July 19, 2016

This blog was originally published on ThirdEyeMom.com by Nicole Melancon. Read the original blog here.


 About 230 km (143 miles) away from Bangalore lies the Bandipur National Park in the district of Chamarajnagar. Tucked around the stunning Western Ghat Mountains in Karnataka, Bandipur National Park is regarded as one of the most beautiful parks in India and is home to many types of wildlife including tigers, elephants and gaurs (a type of bull) as well as the predominantly indigenous communities that surround the park. Together with Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary in Tamil Nadu, Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary in Kerala and Nagarhole National Park in the North, it creates the India’s largest biosphere reserve popularly known as the ‘Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve’ and is an important part of India’s efforts towards eco-conservation.

Bandipur National Park was founded in 1974 under the Indian Government in efforts to conserve the tigers and wildlife community, however, in the process of establishing the park the tribal populations who has lived in the forests of the reserve for centuries were moved off of their land and into the villages and hamlets that surround the park. They had lost access to their traditional way of life as forest dwellers and were moved into subsistence farming on dry plots of land.

Morning at a water body inside the Bandipur Tiger Reserve (Photo credit: Nithila Baskaran)
Morning at a water body inside the Bandipur Tiger Reserve

(photo credit: Nithila Baskaran)

These tribal communities known as the “Adivasi” (an umbrella term for a heterogeneous set of ethnic and tribal groups considered the aboriginal population of South Asia) make up 8.6% of India’s population or 104 million people according to the 2011 census and about 43% of the population of Mangala Gram Panchayat are of Adivasi descent. Among the poorest and most disenfranchised people in India, they are also faced with very low literacy rates of only 45% (men 52% and woman only 38%), gender inequality, malnutrition and unending poverty.

Today, there are 15 villages in the Mangala Gram Panchayat and all are within one kilometer of the park boundary making human/animal conflict an important factor in everyday life of the villagers as well as poverty, lack of education and opportunities.

Within the backdrop of the Bandipur National Park sits a tiny government-run school (named the Mangala Government School) l that serves the predominantly tribal children who live in the community that border the forest. When humanitarian and wildlife photographer Nithila Baskaran first visited the school, it was in rough shape with holes in the ceilings, lack of usable desks and a high attrition rate of teachers and children which reinforced the vicious cycle of high illiteracy (The Chamarajnagar district has high illiteracy rates of 50.87% ) and severe poverty. After visiting the school, Nithila realized that there was tremendous need however there was also hope.

View of the Bandipur Tiger Reserve from a nearby hill (Photo credit: Nithila Baskaran)View of the Bandipur Tiger Reserve from a nearby hill

(photo credit: Nithila Baskaran)

Nithila Baskaran was born in a place called Dharapuram, close to the city of Coimbatore in Southern India however she moved every couple of years due to her father’s career and lived all over India. She grew up spending tons of time in the forests of South India especially Bandipur as her father is a conservationist and both her parents are birders who loved to spend all their holidays in the wild. Her love and passion for the area has been an important part of her life which continually brought her back to the region to photograph wildlife and enjoy the beauty of the forests.

After receiving a master’s degree in Clinical Psychology, Nithila realized that she did not want to work in a clinical situation and decided to pursue a more broad-based degree in Education. During her studies, she was introduced to the writings of Dr. Ambedkar and several feminist writers who helped her see the injustices and inequities in society through the lens of caste, class and gender. This inspired Nithila to dedicate her life to working in human rights and development with a focus on class and gender issues.

In 2007, Nithila was working with Actionaid doing community-based rehabilitation and post disaster rehabilitation and rebuilding when she and her husband by chance visited the Mangala Government School that serves the children who live around Bandipur National Park. They began talking with the people who lived there and were struck by the challenges the community faced especially in regards to education. The student/teacher ratio was extraordinary high, good teachers did not want to teach in such a remote place, it was difficult for children to get to school, the children had no suitable desks, and there was little access to alternative schooling systems. Further complicating matters, there was an enormous disconnect between the children and the forests around them. Despite the fact that almost half of the children came from tribes who traditionally lived off the forests, since they had relocated to outside, the forests were something they rarely entered.  Efforts to conserve the land and wildlife around them were low.

Nithila walking with the kids to the workshop venue. (Sanjay Reddy)Nithila walking with the kids to the workshop venue.
(photo credit: Sanjay Reddy)
Manu talks to the children about evolution (Nithila Baskaran)Manu talks to the children about evolution

(photo credit: Nithila Baskaran)

 Nithila realized she had landed on an opportunity to do something different that would change her life. Although she loved the work she did with Actionaid, she wanted to do more hands-on work and be in the field. It was her chance encounter with the community and Mangala Government School that inspired her to found Vanam.

The Vanam Foundation is an independent, not-for-profit organization that works in the area of education and the environment with the mission to promote socially just and ecologically sustainable development. By working with the government and other non-profit organizations, Vanam has helped increase student attendance and achievement, gender equality, wildlife and environmental conservation, and overall improvement of life for the communities who surround the Bandipur National Park.

Vanam has helped help the school and community by:

  • Hiring teachers and paying their salaries. The school has 140 students grades 1-8 however initially only 1-2 teachers would stay.
  • Promoting science, wildlife and environmental conservation by providing workshops and enrichment programs for the children to learn about the forest around them.
  • Placement of English teachers in the Mangala Government School.
  • Provision of scholarships to students in order to encourage the children continue their education.
  • Provision of new student desks with the help of Bloom & Give, a social enterprise that supports girls education in India.
  • Addition of a school bus: This has made one of the biggest differences in attendance because children now have a way to safely, and easily get to school. The school bus picks up 75 children traveling distance of 55 km daily. Before the school bus, children had to walk miles through he wildlife park and many refused to come because they were afraid.
Groupwork at a Vanam workshop - making a list of birds likely to use a nest box. (Photo credit: Austin Thomas)Groupwork at a Vanam workshop – making a list of birds likely to use a nest box.

(photo credit: Austin Thomas)

The group listen to a school mate talk about bird nests (photo credit: Austin Thomas)The group listen to a school mate talk about bird nests

(photo credit: Austin Thomas)

The group listen to a school mate talk about bird nests (photo credit: Austin Thomas)The group listen to a school mate talk about bird nests
(photo credit: Austin Thomas)
At a Vanam workshop - learning how to make a simple nest box for birds. (Nithila Baskaran)At a Vanam workshop – learning how to make a simple nest box for birds.

(photo credit: Nithila Baskaran)

At a Vanam workshop - Proudly displaying an almost couple nest box (Nithila Baskaran)At a Vanam workshop – Proudly displaying an almost couple nest box

(photo credit: Nithila Baskaran)

Nithila’s work with the school builds upon her philosophy that good education should be available to all children of India regardless of class, caste, gender and socio-economic status. The government school network in India has the largest reach and is free and open to anyone regardless of their socio-economic background. But to a large extent it is a broken system that lacks quality teaching. Her goal is to place efforts towards fixing the system to create the best opportunity for making a difference for the most marginalized communities in India.

Nithila also makes a huge effort in enriching the existing curriculum by conducting workshops on science, wildlife and conservation; keeping in mind that in one generation people from this area have lost access to the forests that once were their home. In Nithila’s words: “The view that people living in close proximity to forests are the enemy of wildlife and that conservation can only be possible in so called “inviolate forests” is problematic. People, especially the Adivasis have always lived here, they have co-existed peacefully. If today the human-animal conflict is on the rise, perhaps it is time to reexamine the government’s conservation strategies”.

We took a drive after a day long workshop with the children and came across this Tigress quite close to the road. (Nithila Baskaran)We took a drive after a day long workshop with the children and came across this Tigress quite close to the road.

(photo credit: Nithila Baskaran)

This past June, Vanam has partnered with Bloom and Give, a social enterprise that supports girls education in India (through the sale of beautiful handmade scarves and bags), to raise money to provide new desks for the students at Mangala Government School. I have written about Bloom and Give on my bloga lot as they are doing amazing things to make a difference in girls’ education in India. I was delighted to learn about their project with Vanam to provide new desks for the children.
Class Room at Mangala School. (Photo Credit: Austin Thomas)
Class Room at Mangala School.

(photo Credit: Austin Thomas)

Broken desks at the Mangala school (Photo credit: Austin Thomas)
Broken desks at the Mangala school

(photo credit: Austin Thomas)

In the month of June, 100% of Bloom & Give’s net profits went to fund new desks for the Mangala School. The new desks are built in long rows that seat six children and have a place beneath to store their materials.  Although it may be small, it is one step in improving the quality of education for these children.

It was an immense honor to interview Nithila via phone all the way in India to learn more about the inspiring work she and her team is doing to help make the world a better place. I also appreciate the dedication and passion by Bloom & Give’s founders, Partha Raghunathan and Madhu Rajendran, who are an inspiration as well.

UPDATE / DEC. 2017


It's been 18 months since my first visit to this school in the middle of a forest and I’m back, for the third time. The Mangala Government School is bustling with activity even though it’s a school holiday. At least 50 of the 180 children who study here have come to school today, because over the years, it has become a sanctuary of sorts for them – a place to learn, but also a place to play, and a second home. The headmistress, Mrs. Anthonyamma, is here - a formidable lady whose youthful looks belie her doggedness and energy. So is Miss Martina, the young English teacher who does triple duty sometimes, teaching Math and Humanities.

As I look around, I notice the changes since my last visit. The broken tiles in the roof have been replaced, and the monkeys can no longer slip in to steal school supplies. The classrooms have been fitted with brightly colored desks and the children proudly show them off to me – and tell me they can now store some of their books and stationery in the drawers that have been assigned to them. The school has toilets with running water now – an absolute necessity, especially for the girls. The rickety old bus that would break down every so often has been replaced with a spanking new one.

Mrs. Anthonyamma tells me that none of this would have been possible without the help of the Vanam Foundation. For over 10 years now, the foundation has provided the school with everything it needs to overcome the challenges it faces - and there have been many.

Vanam Foundation – A Friend in Need

Situated as it is in the midst of a forest – the Bandipur Tiger Reserve – human-animal conflict is common here. Children had to brave crossing paths with herds of elephant, leopards, even the occasional tiger, on their long treks to reach school. The school bus – donated and operated by Vanam – has turned this fraught journey into a joyride that they look forward to.


Teachers assigned to the school rarely take up their posts, opting instead to go on long leaves of absence. Vanam came to the school’s rescue by providing 2 teachers, of which the multi-talented Miss Martina is one. The children love her, and thanks to her, have learnt to speak English as fluently as those who attend private schools in adjacent towns.

Infrastructure has always been a challenge. Budgets allocated by the government towards capital expenses are tight – resulting in problems like the damaged roof and the lack of basic amenities like toilets. Vanam, by reaching out to other non-profits, has helped raise donations to improve infrastructure.

Forging Change

In an area where discrimination on the basis of caste runs deep, the school brings together children from tribal hamlets, socially backward groups, and upper caste communities. Girls are taught – by the strong examples set by Mrs. Anthonyamma and Miss Martina – that they can do everything boys can do, often better. Parents realize that quality education will serve their children much more than clinging to their old customs. And so, this school in the middle of a forest is quietly forging social change that will impact generations to come.

Bloom & Give is honored to partner with Vanam and help effect some of this change. We have supported infrastructure projects at the school, notably commissioning and providing the desks that the children use everyday. We have also undertaken to pay Miss Martina’s salary for a year, and help keep the quality of education high.

Mrs. Anthonyamma has big plans for the school – she wants another building to take in more students, she wants the school to extend up to Grade X (it teaches up to Grade VIII now), and she wants more qualified teachers. She believes she can realize this vision, with Vanam’s help. We hope to participate in this journey and watch the children at Mangala Government School bloom.

How you can help:
Every purchase you make at Bloom & Give goes to help fund girls’ education either through Vanam Foundation or Educate Girls To learn more about the initiative, click here. 

Leave a comment

Comments will be approved before showing up.

Be a part of our journey