5 years of Nilgiri Field Learning Center – A Project of Keystone Foundation and Cornell University.

An interview with Pratim Roy (Director – Keystone) and Prof. Neema Kudva (Cornell University)


5 years have gone since NFLC began. Tell us about this course, the process and challenges involved in pulling this off?

Pratim Roy – This programme has uniqueness to it. It involves a big Ivy League college and a field based organisation. The primary focus of this programme is to look at education through a different lens. It’s not about just helping students obtain a degree. It is more about building conscious leadership among the youth of the Adivasi community and undergraduate students from Cornell. Apart from what we provide in the 15 weeks in terms of curriculum, the interaction that happens between these 2 groups of students inside and outside the class is an exciting part of this course.


Neema Kudav – It’s been close to 8 years since the first time we spoke about this, Pratim came up with this idea with the hope to find collaborators at Cornell who would give this idea a form. This process took about 3 years. After  much discussion on what kind of students will we target and so on was pondered upon.

Also, the place became very important, Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve is a place of importance in many levels – in terms of biodiversity, its part in the Western Ghats etc. We ran into many challenges in those 3 years – like integrating the curriculum. And the NFLC is a long term process. The first batches are only now starting their Masters and Ph.D. programmes. The impact it has had on students is evident, some of them are pursuing well-reputed programmes, and some have come back to India. Even at Keystone’s end – many are working with different programmes as volunteers and staff.

At Cornell, do you see an interest growing among students to enroll themselves in the NFLC programme?

Neema – At Cornell, the NFLC has a reputation of being a difficult programme, they are aware that it involves a lot of work and demands a certain kind of attention. It attracts only a certain kind of students that are truly interested in Socio–Ecological and biodiversity questions, the ones that take the environment seriously to change or contribute to it. It is also one of the few programmes that work across Cornell’s seven under-graduate colleges.

Was it a deliberate decision to fuse theoretical and practical learning into one course?

PratimYes. In the NFLC the theoretical learning that we have is actual practice gleaned out in theoretical models. Of course at Cornell, you will get the best kind of theoretical curriculum. The NFLC is different because it provides the students an opportunity to learn or understand agriculture, soil, trees, animals and people all together in a field setting. Even in the first 15 weeks of theory classes, students have field visits every week.

Research topics in the NFLC have a continuity year after year, some long, some short. Overtime how will these findings be used to change things at the ground level?

Neema – Since the beginning, it was clear that we will only work on subjects that can benefit the communities. Many visits happened back and forth, people from Keystone came to Ithaca and a group from Cornell to India, going to Keystone’s working areas to understand what was important. It’s the community needs that generated a set of ideas on which topics were finalised. Also, it pushed Keystone to take up work on new subjects, for example – the Health & Wellness component bloomed out of this. The concept of promoting community health workers was initiated. We’ve been setting these projects up for longer periods of time. It has allowed us to build long term agendas for both institutions. For someone who is a researcher on the project, it has allowed us to make certain kinds of research connections that take time to evolve. Even students at Cornell are aware that we’ve been setting this project up for a long term goal.

Its has been pushing the academic researchers as well as Keystone as an organisation to do the kind of things that the community really needs – Mental health and Community Wellbeing issues are huge which we started to look and deal with it.


What’s the plan for the next 5 years? Has there been a discussion among the core group in regard to this?

Pratim Yes. A new Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) in under process for the next 5 years. But it’s at an initial stage. There are plans to expand and include more colleges. Talks with Cyracuse University, New York is underway. This is something that we want to continue for a long term. Right now we are working on putting things in place. We are hopeful that we can keep working on this.

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