Assam-born Ananya Paul Dodmani was moved by the conditions of the tribal communities she grew up with, and has dedicated her life to uplifting and empowering them with Tribal Connect, which has community centres across India.
Trigger warning: This story contains mentions of violence, torture
At a learning centre in Lumding, Assam, children from the local tribes come faithfully every day to engage in a slew of activities such as reading, writing and listening to stories told by the village grandmothers. Some of these children live at the centre itself, with their food taken care of by the attached community kitchen. There are also facilities for mothers who are victims of domestic violence to stay here.
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The centre is a hub of laughter, chatter and progress. Similar to this centre in Lumding, 160 others have been set up across Northeast India, West Bengal, Karnataka, and Goa. And at the helm of these Ananya Paul Dodmani, founder of Tribal Connect, a foundation working tirelessly to uplift and empower indigenous communities, like the Kunbis of Goa and Uttar Kannada, the Siddis in Karnataka and Karbi, Dima and Kuki tribes of Assam.
Ananya’s is a tale of valour, a journey of persisting every single day to ensure that tribal communities in India finally get the safe space and respect they deserve.
‘It started when I was in school.’
The communities that Ananya works with have had a long history of being marginalised. For instance, the Siddi community remains among India’s most neglected tribes and have spent generations in abject poverty. Additionally, many of the tribes in Northeast India lack access to basic facilities like education.
Ananya recounts her early schooling years in Assam, where a majority of her friends and neighbours hailed from Santhals and other tribal communities. “There was a certain disparity between their ways of life and our ways of life,” she notes.
It wasn’t until she was in class 8 that these incidents began to become more vivid. Ananya shares that most of her friends who stayed in the school hostel wouldn’t return after the summer holidays. Their parents would tell the school that they had contracted malaria during the holidays and passed away. Ananya would hear these stories with dismay, all the while feeling guilty about her own privileges.
One particular day she was made more aware of these privileges while at a shop with her caretaker. A local tribe woman was buying a product that cost Rs 10. But when she handed the shopkeeper a Rs 20 note, he stubbornly insisted that it was actually a Rs 10 note, and refused to give her change. “I realised these people needed to be taught at least basic things like recognising money denominations, writing their own name, reading bus numbers and train timings, etc,” Ananya says.
And that’s the moment she realised if they couldn’t access these learnings anywhere, she would create a space where they could.
“I began to look out for kids loitering around and I would ask them to come to the local school, where I found an empty space where I could have them sit and learn basic topics. I would read stories to them too.”
Soon Ananya was joined by other batchmates who were also keen on imparting their knowledge to the local tribal kids. The team she formed would travel across the villages of Northeast India on weekends, raise funds through cultural activities, football matches, and more.
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When Ananya passed out of school and went to college, she began convincing her professors to conduct exchange programmes that would also facilitate these children to travel and learn. But then, an incident shook Ananya’s world, compelling her to make tribal upliftment a goal she wanted to dedicate her life to.
‘My dad was kidnapped.’
Though Ananya had grown up hearing incidents of people from local tribal communities being kidnapped, she only realised the gravity of the situation when her own father was abducted one day in 2002, she says. “You’ll never know the heat of the fire until it burns your own house.”
“It was traumatic,” she recalls. “For seven days, he was tortured, beaten and was only able to escape when he jumped from the third floor of the building where he was being kept hostage. He ran several kilometres to reach the closest railway station to reach home. This incident had a heavy impact on my brain.”
While at the time she was fuelled with angst for what had happened, looking back now she says a lack of education compels people to resort to kidnapping others for money. “These unconstitutional people have been brainwashed into doing these things. It’s only when one does not have money to put food on the table for their child that they do things that are not constitutional,” she adds.
Ananya knew that while she had been teaching those around her the basics of education, there was a dire need for her to increase the numbers and scale to see visible impact. Driven by this fire to create a change, she started her first learning centre in the same village where her father had been held hostage following being kidnapped (a name she avoids mentioning).
She started small, with the resources she had at the time. She explained her plans of setting up a centre where children could learn, and the youth could get employment opportunities to the gram buda (headman) of the village. But, she notes, they couldn’t envision her dream. So she started under a banyan tree in 2003 with five kids keen on learning.
Today, the same concept is applied at the 160-odd learning centres across India, albeit in a more organised form. Though these centres have existed for years, Ananya formally established the organisation in 2019.
A welcome space for everyone
At the learning centres, language is no barrier. Ananya frequently employs local youth so they can teach the children in a language they understand best. “I collaborate with any NGO or foundation that can help us in bringing about change,” she notes.
In 2019, when Ananya got married and moved to South India, she found many tribes facing the same issues as those she had seen in the Northeast. “I began working with tribes such as Siddi, Halakki and Kundi.”
She explains that education is free at the learning centres, as are meals thrice a day. There is also a community farming model through which the children and men can grow their own food, which then goes into the meals. A unique concept is that grandmothers are housed with the children so that they can look after them. This benefits both, says Ananya. At a time, 35 kids can be accommodated at a centre.
There are also community centres for men who don’t have jobs. Here, they practise community farming to grow produce and sell it in the markets, while the leftovers are used in the community kitchens. Every learning centre is headed by three local youth, says Ananya so that the centres continue to thrive even while she is away.
This was always something she wanted. “My work is often in conflict zones and I do not want the workings of the community centre to stop should something happen to me.”
‘I will persist no matter what.’
Aside from the work Ananya does for the community centres she also creates awareness related to menstruation and has reached “over 90,000 tribal women” through her workshops. These include teaching women to make sustainable pads at home, distributing pads to the women in villages and even introducing the concept of eco-friendly menstrual cups.
With 700 volunteers, Tribal Connect is bringing a change in the lives of people in marginalised communities across the country. Ananya was awarded the Karamveer Chakra for her work in 2019.
“Sometimes I see kids who come from broken homes to the centres only for the food. But in 10 days, they are transformed seeing the environment around and we inculcate habits of good learning in them,” she explains.
She goes on to recount an instance where one of the girls stopped coming to the learning centre as she started menstruating and the family did not want her to leave home. “I sat outside their house for two nights, caught a cold and fever in the process, but did not budge until they promised she would be back at the centre.”
Twenty two long years of persisting and Ananya is still going strong.
“It is your willpower,” she affirms. “Our community centre isn’t always made up of walls. Sometimes it’s just a tent, washed away by the heavy rains every year or trampled upon by elephants at other times. But what sets us apart is that we rebuild every time.”
To this she adds, “Everyone has trauma. It’s how you let it change your life that makes all the difference. I could have chosen to be a victim because of what happened to my dad, but instead I looked fear in the eyes and chose to start a centre right in that very spot.”
“You have to be your own cheerleader. Always.”
You can learn more about Ananya’s work here.
(Edited by Divya Sethu)