By Sourabha Rao
Sometimes, all it takes to make a world of difference to an entire community is a man of principles. This is a conversation with one such man from a little hamlet called Joida in Karnataka that, in his time as a student, did not even have a degree college or public transportation. And from such a little town, he went on to become the first person in his community to earn a Ph.D.
Meet Dr. Jayanand Derekar, who has been actively involved with us in conservation work across the Mysore landscape, whose humility left us inspired to no end during and after this interview.
1. Please tell us about your initial days as a student with big dreams, hailing from Joida.
I belong to a time in Joida when there was no public transportation. There wasn’t even a degree college back then and one had to travel to either Dandeli or Karwar. I completed my pre-university as a rank holder, and here I must remember my lecturer, Prasad Rané, who supported me in every way possible to pursue higher studies.
Due to poverty, I had to do three years of farming, which in retrospect, was a blessing in disguise in its own way. I then managed to complete my B.Com. and worked in the banking sector for a while.
Circumstances got me acquainted with Prof. R. Indira in Mysore University, with whom I worked on surveys and data collection in all the villages in the Joida Taluk. I was fortunate to gain a lot of community work experience this way. Then I went on to earn my M.Com. and M.A. degrees, and my Ph.D. in 2018. Throughout my academic journey, my farming background was a constant aid.
And In 2007, when the DFO in Dandeli was a part of the rehabilitation programme in Kali Tiger Reserve, I was a witness to the workshops conducted during the time as a part of the project.
2. How did your community work experience help you with your involvement in conservation when you started working with us?
My research work had already laid a foundation of trust and familiarity with the local communities in Joida. We had conducted door-to-door economic surveys in all the villages – about 456 hamlets. People here value education, are intolerant of corruption and appreciate sincerity, so it always helped that I was a localite. Knowing the local language also contributed significantly in earning the trust of Kunbi, Maratha and other communities that speak Konkani. Diplomats and officers may come and go, but I am here all the time, and this factor of availability, especially when it matters the most, also bolsters that trust.
Another vital factor in seeing conservation projects to fruition is transparency in communication. Trust should meet half-way from both sides – people and officers. Top officers in various governmental institutions trust WCS-India as an organisation, so this rapport is as important as the relationship we have with the local people. Ground level contacts and language are thus very important in our field work.
3. How is the Livelihood Programme unique in your landscape?
Uttara Kannada district has over 80% green cover. It is very different from, say, landscapes such as Nagarahole and Bandipura which are home to a variety of wildlife including large mammals. The most challenging issues this landscape faces are a lot of grazing and forest fires. Kali Tiger Reserve is an ecological sensitive area. The beneficiaries of voluntary relocation are scattered in places like Yellapura, Goa and so on, unlike in settlements created for the purpose.
We work in deep-forest settlements and not towns. Our focus is exclusively on little hamlets. The majority community is Kunbi, to which I belong. People of this community were landowners; paddy-growing was their major occupation. When they started to migrate for employment, especially to cities like Goa for economic growth, the challenge was working for others, which was a compulsion. Also, when rains were heavy, which was most of the time in these areas, the yield was less, so they could not rely only on growing paddy either.
This is why voluntary relocation is the need of the hour in this landscape.
4. There’s a legend about your grandfather’s relationship with tigers. And today, your involvement with a wildlife conservation NGO falls on the opposite side of the spectrum of the relationship between man and other animals. Could you please tell us more about it?
My grandfather was a great tracker. His keen, vigilant senses understood the movement of wildlife in their natural habitat like few people are capable of. He had even helped a tiger-hunt back in his heydays when there wasn’t much awareness against hunting. But in my time, when things have changed for the better, I have worked towards stopping hunting in our village. The respect and love we have been talking about for other animals we share the land with have inspired surrounding villagers as well.
5. What has inspired you to continue working with the Livelihood Programme of our organisation even after completing your Ph.D.?
I have had quite a variety of professional experiences in the past. It does include a cooperative society job which used to pay me more handsomely than NGOs usually do. But what matters the most in life for me are passion and commitment to a cause greater than oneself and one’s own family. Leaving the security of a government job is seen as a rather uninformed decision even today, especially in rural areas. But it is indeed a privilege to be aware of a calling in life and to pursue one’s dream, especially when there is an opportunity to realise it. It is just an individual perspective on priorities.
Hiring locals in our conservation programmes has always been the philosophy in our organisation. So it is my honour to be the community torch-bearer for conservation in the landscape I belong to.
6. What are your dreams for the future?
When you see places to which the nearest bus stop is 30 kms away, it does something to you and you want to do your bit to make life easier for people. It is my dream to do whatever I can to coordinate between various stakeholders to eradicate poverty in these villages. People here support transparency and that is inspiring enough to persist in this regard no matter the hurdles that rise along the way. There are places where even getting a ration card is a challenge and people need to go to Karwar and other places to get it done. So my dream is to ensure that we work to enable the local people to live better, more content lives.
To make the Kali Tiger Reserve a sustainable conservation programme has been made possible because of all the support I and the team here receive from our organisation and all the generous supporters.
I also envision an elaborate documentation process of the changes we have been witnessing over time in the way of life of the local people.