Monday, 29 February 2016

Watershed wanderings

We need to do better community organization.

That’s in a nutshell the basic recommendation from the recent TEARFund evaluation of the HBM Hospital’s watershed management programme.   Our CHDP staff is working in 15 villages of the Bar block to help villagers manage their environment better through the vital task of saving water.
In the Bible Moses tells the Israelites who are about to enter the promised land that ‘this land drinks rain from heaven.’   That’s a good description of the Bundelkhand region as a whole – and our district of Lalitpur in particular.   Most agriculture is rain-dependent.  And the rain water falls mostly during the monsoonal months, and a little bit in winter (‘Christmas rains’). 

And most of the rain runs away and does not recharge the ground water.  Further, as it gushes along the ground it takes soil with it too.   Poor land use leads to less vegetation, less plants means that water flows away even quicker and so the pattern continues.

So when there is a drought (like in the last two years), then the options for small farmers are few and far between.

Which is why we want to break the cycle.

We want to see each village understand the watershed that they are in.  Be able to look at the land and work out the best ways to slow the flows of water down.  To let the gushing water become moving water, and the moving water stand still, and that standing water replenish the ground water.

We want to see soil cared for and protected.  To have the mosaic of different land uses that every village has be managed for the best use possible.  For the land to be flourishing rather than be degraded.

It’s a huge task, of course, and the challenge of it all is that the human element is key. 

How do you work together to manage your environment – when you can’t trust your neighbor? 

Besides doing good hydrological mapping and making proper technical decisions about how to use a particular plot of land – or even a whole chain of them – there is the other issue… how to work together?  How to come to agreements… how to build community ownership and cooperation.

Here is where it gets tough.  People are not machines.  We make choices.  We nurse grudges.  We can be wonderfully helpful and awfully destructive.

The TEARfund folks are right about our work.  Too much of it ends up being project driven:  we have funds for some activities, and so our staff meet with villagers and form various groups – with the primary task of seeing that the activities are fulfilled.

But is that enough?  Our desire is to see transformation.  We don’t just want folks to come together for a short time and then dissolve.   And we also want to see groups formed who really care for each other, and who include those on the margins, the poor and neglected and vulnerable.

So last week our HBM Hospital CHDP team went on an exposure visit.  Our watershed wanderings took us to Madhya Pradesh to see how others have done and are doing community organization of watershed management in other parts of the Bundelkhand area which are similar to ours.

Thanks to the “Jat Agitation” in Haryana, the train I had booked 2 months earlier was cancelled at the last minute – meaning that I was unable to come back to Lalitpur as planned.  But then I managed to get a ticket on the Garib Rath to Jabalpur in Madhya Pradesh – and was picked up mid-morning by the team who had driven down from Lalitpur in our project jeep. 

Will you join us, gentle reader, for a trip to a remote village which seems to be doing things right? There is (virtual) space for you in our jeep, so please hop aboard!

A good 2 hours drive out of Jabalpur brings us near to the village of Jangaliya in the Niwas tehsil of MP's Mandla district.

This is where we are headed - and also welcomed on arrival by the members of the village watershed committee.  

We are late - arriving at 1 PM - and so after the initial welcome we get down to business... Lunch!

Here is what is on my plate - a delicious potato and cauliflower subji, with mango pickle and amla pickle too - with papad and puris (rice and dal came later ... but I am a sucker for puris and so filled up with the delicious deep fried treats)...

But we were not in the village just to eat.  We were here to learn.

And learn we did.

Our hosts shared their experience.  It all started in 2007 when an agency who pioneered village level watershed management in Maharashtra reached out with their expertise to this village.

The villagers were asked to provide shram-dhan (voluntary work) before any concrete steps were taken.  They talked it over and decided to give 5 days of work.  All of them.

And so they got to work on this hill.

At that time it was a common-use hill, the land being under the revenue department then.  The villagers decided to do land treatment to increase ground water recharge.  They built contour bunds, dug pits, made gully plugs...  and then when the 5 days were over, the organisers asked them to do another two days to really see that the job was done well.

The results were jaw dropping.  Just the treatment of that hill led to real changes in water levels in the next year.  It also brought the community together and showed the value of such work.

In the next year, the community had organised its watershed management committees and started mapping out the land of different farmers and making detailed plans for how the water retention of the land would be improved.

The decisions on what do to with the land were made by both husband and wife - and then implemented by the committee.

We asked about the original work - didn't some people sit out and not participate?

Yes, our hosts told us, there were some.  And when they saw how successful things were and what work was going on they later wanted to join as well.  The committee decided that those who did not do the shram-dhan could also participate in the land treatment work, but were asked to pay a Rs. 600/- fine - which some did!

Shanti Devi, one of our hosts, told us about the women's savings groups which were an important part of the work.

The village has 10 hamlets - and they were able to start 14 different groups!  Each group meets each week - and the members contribute Rs. 10 each time - and Rs. 20 on the 4th meeting so that each month Rs. 50 is collected per person.  At the end of the month, the money is deposited in the group bank account.

The ladies have saved... a lot!  The government has come along side and  has added Rs. 1 lakh to their kitty to help their revolving funds.  They now have over 2 lakhs on hand.

We asked them what they were using the money for.  Another lady told us that they had given loans for marriages... and for the house that we were sitting in - which has been newly built!

It was wonderful to hear about what has been done.  

For me one of the most exciting things was to see the confidence that our hosts had.  Each one of them was articulate and able to explain, and clearly capable of taking the process forward... which they have!  Today the main watershed project work from the initial implementing organisation is over.  And has been for the past 4 years.  But the institutions which were formed then - the village watershed management committee and the women's savings groups - have gone from strength to strength.

They are now able to approach the government authorities themselves.   The area is under a drought right now, and the villagers have been able to access funds from the NREGA - the national rural employment guarantee act which is meant to provide at least 100 days of labour for everyone each year.

All around the village we saw evidence that NREGA was being accessed - and how!

Cooperation has spilled over into other areas too.  Like local politics.

On my visit to the villages we work in here in Lalitpur district, I saw plenty of poll-related graffiti. Vote for 'Imli' symbol, vote for 'whistle' symbol etc.   But not in the beautiful village homes in Jangeliya village.  Our hosts explained that the panchayat elections had been very easy on everyone - because they came to a consensus candidate who was declared elected unopposed.  Wow.  When have we heard of something like that?

Our walk around showed us the physical evidences that cooperation pays off - and that land can bring people together rather than separate.

Our hosts showed us a well which 13 women had banded together to contribute towards - and whose efforts were met by the implementing agency.  It is still strong and compared to the costs of today was build for a very reasonable amount.

We walked over a gabion structure which they villagers built to slow water flows - and which has brought the blessing of a field being cultivated despite this year being a drought year.

We were shown concrete plinths that the villagers have received from the agriculture department - to make vermiculture pits with.  The villagers have shown that they are now adept and accessing government schemes meant for them!

And encouragingly, almost every house that we saw seems to have a toilet built.  And that too not just an small lonely shed which ends up becoming extra storage space, but actually being used.

And so we left the village of Jungeliya with a fair amount of wonder.  Amazed at a community that looks pretty perfect - at least when it comes to making decisions about land and how to work together.

We left as the sun was going down - and drove out to the hill where it all first started - the land has now been taken over by the forest department - and so further land treatment on it is forbidden (ironically) but the work has been done.  A hill that brought a village together - and multiple on-going works being seen today.   Something that our villages would do well to emulate.

The one small jarring note?  A request directed to me and in private by one of our hosts - about whether I would be willing to extend our work (and help) to them.  Is this a sign of healthy self-reliance and taking initiative at the right time, or is it being a leech?  Hard to tell, but it did show that these people are also human, that they do have aspirational desires too.

Overall - an amazing day and well worth the long drive out and back.

In the evening we drove back to Jabalpur where I was picked up by Bro. Biju Mathew (the director of the HBM Hospital) and Rev. Emmanuel (who teaches at the local seminary and leads the church which meets on the HBM hospital campus).  They were there to visit the Lakhnadon Christian Hospital - and took me along with them, while the CHDP team drove on to Damoh to meet our colleagues who are working there with the EFICOR watershed management programme.

But that is a story for another day.

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