It had been a tiring day for the dalit labourers in the farms and now they were getting some much-needed rest in their huts. The pots with modest servings of pulse and some hot rotis were almost ready, much awaited by their empty stomachs.
Just then some tendu leaf contractors appeared with their men. They told the dalits that no questions are to be asked, all workers must leave immediately for tendu leaf collection as this had already been delayed. The workers here were reluctant to leave as they were paid very poorly in this work. Secondly, they were very hungry just now and needed some food. Thirdly, they were tired of being treated as bonded workers. A social activist Gopal had told them that bonded labour had been legally abolished and they were entirely free to decide where to work and where to refuse.
However the tendu leaf collectors were in no mood to accept ‘no’ for an answer. When they saw that the workers were reluctant to move, they started kicking the utensils and in the process the freshly cooked food was spoiled. The workers remained hungry.
When Gopal learned about this incident the next day he rushed to the local DM Mr.T Blah. This senior official was very firm about protecting the legal rights of the poor. He took a firm stand that very strict action will be taken against the offenders. This was perhaps the first known incident here in which the dominant dadus of the area apologized.
Relating this incident which took place over four decades back, Gaya Prsad Gopal says that when he helped to form a voluntary organization the ABSSS and this started working among the tribal community of Kols, the dalits as well as other weaker sections, their first priority was to ensure that the system of bonded workers was entirely abolished, not just on paper but in practice too. This included rehabilitation work and ensuring that the government funds meant for freed bonded workers reached them. The second stage was to ensure that the weaker section households, particularly from the tribal and dalit communities, were actually able to occupy and cultivate the land pattas they had been provided. The third stage was to take up a lot of water and soil conservation and land improvement work, including watershed work, so that the productivity of the small plots of land can increase.
Gopal says,”It is the first two stages which are more difficult. So some people ignore this. However as long as the poorest households remain landless they cannot benefit from the various soil and water conservation and land development schemes. This is why we prioritized that they should first be able to gain control of and cultivate the land allotted to them. Then in the next stage we took up various soil and water conservation works then this work could also benefit the landless.”
Most of the work of the ABSSS over the last 45 years has been concentrated in the Patha area of Chitrakut district which has been regarded as one of the most water-scarce areas of Uttar Pradesh. Pathetic stories of thirsty people and animals searching for water in scorching summer have been told time and again. A lot of potentially cultivated land, particularly the ‘pattas’ distributed to the poorest households, remained barren due to lack of water and moisture. The situation worsened during the drought years.
It is in this distressing situation that the ABSSS (Akhil Bhartiya Samaj Seva Sansthaan) made several well-planned and implemented effort to conserve and harvest rain water which brought hope to several villages of Manikpur block and some neighbouring areas. These small projects together present a very hopeful pictures of what small-scale water harvesting projects when implemented honestly and skilfully can achieve even in very difficult conditions.
Three projects taken up in Mangavaan, Ittwa and Tikariya panchayats were supported by Dorabji Tata Trust, NABARD and the District Rural Development Agency respectively. These achieved very good results at a relatively low cost and what is more, the bulk of the budget was spent on making wage payments to the to the poorest families in these villages. The ABSSS also won a prestigious national award for its water conservation work. The leadership role of Bhagwat Prasad, the then director of the ABSSS, contributed much to this success, but the tragic death of Bhagwat Prasad at a young age was the biggest setback for the ABSSS in recent times.
These workers were employed in highly labour-intensive work of bunding and contour-bunding, contour trenches, creating new water tanks and restoring old ones, check dams, farm ponds, gully plugs, land-levelling and tree-planting etc. to harvest and conserve rainwater. The broad aim of all these works, taken up on a ridge-to-valley approach, is to slow down and check the rainfall water as it flows down plateau slopes, so that as much as possible water can be conserved or contributes to groundwater recharge. Manual methods are used to the maximum extent possible and machines are brought in – with the consultation of villagers – only when this becomes unavoidable.
This is a win-win situation as about 60 per cent of the funds directly reached the poorest local families in the form of wage payments and as a result of water and moisture conservation, conditions for short-term as well as longer-term improvements in agriculture, animal husbandry and agro-forestry improved. Water-table in the wells in and around these villages increased and there is more greenery. To a lesser or greater extent, almost all the ten thousand people living in the three watershed areas benefit from this effort, as do the nearly four thousand farm animals and many wild animals and birds. Better availability of water in at least a few tanks and ponds is a big boon for all animals and birds, who earlier faced a harrowing time in scorching summers.
In addition there are several even smaller projects which were implemented on shoestring budgets but have yielded benefits for a long time. The pond in Harijanpur village was created about 4 decades back, but has continued to irrigate fields of nearly 70 poor families, mostly dalits, even now. This was created under the Food for Work program by those days, involving the cooperation of the government with two voluntary organizations.
Patha has been facing adverse weather conditions for several years from time to time. These projects have been planned to provide at least some protection even in low rainfall years. Overall conditions of moisture conservation are helped further by farming methods which can work well in conditions of less water availability.
Farmers’ groups and self-help groups helped to make available timely advice and resources to farmers. Watershed and livelihood committees were formed and transparent systems of functioning ensured that workers were well-informed and satisfied with their payment.
However the most important factor which helped in getting better benefits for the poorest Kol tribal households is that the ABSSS had earlier carried out a successful campaign for distribution of land among them. As Gaya Prasad Gopal, the founder of ABSSS says, “This effort helped many of these families to emerge from near bondage conditions and get some land, but a significant part of this land could not be cultivated due to water-stress in panchayats like Mangavaan. It was only with the improved water and moisture availability which the watershed projects achieved that this land could be cultivated properly.”
As Ramkali of Harijanpur village says, “The land which could not be cultivated earlier could be cultivated now while the yield of other land improved significantly.”
As per the detailed records maintained by the ABSSS, during the course of the Mangavaan watershed project, area under kharif crop went up from just 3% of the total cultivable area in 2007 to 30% in 2011, while the area under rabi crop went up from 47% to 90%. Production of paddy increased from 6170 kg. to 52081 kg. Production of wheat increased from 112610 kgs. to 495750 kg. Similarly there were big increases in the production of mustard, gram, til and vegetables. Thousands of trees were planted, but survival rate was below expectation due to difficulties of uncontrolled grazing. However a beautiful plantation in Tikariya emerged as an oasis of greenery with its anvla, mango, guava, bel, lemon and karonda trees spread over 11 acres.
Despite a few setbacks and many hurdles, on the whole these projects brought new hope to an area where due to increasing difficulties and droughts many people were turning away from agriculture. In an impressive turnaround, now farmers including the poorest tribals are cultivating more land and with growing greenery and moisture there is more hope for future.
More recently, these gains could increase further because of collaborative effort with SRIJAN organization involving water conservation and natural farming. Under this effort several water tanks were desilted and this silt was provided free to the fields of various farmers to improve the fertility of these farms. At the same time natural farming practices were spread which helped to improve the sustainability and environmental safety of farming while reducing costs significantly. Yield and income levels were improved by introducing several scientific practices, multi-layer vegetable farming and small orchards.
Apart from initiating its own development work, during an earlier phase of its work the ABSSS was quite active also in initiating several efforts to improve the access of the poorest households to government schemes and in improving the working of panchayats. These initiatives had progressed much under the PACS programme.
However despite such efforts the grim reality cannot be ignored that at a wider level in this and neighbouring areas, poverty and deprivation still exist in serious forms and many workers are forced to migrate to work in exploitative conditions which in some extreme cases can take the form of bonded labour type conditions. The ABSSS has continued its concerns with the abolition of bonded labour by taking up the rescue and rehabilitation of several such workers and helping them in various ways to find satisfactory livelihoods in and around their home-villages.
Another abiding concern of the ABSSS has been to ensure that the children of the poorest households are not left behind in education. If children of some of the poorest households including migrant workers could not go to schools or needed special educational support due to some reasons, the ABSSS started special schools for them within their village. These efforts as well as pre-formal school education for small children are still continuing. Several students who could complete their school education due to these efforts are now going in for higher education or else already have government jobs or have progresses well in other fields.
Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Planet in Peril, Man over Machine and India’s Quest for Sustainable Farming and Healthy Food.