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Staring Down Droughts

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

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.

Desai had internalised what Gandhi had said to him: “Rural India is poor because rural people are drastically under employed”. He had guided all development work at BAIF, towards creating livelihoods in farmers’ own habitats. Tree based farming among tribals in Gujarat, maximising yields from rain harvested water in Tiptur and cattle based incomes everywhere, were showing promise. BAIF was developing many deliverable farm technology packages. Above all BAIF had a vast army of committed men, who were willing to work for very modest salaries with little creature comforts, in drought prone parts of rural India. BAIF has gained a deserved reputation as an organisation that can manage large developmental projects, with the least overhead and zero leakages.
In 1996, when the European Union wanted to channel Euro 20 million for a programme to transfer technology for sustainable development, it came to NABARD [National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development]. BAIF was picked as the logical organisation to design, implement and manage the programme.

EU and BAIF come together

The grand plan was all-round development of 33,000 poor rural families in 5 states. Dr Bhat’s mandate was to work on 2500 carefully chosen families in 22 villages around Surshettikoppa. They were given Rs.39 million for 7 years. If you work that out, assuming an average family size of 4, the budget was Rs.46 per person per month, inclusive of administrative cost. How did Dr Bhat’s team go about making that sum matter? In a few words, “by honesty, devotion, skill, hard-work and total identification with the people”.

First of all, the ten men who implemented the programme, fanned out among the villages and started living with the people full-time. They then began a survey to identify the 2488 beneficiary families out of a total of 4800.They used 20 sensibly weighted criteria to determine who needed help. A man with 100 acres in the wilderness may be poorer than one with an acre by a river. They picked 1780 families with between 3 and 4 acres, and 708 landless families.

They next began to organise them into self-help groups or ‘sanghas’. Eventually there were 154 sanghas with membership between 15 and 20 each. The sanghas formed a federation and began to elect office bearers. Sanghas were encouraged to be just talking shops, because the team knew that it always led to bonding. Sanghas discussed and evaluated all ideas the BAIF team proposed. It was soon agreed that without concord nothing could be achieved.

A spectacular demonstration of this bonding came in 1999. 525 people from all the 22 villages gathered at Harogeri and built a check dam. It is 140 feet long and 12 feet high and can arrest and recharge 2 million litres of water. It took them 3 months to build, using only locally found materials. But the most amazing thing about this dam is that only 15 farmers directly benefit by their proximity. Villagers didn’t mind that. They understood that water charged into the ground benefited everyone. The message that water was central to development had gone home.

Ponds arrive

You can’t talk to a BAIF man for long before he will wax eloquent about farm ponds. The success of Tiptur ponds has been widely acclaimed. Ponds therefore, began to crop up at Dharwad as well. The only cash that was ever given to the beneficiaries was between Rs.3,000 and Rs.10,000 per family, to either dig a pond or start a small business, if landless. This too was a loan, paid back with interest to the sangha’s coffers. Eventually 740 ponds were dug, each with a capacity of 140,000 litres. In all 100 million litres of water began to be trapped and charged into the ground every year. The difference was there for all to see. Water levels rose in wells everywhere, soil began to be wetter, fodder became available for longer periods and top-soil run off ceased. Drought was on the back foot. Families were encouraged to plant fruit trees and other trees of economic value. Medicinal plants and fodder crops were grown. BAIF issued saplings of assured quality. Food basket on the table began to be diverse and rich. Moods began to lift.

Bonding grew stronger. The Sarvodaya Maha Sangha, their federation, had by now an anthem for a robust sing along. Sneha Jatre, ‘Fraternity Picnics’ became an annual event. People come from all villages with cooked food and spent a whole day interacting and sharing each other’s travails, dreams and food. They went out on excursions as well, with some amusing spin-offs. From Anna Hazare’s Ralegan Siddhi they brought back a ‘mocking pole’ and set it up in the middle of a troublesome village. Drunken wife-beaters were left tied to the pole for a whole night, to be mocked by children and passers-by. “The pole soon became redundant,” they laugh. Drunkenness is rare. Usury is dead.

Lifestyle changes

Burgeoning savings with the Sanghas have seeded many small businesses. Close to 800 toilets have come up and most have linked them to their bio gas plants—a taboo just over decade ago. Awareness of hygiene, nutrition, education and family planning has increased. B G. Linganna Gowda has a nice business [about Rs.20,000/month], buying surplus vermicompost from farmers and selling it elsewhere. He’s a finicky buyer but also a good teacher. So, knowledge, quality and volumes have risen. Villagers have become experts in water use and waste management. Mulching and in situ composting are routine. Over 600 families have kitchen gardens and 560 have smokeless stoves.—these numbers are growing. Silk worm farming is a new business. Villages in all, have 17,000 feet of lined waste water drainage. Pakkeerappa had branded himself the village dhobi, keeping a low profile in the village. He had convinced himself that his 3 acre plot was useless. A pond changed all that. He lives on the land now and raises jowar, lentils and fruits. His vermicompost is premium grade, says Linganna. Basappa was going to sell his 7.75 acres and move to the city as a labourer. He listened to BAIF and took to growing fruit trees. “I used to head to the city looking for jobs,” he says. “I now employ people to work for me. After feeding my family well, I have a Rs.10,000 surplus every year.” Nagappa Adargulchi came back from Noolvi where he was away for four years, looking for jobs, and money to send to his family. He now makes Rs.48,000 a year from his 2.5 acre holding.

Being green without fuss

These are real people you can take a train and go meet in the next 48 hours. They are not blaming the government or looking for hand-outs. They do not think India is a country to quit for a better life. They don’t even quit their villages anymore. They venerate the earth, water, sincere work, community spirit, tolerance and the power of savings. They are more modern than many of us, having broken down caste barriers, accepting women’s role in development and overcoming taboos like cooking gas coming from toilet waste. Dr Bhat and his team have harnessed their great human spirit and showcase it at the annual Hasiru Habba, the ‘Green Festival’. The day-long event begins with full pots of water—’poorna kumbha’—taken out on a ceremonial parade, in order to bring water into sharp focus. Then they fan out to a chosen wasteland and plant trees useful to the community. Since 2001, when the Festival began, 110,000 saplings have been planted in 110 acres, with a 60% survival rate. Then there is a formal public meeting where everyone swears to protect the trees. The day ends with cultural programmes and a celebratory community meal.

Meditations at a lunch

Malleshappa’s house is warm and cosy with clutter. His wife has just served a smoke flavoured lunch on the floor by the hearth. Malleshappa is reminiscing on a full stomach, as Dr Bhat sits quietly by. “I used to be in Hospet for 8 months in the year, working in the manganese mines. I’d be covered in red dust the whole time. You couldn’t wash it off. I’d lie in a dirty corner at night and dream of going back. I did that for twenty five years, convinced that my 3.5 acres weren’t good enough. I made Rs.10,500 in those months at Hospet.” His wife butts in: “Whole villages were without men. Our funerals required that men washed the bodies before cremation. We found none to do that. We women did that too.” He continues, looking at a very still Bhat. “Then came BAIF and my pond. I make Rs.48,000 a year. Our children don’t leave these villages anymore to graze others cattle for food. Do you know, how it aches with pleasure to see your children about the house, playing and reading?” Everyone is silent for a long while. But a new sadness rears its head in the silence. How much has it taken to change the lives of 10,000 people, permanently? About 10 spirited leaders, under Rs.50 per head per month for 7 years. Did this money have to come from abroad? Though one is grateful to the EU, must Indians remain askance of foreign initiatives? In this internet age, is it not possible for groups to raise Rs.5 crores and badger BAIF to replicate the Dharwad model in another place? How easily the educated, well-to-do Indians leave it to the government or foreigners to do their work and spend their time discussing the ills of the state. Dharwad proves that subsidies, credit and high technology are not necessary to bring prosperity to villages. Right information, sensitivity to nature’s ways, conservation of resources and a modest recyclable capital are more than enough. These simple Indians have stared down droughts. When will educated ones stare down the indignity of seeking money and initiatives from abroad?

(BAIF stands for Bharatiya Agro Industries Foundation, the name it was formerly registered under, it is now known as BAIF Development Research Foundation).

(Published with kind permission of www.goodnewsindia.com where you will find many positive stories on India.)

BAIF Institute of Rural Development
Plot No.2, 11th Cross, Kusum Nagar,
Dharwad-580008, Karnataka
[email protected]