In the pursuit of ‘Khushaal Zindagi’- Journey of villagers from being Beneficiary to Researcher

By Vivek Sinha, Parijat Ghosh, Dibyendu Chaudhuri on Oct. 8, 2020 in Knowledge and Media

Editorial Comment: A couple of lines seem to have remained blank in the original document accessible, and that is reflected in this republished version.

Introduction

Sukanti Oraon of Jana, a village in Gumla district of Jharkhand, clearly remembers the day her Self Help Group (SHG) was formed. It was the 25th of November 1995, Saturday. Women of this Adivasi village came together to form SHGs with guidance from PRADAN, a national level Non-profit.

Like many other villages in that region, agriculture was mainly rain fed in Jana and fluctuation in rainfall affected the production to a great extent. The villagers hardly had any irrigation source and hence winter crop (Rabi) was grown on a very small area of land. To meet their household needs some villagers used to migrate to other states in search of work. Further, many young people got influenced by the left wing extremists inflicting the area and joined them with a hope that it would help them come out of the abject poverty.

PRADAN helped villagers to build irrigation infrastructures and adopt technologies such as hybrid or high yielding varieties (HYV) of seeds, chemical fertilizers and pesticides to increase agriculture production. Linkages with the market and other government agencies were also facilitated to help the villagers to get better prices for their production. We promoted horticulture activities with hybrid mango varieties like Amrapali and Mallika. We also helped improve the goat rearing practices through vaccinations, medications and crossbreeding. Overall, PRADAN’s engagement during the last two decades changed Jana from a village with subsistence economy to an economically vibrant village.

Along with these interventions PRADAN remained engaged in strengthening the SHGs through various training and other supports such as linking them with banks or different government schemes and programmes. A Village Organisation (VO) was promoted by us with members of SHGs in the village which started discussion on various issues such as livelihood, SHG strengthening, social and financial issues. Later on we also integrated gender in our approach. We helped villagers of Jana in getting basic infrastructure such as electricity and drinking water in their village; it promoted solar based micro grid for electrification of the entire village and solar based drinking water facility at the doorsteps of the households.

Similar stories may be heard about many other tribal villages in Central Indian Plateau (CIP) where dedicated voluntary organisations and Government agencies engaged intensively to improve the life and livelihoods of the villagers.

Something got lost in the process

The interventions of outside agencies have made the life of Jana villagers much easier – ensured round the year food supply, enhanced sources of income, supply of clean drinking water, 24 hrs electricity, veterinary services for their livestock, school for their children, health centre, etc. However, these interventions have alienated the villagers from their traditional skills of producing their own seeds, manure, insecticide and pesticide. Their knowledge of herbal plants, biodiversity and medicines available in their forest is disappearing very fast. Collective effort to prioritise their own developmental agenda and working on the solutions are no more important for them. From the collective owner of the agenda they have become individual beneficiaries.

Introduction of advanced technologies in agriculture in the form of pesticides, fertilizers, hybrid or HYV seeds resulted in making the farmers to follow the PoPs (dose, number of application, time of application, etc.) recommended by the seed companies or agencies like us as those products were neither part of their intergenerational knowledge nor they experimented with those in their context. This made them dependent as well as vulnerable as these technologies are, by and large, unpredictable in their context.  Further, in a longer run, these technologies are also harmful for ecology and human health. Nevertheless, in this process they eventually stopped applying their intergenerational knowledge of farming and ecosystem.

The same trends can be observed in livestock rearing too. Goat rearers adopted the introduction of mixing the foreign breed of male Sirohi with indigenous Black Bengal. Though the new mixed breed gained more weight, it was more prone to diseases and temperature fluctuations of Jana. Farmers had to depend on external veterinary services, whereas earlier they used to treat their livestock with local remedies and were more independent. Their knowledge of ethno-medicine is on the verge of disappearing now.

Like many other tribal villages, Jana also used to have their own traditional village level governance system named Parha which used to be headed by local leader called Pahan. At Parha, villagers used to discuss and decide on issues related to agriculture and resource management, culture, social issues or any other agenda relevant for their village. With the advent of the national administrative system, Parha lost its significance and villagers lost their decision making power. Villagers could not own the new format of Gram Sabha as most of the agenda in Gram Sabha were decided by the government.

Following the similar path the tribal community of CIP gradually became a group of ‘beneficiaries’ of different schemes. SHGs are the only groups which were functioning on their own. However, those also, with their associated tiers, of late, started getting used as last mile service delivery agents for government programmes. Many village level committees such as the Forest rights committee, Solar electrification committee or Drinking water committee promoted by us are still not able to function on their own and are dependent on us to take even a minor decision like opening a bank account.

Within PRADAN, we were having debate about the sustainability of our interventions. In 2017, when some of the PRADANites attended a course in Azim Premji University (APU), the discourse around deskilling drew our attention. (An article on deskilling was published in Village Square recently). Some of those PRADANites along with professors from APU decided to understand the phenomenon of deskilling. The Adaptive Skilling through Action Research (ASAR) was conceptualised and started in Jana village along with two other places in Madhya Pradesh in 2018. The engagement in ASAR gave the researchers’ group (this includes village researchers too) a new way to look at adaptive skilling as a sustainable method of engagement.

Adaptive skilling through Action Research (ASAR)

ASAR, as the name suggests, aims at developing an attitude of experimentation and context specific adaptation of methods and technologies among the farmers. This can lead to a resilient and less vulnerable community which is capable of questioning pros-cons of any new technology/method/input and adapting those according to their context. Adaptive skilling is a continuous, context specific and informed integration of in-situ and ex-situ skills and knowledge.

The idea of ASAR was shared in a couple of villages in Gumla and villagers from Jana were interested to partner in this action research. In the initial discussions it came up that it was impossible to talk about agriculture without understanding their whole lifeworld. Therefore the discussion on the imagination of ‘Khushaal zindagi’ (Good Life) among the villagers was initiated. This created a space for the villagers from different age and sex groups to talk to each other and each other’s aspiration. There were common as well as different and contradictory ideas about ‘Khushaal zindagi’ coming from different groups. It was not about coming to consensus so soon. In fact, after two years, now also there are areas of difference.

A group of people also volunteered as co-researchers who would be involved in shaping the research question, experimenting with various ideas and coming up with insights suitable for Jana’s context. They wanted themselves to be called the Jana Adhyayan group. Since then the researchers’ group, which involved APU professors, PRADANites and Jana Adhyayan Group members, are engaged in multiple experiments.

How the experiments were conceptualised

In September 2019, in a daylong meeting where almost 80 households from Jana were present, villagers along with researchers from PRADAN discussed about ways of protecting soil fertility, maintaining the level of organic matter, encouraging biological activity in soils, providing nutrients through the microbial action, using legumes to fulfil  the nitrogen requirements of the soil, recycling organic matter like crop residues and manures, managing diseases, pests and weeds through the use of techniques like natural predators, organic manuring, crop rotation, maintaining diversity, growing resistant varieties, etc. This was done through lectures, video shows and interactive sessions. At the end of this meeting the villagers came up with a broad contour of plans as shared below:

  • Hara bhara khet (evergreen agricultural field)
  • Hara bhara jungle (green forest)
  • Bharpur pani ka sadhan hona (adequate water availability)
  • Sabke saath aage badhna (Collective wellbeing and progress)
  • Swasth Rehna (Being healthy)

In the same meeting they also prepared a village charter which is given below:

  • Maintaining balance between Individual progress and collective wellbeing through deliberation in the village meeting
  • Experimentation before adopting any technology
  • More dependency on locally available inputs
  • Using environment friendly, non-exploitative tools and technologies

Following this, several village meetings took place mostly in small groups with nearby households. In each of these meetings all the village researchers (Adhyayan group) remained present. In these meetings the broad plans were detailed out and series of experiments were designed guided by the village charter.

For example the first plan was to work on rejuvenating the Forest (hara bhara Jungle). Villagers discussed how forest was an important part of Jana’s ecosystem and how they used to depend on the adjacent forest for food, medicine, various household needs and income. They also deliberated that the biomass from the forest increased fertility of their farmlands. Therefore, they reaffirmed, rejuvenating the forest was an important area to focus on. They planned the following experiments:

  1. Documenting forest biodiversity e.g. medicinal plants, timber plants etc.
  2. Marking and claiming community forest rights
  3. Plantation of new trees

After planning they deliberated what results they were expecting from those activities. Those were written as assumptions. For the above experiments the assumptions were as follows:

  1. Documenting forest biodiversity e.g. medicinal plants, timber plants etc.
  2. Assumption 1: Documenting forest diversity will keep the knowledge sustained for future generations
  3. Assumption 2: It will increase knowledge on usage of medicinal plants and diseases which can be cured
  4. Assumption 3: It will increase knowledge of farm-forest ecosystem
  5. Assumption 4: Villagers’ interest on rejuvenating forest and biodiversity will increase
  6. Marking and claiming community forest rights
  7. Assumption: Claiming forest rights will help the villagers in better management of their forest and increasing diversity

iii. Plantation of new trees

  1. Assumption: Plantation of new trees will help soil conservation, increase the forest cover, biodiversity, biomass in the soil of not only forest, but also the adjacent farmlands.

Similarly, experiments with assumptions were designed around all the plans. A list is provided in annexure.

These various experiments do not aim at some packages of best practices. The meta-level assumption is that through all these various experiments villagers will understand the values of experimentation before using any product or technology. Rather than hearsay, campaign or advertisement they will depend on the results of their experiments. This is the pathway for adaptive skilling.

Some early results

Though it is too early to expect any significant change in people’s behavior some important changes have been taking place in Jana in the last two years. There is reduction in the number of households using inorganic fertilizer. It has been replaced with organic fertilizers. Application of chemical fertilizers declined from over 40 households to around 15. Use of hybrid seeds is also reducing; those are getting replaced by local seeds. Villagers have managed to get germplasm of thirteen local paddy varieties in last two years. They are now replicating those.

Conclusion

PRADAN started working in Jana to overcome the issue of food insecurity and enhancing the livelihood options of the villagers. Later on we also focused on creating basic infrastructure in the village but with the passage of time we did reflect and realise that our interventions are not sustainable in a longer run and are deskilling the tribals of Jana making them dependent on external agencies and in the process they are forgetting their traditional knowledge and skills. ASAR has given an idea to involve villagers in active experimentation where they can themselves learn and relearn new and forgotten skills thus making them independent and adaptive to unforeseen changes and risks. They are engaged in active experimentation before adopting any practice, be it organic agriculture. Through these experimentations a totally different model may come up which may keep on evolving even if PRADAN is no more present in Jana. Ultimately the goal of ASAR is to achieve a sustainable, dignified and happy life where community inculcates a nature of experimenting and learning.

Annexure:

  1. Rejuvenating the Forest (hara bhara Jungle):

Discussion: Forest is an important part of Jana’s ecosystem. Villagers of Jana used to depend on the adjacent forest for food, medicine, various household needs and income. The biomass from the forest increases fertility of the farmlands. Therefore, when we started discussing ASAR rejuvenating the forest came as the most important area. The activities they planned are:

  1. Documenting forest biodiversity e.g. medicinal plants, timber plants etc.
    1. Assumption 1: Documenting forest diversity will keep the knowledge sustained for future generations
    2. Assumption 2: It will increase knowledge on usage of medicinal plants and diseases which can be cured
    3. Assumption 3: It will increase knowledge of farm-forest ecosystem
    4. Assumption 4: Villagers’ interest on rejuvenating forest and biodiversity will increase
  1. Marking and claiming community forest rights
    1. Assumption: Claiming forest rights will help the villagers in better management of their forest and increasing diversity
  2. Plantation of new trees
    1. Assumption: Plantation of new trees will help soil conservation, increase the forest cover, biodiversity, biomass in the soil of not only forest, but also the adjacent farmlands.
  1. Agriculture (Hara bhara Khet):

Discussion: Use of chemical fertilisers hamper the natural nutrient cycle of soil. Longer use of chemicals kills the good bacteria and insects (such as earthworm) and eventually the soil becomes harder and the fertility decreases. To increase productivity of farmland without harming the soil, water and human health, it is important to rejuvenate the natural nutrient cycle of soil. The experimentations will be around:

  1. Use of locally prepared organic fertilisers , Bio pesticide, composts;
    1. Assumption 1: This will increase the organic carbon content of the soil and will be helpful to restore the natural cycle
    2. Assumption 2: Organic fertilisers  can ensure productivity similar to inorganic fertilisers in a long run and on a sustained manner
  2. Increasing the use of local seeds
    1. Assumption 1: Use of local seed will give seed sovereignty to farmers
    2. Assumption 2: The local seeds are more resilient to the climatic conditions
  3. Exploring seed storing techniques and seed exchange
    1. Assumption 1: Storing seeds in a particular way can increase or decrease the productivity of seeds
    2. Assumption 2: Value of sharing can help them rotate crop without being dependent on market
  4. Multicropping
    1. Assumption 1: Multi Cropping can give yearlong production and income to farmers
    2. Assumption 2: Crop choices may help rejuvenating soil health, mitigate risk
  5. Setting up paddy, millets and pulse processing units
    1. Assumption 1: Setting up processing unit will encourage more villagers to grow more millets and pulses along with paddy
    2. Assumption 2: Setting up a processing unit will help in value addition
  6. Setting up irrigation support based on solar or through INRM
    1. Assumption: Setting up irrigation support will help farmers ensure water for yearlong irrigation needs
  7. Identifying labour group and creating work around agriculture
    1. Assumption1: Sharing of labour will provide yearlong employment to small holders or landless
    2. Assumption 2: It will boost the spirit of collectivism
  1. Rejuvenating the groundwater (Bharpur pani ka sadhan hona):

Discussion: In-Situ soil moisture conservation, water harvesting and irrigation through check dam, staggered trench, WHS, plantations, etc. through self-initiative or under MGNREGA will help in in-situ soil moisture conservation

  1. Assumption: Conserving in-situ soil moisture and water harvesting will increase availability of water in tanks and wells and thereby increase irrigation potential.

 

  1. Restoring collective ethos (Sabke saath aage badhna)
    1. Assumption 1: Strengthening of Gram Sabha will help villagers in setting up, prioritise their own agenda and decision making
    2. Assumption 2: Strengthening village level committees will help in better management of village level institutions and resources
  1. Health and Nutrition (Swasth rehna)
    1. Assumption: Use of biofertilizers, local seeds and diverse crop can meet the nutrition needs of the family

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First published by Pradan on 14 Sep. 2020



Story Tags: forest, biodiversity, biological diversity, traditional medicine, traditional, sustainable prosperity, sustainability, women empowerment

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