Community efforts led by Shivaji Kagnekar have transformed the lives and landscapes in many villages of Belagavi district, writes Anitha Pailoor
Smoke-free kitchens, productive farmlands, abundant natural resources and active participation of people in local administration — these are some of the features that make over a dozen villages in Belagavi district stand apart. Life has changed for the better in these villages that are located on the fringes of forests in Khanapur, Belagavi and Hukkeri taluks of Belagavi district. Take Kattanbhavi in Belagavi taluk, for instance. The verdant landscape and confident people do not remind one of the tough times the village had to undergo just three decades ago.
“We are equipped with knowledge, know our drawbacks and believe in our strengths. As a community, we want to improve the village life in all possible ways,” say farmers of Kattanbhavi, pointing at the village water body that brims with water. The pond, desilted through voluntary work (shramadana), stands as a fine example of community effort. The concept of enhancing rural livelihoods through active participation of people was introduced in this region by Shivaji Kagnekar, 67, a social reformer, who has successfully explored the possibilities of sustainable rural development.
It all started in the early 1970s when Shivaji, a BSc student, quit formal education to work at the grassroots level with the avowed objective of empowering people. Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi and Vinoba Bhave, Shivaji made it a point to become a part of the village, where he was working, and consider it his home. In those days, these villages were ridden with poverty, illiteracy and other socio-economical problems. Only a few people owned land and others worked as labourers. The farming methods aimed at only short term gains. Overdependence on forest produce had led to the decline of forest. Deforestation had affected the availability of water and quality of soil in the villages. Shivaji moved from village to village, creating awareness about the importance of proper management of natural resources.
While he led from the front, he ensured that people take the ownership of activities. The initiatives are inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s words, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” The turn of events made villagers realise that if they want to improve their living conditions and work towards it, nothing can stop them. Shivaji became a link between the outside world, specifically government and the villages, and made sure that they get the best opportunities to become self-reliant.
When Shivaji visited Kattanbhavi in the 1970s, he was moved by the plight of people there. The entire village was reeling under poverty, which was augmented by water scarcity and unemployment. In summer, people were forced to ration drinking water. The agricultural activities suffered, people were debt-ridden and there were instances of bonded labour also.
While people became dependent on the forest for firewood and other needs, cattle was let free in the forest. All these factors led to the decline of natural resources. The village reminded him of the famous Ralegan Siddhi in Maharashtra. Shivaji along with other like-minded people and villagers visited Ralegan Siddhi and understood the basics of watershed management and sustainable agriculture. He incorporated those aspects in Kattanbhavi and made it a point to involve people in all stages, right from planning to implementation.
As a part of water and soil conservation efforts, the team planted saplings in government and private lands. Awareness about the significance of each activity motivated them to be a part of the programme. Indigenous water harvesting structures like contour trenches that suited the landscape were made. A local committee was formed to safeguard the saplings.
Jana Jagran, a Belagavi-based non-profit organisation, supported these activities. Gradually, the results of the efforts became evident in the village and its environs. Water sources got recharged, farming gained momentum and dairy became a major source of livelihood.
As every household started rearing cattle, Shivaji took proper training and started installing gobar gas plants. To make the process more effective and sustainable, he also trained local youth. Gobar gas plants improved health condition of women, saved time and energy for people, and helped protect trees. He was the first person in the region to link human waste to the gobar gas plant. Though he faced initial resistance while implementing the idea, gradually he was able to convince the people.
A steady income led to the formation of self-help groups and people were introduced to microfinance and income-generation activities. Literacy campaign is another important effort that involved both students and elders. While schooling was made compulsory for kids, elders attended night school. Though many villages had school buildings, teachers never used to turn up. Shivaji motivated villagers to fight for the cause and ensured that schools became active. After Kattanbhavi, he worked in other villages like Ningenatti and Bambaraga.
Apart from the ones where Shivaji directly got involved, many more villages have followed the model and improved their lives and landscapes. The uniqueness of the effort is that in none of the villages, Shivaji became indispensable and villagers have successfully continued the effort even in his absence.
Catalyst for change
“Unlike other efforts, Shivaji offered solutions that could benefit both the individuals and society. While he stressed on environment protection, he also gave importance to improving the livelihoods of people. He was a catalyst for change,” says Sharada Dabade, a social activist, who has seen his work for the past two decades. During his journey, Shivaji has associated with different organisations both government and non-government, but people identify him as an individual crusader.
The statistics mentioned here indicate enormity of the work undertaken with his guidance — plantation of over three lakh saplings with a survival rate of 80%; gobar gas connection to about one lakh households; motivating people in about 26 villages to engage in voluntary service and take up sustainable farming practices; reaching to over 10,000 people through literacy campaign.
Since 2006, Shivaji, along with political activist Dileep Kamath, has been striving to ensure proper implementation of works under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA), which he feels provides an appropriate opportunity for rural development. The team has been able to involve more women in the programme and thus prevent their migration from the village. He has also been creating awareness about the provisions of different acts that will be of use to villagers, particularly women.
Clad in khadi half pants and shirt, Shivaji sees the realisation of Gandhian ideals in the motivated people of these villages.
First published by Deccan Herald