India's Forgotten Faces

As the world's largest democracy rises, who will fall behind?
India's Forgotten Faces

The adivasi, or indigenous, people of southern India are among the poorest in the world. Ignored by the classical caste structure and shunned by the government, adivasi communities have relied for centuries on India's forests for food, fuel, and cultural identity. But with increasing pressures from large scale agriculture, and the growth of conservation zones and national parks, today their open access to the forest has all but disappeared. Some particularly marginalized communities were forcefully relocated out of the forest into government-built houses.

Within days of starting work with the Touchwood Ecological and Social Foundation, a small NGO partnering with Irula communities outside of Mudumalai National Park, Tamil Nadu, we found that the government census documents we’d received for nearby Irula villages were woefully inaccurate. The government, despite creating the villages, had undercounted their populations by three or four times.

About a year before our visit, the government built solar-powered electric fences around the villages, ostensibly to keep wild boars and elephants out. But soon after installation, elephants trampled the fences. Without the supplies or tools to repair them, the communities wait in vain for the government to help. Today, the flimsy metal lines serve as a reminder to the community that there is a distinct border between their lives and the forest. They are not allowed to go into the forest any longer. They are not allowed to gather wood, or graze their cattle, or collect honey from the hives that hang from the towering cliffs. Of course, in reality this doesn't stop them—they just step over the broken fence.

These photos are from Touchwood's census work. They are Irula from two different government-designated villages. All of the photos were printed and given back to the families.