Change Through Education

by Ameen Ahmed and Anil Cherukupalli

(Note: First published on WWF-India’s website. The following modified version appeared subsequently on WWF’s Global Intranet.)

Meet the Pardis
Hardly a community in India’s recent history has been more affected by changing laws and times than the Pardis. A nomadic tribe spread across the central states of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, the Pardis have depended on forests for their livelihoods for countless generations. In particular, they hunt wildlife.

The erstwhile Maharajas, recognizing the Pardis’ considerable skills, employed them to drive wildlife toward the kings’ hunting parties. Many farmers in central India employed Pardis to guard against crop-raiding wild animals; the deal was that the Pardis could keep the meat of the animals they caught.

Within the Pardis community, there are divisions according to various occupations and hunting practices. For example, the Phaandiya Pardis hunt their quarry using a rope noose. The Teliya Pardis sell meat and oil extracted from reptiles they capture. But the most remarkable aspect of hunting by Pardis is their total dependence on traditional means and basic equipment, like rope, wooden clubs and knives, to bring down wildlife. They rarely use a search light, vehicles or guns.

Troubled times: post-Independence and the Wildlife Protection Act
The British treated most Pardis as social pariahs. Most of their sub-sects were included in the list of “criminal tribes” in the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871. Though the act was overturned after independence in 1952 and they were “de-notified,” the historical stigma remains.

Life for the Pardis took a dramatic turn for the worse in 1972, when the Indian government adopted the Wildlife Protection Act. Pardis were not only prohibited from entering many of the state-controlled lands, now designated as protected forests, national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, but overnight they were also required to stop hunting.

After hundreds of years of practice and perfection in making a living out of hunting, they were suddenly left without a profession. With no formal training or assistance to help them adapt to the new law of the land, they continued hunting covertly. According to Mr. Golla Krishnamurthy, India Forest Service, who has worked in the Panna Tiger Reserve, “They mainly hunt big game and trade the skins with middlemen in cities for further illegal export. They hunt animals like deer, wild boar and other small herbivores for staple food on a day to day basis.”

The new law, combined with the historical stigma and the fact that they are traditional nomads left the Pardis out in the cold. Village after village viewed them suspiciously and drove them from town. This discrimination and lack of opportunity forced the Pardis to the very margins of society, where their poaching activities were a means of survival.

The way forward
According to sources in the Madhya Pradesh Forest Department, a vast amount of the wildlife poached in that state, particularly in and around Panna Tiger Reserve, has links to Pardis. But serving India’s big wildlife traders and illegal trade mafia hasn’t improved life for the Pardis; they remain impoverished. Surely there has to be a way to empower this community and save wildlife. The key is education for the next generation, so they have opportunities to earn a decent living on the right side of the law.

WWF-India, along with the forest department, has been conducting a “Residential Bridge Course” at two locations around Panna, under the government’s “Sarva Shiksha Abyiyaan” (Education for All) scheme. The nine-month course prepares the children to enter the formal education system. Their stay at the student hostel also helps them make the shift from a nomadic to more mainstream lifestyle. Simultaneously, the adults are offered training in alternative professions.

Though it’s too early to tell what paths the Pardis children will take, they are enjoying the opportunity to attend school. “I’ve been studying in the school in Kunjwan for the past two years. Before I started schooling I used to stay at home, though I never liked that,” says 9-year-old Bamina. “My father and mother used to roam around a lot to provide us food. Even then, we had to go hungry many a time. But that has changed now. I like it here in school. We play a lot of games and also study. I’m learning many new things.”

And though it took two years of persuasion to get her into school, 11-year-old Chiranga now enjoys attending classes. She has even taken it upon herself to educate her family members. “My father used to shoot wild boar earlier. Members of my family used to hunt tigers and partridges. But now they no longer hunt,” she says. “My mother now sells ‘manihari’ (traditional cosmetics) like bindis, kumkum and traditional medicines, while my father sells ‘rudraksha’ beads (talismans).”

Dr. Diwakar Sharma, Associate Director of WWF-India’s Species & Landscapes Programme, says these two enthusiastic students speak for the rest of their classmates. “Once they join the school they do not want to return to their old lifestyle that was filled with hardship and poverty. They are now filled with a desire to learn and succeed.”

Mita Goswami, Director of Environment Education with WWF-India, adds that the Pardis’ unique upbringing has its advantages: “They are a treasure trove of information on our wildlife. During the nature walk we had with them, we were pleasantly taken aback by the wealth of knowledge they had on nature; from insects to trees and birds to mammals.”

In what may be a fortuitous development in the long Pardis history, the children’s knowledge of their local environment may one day help save the wildlife they used to hunt. “When they grow up, their in-depth knowledge about wild flora and fauna can develop them into excellent nature guides, nature interpreters or researchers,” concludes Sangita Saxena, WWF-India’s State Director for M.P. and Chhattisgarh.

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