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From Desk to Field: Insights from Tribal Communities in Assam and Odisha

Mallika Arora reflects on the immersive 8-day programme where she visited multiple non-profit organisations and village communities to gain more perspective

Over the last two years, my work has focused on policy formulation and research. The projects have spanned from developing the State Curriculum Framework for Assam to developing training workshops and courses on training PRI members and breaking down the complications in public service delivery in the most neglected parts of the country. A lot of my work has been desk-based. While for two years, I have had the chance to interact with stakeholders like government school teachers and grassroots NGO workers involved in delivering these public services, I had zero exposure to interacting with the beneficiaries of these services. Despite working on the PESA Act, I could not imagine what a tribal set-up looked like—who were the people who lived in these villages, what their daily looked like, what their culture and their politics were, what were their sources of livelihood and most importantly if and how the delivery of public services happened in these areas. My objective for the field visit to tribal communities in Odisha and Assam was two-pronged:

  • To observe the rural landscape and life of the people inhabiting these villages
  • To compare and understand the diversity in the rural landscape in both states.

Gram Vikas-Odisha

Gram Vikas is a 45-year-old organisation working towards rural development in Odisha. The organisation focuses on areas like water and sanitation, livelihood creation, education, health and dignified migration to achieve their various objectives. In the current model, the organisation aims to develop the rural areas through community mobilisation, working directly with self-help groups, village development committees and panchayats to implement the project.

Communities visited:

  • Phinikinari and Amupodiya Village in Khordha District
  • Mitrapur, Medinapur and Jadhari Pakhto Village and Gram Vikas School in Mohuda, Ganjam District


Farm2Food is a social enterprise based out of Jorhat, Assam. The organisation aims to create sustainable agricultural practices by training children in developing Kitchen Gardens in government schools and imparting entrepreneurial skills. They further work with the families of the children and immerse them into the community to create livelihood through agricultural diversification.

Communities Visited:

  • Government school in Kolbarhi Village Village near Dooria Tea Estate
  • Lekope Cafe by Aayang Trust and Hummingbird School in Majuli Island
  • Villages of Pashu Sakhi and Solar Sakhi near Jorhat

The Faces of Assam and Odisha

Some time ago People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI) started working on a project titled ‘Faces’ aimed at documenting the faces of Indians from every single block and district in the country. I found it quite fascinating as I realised the faces we often associate with India through mainstream channels fail to represent the diversity in our country. The following carousels from Assam and Odisha aim to capture the faces of people living in these states. As I read more about the Faces project—I realised that they ensured they documented the names and other details of the individuals whose faces they were capturing. I failed to do the same. So, would it be a good practice to document the details of individuals in my future field visits? Would it be too intrusive? Another question I had was about the ethics of going into a community and capturing the photographs of individuals. A lot of times, I realised that taking consent ends up being complicated because of the language barrier. In such cases, should one take the photo as it helps in the future while documenting the visit, or should one respect the community’s space? How actions on our part can dehumanise the community members?

The Rural Landscape

My objective in every community immersion was not to focus on any particular issue but to completely immerse myself in that space. I wanted to observe the landscape, compare it to how it was different from the landscape in my daily life, and how landscapes of diverse communities were. Through that, I wanted to open myself to a world that exists beyond the bubble I live in. For me personally, observing small things like how the houses were constructed, the common objects I could find in those spaces, and the cattle helped me understand more about their life than the verbal interactions I had with the community. This presentation aims to share some of the spaces I observed in the landscape and how each has a story to tell. It left me with questions like, how do you document your visit? What are the things you should capture? How can your documentation tell a story?

Mousami Weds Krushna

I got to understand how they celebrated weddings. The politics of inter-tribe marriages and their normalisation to some extent, wherein you just had to pay a fine. On the other hand, in Assam, one of the tribes we interacted with did not get married. Live-in relationships were acceptable.

The story of stuff

The woman in the picture is making bundles of wood usually used for lighting the hawan fire. She sells her produce at ₹1 per bundle while we end up paying exorbitant prices for the same wood in cities. People who put in maximum labour do not get paid. They end up getting exploited in the supply chain.

Houses in the world’s largest river Island

  • Mahuli Island
  • The issue of flooding
  • Seeing and learning how flooding impacts various aspects of life

The handloom cloth is too expensive.

I always hesitated to purchase handloom cloth because I thought it was too expensive. It was the first time I understood why. The intricacies of setting up and weaving the clothes are complicated and require skill. Now, I believe the products should have a higher price.

Community: You do not always have to reinvent the wheel!

I had been feeling isolated and lost in the work that I was doing. It challenged my NOTION that networking is always transactional. I realised that work in the development space is not a solo battle. You must find and build a network of people who align with your vision and work with them to create a difference.

(Mallika Arora was a Mother Teresa Fellow from the batch of 2021. She works as the Learning and Development Associate at the Accountability Initiative, Centre for Policy Research. Prior to joining CPR, she worked as an Education Consultant with Group Ignus. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Economics from Hansraj College, University of Delhi, and a Master’s in Liberal Studies (Department of Political Science) from Ashoka University. She has also pursued the Young India Fellowship from Ashoka University)

Study at Ashoka

Study at Ashoka