined the health and well-being of the Irulas (Parthasarthy, 140).

Recent droughts and increased exposure to non-indigenous groups weaken Adivasi community identity and contribute to poor health status. Despite acute stresses, the public healthcare system remains inaccessible to the Adivasis of the NBR. This inaccessibility is caused by discrimination and policies which inadvertently marginalize indigenous communities and their culture, echoing historic land use policies. Efforts to improve communications between the Adivasi tribes and government institutions must be made to increase accessibility to the public healthcare and to ameliorate socioeconomic and socioecological conditions.

Traditional way of life and historic pressures in the NBR

Annai Nerunji: Used by indigenous healers to cleanse blood. Credits: Shaalini Ganesalingam, NFLC 2017

Historically, the NBR has been home to several Adivasi tribes with linguistic evidence suggesting the Todas, Kotas, Irulas and Kurumbas, have been settled in the reserve for at least 2000 years (Zvelebil, 7). Although these tribes lived in geographically separate areas with limited contact with each other, they developed a trade of goods and services such as ghee, sorcery/healing, metal tools, honey, and resins. This trade not only forged strong economic and cultural relations between tribes but also demonstrates the importance of native lands and ecosystems to the livelihoods and well-being of the indigenous tribes.

While the semi-nomadic Irula tribe did receive goods through trade, their primary means of subsistence was through hunting and gathering non-timber forest products (NTFPs) in the lower-altitude subtropical forested areas (Blue Mountains, 285). Likely influenced by the peoples settled in the plains below, the Irulas developed intensive slash-and-burn or “swidden” agriculture. They would use tools made by the Kotas to cut down and burn select patches of the forests until only nutrient-rich ash remained. After a ritual worship of the Būmi Tāyi, or Mother Earth, the fields were sown. Typically, the plots would be cultivated for one or two seasons before being laid to fallow for three to five years (Zvelebil, 80). According to Henry Harkness’ observations in 1832, Irula gardens grew bananas, edible roots, jackfruit, chili, lime, and orange plants (Blue Mountains, 285). Additionally, the Irulas grew Italian, little, and finger millets, dating back to Neolithic times (Blue Mountains, 292-293).

The traditional way of life in the NBR has since been uprooted by historical policies implemented by the British and later the Indian government which directly or indirectly affect Adivasi connections to native lands. Since the late 1800’s, the British, valuing the commercial potential of the NBR, introduced several non-indigenous plants, such as cinchona, eucalyptus, coffee, and tea, which destroyed and continue to destroy the complex native ecosystem. For example, eucalyptus, originally introduced from Australia for commercial oil extraction, outcompete native plants for water, draining their soils of moisture. But it is the tea that arguably has had the greatest impact on the NBR’s hills, which have been blanketed by tea plantations since the 1960’s.

As the NBR hills suffered biodiversity loss and non-indigenous flora invasion, its native people also suffered from loss of rights and erasure of identity. To protect their commercial interests, the British created policies which denied Adivasis their land and usufruct rights to practice slash-and-burn agriculture, practice colonists felt wasted fine timber resources.  With the destruction of native ecosystems and the loss of land rights, Irulas could no longer sustain themselves through hunting, gathering, or subsistence agriculture. They became coolie laborers at tea plantations. The Adivasis (mostly Kurumbas and Irulas) began to fill the holes of their lost, land-based cultural traditions with those of the lower-caste, “untouchable” Tamils, recruited from the plains to work in the plantations alongside the indigenous workers (Zvelebil, 34, 83).

The Adivasi community felt limited change under Indian government rule, which continued to bar many traditional practices, particularly NTFP collection, not for commercial purposes but rather for the sake of conservation. Yet, analogous to the cultural diffusion of Adivasis during colonial era, indigenous culture was further adulterated by the second wave of wage labor workers who arrived from Sri Lanka under the Indo-Ceylon Agreements of 1964 and 1974. Within twenty years of the arrival of the first wave of migrants coming to the Nilgiris for plantation work, non-indigenous individuals outnumbered indigenous inhabitants (Blue Mountains Revisited, 153; Parthasarathy, 140).

The wellbeing of communities today

The destruction of the NBR is not only an environmental issue but also a social and health issue. The historical loss of livelihoods through regulation and the destruction of native ecosystems has translated into a loss of indigenous identity that can be observed today.  The Symposium on the Social Determinants of Indigenous Health held in Adelaide, Australia in April 2007 recognized “the disruption or severance of ties of Indigenous People to their land, weakening or destroying closely associated cultural practices and participation in the traditional economy essential for health and well-being” as a fundamental health determinant for indigenous communities (King et al., 76).   Our ethnographic study illustrated this claim’s validity in the NBR. Compounded by recent droughts and increased connection to the non-indigenous communities due to technological advances, the Irula and other Adivasi tribes are culturally and socially in flux.

Since the first wave of changes initiated by the establishment of plantations and the resulting immigration of non-Adivasi laborers, indigenous identity within these communities have gradually faced erasure. With the recent droughts and increasingly frequent elephant raids, another wave of cultural change is occurring within the NBR, fueled by financial necessity. As traditional millet farming has further become a gamble and rice, provided first under the Target Public Distribution System (TPDS) and later under the Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY) scheme, has become a culturally and economically effective grain substitute, Irulas no longer cultivate millets and other crops as their primary livelihood (dfpd.nic.in). Additionally, while subsistence agriculture and the gathering of forest products were sufficient for previous generations, today Irulas increasingly depend upon the goods and services offered through the cash economy. They turn to the only monetary jobs available to them – employment on regional tea and coffee estates, construction work as part of government 100-Day schemes, and other forms of manual wage labor. As the droughts catalyzed socio-economic changes that have been gradually occurring over the past several years, the Adivasi tribes have seemingly experienced a resurgence in awareness of and concern for the lost way of life. The conversations Devi and I had with villagers during our research has made it clear this cultural erasure because of the loss of land, land-based livelihoods, and cultural practices has affected unity within the villages and ultimately tribal health and wellbeing.

With the historic loss of lands and traditional livelihoods, the Irulas face socio-cultural stress. Many villagers we spoke to describe the loss of unity amongst villagers within the past generation, the primary cause of which is the shift in livelihoods. While villagers historically worked together to farm plots of land near their villages and made equal yield shares, the shift to the cash economy has resulted in monetary inequalities leading to the questioning of traditional Irula social hierarchies through kullangal or clans. This lack of social cohesion amongst the villagers has had two main negative health implications. First, it has led to the neglect of community needs. One young mother in a village described how the village waterways were not being cleaned because community members refused to work together. She noted that the traditional village leader lacked sufficient respect and authority to gather villagers for the task. The algae and debris polluting the waterways are significant health hazards, particularly for younger children–including the woman’s infant. Second, the neglect has affected the spiritual wellbeing of villagers. Several villagers in both areas felt that their deities have abandoned them because social and economic tensions have resulted in a failure to conduct religious festivities. The droughts only confirm their fears.

Changes in health-seeking behavior

Chart showing Keystone Foundation’s Community Health Worker (KCHW) Intervention. Credits: Drawn by Shaalini Ganesalingam with data from Ganesalingam and Abinaya, NFLC 2017

The social issues described by the villagers not only serve as a testament to how poignant the loss of native lands can be to the wellbeing of indigenous communities but also highlight how this loss affects traditional understandings of health and healthcare. The Irula understanding of health accounts for two origins for ailments: physical and spiritual. While physical ailments are not different from those described in allopathic understandings of health, spiritual ailments, manifesting as physical symptoms, are deemed to be caused anthropogenically or by naturally occurring spiritual entities.

Women from an Irula village described two spiritual winds or kaatrugal. Muni kaatrugal are naturally occurring and cause dysentery and vomiting. They are easily cured through certain manthirangal (mantras) and herbs. Kurumbar kaatrugal are more formidable. Created by members of another local indigenous tribe known for its black magic, the Kurumbas, their effects cannot be cured. Two women from different areas explained that their family members became fatally ill due to curses believed to be commissioned by jealous neighbors. While these curses and winds have been prevalent amongst Irula communities for as long as current generations can remember, they are particularly concerning today because of the loss of traditional livelihoods and subsequent rise in social disunity. It is likely that villagers are increasingly blaming their illnesses on curses by fellow villagers because of the rise in inequalities within the village.

This, in turn, impacts healthcare-seeking behavior. Villagers who believe their illnesses are the result of curses seek treatment from indigenous Irula healers that offer pachai marundhu or green (herbal) medicine. After diagnosing patients by reading ink rubbed into betel leaves, healers provide mooligaigal (mixtures of medicinal herbs) and kasaayangal (herbal broths). One healer we spoke to claimed he had 5,400 mooligaigal in memory and could cure various physical ailments including diabetes, kidney stones, and inconsistent menstrual flow, in addition to spiritual ailments.

An indigenous healer explained that while outsiders continue to interact with him primarily for curing physical illnesses and improving an individual’s fortune, village members are no longer seeking traditional healers in the same numbers. Currently, 20-25 asaloor (non-local) people come to him each month, however, few village members request his service. He contended it was because villagers had recently developed “too high of an ego” to seek help from each other.

While “large egos” are a rather simplistic explanation for the change in usage of indigenous healthcare, it is not entirely dismissible. It intimates the influence of the increasing exposure to non-Irula society, its understanding of health and its healthcare system. Younger generations with greater exposure to non-indigenous society embrace allopathy, viewing their indigenous spiritual understandings of health as mooda nambikai or false belief. For the most part, however, rather than replace indigenous systems of health and healthcare entirely, the allopathic health care system has only been able to create a semi-porous dichotomy of health understanding within the Irula community.  Most Irulas, including most migratory wage labor workers who were not institutionally trained in the effectiveness of allopathy over pachai marundhu, are less likely to completely disregard indigenous healthcare. They are inclined to choose one system over the other or both depending on the accessibility of treatments for both systems in terms of cost, opportunity cost, distance, and time. It may even be argued that the perception of the origins of illnesses (“physical” or “spiritual”) is based on the availability and accessibility of these treatments.

Villagers informed us that the public healthcare system has been made more accessible in recent times. This is largely a result of two main public health interventions: first, the rise in mobile units, bringing free allopathic healthcare to historically isolated villages; and, second, the rise in Accredited Social Health Activists, commonly referred to as ASHA workers. Villagers turn to allopathy not only as the less expensive, but also the perceivably more effective, health care option. Many villagers disclosed that they would go to the hospital for certain illnesses, such as headaches, to get quick relief. A few patients told us that they would feel better instantly upon taking medicines. Ailments that are prevalent in tribal populations, particularly anemia, have become “brand ambassadors” of allopathy. We met several self-diagnosing villagers who explained to us that they just needed to get a little bit of blood. Despite advances in acceptance, public healthcare remained vitiated by barriers towards accessibility.

As health and community wellbeing continues to decline under cultural and socio-economic instability, the public healthcare system remains largely inaccessible. While the government is developing policies to alleviate identified underlying determinants of poor indigenous health, such as the provision of patta (or land rights), healthcare requires reform to bolster relations and treatment effectiveness among the Adivasi communities. During our visit to a primary health care center in one of the study sites, the leading doctor explained that her biggest challenge with tribal patients is that they often do not follow through on their allopathic treatments. Patients often take the medicine irregularly, do not attend checkup appointments, and refuse to visit tertiary hospitals to which they are referred. Frequently, patients abandon their allopathic interventions for traditional healers or temples. Others choose to carry out both forms of intervention simultaneously. While the herbal remedies of pachai marundhu rarely have any negative affect, some individuals carry out certain rituals at temple that can be physically straining.

Public healthcare workers find patients’ inconsistent behavior challenging, yet most villagers expressed that inconsistencies in healthcare and healthcare delivery caused their limited commitment and confidence in allopathy. We repeatedly heard two main concerns: first, that the public triage system in which patients visit primary health care centers (PHC) and are then referred to tertiary centers makes health inaccessible given opportunity costs of losing several days of work and transportation costs; and, second, while discrimination is now less explicit, it is not yet absent from the public healthcare system. In addition to several accounts of discrimination from villagers, I observed it firsthand during a field visit to one PHC, during which the leading doctor bluntly stated that Adivasis have low IQs. This mistreatment is one of the biggest deterrents for seeking allopathic care, according to many Irula individuals we spoke with.

Today, efforts are being made to bridge gaps in healthcare by both government and private organizations such as the Keystone Foundation. Working with The Banyan, an NGO providing mental health care, Keystone launched a program last year training village members to become Keystone’s community health workers (KCHW). The program helps support communities by improving accessibility to healthcare and targeting underlying factors that influence health and wellbeing.

KCHWs enable villagers to seek allopathic care by providing basic allopathic knowledge, ensuring patients take their medication regularly and consistently attend checkups. KCHWs versed in a patient’s history relay essential information to the various doctors that see patients during checkups. Trusted as village members and as employees of Keystone, an organization well known in the communities, they offer the invaluable service of translating illness for villagers across traditional and biomedical lines.

Beyond providing biomedical support, KCHWs are trained to identify social and economic underlying factors influencing community wellbeing. They help secure financial stability for vulnerable families by helping individuals apply for government financial support. Additionally, KCHWs often provide social support for ailing community members through encouraging conversations and, in certain occasions, rallying community support. In one village, a KCHW arranged an informal meeting with women in the village to discuss ways in which they could help prevent a woman recovering from a cesarean operation from suffering further physical abuse by her husband. This more holistic approach to healthcare, identifying and resolving several indirect factors, such as sources of psycho-social stress and cultural loss, can make allopathic treatments more effective and prevent illnesses.

Going from one village to the next with a Keystone Community Health Worker (KCHW). Credits: Shaalini Ganesalingam, NFLC 2017

While KCHWs are providing a significant service to their community, there are still gaps in service that they have the potential to provide. Given that they have been working in communities for less than a year, it is not unexpected. Keystone also intends for KCHWs to reduce stigmas related to certain illnesses, particularly those related to mental health. Although further training is required, KCHWs’ work towards destigmatizing mental health will be invaluable to patients in Irula village communities built on strong traditional social networks.

Perhaps the biggest potential lies not in an intervention targeting the tribal communities but in the simultaneous provision of a channel of communication to allopathic as well as other public services. Community health has a historical basis and is affected by several factors such as land and identity loss. Yet few, if any, institutions are working to educate the government on the underlying determinants of well-being found in Adivasi communities. Deficits in cultural understanding can make well-intentioned policies, such as the triage system, ineffective. Even non-healthcare-related policies can have detrimental health effects. For example, although rice rations enabled Irulas to withdraw from failing millet farming, the poor nutritional value of this ingredient compared to traditional staple foods leads to malnourishment and the “ambassador illness”: anemia. Moreover, existing policy barely addresses the limited occupational mobility of adult Irula day laborers and associated socio-economic stress.  As the program continues, it would be invaluable to create a means of sharing KCHWs’ growing experiential knowledge with local healthcare providers and government agencies to promote informed policies that address indigenous concerns.

The tribes of the NBR, not including the Badagas, are recognized by the government as having “scheduled tribe” status, denoting the most socioeconomically disadvantaged tribal communities within all of India. The decline in community wellbeing that plagues the indigenous communities is historically based in the loss traditional livelihoods of hunting, gathering, and swidden agriculture to environmental degradation and government policies that have marginalized the Adivasi tribes. As current droughts exacerbate existing trends of lost customs, diets, livelihoods, and indigenous beliefs, villagers are perceiving social cohesion at an all-time low.

Not only are the rising socioeconomic pressures threatening Irula way of life, they are also altering the utilization of indigenous health care, with certain services offered by indigenous healers being replaced by public allopathic services that are competitive in terms of accessibility, availability, and perceived quality. However, our research shows public health care falls short of effectively serving the Irula communities because of discrimination and lack of understanding of Irulas and their concerns. Future efforts must focus on creating platforms to increase awareness of underlying indigenous determinants of health and of indigenous understandings of health and health care to reduce stigma, improve accessibility, and create better informed public policies.


Shaalini Ganesalingam received a bachelor’s degree in International Agriculture and Rural Development from Cornell University. She is currently living in New York City.

Abhinaya Devi lives in the Aracode Valley, Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve. After her 12th grade she has successfully completed the NFLC course (class of 2017). She is currently pursuing a government recognised nursing degree from the Gudalur Adivasi Hospital.

Email: kf@keystone-foundation.org




About ASHA – Government of India. National Rural Health Mission, nhm.gov.in/communitisation/asha/about-asha.html. Accessed October, 10, 2018.

Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. Untouchable. www.britannica.com/topic/untouchable. Accessed June 8, 2018.

Department of Food & Public Distribution. Frequently Asked Questions. http://dfpd.nic.in/faq.htm. Accessed October 3, 2018.

United Nations. Good health and well-being: Why it matters. http://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/ENGLISH_Why_it_Matters_Goal_3_Health.pdf. Accessed October 3, 2018.

Hockings, P. Blue Mountains, the ethnography and biogeography of a South Indian Region. Oxford University Press, 1989.

Hockings, P. Blue Mountains revisited: Cultural studies on the Nilgiri Hills. Oxford University Press, 1997.

King, M, Smith, A, and Michael Gracey. 2009. Indigenous health part 2: the underlying causes of the health gap. The Lancet: 76-85.

Parthasarathy, J. 1986. Economic development and women: A case study of the Irula of the Nilgiris.” Tribal Women and Development (1986).

Zvelebil, K.V. The Irulas of the Blue Mountains. Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University, 1988.


Exploring the Relationship Between Water, Waste and Well-Being in the Coonoor Watershed

Infocus | Emma Eaton and Meena Arunagiri |

Village resident sweeping her front yard. Credits: Mira Kudva Driskell, NFLC 2017

The Swachh Bharat Mission is associated with creating “clean villages” – yet improvements are not consistently seen in many of the communities for whom the policies are designed. The Nilgiris Field Learning Center’s (NFLC) four-year study on the relationship between water and waste in the Coonoor Watershed examines some of the factors contributing to these inefficiencies, specifically exploring the role of the Swachh Bharat Mission. In partnership with the NFLC health team, our research explored linkages between water quality, livelihoods, and health—and the sociocultural factors that shape water contamination in the Coonoor watershed.  Future research along a stream transect, to be completed in the next two years, will focus on settlements further downstream to understand spatial and cultural variables shaping waste production and water quality as rivers flow into the plains.

During the project’s first two years (2015-2016), research teams worked with several non-tribal villages in the Hubbathalai Panchayat. This past year, the project moved downstream and began work with two tribal villages located within a kilometer of each other along the Burliyar highway. After a landslide wiped out their original villages, the communities founded these villages during the early to mid-twentieth century. Each village is under thirty households, contains government-built housing and offers basic services. Most villagers earn their income through daily wage labor.  One village has a producers’ center, which connects the community’s traditional non-timber forest produce based livelihoods to markets. Yet both villages remain disconnected from their ancestral agricultural and forest roots.

Both villages sit on a steep slope between a large tea estate and the Coonoor River below. Their watershed catchment runs at a forty degree incline and several streams flow past the villages down the slope.  Deep soils with high transmittivity, a medium water-holding capacity (100-150 mm), and well-drained sandy clay loam soil create an environment where water moves quickly through the system (National Bureaus of Soil Survey and Land Use Planning 1997:25-31).  This site feature, in conjunction with the prevalence of soak pit toilets and open-defecation practices in the area, could lead to increased fecal contamination—posing a serious potential health risk for the communities. 

Maps prepared for community presentation  indicating water and waste infrastructure and conditions (not to scale and names of villages removed).

Drawn by Emma Eaton with data from Eaton and Arunagiri, NFLC 2017

Through our analysis, we sought to understand how location, infrastructure, and socio-cultural practices influenced water quality and consequently, health at the village level. These three dimensions allow for a more nuanced understanding of how interpersonal and structural relationships interact to mediate the links between water, waste, and well-being in an indigenous context.


Water flows from a spring, mixes with runoff from the surrounding forested catchment, and diverts into the streams from which the two villages source their water. Both villages use a system of rudimentary plastic surface pipes (500-1000 m long) to transport water into a covered concrete storage tank. One-and-a-half-inch diameter GI pipes distribute water from the holding tank to stand pipes where residents collect water for drinking, bathing, and other domestic purposes. These access points run along the periphery of the rows of village line houses. During the 2017 dry season, the stored tank water in both villages tested positive for fecal coliform. Although the stream watershed above the villages does not contain any houses, contaminants from tea estate soak pits as well as other mammalian feces likely infiltrate the water supply.

Gray water flows directly from the standpipes and surrounding bathing areas into dirt drainage ditches that pass over soak pits, open-defecation sites, and garbage pits before reaching the Coonoor River below. Considering the soil’s percolation and holding properties, water is not likely retained for the ten days that it takes to filter out pathogens (Oram 2014). While this may not directly impact village health, it highlights problematic downstream relationships and how all upstream villages contribute to contamination in the river. These soil properties also bring the placement of soak pit toilets into question. India’s national Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM), a scheme promoting sanitation infrastructure, was introduced into both of these villages just before we started our field work. While the SBM toilets were not all completed at the conclusion of this study, we observed noticeable progress during our fieldwork. Given how closely SBM toilets are located to the perimeter of the village, space was the primary placement consideration, not soil suitability. In time, more tests need to be done to understand whether seasonal fluctuations in the water table could draw out harmful contaminants from the soak pit leach sites.

Despite SBM toilets, open-defecation practices continue to be followed. Villagers explained that they are more comfortable going into the forest than they are using SBM toilets. Aesthetics of nature and culturally inappropriate placement—often inside the house—of government toilets through earlier schemes are major factors contributing to the underutilization of toilet infrastructure. While new toilets are being constructed outdoors, use patterns of existing outdoor toilets suggest that this new scheme alone will not be enough to eliminate open-defecation.


One toilet per household does not equate to one open-defecation-free household. Only one out of the eighteen total indoor toilets in both villages are currently being used. Although the placement of SBM toilets outdoors will likely make them more widely used than the indoor toilets of earlier government schemes, the SBM toilet’s design is making it harder for villagers to transition to using these toilets. Cost effectiveness seems to be SBM’s primary concern. Design exists only as a factor of physical functionality—resulting in a cement-block toilet that is dark, cramped, poorly ventilated, lacking a direct piped water supply, and linked to a foul-smelling soak pit—the exact opposite of the surrounding forest environment. The indigenous preference for open-defecation needs to be understood within these parameters when implementing these interventions. Our evidence suggests that the SBM is not sufficient to eliminate open-defecation or prevent the presence of fecal coliform bacteria in water.

SBM toilet under construction. Credits: Emma Eaton, 2017


From a human-health perspective, the sanitation infrastructure is ineffective in both our case villages. With limited governmental support, there are not enough village resources to properly purify the water and prevent downstream contamination. Toilets are also not being installed in a way that eliminates open-defecation and its associated risks. We also sought to understand community perceptions of water-borne illnesses and village water treatment methods to clarify how people understand the relationships between water, waste and health.

The authors meeting with a group of men in the village to understand their perspective on water and waste issues. Credits: Shanmitha Raghu, NFLC 2017

While villagers shared an overall lack of specificity regarding types of illness and their causes, women demonstrated a broader understanding of health challenges and linked illness to water quality more explicitly. In contrast, men tended to attribute their illnesses to work exhaustion and rarely connected it to water quality. Villagers also pointed out that rainy season water was less safe to drink – indicating that there is a seasonal sense of urgency surrounding water treatment. Even with a widespread understanding of these risks, children, the ill, and the elderly were the only groups likely to consume treated (boiled) water. Although everyone was aware of a few general ailments, most said that they would require a doctor for diagnosis. These seasonal and demographic differences gave us a more nuanced understanding of how villagers identify, respond to, and treat the effects of contaminated water.

Our intensive water-and-sanitation-related observations of young children, siblings and care-givers in their homes revealed a variety of other routes for fecal-oral transmission. Since most open-defecation sites weren’t near water, bathing rooms were used to rinse after going in the open. This brought the fecal contaminants close to the home, and in the immediate perimeter of the village into a space often used for washing dishes and clothes. Our observations also revealed that the yards outside the houses contained large amounts of feces from wild monkeys, and domestic animals such as goats and chicken. Young children crawled over this area frequently and sometimes attempted to consume the waste. This, in combination with infrequent and soap-free hand-washing practices, makes contaminated water just of one of the many potential fecal-oral transmission routes.

Understanding the relationship between location, infrastructure, sociocultural factors, and health serves as a starting point for further questions. Why and how do different communities interact with water and waste differently? What are the implications of these interactions? How can responses to the current environment inform future policy decisions? Village health depends on all of these variables. A simple description of sanitation and water facilities and infrastructure, or where contamination exists is not enough. We need to also understand how villagers interact with and manage a range of contaminants.

To ensure equitable and effective sanitation policies, policy makers must understand diverse communities and contexts. Our research highlights interconnections that need to be considered when implementing such interventions. Although sanitation efforts will always have to balance effectiveness and scale, emphasizing the relationship between the structural and the personal can help reduce the disparity between these two variables.

Acknowledgements: Neema Kudva, T. Balachander, Shanmitha Raghu and Gokul Halan made important contributions to this work. We would like to thank all the faculty and staff of the Nilgiris Field Learning Center, the Keystone Foundation, and the community members who shared their time with us, for enriching our experiences and making our research possible.

Emma Eaton’18 just graduated with a major in Human Development at the College of Human Ecology at Cornell University. She can be reached at ele46@cornell.edu.

Meena Arunagiri lives in the Pillur Valley, Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve. She has a  partially done B.Com degree, has been trained in professional photography and wildlife filming and is a graduate of the NFLC class of 2017. She is free lancing with projects from Keystone and has just recently completed a one year photo documentation on the situation of single women in Pillur.


Email: kf@keystone-foundation.org




  • Oram, B. 2014. Drinking water and other water bacterial testing (Fecal / Total Coliform). http://www.water-research.net/index.php/water-testing/bacteria-testing/fecal-coliform-bacteria. Accessed May 1, 2017.
  • National Bureau of Soil Survey and Land Use Planning in cooperation with the Department of Agriculture, Chennai.1997. Soil resources of Tamil Nadu for land-use planning: b. Executive Summary. National Bureau of Soil Survey, 46: 1-66.
  • Chandran, S. 1997. On the ecological history of the Western Ghats. Current Science, 73: 146-154.

The Influence of Social Support of Adivasi Mothers on Infant and Young Child Feeding Practices: Building Capacity for Sustainable Development

Infocus | Bridget Conlon and Mahanadhi|

Mother preparing ragi-koozh. Credits: Mira Kudva Driskell, NFLC 2017

Adequate nutrition in the first two years of life is vital for healthy brain development, growth, and illness prevention. However, millions of babies worldwide do not get the nutrition they need due to lack of household resources, inadequate or ineffective policies, and lack of support for caregivers. In India, Adivasi (indigenous) children suffer disproportionately from under-nutrition, resulting in elevated levels of stunting (NFHS 4). Not only is child nutrition an important issue in itself, it must be addressed in order to successfully meet the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, which include good health and well-being, quality education, gender equality, and sustainable communities.

To combat the problem of child under-nutrition in India, the government of India initiated the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) Scheme in 1975. This program created village-level Anganwadi centers to improve education, health, and nutrition among children and mothers. Two of the main objectives of Anganwadi centers are (1) to improve the nutritional status of young children and pre- and post-natal mothers, and (2) to increase maternal education and the mother’s capacity to oversee the nutrition of her family (Sachdev and Dasgupta 2001:139). Some villages also have a community health worker who is formally trained in health care. Mothers may receive support from the Anganwadi worker and community health worker, but there are others who influence a mother’s choices about what, when, and how to feed children. A mother’s decisions on childcare may be influenced by family members and other community members, especially for decisions related to breastfeeding, supplementing breast milk with complementary foods, and eventually weaning infants off breast milk. Family members help with acquiring food, preparing meals, caring for children, and giving advice about what and how to feed infants and young children.

There is a wide body of knowledge about how the economic condition of a family and the educational status of the mother affect a child’s nutrition. These factors shape food choices, food acquisition, and intra-household food allocation. However, there is significantly less analysis of the influence of social support for mothers on infant and young child feeding practices and nutrition. Social support is defined as resources provided by other persons and can include informational, practical, or emotional support (Stansfield 2006). Through our research, we sought to answer the question: “In what ways does social support for mothers (informational, material, and emotional) influence infant and young child feeding practices?”

Our study took place in the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, which was established in 1986 in recognition of the exceptional diversity and interdependence of sociocultural and ecological diversity. We conducted our research in three Irula villages within forty-kilometers of Kotagiri, Tamil Nadu in March and April of 2017. We gained access to our research villages with the help of the Keystone Foundation, an NGO focused on eco-development based in Kotagiri. Keystone has longstanding relationships with these villages, and our research supports ongoing dialogue in the region about capacity building and policy advocacy for sustainable development. We used mixed methods of observation, including mapping and interviews to obtain our data. Our interview subjects were twelve mothers of children less than three-years-old and four key informants—two Anganwadi workers and two community health workers. Participants were invited for interviews by a liaison between the research team and the community. Prior to the interview, B. Mahanathi (co-author) read a script describing the work, its purpose, the respondents’ rights to terminate the interview at any point, and guarantee of anonymity. A signature was obtained from respondents who could write, and verbal consent was obtained otherwise. The research project was reviewed by Cornell University Institutional review board to assess risks to participants and ethics of the work.

Jackfruit tree in one of our research villages. Credits: B. Mahanathi, 2017

Interviews consisted of three modules. Module 1 utilized the “free listing” method to generate lists of foods fed to infants/young children in different age categories, foods considered bad for infants/young children, and differences in how girl babies and boy babies are fed. Module 2 used narrative discussion based on structured open-ended questions to obtain information about the challenges caregivers face around caregiving and feeding infants and young children. Module 3 had two parts— a social support scale based on 10 yes/no questions borrowed from Martin et al. 2017 and a series of open-ended questions related to social support. During our time in the field, we had 24/7 translation assistance to allow communication between Irula, Tamil, and English speakers. 

We used the social support scale data to determine each mother’s level of social support: high, medium, and low. We examined social support levels in relation to all other data obtained from our interviews. We noticed that mothers with lower levels of social support reported feeding babies fruits, biscuits (Marie Biscuits, for instance), and gravies more than mothers with higher levels of social support. Many mothers expressed beliefs about the dangers of fruits for young children. For example, jackfruit can give babies a fever or a cold, bananas can give babies a cold or diarrhea, and guava can give babies a cough. Despite the prevalence of these beliefs, mothers with low levels of social support were more likely to feed fruits to their babies. One mother categorized as having low social support said, “They say not to give jackfruit [to the baby], but I give it anyway. I don’t worry.” Another mother with low social support said, “No foods are bad [to give to the baby].”Mothers with high levels of social support were more likely to feed their babies vegetables. While fresh fruits are seasonally available in the villages, fresh vegetables are not. Vegetables are not grown in kitchen gardens in the villages, we were told because people thought monkeys would steal their produce before they were able to harvest. The more isolated a village, the farther people must travel to access fresh vegetables. Mothers with lower levels of social support struggle to access fresh vegetables as there are fewer people to watch their children or attend the market on their behalf. Mothers with less support have more constraints on their time and more difficulty travelling, which may lead them to choose easily accessible and readily available foods for their babies.

We found that social support, in the context of these three villages, is sought almost exclusively from family members. During the interviews, we asked each mother to identify who she goes to for advice regarding feeding her children. Not one mother identified an Anganwadi worker or a community health worker as a source of advice or information. In fact, all mothers but one reported going to elders in the family—primarily their own mothers, mothers-in-law, or paattis (grandmothers)—for advice on what and how to feed their infants and young children. One mother said, “I get advice from both paattis. If a paatti is not there, I will ask other elders in the village. If you go to elders, they give good advice. Mothers my own age don’t give good advice.” Many mothers (7/12) mentioned traditional medicines that paattis make for the babies. They told us of plant-based medicines to cure fevers, colds, and stomach pain, with ingredients including camphor, turmeric, the stem of a “vethalai” leaf, tamarind, and bark of the “itti” tree.  Mothers expressed great trust in the traditional knowledge of their female elders, who possess special knowledge of local ecologies. A few mothers told us of a tradition where the paatti keeps all of her traditional medicine secrets until she is on her deathbed. Before she dies, she writes down everything she knows about plant medicine and hands the paper to her daughter.

Because mothers turn to female family members primarily for help and advice, the level of family support may influence how strictly a mother adheres to traditional feeding practices. Some of the traditional practices include feeding girls and boys differently, avoiding giving certain fruits to babies, feeding a millet porridge called “ragikoozh” to babies at 3 months old, and making a nutritious broth called “rasam” to increase the mother’s breastmilk supply.

Mothers and key informants differed in their reports on how babies are fed. Key informants argued that mothers start feeding their children vegetables at six months. Only four of the twelve mothers reported feeding vegetables at this age. Key informants also reported no difference in how girl and boy babies are fed. However, a slight majority of mothers (7 of 12) told us that girl babies are fed differently than boys. These differences are further evidence that mothers do not look to Anganwadi teachers or community health workers for advice about what to feed their babies, but rather rely on family members. In general, mothers in our study do not utilize the Anganwadi centers’ services that are intended for them. Very few mothers reported feeding their children nutrition powder from the Anganwadi centers—a significant piece of the child nutrition initiative of the ICDS Scheme.

Bag of nutrition powder at the Anganwadi Center. Credits: Bridget Conlon, 2017

Our study raised many questions. Why do mothers in our study choose not to utilize free nutrition supplementation? Why do mothers look only to their family for advice, rather than seek advice from women formally trained in nutrition and health care? How does a mother’s level of family support impact whether she adheres to traditional feeding practices? How does indigenous knowledge of foods and medicines depend on the dynamic landscapes of the Nigiri Biosphere Reserve? How do infants and young children in our study villages compare to general statistics on tribal infants and young children in regards to nutrient deficiencies, stunting, wasting, and underweight?

In the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, people and communities are essential elements of the integrated conception of conservation. Indigenous knowledge, feeding practices, and nutrition outcomes are inextricably linked to environmental conservation as they are essential to sustaining human interactions with dynamic landscapes. In our study villages, familial support networks and traditional knowledge prevail over government interventions in nutrition. By gaining a better understanding of the social support systems available for Adivasi mothers and the sources of support they seek, researchers, community development practitioners, and policymakers could better assist tribal communities in creating nutrition programs that are relevant to local needs and sensitive to cultural preferences.


Acknowledgements: We would like to thank our mentors Rebecca Stoltzfus, Sharanya Das, and Shubh Swain, the faculty and staff of the Nilgiris Field Learning Center, the Keystone Foundation, our translator Sujithra Velkumar, our village guides, and the 16 women who shared their time with us for enriching our experiences and making our research possible. We would also like to thank our reviewers at Current Conservation for raising important questions in regards to our study and giving us the opportunity to share our research.


Bridget Conlon’17 majored in the International Agriculture and Rural Development Program at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University. She can be reached at bcc48@cornell.edu.

Mahanadhi lives in the Sigur plateau, Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve. She has passed her 12th grade and  is a graduate of the NFLC class of 2017. She is currently working as a field assistant for the Keystone Foundation co-ordinating agricultural work and women’s health programs.

Email: kf@keystone-foundation.org



National Family Health Survey-4. 2009. International Institute for Population Sciences, Deonar, Mumbai. http://rchiips.org/NFHS/nfhs4.shtml. Accessed on June 9, 2018.

Stansfeld, S.A. 2006. Social support and social cohesion. In Social Determinants of Health. (eds. Marmot, M. and R. Wilkinson). Pp. 148–171. New York: Oxford University Press.

Sachdev, L.T.Y and Dasgupta, J. 2001. Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) Scheme. Medical Journal Armed Forces India 57: 139-143.