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My Fieldwork Reflections from the Nallamala Forest in India

Malavika Jinka, Master's Student

Department of Anthropology and Middle Eastern Cultures, Mississippi State University

As an Applied Anthropology Master’s student at Mississippi State University, I was always eager to experience my fieldwork. The main aspects of my research are biodiversity conservation, displacement, and development with a focus on the indigenous Chenchu people of the Nallamala forest region in southern India. My fieldwork was conducted in Summer 2019 to explore the definitions of “development” by the internally displaced Chenchu people and the Indian government representatives. The various anthropology courses and the faculty at my department had prepared me well with all the necessary theoretical and ethnographic knowledge to conduct my research. After submitting my research proposal and getting a “good to go!” signal from my advisor, Dr. David Hoffman, I could no longer wait to meet the Chenchus. Ideally, my Indian background should have acted in my favor to conduct research on my home ground but there was always a combination of anxiety and excitement to meet and work with the people I hardly knew.

Entering the Nallamala forest

My fieldwork included visits to the Chenchu settlements located in the deep forest, on the fringes of the towns, and in the areas developed by the government for the displaced Chenchu people. I collaborated with a local NGO whose mission was Chenchu development and accompanied its workers on their field visits. During the field visits, I developed a rapport with the Chenchu people by participating in their daily activities—we cooked food together, drew water from the well, and reared cattle, all while exchanging views and ideas on everyday life, which was a unique experience. Eventually, my qualms with traveling in the scorching sun in the traditional attire, winding field trips into the forest, bumpy roads, and eating whatever food we could pick up on the way began to fade. I realized that mere knowledge of the local language is only half of understanding the Chenchus because the other half was in getting their jargon, gestures, habits, customs, and values right. The NGO workers and the people themselves helped me in this learning process.

Deep Forest Settlements

The deep forest Chenchu settlements were difficult to access. We sometimes had to get off our vehicle to clear the path ridden with boulders and fallen trees, or just walk, or even hitch a ride with huge trucks that could drive on those roads. The forest was abuzz with the sounds of birds, insects, and small animals. Sometimes a herd of deer would suddenly appear and vanish into the woods. For the first time, I had a window into being a forager by eating whatever fruits and berries we could find on these trails.

After traveling for about 15 miles into the forest, we reached a quiet settlement of about 150 people. The people lived in totally subsistent ways—bamboo huts, water from the well, milk and curd from the cattle, kitchen gardens, fruits and berries from the nearby forest. I saw people taking siestas under tree shades and giggling children busy with play.

“Please leave your shoes outside the house.”

My interactions with the deep forest Chenchu people included discussions, visiting houses, and conducting interviews. We spoke about the forest, their ancestors, threats from wild animals, access to the towns, children’s education, and basically their lives in the forest. After the fieldwork, I always reflected on their narratives of development, sometimes defined as fresh air, clean water, freedom to live as they will, the number of cows, goats, and chickens, or even having children who obey their parents. This field experience made me richer and broadened my own perspectives on development.

Settlements on Town Fringes

With the establishment of the tiger reserve in the Nallamala forest by the Indian government in 1973, some of the Chenchus were displaced from their ancestral lands in the forest to the fringes of the towns. The government and the NGO had provided them with concrete houses, hospitals, and schools. While some Chenchu men worked as forest guards and tiger trackers, the women mostly ran the household and also went foraging into the forest and hills in their backyards. My interviews with the people living in these settlements also elicited their perspectives on development. They discussed how celebrating their festivals and rituals and nurturing their tradition and culture help in protecting their Chenchu identity.

On the town fringes

Interviews with Indian Government Representatives

The latter part of my fieldwork involved interactions and interviews with Indian government representatives including conservation officers, NGO workers, and Integrated Tribal Development Agency (ITDA) authorities. ITDAs were created by the Indian government to manage development projects for tribal groups in India. The ITDA-Srisailam focuses on the development of the Chenchu people in the Nallamala region.

The ITDA-Srisailam office at Sundipenta, Andhra Pradesh, India

I had the opportunity to attend the ITDA’s grievances meetings where the Chenchu people discussed their problems with the ITDA officials. During these meetings, both the government and the Chenchu people were trying to together resolve problems related to infrastructure, better roads, water facilities, employment, and sanctions for education scholarships. However, attaining a fine balance to achieve development goals was the main agenda of the government. Later, I conducted interviews with the ITDA officials who worked in various departments including Education, Forest product collection and marketing, and Infrastructure development. The development definitions of the government representatives included infrastructure development and providing good living conditions. They also insisted on the active participation of the Chenchu people in their own development rather than being mere recipients of development.

My fully packed auto rickshaw ride

During the meeting recess, I happened to talk to a few Chenchu people who narrated their plight of traveling by public transportation to attend these meetings from their remote locations. There were some women who came to the meetings with small children. After listening to them, I conducted a small experiment to learn what it takes to reach the ITDA offices from the Chenchu settlements. Instead of my regular mode of commute, a private vehicle, I took public transportation to reach the ITDA office at Sundipenta. I realized that it takes real endurance to wait in the sun for the public shuttles, or take the auto rickshaw (a local mode of transport with ten other people in it), or just walk in the sun. I appreciated the determination of the Chenchu people taking these difficult modes of transport just to make their problems heard and find solutions.

Currently, I am back in the US with a wealth of fieldwork experience. During transcriptions, while listening to my participants' interview recordings, the images of the people and the beautiful memories always take me back to the Nallamala forests. My fieldwork was not a mere data collection, it was an incredible journey into learning the various beliefs and perceptions of the people on development as well as acknowledging my own strengths and limitations as an ethnographer, which help in making my anthropological and ethnographic approaches more comprehensive and liberal.

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