“When we heard of COVID first, we immediately swung into action,” Suresh Chhanga tells me with only a hint of pride in his voice. “Entry to the village was restricted to only residents coming back and essential traders or officials, house-to-house surveys and awareness programmes were carried out, masks were made for everyone, and families or elders who could not move out were provided supplies at home. Not a single COVID case has been reported from here in the last 10 months.”
Ok, so you avoided COVID, I said, but what about the economic lockdown – since that has affected people across India more than the virus itself?
“We ensured that employment work carried on as usual, ensuring of course safety; we also managed to get our produce to markets though this did suffer a bit”, Chhanga responded. “We had no food shortage at all. Overall, our people were affected much less than many other parts of the state. Now, several months into the COVID period, village activity is nearly back to normal, though of course we continue to maintain safety precautions, and are also discussing ways to counter any such future crisis”.
Chhanga is the sarpanch (village head) of Kunariya panchayat, a cluster of three settlements in Kachchh, a district bordering Pakistan in India’s western-most state of Gujarat. With a population of about 3500, the village is largely dependent on agriculture (farming and animal husbandry), crafts, and labour. I had heard that over the last few years it has been undergone a remarkable transformation towards full employment security, democratic participation, ecological regeneration, and high quality education. So, in January 2021, finally shaking off the shackles of COVID fear, I visited it to explore the dimensions and causes of this transformation.
Kunariya is a sprawling village – as a panchayat (India’s first tier of governance, usually one or a cluster of rural settlements) it has 3 settlements, and large areas of agriculture and commons. It is set amidst a dry landscape of scrub, grassland, and desert-like features characteristic of Kachchh district, the seasons alternating between a torrid summer, some (scanty) welcome monsoon rains, and a cold dry winter. Its people have traditionally depended on animal husbandry and farming, and a variety of crafts. In more recent times, these have been supplemented by labour work in nearby areas including the town of Bhuj, and on the commons as part of a national employment guarantee scheme (to which I will come back later).
Over the last few years, the village has worked hard to shake off the mainstream image of rural India as backward, dirty, ignorant and illiterate. When I visited the girls’ and boys’ schools, this resolve was noticeable. Cleanliness was only one visible aspect; everywhere there were colourfully painted walls (and even steps!) depicting flora and fauna, ethics and values, alphabet-related objects, the classrooms had all basic facilities and more, an activity centre in each was full of play and experiment objects as also computers. Physical presence of students had still not been allowed, so I found several teachers on their mobile phones taking online classes. Bharatiben Gharava, a young woman handling education for the panchayat, told me that during the initial period of the lockdown, they realized that bored kids and worried parents do not make a great combination, so the schools innovated. They encouraged elders with traditional or new skills – pottery, music, singing, gardening, tree-planting, cooking – to teach these at home; and devised various online sessions that would be both fun and educative. Over the last few years of transformation, the drop-out rate of students has come down to nearly zero; and remarkably, several have left private schools to come back to government ones!
At the anganwadi (child care centre), a similarly pro-active approach has been adopted in the last 2-3 years. Whereas earlier youth would have to be dragged to it, they now clamour to come, because they find lots of fun and meaningful activities to do, as also get nutritious meals (which emphasise millets, not only wheat and rice). Geetaben Ahir, one of those who handle the angawadi, said that through a number of programmes, there is a very heavy stress on empowering girls, in line with the panchayat’s resolve to reduce gender inequities. Chhanga told me proudly that the sex ratio in Kunariya is 1144 women to 1000 men, in stark contrast to the ratio of Gujarat state (854:1000) and the country (900:1000). He feels this is due to the explicit awareness programmes on girl and women’s rights (taking place for well over a decade), better health facilities for all, and economic empowerment, all of which may have led to reduction in the desire to have more than one male child. Not entirely convinced, I asked if this needed more study, and Sureshbhai readily agreed.
Access to adequate amounts of nutritious food has been a challenge for several families in Kunariya. During the initial period of the lockdown, 87 families that did not have adequate access, were provided relief packages entirely by the village, including through donations by the more well-to-do families. They have also since then been specially targeted to provide employment under NREGS or work in other programmes. As have women; 70% of the workers to whom Rs. 3 crores have been disbursed in the last 3 years, have been women.As Sakinaben Ramjhu Node told me, “earlier we had to go long distances to find work, now we find it right here.”
On one of the village commons where watershed and erosion-checking work was going on, I spoke to several labourers. One of them said, “now we have adequate work in the village, we don’t need to go out in search of jobs”, and another added, “we are happy if we can contribute to making the village more well-off, because the panchayat has helped us find employment.”
How has all this been achieved? In 2016, when standing for the post of sarpanch, Suresh Chhanga had already decided he wanted to do something to change the face of Kunariya. Having grown up in the village, and though himself from a well-off family with land and business, he had seen the hardships that less fortunate residents were going through. Volunteering for relief work after the devastating earthquake in Kachchh (2001), and working with civil society organisations for several years after doing a Masters in Social Work, gave him a broader social orientation. He realized early on that traditional divisions of caste, religion and gender had to be overcome if the entire community was to rise up. After becoming sarpanch, Chhanga and others who had a similar mindset, set about trying to realize their dreams.
Possibly most important in this process has been a series of continuous consultations in all the village wards, small or focused groups gatherings,public events on all important days, and 8-9 gram sabhas (village assemblies) a year. Vejiben Kanji Kerasiya, panchayat member, told me she regularly calls ward meetings to discuss problems, priorities, and plans. Such meetings culminate in an annual gram sabha in December, where the year’s works are reviewed, and directions set for the coming year. According to several villagers, while gram sabhas have been held before 2016 also (they are mandatory under the Panchayat laws), they have usually been acts of tokenism. What the new panchayat did was to make them meaningful, including by enabling residents of the two hamlets that are somewhat distant from the main Kunariya settlement, to be present.
But consultations and meetings will never sustain interest in the absence of visible, on-ground work. From the first year itself, the panchayat initiated an ambitious programme to make the village water self-sufficient, reviving neglected wetlands and taking up on watershed management on a large scale. Over 10,000 trees have been planted every year, a mix of indigenous and exotics species (Chhanga told me it has been hard getting enough indigenous ones). One of the common refrains from villagers I spoke to was about how ‘green the village has become’. On one part of the commons, they have experimented (successfully) with grassland regeneration, reclaiming it from the invasive Prosopis juliflora tree that has invaded much of Kachchh. Many nesting boxes and platforms have been set up in the village; Chhanga was very proud of the large population of House sparrows, having heard of their decline in many parts of India.
These and other economic, ecological and social issues are incorporated into Kunariya’s annual Gram Panchayat Development Plan (GPDP). The formulation of such a plan is a mandate of panchayats, but it is often not implemented, or is a superficial process carried out by a few power-holders in the village. The Kunariya panchayat has taken it seriously, not only making it participatory, trying to bring in the concerns and needs of various sections, but also bringing in both local and external scientific knowledge as a base. Chhanga’s young colleagues Bhurabhai Karasiya and Kailash Chad explained to me, for instance, how they use the best available information and GIS techniques to plan for water security for the village. Of the 11 members on the GPDP preparation committee, 6 are women.
When implementation of the GPDP is reviewed at the end-of-year gram sabha, officials of all line departments also have to be present, and can be asked questions by anyone in the village. In the 2018 gramsabha, 23 frontline and 39 line department officials were present (facilitated by a responsive District Development Officer), which gave villagers enormous self-confidence. Kunariya has also set up a Sankalam Samiti (coordination committee) in which all relevant departments and village institutions report to each other and synergise their activities.
One of Chhanga’s most important steps was to set up a team, of mostly youth, each of whom could take up particular responsibilities. Delegation of functions to these people means much more can be done than if only one person was trying to achieve it all; as Chhanga says, if the panchayat is supposed to deal with the nearly 30 functions that the law provides for, it needs a full team and an aware base of residents to fulfill this mandate! To make this happen, there are also over 100 events on specific topics every year, including awareness programmes and trainings on various aspects of village governance, economy, social dynamics, rights, health, education, etc. Inputs from groups like SETU Abhiyan, which works on governance across Kachchh, have also been vital. The village has also sustained an explicitly peaceful co-existence between Hindus and Muslims, founded on a history that includes the setting up of a mosque and temple about 300 hundred years back, with entrances facing each other in mutual respect.
Dhawal Ahir of SETU Abhiyan attributed several factors to Kunariya’s visible transformation. Apart from Suresh Chhanga’s leadership, they include increasing participation of women, a heavy focus on socio-economic issues, implementation of NREGS, and linking all this to cultural activities that also attract the youth.
One of the questions in my mind when I decided to visit Kunariya was, did it have a future vision? I found to my pleasant surprise that the village has also gone beyond the annual plan, to formulate a Vision 2024 document. Often it seems as if perspective planning is done only in big cities in India, but Kunariya shows that this need not be so. Its vision document goes into various aspects of a future that would be more prosperous, with full livelihood security, ecological regeneration, greater economic self-reliance based on sustainable production and consumption, eradication of malnutrition, reduction of waste, reduction in inequalities based on caste, gender, religion, and ‘disability’, and stronger self-governance. All of this is supposed to also be centred around women’s empowerment and rights. There is even consideration of a happiness index, somewhat similar to what Bhutan uses instead of GDP. Overall, the vision is to take the village further along in achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
In a final conversation before I left the village, I asked Sureshbhai if there are any other lessons from the COVID experience? He said, given the difficulties in reaching markets, one of the discussions was about access to items of daily household use – soap, detergents, footwear, vessels, incense sticks, stationery, milk products, etc. They did a survey of what people were spending on all this, and found, astoundingly, that the village as a whole was spending Rs. 40 lakhs a month on such items! Why, Sureshbhai said, cannot we along with a few other surrounding villages, produce most of this ourselves? “That would be true self-reliance, not what governments have promoted in the name of atmanirbharta. This way we can also help the landless rise well above poverty, which is still a big issue for us”. I told him there were similar notions from other communities and practitioners in India, such as the former Dalit sarpanch of Kuthambakkam village (near Chennai), Elango Rangasamy’s ‘network economy’, and SEWA founder Ela Bhatt’s ‘100 mile radius communities’.
Sureshbhai had already met with Elango, and was interested in learning from other such ideas and practices. Smiling, he said “if I get another term as sarpanch, I will move in this direction … or even if I don’t get elected, I hope the youth in this village who have been involved in the last few years, will take the vision forward.” On that hopeful note, as I left the village, I reflected: imagine if, in Gandhi’s footsteps, all of rural India had been enabled to do what Kunariya had done, how utterly different India would be today?
First published by Frontline on 21 May 2021