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Building new youth leadership and power in the Nilgiris

On a sunny morning in Waynad district of Kerala, my colleagues and I met with some very inspiring youth belonging to the indigenous communities of the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve. The narrations around their culture, history, social and political beliefs leave you with wonder and curiosity, but what really leaves deep trenches in your heart and mind is their own stories. As part of this group was a young Paniya woman who is a Masters in Social Work, told us the story of her community working as agricultural laborers on their own land as she tried very hard to hold back tears when she described, historically the Paniyas owned land long before, but her ancestors gave away this land in good faith and since then her people have been landless making them exceptionally vulnerable.

Unfortunately, several academic journals do not give an insight of a time when Paniyas owned land, before they were marginalized, when Waynad was essentially home to the tribal population in Kerala. Mainstream narratives have forced Scheduled Tribes like Paniyas to continue to be vulnerable and this is reflected in their accessibility to basic services and opportunity. But listening to them, talk about their own histories and communities, tells you
a tale of struggle and historical injustice but along with it hopes, dreams and powerful leadership awaiting to be released.

Unlike several pieces I have read on different indigenous communities and have been guilty of writing a few myself, mostly focus on their vulnerability and marginalization. This piece is an attempt to be different pivoting on the values, power and leadership of individuals and collectives that I have had the opportunity to interact with over the years but more recently in the last few months.

The Warli, an indigenous community living in Western India, well known for their beautiful art and traditions, but recently for their fight to save the Aarey forest, located in the heart of bustling Mumbai. I met a young activist from this community to understand how they built new power, mobilized resources and achieved their goal of stalling the plans of the Government from building a Metro car shed. The activist very proudly explained that from the time youth in her community realised that leadership needs to be built from within and
they no longer need leaders from the outside, was the moment power started to shift. She also told me that mobilizing young and new leadership was challenging but not impossible as her people shared values like endless love and care for the forests that not only gave them life but also defined their traditions and cultures. This bond with the forest and nature is not unique to the Warli community but consistent with every indigenous community and I
also believe is the source of their resilience. After conversations with the young activist from Aarey, I realised that saving the forest is not just an act of activism or even courage but it is protecting a value system that they have known for generations.

Last year we were given a unique opportunity to design and implement a community organizing programme to build leadership of youth from indigenous communities of the Nilgiris Biosphere Region. The first thing we did was take a step back, start the process of unlearning and begin the journey of listening. Listening to indigenous youth and putting together their experiences that would make a programme that respects their boundaries,
beliefs and aspirations. Our journey with them has just commenced and we are learning to be supporters, allies, good listeners and learning to step back. Last week we completed first round of meetings with a few young people from the Paniya, Kattunayaka and Adiya communities of Kerala and a big takeaway was, the process of community organizing whether you are an organizer, facilitator or an ally, is an emotional one. The emotions are not necessarily yours but those of people who are at the center of this effort, it’s about their
leadership, their stories, their values, their power, their change and most importantly their emotions. As an organisation and individuals, we are gradually learning to access our inherent empathy to recognize this in order to support and bear witness to the leadership journey of youth belonging to at least 10 different indigenous communities across Kerala and Tamil Nadu, over the next few months.

About the program:

Haiyya in collaboration with Keystone Foundation, an NGO working in the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve with indigenous people and local communities designed and launched a leadership & capacity building program of 100 Adivasi youth. With on-ground training in Kotagiri and Wayanad regions of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, the program is training the youth in the community organizing pedagogy by building a dynamic front of young Adivasi leaders.

Written by Neha Saigal. Neha is the Senior Programme Lead at Haiyya and is a passionate organiser and campaigner and has experience of over 14 years of designing campaigns and projects which address social inequalities.

Haiyya is a youth-led feminist movement building organization based out India. We equip social changemakers, organizations and citizen groups to learn, innovate and adapt to the needs of the changemaking landscape.

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Haiyya is a youth-led feminist movement building organization that works at the intersection of youth leadership, social justice and people power organizing