TNF webinar: An exchange of ideas and participation

by Team TNF

The Nilgiris Foundation conducted a webinar with Cornell University on September 24, 2021 to share the experience of going through the Covid-19 pandemic and the coping strategies adopted. Titled Covid Pandemic: Experience, Sharing and Coping Strategies—An Exchange between the Nilgiris, India and Cornell University, NY. The webinar had Pratim Roy, the founder of Keystone Foundation and The Nilgiris Foundation; Neema Kudva, professor of City and Regional Planning, Cornell University and the alumni of the Nilgiris Field Learning Centre (NFLC), Jeyanthi, Visithra, Monthish Kuttan, Cole Hudson Norgaarden and Laura Ellen Powis. Some of the exchanges in the local language was translated by Community Wellbeing member, Lakshmi.

The event started with an introduction by Pratim Roy who briefed the participants on The Nilgiris Foundation, a non-profit based in San Francisco, USA, formed to help and empower Keystone Foundation and other like-minded organisations. A bridge for the exchange of ideas and partnerships between the US and India. The objective of the webinar was to share ideas and experiences around the pandemic, to draw parallels between the coping strategies adopted by the people in India and the US and to see if there were lessons to learn from the indigenous peoples of the Nilgiris in coping with the pandemic.

One of the first NFLC graduates and Irula community leader Jeyanthi who handles the community radio and works with the team of the community newspaper Seemai Suddhi shared her experience. “When Corona (the pandemic) hit India, our community had thought it will not affect us as we strongly believed that we had a good immune system. We trusted what we ate as we consumed healthy foods like tubers, spinach, and traditional foods. During this pandemic, when people in the community had a slight cold, cough or some other health issues, we took home remedies and traditional medicine. The community people used to go out to earn and to meet their daily needs but due to Covid, everyone came back. We were not able to go out for work as usual and this affected our livelihood and we faced difficulties to meet our daily needs. Some people started going to the nearby village for farming which helped them to partially meet their needs. Still, we had difficulties accessing proper food and medicines (particularly medicines for anaemia, diabetes, and epilepsy). Then the government and NGOs like Keystone Foundation supported us by providing nutrition kits and food kits.”

Revival of traditional practices and agriculture: “During this pandemic, many changes happened in our lifestyle as we were not able to go out to work. The children in our community couldn’t take part in online education as we have no access to the internet. We started thinking of ways to stabilise our lives and this thought triggered us to start the old, traditional practices. Keystone Foundation helped us to clear our lands and distributed traditional seeds for cultivation. This brought a revival in agricultural practices and helped us to meet our food necessities.”

Vaccine hesitancy in the community: Many were not ready to take vaccines fearing death. People also had many superstitious beliefs about Covid. They believed it was not a virus but God’s wrath upon us. Only after an awareness campaign was conducted by the District Administration that everyone decided to get vaccinated.”

Toda community member Monthish, an NFLC alumni, spoke about the experience of his community. “When the Covid hit India, the fear of the disease made us cling to our gods and we started worshipping daily thinking only God could save us from this virus. Todas have land but we had leased it out to others for farming. During Covid, we started cultivating again but we were not able to sell it outside due to various restrictions related to the pandemic. So we distributed the vegetables among the Toda community. NGOs like Keystone Foundation helped by providing Covid relief kits during this time.”

An interview in Bikkapathi Mund by Monthish

Early marriages returned in the community: “The Todas had followed the custom of marrying at a young age. But since the youngsters started showing interest in studies in the last five to six years, this had stopped. The custom returned during Covid and now we have men and women as young as 21 getting married.”

Vaccine hesitancy in the Toda community: “In the beginning, there was hesitation to get vaccinated but when the government announced that if we were not vaccinated, we won’t be able to access any government schemes, we complied.”

An Irula, Visithra, too shared her experience of helping her community go through the pandemic. “It took time for our community to realise that the pandemic has struck us and struck us badly. Many awareness campaigns by the government and NGOs like Keystone Foundation made the people in the community realise the importance of cleanliness to keep ourselves protected from Covid. As many community members depended on daily wages for a living, the livelihood was affected which led to the scarcity of food and other essentials. We had to depend on the support from the government and NGOs like Keystone Foundation that distributed Covid relief kits, food and nutrition kits. Since we were not able to go out, the community people went back to the old practice of collecting food from the forests. It was very difficult for the community members to accept vaccination. Only after many awareness programmes by the District Administration and NGOs that they complied.”

People standing in queue to collect Covid Relief Kits, Pambalakkombai

Pratim briefed everyone on the Covid relief measures that Keystone took during this time. He said that Mandharai, the Adivasi resource centre was turned into a relief emergency operations centre. “We distributed small parcels of vegetables to every family in the communities. In the kits distributed, there were rice, oil and nutrition packets. Apart from food relief and emergency provisions, we gave sanitary kits. We trained the women in making masks which they made and distributed. These measures helped during the pandemic.”

Neema Kudva invited Cole and Laura, two NFLC graduates to share their wisdom and knowledge of the indigenous communities in the Nilgiris and overcoming the challenges of a pandemic like Covid. Cole graduated from the urban and regional studies program at Cornell University and now works in affordable housing. When in India, he was studying forest rights. Laura graduated from Cornell University and after her time at NFLC, to work in Mumbai for a year followed by a Masters in Public Health and is now working in maternal and infant nutrition.

A view of the webinar: An Exchange between the Nilgiris, India and Cornell University, NY

Cole shared that he felt a lot of experiences in India were similar to what was happening in the US like disruption in education for young children, issues around mental health becoming more prominent and problems with accessing food and nutrition and vaccine hesitancy among various social groups that continues even now. Cole and Laura said they felt that a lot of learning in NFLC has come to fruition during the pandemic. Their time at NFLC was a very immersive experience where deep cultural exchanges were made. Cole said the impact of the course and the experience in India stayed with him for a long time after that and that the NFLC banded his sense of community to a global scale. “Our world views were expanded in such a way that we are not viewing this pandemic through our personal lenses alone but through the lenses of people that we got to know in India.” Laura concurred.  She said the US experiences during the pandemic were similar to that of India in terms of disruption of wages, education and wellbeing and a larger realisation of going back to basics as a coping strategy. She believed that the lessons she picked up in India at the NFLC helped her reevaluate what really mattered during the pandemic.

After a healthy exchange of experiences and ideas around the pandemic during the question and answer session, the webinar ended on a  note of hope that things would get better soon and more such exchanges would be made possible between Cornell University and the NFLC.