For showing how tribal culture can contribute to a process that secures the basic rights and fundamental needs of indigenous people and conserves their environment.
Hanumappa R. Sudarshan is an Indian physician dedicated to promoting the sustainable development of tribal communities through rights-based initiatives in health, education, livelihood security and biodiversity conservation. He established Vivekananda Girijana Kalyana Kendra (VGKK) in 1981 to pursue this mission with the Soliga people of India’s BR Hills region.
Sudarshan was inspired to become a physician after a tragic event he experienced at 12 years old while visiting Malaysia: the unexpected and sudden death of his father. From that moment, Sudarshan was determined to save lives, and after graduating from medical school, turned down a lucrative private practice career to bring healthcare to unreached communities.
In 1989, Sudarshan founded Karuna Trust, an offshoot of VGKK intended to serve tribal peoples beyond the BR Hills, that operates across four different Indian states. Through the combined efforts of VGKK and Karuna Trust, Sudarshan has achieved significant milestones, including securing land rights for the Soliga tribe, providing healthcare services to more than 1.5 million people and ensuring the livelihoods of thousands.
Hanumappa R. Sudarshan is a physician dedicated to promoting the sustainable development of tribal communities in India, whose livelihoods and well-being have historically been at risk due to exploitative development projects and a lack of access to healthcare and education.
His initiatives across four Indian states have brought healthcare services to more than 1.5 million people, and education and livelihood security to thousands.
Sustainable tribal development in the BR Hills
The Soliga people have resided in the BR Hills of Karnataka State for centuries, primarily living a life of abundance and tranquillity. Historically, they have sustained themselves through hunting and shifting cultivation and coexisted harmoniously with nature. However, when their forests began to be cleared for mining and industrial agriculture in the 1950s, they were forced into extreme poverty.
After completing medical school in 1973, Sudarshan arrived in the BR Hills to bring health services to the Soliga, originally focusing on treating the high rates of leprosy. By the time VGKK was founded in 1981, Sudarshan had expanded beyond healthcare and was determined to help facilitate the sustainable development of the Soliga people.
VGKK’s activities are centred on respecting and preserving tribal culture. At the same time, the organisation was established to offer education and livelihood opportunities to help these communities become self-sufficient in today's modern society. This goal was accomplished in 2018, when after years of legal battles, the Soliga people were granted forest rights, leading to the cessation of all mining operations on tribal land.
This allowed the Soliga people to once again be fully self-sufficient. Today, they are responsible for the conservation of their forest land, including a wildlife and tiger sanctuary. This historic case is a shining example throughout India that wildlife conservation and tribal peoples’ livelihoods can exist harmoniously.
Improving the Soliga peoples’ educational outcomes
VGKK's education programmes play a pivotal role in the Soliga people taking on positions with the Indian Forest Service. The organisation runs a Forestry College where VGKK’s President and Soliga tribal community member Jade Gowda teaches classes. Gowda was the first tribal youth to complete a PhD in Agriculture. In addition to the Forestry College, VGKK also operates the Tribal Residential School, a primary school for children aimed at inspiring pride in tribal culture. The school covers all courses required by Karnataka State standards, as well as topics such as environmental workshops and herbal gardening.
In 2021, VGKK opened two additional schools where 340 students are currently enrolled: Vivekananda Girijana Higher Primary School and Vivekananda Girijana High School. More than 95 per cent of Soliga children receive a primary education thanks to VGKK’s education programmes. Karuna Trust has expanded VGKK’s education programmes to include higher education. In addition to VGKK’s Vivekananda Girijana Pre-University College, Karuna Trust has granted higher education opportunities to 128 students through the Vivek Medical Students’ Scholarship program.
Securing livelihoods and promoting self-organisation
Another core element of VGKK’s work is vocational training, which is managed by tribal community members. They have helped 60 per cent of the Soliga community secure a minimum of 300 days of work each year from the Indian Forest Service, and employed 1,200 Soliga people in a system of tribal cooperatives. VGKK has also pioneered the sustainable extraction of non-timber forest products (NTFPs) and the creation of tribal enterprises to process them.
One of VGKK’s most significant achievements is fostering self-organisation among the communities it works with. For example, the president of VGKK has always been a Soliga community member, as has the majority of its governing board, and each village has its own council. Reaching beyond the limit of VGKK, many tribal people have successfully run in local elections. As Sudarshan says, “To eliminate disease you have to remove poverty. The only way to do that, I have realised, is to organise the people for their rights."
In 1986, Sudarshan founded Karuna Trust to extend VGKK’s integrated rural development through health, education and livelihood security. One of Karuna Trust’s biggest accomplishments has been reducing incidences of leprosy from 17 per 1,000 people to less than 0.3. Through Karuna Trust, Sudarshan has established 71 primary healthcare centres that serve 1.5 million tribal people across four states, addressing gaps in access through innovations in telemedicine and the use of renewable energy.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, Karuna Trust’s primary healthcare centres were vital to administering vaccines and providing treatment to remote populations. The organisation used telemedicine, home visits and mobile clinics to conduct Covid-19 screenings, administer vaccinations and educate communities on the virus. Their efforts led to over 60,000 remote community members receiving the Covid-19 vaccination.
Sudarshan has been Ashoka Fellow, Ashoka Innovators for Public, USA, Vice-President of the Voluntary Health Association of India, and a member of the Independent Commission on Health in India, the National Commission on Population, the National Nutrition Mission, the National Human Rights Commission, and the Indian Planning Commission's Steering Group for the development of Scheduled Tribes. As Chairman of the Task Force on Health & Family Welfare, he has brought out a comprehensive report to reform the health system of Karnataka. As Ombudsman for Health, Education & Social Welfare, Karnataka Lokayukta, he is fighting against corruption and promoting good governance to make the public services reach the poor including the tribal people.
He has received the Parisara (Environment) Award from the Government of Karnataka (1993) and the Padma Shree Award from the President of India (2000), the Human Rights Award (2001), a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Public Health Foundation of India (2009).