The Kohka Foundation empowers tribal communities living in and around the Pench Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh, writes Anirudh Nair.
Tribal communities in India have traditionally lived in close association with forests. However, what was once considered sustainable extraction of forest resources can no longer be viewed under the light of peaceful coexistence. Tribal dependence on forests is being increasingly seen as leading to forest degradation and depletion, and thereby continuing a vicious cycle of poverty and suffering. Under such circumstances, these communities too are compelled to find other sources of livelihood.
Empowering tribal communities living in and around the Pench Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh by providing them education and employment skills is the mission that drives the Kohka Foundation. What began as a voluntary activity by former banker Sanjay Nagar at a government school in Kohka village near the Pench Tiger Reserve five years ago, took the shape of a non-governmental organisation in 2014.
While Kohka Foundation’s six-member team builds awareness for women’s welfare, health and community welfare, skill development and environment conservation in 35 villages in Seoni district, their primary focus is on secondary education. Anando, a flagship initiative supported by the Light of Life Trust that imparts quality education and vocational skills to students, has brought about a significant reduction in school dropout rates. “It is wonderful to be part of the positive change that the Foundation is bringing in this region. The change is visible and it is not only children who participate in our programmes, but also their parents. I am from the same locality and it gives me immense satisfaction to be able to help my community members,” says Hina Ansari, Project Head, Kohka Foundation.
Five teachers and two social workers came on board to tutor more than 160 tribal students as part of this programme, which is expanding by the day. They are provided with vocational training in tailoring, cell phone repair, rug-making, and spoken English during their summer vacations to provide students with alternate employment opportunities. “I have been associated with the Foundation for nearly two years now and the difference we have brought about is noticeable. We have a bunch of excited children now looking forward to classes, dropouts re-enrolling themselves, and homemakers and others wanting to finish their secondary education. I have never witnessed anything like this before in this region,” says Thamesh Daharwal, teacher, Kohka Foundation.
Realising the need to reinvigorate the age-old profession of pottery, the Foundation organised a 10-day camp for potters from Pachdhar village in May 2017 to improve their skills. They were taught new techniques and designs, enabling them to move away from mass production and towards making value-added products, which are economically more beneficial and environmentally more sustainable. “Our weekly workshops, parents-teachers’ meetings, corner meetings, counselling, adolescent education and other activities help in holistic development of our beneficiaries. We are one of the few NGOs with a 365-day engagement and our impact is quantifiable. I feel privileged to be a part of this noble cause and movement,” says Hemraj Nagesh, a social worker associated with the Foundation.
Every year in August, a 22-day spoken English training workshop is organised for forest guards of the Pench Tiger Reserve. The Foundation is also looking at opportunities to collaborate with the Madhya Pradesh Forest Department. Women self-help groups are supported by the Foundation in pickle, papad and wadi making, kantha stitching and bag-making activities and a medical camp is held for them twice annually.
“Local authorities are immensely supportive of our work. We have received support from volunteers and donors as well. While we hope to replicate our work here across Madhya Pradesh, we are aware that there are plenty of challenges. Raising funds for our activities, convincing community members with whom we work, spreading awareness on the importance of education, health and environment is no easy task, but we are at it,” says Nagar.
First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXVII No. 8, August 2017.