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"The grass is greener on our side"

Vichitra Sharma, writing in Grassroots details how smoothly an Himalayan village transformed itself.

A silent but significant revolution has taken place. It is a major breakthrough for the women of Bawani village. A new variety known as 'Guinea' grass has suddenly provided them with greater food security and reduced the daily drudgery of walking 10 to 15 kM for collecting fodder and fuel wood.

Arrival of the Guinea:

'Guinea' up till now not known to the people of this region, has turned into a boon, as it remains green throughout the year if pruned regularly and is highly nutritious. The cattle grazing on it produce more milk and of a higher quality. This marks the turning point for the women of the Himalayas.The grass which now grows near their homes and close to the village, has turned Bawani into a role model for the hill region.

Women all over the Himalayas are forced to go further and further away from home to meet their wood and fodder requirements for daily cooking and to feed the cattle. In Bawani, grazing grounds were non-existent. Often, pasture lands for the goats were closer to the riverbed, in which case carrying back heavy bundles of fodder and wood was arduous and tiring. Ravaged by felling at higher altitudes and other human-related factors, most of the hills of this area have been hit by landslides and gushing rain water that washes off all the top soil leading to wasted lands. As a result, the villages suffered from acute water shortage. The only vegetation visible along the hill slopes was the wild lantana shrub.

Life changed when Bawani village [264 hectares] was picked up as one among the 303 villages spread over an area of 2408 sq. km and with a population density of 19.8 persons per sq.km to be part of Doon Valley Watershed Management Project. According to Jyotsna Stitling, the project co-ordinator and forest officer with the government of Uttaranchal, "the idea was to integrate watershed management with the revival of the entire eco-system of the area." To get the people to participate actively, there had to be something in it for improving their lot.

Pay-offs for a fee and some labour:

The incentives were: increase in earnings, water at their door steps, rich harvest and -most important- reducing the hardship of daily living by addressing the need for wood and fodder. The approach adopted was to motivate the hill people to "think over and articulate their problems and needs". It was not easy. There were no role models. No one wanted to change their lifestyle nor did they believe in the word of the government. One whole year went by before they joined the Garima Samiti [Self-help groups network] and started co-operating," said Masterji [school master].

The first step was to direct the gushing waters downhill into a network of channels -or 'gols'- along the step-agricultural holdings for irrigating the hill sides. The technique and method was part of traditional farming patterns, which because of poor community spirit and a lack of consensus no one was trying out.

"All of us were supposed to deposit Rs.20 per family as the user group fee for the gol and also work in the construction of it," said Dayal Singh. The villagers in their enthusiasm to get their lands cultivable, deposited more than the minimum fee.

The channels were constructed along the step-lands downhill, skirting every holding in a manner that if a boulder or a rock was placed in a fork in the channel path, water would gradually steer towards the other field because of the gradation. The villagers also worked out timings for water use thorough consensus and resolved to amicably settle all water-sharing disputes. The bubbling stream downstream had been harnessed for orderly irrigation. In addition to wheat, paddy, potato, onion, beet, tomato, peas, chillies, gram and other seasonal vegetables, farmers started planting the freely supplied saplings of guava, papaya, jack fruit, sweet lime, lemon, plum, peach etc.

Masterji's wife wades into the shrub:

But most important of all was the clearing of lantana shrubs and replanting the area around the homes with grass and bamboo. The former for the goats and shed-animals and the latter to hold the soil as well as to use the bamboo leaves as organic matter. In addition, households were provided with bio-gas facility for cooking and a pair of buffaloes was given on easy instalments for the landless families.

"It was Masterji's wife who first picked up the implements to clear the lantana from the village lands. Women of our hills are not used to 'mazdoori' of this sort. But if the educated wife of Masterji could do it, so could we," recalled Pheola Devi of how certain traditional barriers broke down before everyone started working as a collective.

"The project's biggest achievement was to give us grass next to our homes. We also plant grass along the gol bunds. This has helped us to stay at home and concentrate on tending to our fruit and vegetable cultivation," said Kanti Devi, as she shifted the boulders from a level to another in the irrigation channels.

A major part of Uttaranchal households are dependant upon income from money orders sent by men folk working in the cities. The water management project has released the women from wasting time on wood and fodder collection and turned them towards horticulture and cattle rearing, thus providing them with better income generating opportunities.

In the process the panchayats and the self-help groups [Garima] have been strengthened and a culture of community planning and management has evolved. The villagers realise their responsibility towards the village assets. This was achieved through shared experiences with the project staff: learning through participation, sharing of ideas, consensus building and working out problems so that the village can eventually run its own affairs after the project term was over.

On its own and going strong:

Sitting in a semi-circle in the panchayat ghar, the members of the women's self-help groups with their little children playing in the back-ground recounted their journey towards empowerment. There were giggles and laughs when Jyotsna described the inhibitions and low self-esteem of the women in the village before the project. Thus unfolded the story of transforming a wretched human condition into hope and opportunity, from impoverishment to well-being, moving forward on the path of democratic participation, negotiations and consensus building. The project started in 1996 was over by 2001. The project staff has moved on but Bawani village samiti is growing from strength to strength.

Sparsely populated hamlets are experiencing a quality of life that they had once heard of from their grandparents. The programme subsidised by the European Union and rural department of Uttaranchal is an example of how simple interventions both at the community level and the individual level can motivate those living below the poverty level.

The government has spent Rs.65.46 lakhs over the past six years and the villages have contributed Rs.5.95 lakhs, which is part of the revolving fund of the samiti. The panchayat ghar also has the details of expenditure and finances written out on the board. It is all out in the open for all to read. But few can read or comprehend what is on it. Both Kaur Singh 58, and Suraj Singh 53, are clearly not satisfied with just this. "We want medical facilities also to reach our hills. The nearest hospital is in Rishikesh, almost 30 miles through hill tracks. We also want a high school nearby for our daughters. They are now able to study only up to the eighth class," they said.

Though the project has been a resounding success, an unusual problem has arisen as an off-shoot of nearby grass land and bamboo thickets! According to Masterji, as there are no toilets in the village, people now prefer to sit inside this cover which is next to their homes instead of walking over to the other side of the hill! Turn away from this and you see on the positive side, Shama Devi 65, bent with age but a pillar of strength. She has her own nursery growing fruit, vegetable, and bamboo saplings. To set her off the samiti provided her the skills and a few saplings. Now she has a flourishing business.

This article comes to you by the kind courtesy of 'Grassroots' magazine [June, 2002]. Journalist Vichitra Sharma details here how the village of Bawani in Narendra Nagar Bloc, Uttaranchal transformed its economy and eco-system in just five years.