Over the past 30 years of scientific enquiries, field biology in India has relied upon a variety of people from various backgrounds, cultures, and regions. A good team of field assistants is a core part of every field biology research project. Not only would it have been impossible to work in these remote regions without the active participation of local field assistants, but it also would have meant losing out on the unique insights into our research subjects that are gained through field assistants on several occasions. Even a brief glance at the mountain of ecological literature would bring home this point through the glowing tributes to field assistants which make up the bulk of acknowledgement sections of theses, reports and papers alike.
Occasionally, some contributions by field assistants are reflected in products of these research projects. The British naturalist, Edgar Layard, named a new flycatcher Muscicapa muttui, after his Tamil cook, Muttu (Beolens and Watkins 2003). Aparajita Datta, who works on hornbills, and conservation issues in north-eastern India, included her field assistant, Japang Pansa, as a co-author in a paper that reported the discovery of the leaf deer in India (Datta et al. 2003). Similarly, Manish Chandi, a researcher based in the Andaman and Nicobar islands, has included his assistants as co-authors in project reports. Yet, like Chandi, many field biologists feel that they want to give back something more to their assistants and to their communities than just salaries and acknowledgements.
This sentiment has been echoed across the board by researchers working with various institutions and communities, in every part of this sub-continent. Most researchers would admit that there is a big gap between what researchers gain from their field assistants and what they are able to give back to them. Still, after over three decades of active field research by Indian nationals within India, we haven’t formalised ways in which to acknowledge such contributions.
Two ‘Betta Kurumba’ tribals from Mudumalai – Bomma and Krishna – have been assisting field biologists for nearly four decades; these two men have probably had the longest careers as field assistants in India. They started off working with the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) projects in the Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary in Tamil Nadu. They have now been with the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) for the last two decades and continue to actively participate in field research at Mudumalai even today, well after both of them have become grandfathers and are in their 50s. They are excellent naturalists, a treasure trove of knowledge on Mudumalai’s flora and fauna and experts at the implementation of various field research techniques. Bomma’s caring nature and sense of humour, and Krishna’s excellent field tracking skills have accompanied many field biologists on their quests in these forests. Their work has contributed to over a dozen doctorates and several masters dissertations from this dry forest landscape.
Bomma and Krishna are rare exceptions to the general rule. Most field projects have 3-5 year tenures after which field assistants have to find other means of livelihood. Some get back to farming, others work as labourers, a few find employment with the Forest Department. Very few of them manage to get another opportunity to work with field research projects again. At the end of a field project, concerned researchers attempt to help find jobs for these assistants or help them financially in some manner, often from their own meagre resources. Projects seldom budget such expenditure and very rarely do research institutions provide provident fund, gratuity or insurance benefits for field assistants. To put it crudely, research projects use local field assistants and then dump them rather unceremoniously. There are indeed few formal institutionalised norms for dealing with this issue. One exemplary attempt to address some of these concerns at an institutional level has been the Nature Conservation Foundation’s (NCF) field assistants’ fund (see box).
Most field assistants are inclined towards natural history and their research subjects after having spent the prime of their life in field research, and often find it difficult to pursue other professions. We must realize that we are losing a case for conservation here when trained people – who could be valuable resources for the local Forest Department or other conservation and research projects – end up as farm or industrial labourers. Several research teams across the country have come to this very conclusion independently and have engaged their field assistants in innovative, mutually beneficial arrangements where the local assistants have become the centre point of conservation attempts in these landscapes. For example, Akhi Nathany from the Lisu tribe of Arunachal Pradesh is the co-ordinator of the NCF field base at Namdapha National Park. Akhi who used to hunt extensively in the past got hooked to natural history while working with field biologists who came to Namdapha. Today, Akhi uses his immense knowledge about the forest and its inhabitants to educate his fellow villagers about the need for wildlife conservation.
This issue of Current Conservation carries several examples of novel initiatives that involve field assistants in promoting conservation, while also providing them with a livelihood. In many of these cases, field assistants were trained for other Bomma and Krishna are rare exceptions to the general rule. Most field projects have 3-5 year tenures after which field assistants have to find other means of livelihood. Some get back to farming, others work as labourers, a few find employment with the Forest Department. Very few of them manage to get another opportunity to work with field research projects again. At the end of a field project, concerned researchers attempt to help find jobs for these assistants or help them financially in some manner, additional skills that were required for carrying out awareness or sensitisation campaigns (Dorje, Turtle Boys, Irulas), conservation education at local schools (Dorje), and additional language skills useful for eco-tourism (Mangu). However, given the diversity of people and their landscapes, it is hard to draw generalisations, and there are many lessons to be learnt by taking a closer look at some of the attempts to engage with local communities outlined here.
Information about field assistants, their field and language skills, and contact details already exists within the informal wildlife grapevine. It is high time that this information is organised and made available to a larger network of people and institutions involved in Indian wildlife conservation and research. We hope the articles in this issue prompt institutions and people involved in field research in this country to pursue this actively and generate a database on field assistants that can be accessed by researchers across the country. We also need to pressurise our institutions towards working out a unified policy at an institutional level with respect to providing insurance, provident fund or gratuity to local staff. Awards that recognise the contributions of field assistants along the lines of the Sanctuary awards for wildlife biologists and conservationists also need to be created. We also urge people to initiate group discussions on this topic in research seminars to invoke wider participation and networking on these issues.
The indigenous knowledge and skills of local field assistants need to be recognised, and it is time we started looking beyond acknowledgements.
Datta, A., J. Pansa, M.D. Madhusudan and C. Mishra. 2003. Discovery of the leaf deer Muntiacus putaoensis in Arunachal Pradesh: an addition to the large mammals of India. Current Science 84: 454-458.
Beolens, B. and M. Watkins. 2003. Whose bird? Common bird names and the people they commemorate. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.