MEET OUR STAFF: KUMARASWAMY
Written by Sourabha Rao
Kumaraswamy, Community Relation Officer of our Eastern Ghats & Telangana Programme, grew up in the outskirts of Warangal, Telangana, a bucolic place surrounded by undulating hills and forests. Living by the forest ever since he was a kid, Kumaraswamy was used to interacting with the local communities, trying to understand their way of life. He thus had a natural inclination to do something that benefited both people, and the natural world and its treasures.
After post graduation in Zoology, Kumaraswamy worked for four years as faculty in an intermediate college, when he began the tradition of taking students to the nearby forest areas of Warangal for them to experience the wild first-hand. Since he wanted to get involved full-time in field work, when he got to know about the Tiger Day celebrations that we at WCS-India organise in Hyderabad, he met our Eastern Ghats Programme team, including the Senior Director – Conservation, Imran Siddiqui, at the event. Kumaraswamy joined us in June 2018, and his contributions based on the background he hails from and the unflinching passion he has for community work have been invaluable to our team.
The first place Kumaraswamy started working in was Gundala, a remote village enclaved in forest with 7 tribal hamlets at the time he joined us. His primary goal was to identify the problems that the local communities including the vulnerable tribes – Kollams, Naikapodus and Gonds at Gundala and in Mangi an enclosed village in forest faced. Shouldering the responsibility of communicating with the local political leaders, Kumaraswamy was able to get Mission Bhagiratha, Telangana’s flagship programme for safe and clean drinking water to these areas. The people in these areas are also encouraged to make eco-friendly bamboo handicrafts and leaf plates as an alternative source of income, and loans for people in these villages are sanctioned with his intervention for the same. Kumaraswamy and team have also worked to ensure that pension is being received by widows and old-age people (36 in total) in these communities.
There was a time when people visited Mangi and Gundala to party in the picturesque areas and would leave a lot of littler behind. Temples in these areas also drew numerous devotees who also dirtied the place. Today, these villages are completely plastic-free.
However, none of this was a walk in the park for Kumaraswamy and team. When they started work, the villages were very difficult to even reach. There was also, in the local people, a sense of unpleasantness towards the forest department and anyone who's engaged with any kind of authorities.
“Even when our team had approached these people the first time, we were met with quite a bit of unpleasantness, but for obvious reasons. The misconception that authorities only approach them to evict them was the root of this unpleasantness. But, our role has been very important in helping these local people understand that we are here to help – that we assure them that we want to know the issues they are facing because they are living inside a protected area. We are being that bridge between the organisation and the communities here. Since I myself am from this area, I could build trust over a period of time with these people. I was able to convince a lot of people – after this incremental mutual trust – to start some important projects. The first thing was the switchable toilets that we managed to construct in that area in 2018,” reminisces Kumaraswamy. And once the toilets were built, the team still did not stop going back to continuously engage with them on other projects and trying to address other issues, too.
Gundala and Mangi had a huge number of young men aged between 18 and 25 who were mostly school or college dropouts. Since the socio-economic status of these areas was dire, they got engaged in illegal activities like timber smuggling. And since they were engaged in that activity, they weren’t initially welcoming of our team that works along with the forest department. The initial reaction was quite natural. But in 2018, when our team arranged for a meeting with these men (about 150 of them) with the police and the then Country Director of our organisation, Ms. Prakriti Srivastava, they opened up about how, in the absence of any other source of income in this area, they are compelled to resort to selling timber, although it is illegal. They were ready to find an alternative source of income if authorities and organisations involved in community work would help. Kumar and team approached the Integrated Tribal Development Authority in the state, and managed to see what alternative sources of income could be generated through their schemes, and if training programmes could be conducted for aspiring electricians and carpenters and so on. The fact that people were not even aware of the schemes they could avail of for a better daily life created an opportunity for our team to bridge the gap by spreading awareness.
It was made sure that the 25 of the men who completed training earned stable work that they intended to do. This continued engagement and activities earned more trust from the villagers and they began to interact and cooperate with our team in their endeavours.
Following is a photostory that gives you a glimpse into the various activities of our Eastern Ghats and Telangana Programme, which is propelled smoothly by the involvement of the local communities.
A total of 120 gas connections were provided under the government’s UJJWALA scheme
A total 120 caste certificates were issued by the government through our assistance
150 people enrolled in training for electrical and plumbing work
Set-up leaf plate unit at Gundala through ITDA (UTNOOR)
Set-up bamboo handicraft training centre at Mangi village through ITDA (Utnoor)
Swachh Bharat toilets
Built 120 Swachh Bharat toilets in tribal areas of Kawal with government support
Distributed masks and sanitizer stands in villages in response to Covid-19 pandemic