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Staring down droughts in Dharwad, Karnataka

In just seven years, with a modest one-time investment, BAIF, Dharwad has lifted 10,000 people to good lives.

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It is March,2004. We are driving from Dharwad to Surshettikoppa. Off the highway, it's a blistering landscape. On a powdery earth, trees are holding their places with forlorn dignity. Vast brown spaces between them are in startled silence. A line of racing monkeys break the scene. Amidst them, a mother with a baby slung under.

Dr Prakash Bhat is brooding. "Four years of drought. Free animals have been hit hard. They are under great stress. Man has been lucky enough to survive."

Everywhere in the south of India, droughts and debts are leading to suicides. But in about 25 square kilometres around Surshettikoppa, farmers have learned to stare back at droughts, survive and in rural Indian terms, even prosper.

Has magic been wrought here, or is it lunacy at work elsewhere in India? Dr.Bhat— and BAIF, his employer— are propagating nothing more than common-sense solutions gained from soil level work. In under six years, Dr Bhat with staff of ten, has freed 10,000 people from fear and privation. These people are not afraid of droughts anymore.

"Going away" as a way of life

We are going to observe the transformation of nearly 2,500 families in 22 villages in Kalaghatagi and Hubli talukas of Karnataka. Till the year 2000, having between 2 and 5 acres of land meant nothing to them. In a good year rainfall would be close to 1000mm but very often, around 500mm. They could not live off their land. It was common for men to go away to industrial nodes at Noolvi, Hospet and Yellapur and slave at dehumanising porterage labour in mines and at rail heads. Villages often consisted of only children and women. Children 10 years old, were sent away as cattle-grazers to other towns under the 'Jeetha' system, which fed them for work.

BAIF, a love child of Dr Manibhai Desai, has had a presence in Dharwad since 1980. Dr Bhat, a veterinarian recruited by Dr Desai, was an early arrival. BAIF had been at work improving livestock quality. The poverty everywhere was striking.

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