This Assam activist is transforming the lives of tribal people through education and empowerment

Ananya Paul Dodmani’s TribalConnect has provided education to 21,000 women and children and sustainable livelihood opportunities to over 50,000 forest dwellers so far. Her work has been instrumental in weaning forest people off kidnapping for extortion 

Partho Burman
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Ananya Paul Dodmani at a TribalConnect study centre

Ananya Paul Dodmani at a TribalConnect study centre

Sometime in the mid-1990s, when Ananya Paul was in class 8, her mother asked her to accompany their caretaker to the nearby store to get some household supplies. Being uneducated, the nanny was unable to distinguish between banknotes of different denominations. She handed the storekeeper a Rs 20 note, but he tricked her by saying it was a Rs 10 note. 

Ananya silently witnessed how the storekeeper took advantage of their caretaker’s lack of education. This incident left a lasting impression on the young girl’s psyche.

Born in the small Assamese tribal village of Lumding, in the Hojai district, Ananya decided to work with the tribal children to train them to write their names, recognise the right currency denomination and equip them to read signs at railway stations and bus stops.

She realised that education was the only means to help forest people stabilise their income, end exploitation and abstain from engaging in unlawful activities. “I have spent the last several years interacting with thousands of tribal people and listening to their journeys. It is the culmination of these experiences that makes me who I am,” says the 40-year-old activist, who has won many awards for her contribution to society.

Ananya has been working to improve the lives of indigenous people for the last 27 years. Her NGO TribalConnect has built community halls, libraries, schools, shelters, and toilets for tribal communities in Assam, Odisha, Karnataka and Goa. It has also provided education to 21,000 women and children and over 50,000 forest residents have benefitted from its Sustainable Livelihood Project. 

sustainable livelihoo
TribalConnect has generated sustainable livelihood opportunities for forest dwellers. Pic: TribalConnect

Through her awareness generation programmes, she has helped to wean men off kidnapping for extortion. 

“I have helped 82 men who were involved in militancy to live regular lives. Some people are now into farming while others weave sarees and teach kids.” 

However, they require ongoing counselling. “Rehab alone won't cut it. They run the risk of returning to militancy if they aren't allowed to live peacefully in society,” she says.

Also Read: This Assam couple quit jobs to promote forest conservation through handlooms

Ananya’s work towards the empowerment of indigenous people has earned her the nickname “Granny of the Northeast” from the forest dwellers. 

Abduction of her father

But her journey has not been a bed of roses. In 2002, when she was studying English literature at the Arya Vidyapeeth College, of the Gauhati University, her father Bidyut Paul was abducted by a militant organisation in Assam.

He had a wholesale pharmaceutical distributorship in Lumding while Ananya’s mother was a housewife. “I was 20 at that time and my father’s abduction was a big shock and setback for us. Over a landline phone, the militants sought a ransom of Rs. 10 lakh from one of my father's business associates. He was imprisoned at a hideaway 250 km from Lumding, an area of ongoing strife in Assam,” recollects Ananya. 

The abductors took away his shoes to prevent him from slipping out of the woods barefoot. They also took away his gold chains and other jewellery. Her father was kept in a three-story structure surrounded by thick woodland. On the sixth day, the abductors failed to lock the terrace door under the influence of alcohol. 

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Ananya Paul with her students who are also farmers. Pic: TribalConnect

“My father took advantage of it to get away. It was raining heavily. He fled from the terrace, but he was unable to make his way through the bushes. He asked a local milkman for assistance, but the man declined to show him the way to the nearest railway station,” Ananya recalls. 

Also Read: Woman on a mission: Subrata Pandey is supporting tribal women, reviving lost crafts in Odisha

After arriving at the closest train station, the 46-year-old victim asked to speak with the Train Ticket Examiner, who assisted him in boarding a train for Lumding. 

After returning home safely, the trauma left a shadow behind. Her mother halted all activities that involved stepping out of the house.

Her education was discontinued and Ananya was prohibited from entering the forest even though she loved spending time with tribal people and listening to their folklore and stories of their hardship. Her parents relocated their two sisters to a cousin who lived in Konnagar, Hooghly, in 2003.   

Motivated by the plight of tribals

Ananya later completed her graduation from Calcutta University, but her heart was in the forests around which she had grown up. Even during her short stay in Bengal, she managed to visit the forests of Purulia and Birbhum. In 2005, she moved back to her hometown. Her parents didn't speak to her for years because they did not want her to work in the forests with tribal people.

edcuation for all
TribalConnect study centres are breaking intergenerational illiteracy by making education accessbile

Once in the jungles, Ananya, the forest woman, set up a study centre and began to teach the local children. Convincing them wasn’t easy. 

“I used to entice the kids by offering pencils or chocolates. When I launched the education centre under a tree in a small village in Lumding with just five students, my centre didn't even have a name,” she says. 

“Among the five pupils, Roseline stands out in my memory,” Ananya giggles and continues, “She had to be enticed with a chocolate to come to the centre.”  

In 2009, an incident changed Ananya’s life yet another time. A 90-year-old woman's son was abducted. She came to the centre. “When she was asked, ‘What would you do now?’ With promptitude, she said, ‘Be like Ananya.’ “She baptised me as “Phi,” which translates to “grandma” in the tribal dialect. Ever since everyone who lives in the jungle has called me Phi. At the age of 25, I was dubbed the “Grandmother of Northeast,” the forest lady tells 30Stades.   

Also Read: Tribal youth handcraft livelihood opportunities with bamboo toys in Odisha’s Lamtaput

Education model

Ananya has been spreading education among the indigenous people through a unique model of study centres. “First, we locate the settlement and ask the local chief to provide us with a plot of land to establish a centre. We designate a single qualified candidate for the centre's management. We depute someone from a neighbouring village if we are unable to find the perfect candidate in that community. We supply all the materials, such as meals, literature, pencils and slates for the students,” she said.

She also sets up community kitchens which provide two meals a day to students. Interestingly, some kids refused to go home from the centre as they loved spending time there. Ananya then decided to set up a hostel for them and the number of centres continued to grow.

happy students
Ananya Paul and her happy students at a study centre. Pic: TribalConnect

The proportion of native and non-native people living in the forests is 70:30. 

Ananya noticed that every forest and its dwellers face different problems. Unlike those living in north Karnataka, the forest inhabitants in the northeast are undernourished, she points out.

The Kunbi tribes do not have ST certificates. So they cannot avail of any government initiatives. These tribes are predominantly found in north Karnataka, Goa and Gujarat. In contrast to the inhabitants of north Karnataka, the tribes residing in Goa and Gujarat have the certifications. 

Certificates, not food, are the most essential requirement for Kunbis. “We assist them in completing their papers. Applications for higher education and school entrance under government programmes cannot be processed without the right documents. They are also enrolled in a programme for livelihood. We have partnered with Agriculture Universities to provide them with instruction in building beehive boxes and giving out free saplings for their livelihood,” she says.

The northeast is in a distinct league due to the closeness to the international border. “If food isn’t provided, they won’t come to the facility. They will cross the border instead. It is and always will be a conflict zone. There are regions in Assam that have been designated as restricted. Entry is prohibited if the necessary paperwork is missing. Thus, in 2018, we registered all of our centres under the name “TribalConnect.” We have global access to work for the forest people.”

Operating Four Basic Projects  

TribalConnect operates a total of 162 centres. It has 118 centres in the northeast, two centres in Odisha, one in West Bengal and rest in the north Karnataka and Goa. TribalConnect students range in age from newborn to ninety years old.

Their principal areas of operation include the forests of Karbi Anglong, Dima Hasao, Cachar, Lakhimpur, Barpeta, Kaziranga, Manas Tiger Reserve, Margherita; Tura in Meghalaya; and certain regions of Nagaland, also in north Karnataka is the Kali Tiger Reserve.

Project Annapurna, Project Gyan, Sustainable Livelihood Mission and Project Lali are the four initiatives that TribalConnect manages. 

The community kitchen at Project Annapurna is open to everyone. Under Project Gyan, also known as the Wisdom Corridor, parents and grandparents attend classes in the evening while their children participate in morning schooling.

With the support of the Sustainable Livelihood Mission, the forest inhabitants engage in community farming and are allowed to either bring their own necessities or sell the produce at the market. They create various products, like stoles and sarees, to support them.

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Saree weaving has also created livelihood for tribal people. Pic: TribalConnect

TribalConnect has held a free, exclusive session on menstruation, health, and hygiene around the country as part of Project Lali. Approximately 90,000 women have benefited from the Sustainable Menstrual Workshop. They have also been made aware of the dangers of napkin disposal because it takes 600 years for a sanitary napkin to decompose. Interestingly, the students share this view with their moms, Ananya adds.

 “By providing handmade sanitary pads to 32,000 women as part of Project Lali, we have improved their quality of life. In addition, we teach ladies how to make pads that last for three to four cycles,” says Ananya, who has been conferred with Asom Ratna.

Ananya’s work has been instrumental in generating awareness among people about the constitutional ways to support themselves and not engage in illegal activities. This has helped to pull people away from kidnapping for extortion. 

Project Funding

The majority of funds for her work come from crowdsourcing, and the organisation has a network of supporters that provide long-term financial support for two to four children. She’s never taken financial assistance from the government. A few of her friends make contributions to TribalConnect's upkeep. 

As a criminal psychologist, she has affiliations with many academic institutions. About 90 percent of the money she earns from counselling is donated to the empowerment of the forest people.

Since the yearly flood destroys the centres, she needs to save money for rebuilding them. There are some centres close to the Elephant Corridor. Thus, the forest elephants, driven out by the light of the fire, have an impact on the centre.

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Ananya Paul with women from Karnataka's forests. Pic: TribalConnect

Personal life

Ananya discovered Abhishek Dodmani, a Karnataka native, in an instructional chat room early in 2005 while researching the internet for her history assignment. He joined his family's firm after completing his MBA. While the couple fell in love, Ananya’s parents objected since he was a vegetarian. 

Today, the couple is together. Abhishek supports Ananya's relationships with forests. “We originally got together in 2006, right before we were engaged. On February 14, 2006, we exchanged vows. I spend the first twenty days of a month in the northeastern forests and the last ten days in Karnataka. Without my husband’s help, it would not have been possible to continue,” the Karamveer Chakra recipient says, adding, “He keeps me rooted.” The couple's son, Meeth Dodmani, is a science student in the eleventh grade at Kendriya Vidyalaya.

Ananya was awarded the 2019 “Karamveer Chakra” by the United Nations. In 2020, she was also granted the esteemed “Asom Ratna” award. She received the “Kamala Power Women Award” from the Ministry of External & Tribal Affairs in 2022. Ananya received the “Global Women Leader Award” at the World Women Leadership Congress and Awards in Mumbai on February 17, 2024. 

“My parents are proud of me. I want at least one person to be in charge of my life before I close my eyes,” The Granny of Northeast says, “The women should know that their voice matters.”

(Partho Burman is a Kolkata-based award-winning journalist. He writes inspiring human interest and motivational stories.)

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