A lot has been written about the power of the collective and solidarity in the context of development particularly where human lives are intimately intertwined with that of nature – indigenous communities, small farmers, pastoralists etc. There are those who emphatically feel that this is the only sustainable way to engage with resources and there are others who dismiss the idea of the collective and its power as a romantic notion. Over the last six years I have been part of an unfolding experience in the drylands of Rayalseema – of people coming together in an effort to establish Manchi Jeevitham (the Telugu phrase for “Living Well” or “Bon Vivier” a political articulation of living with nature a life of self-reliance and dignity).
The coming together started in the form of weekly conversations: a few shepherds and goatherds came together with a few of us, we sat and chatted by the roadside as we tried to understand the challenges facing each of our lives. Some passers by sat in participating in the conversation. There were sceptics who wondered how conversation could change anything. There were others who asked if we were giving out loans and then quickly lost interest when they realised there was no money here. From periodic conversations which went on for close to a year emerged the need to meet more regularly in an organised manner. Fourteen shepherds and goatherds led by two dynamic young men decided to organise themselves into a collective. The reason was – these conversations had helped them articulate their main problems for which the solutions would also come from these conversations. The numbers rose to 28 members in a year. Strategies to manage their grazing lands, access their traditional grazing areas in the nearby forests were developed. The power of the collective began to be realised as they began implementing their strategies. Aikyamatham mahabalam – in unity there is strength, began to be oft quoted as they overcame several hurdles and moved forward with strengthening their livelihood. There were internal dynamics, political pressure from the outside to try and destabilise the group but they have managed to stay focussed on their goal – bring honesty, dignity and self-reliance to their lives. Banks and Government agencies became more accessible when they approached them as a collective. Today the group is registered as a mutually aided co-operative society. The collective has also produced young leaders who are now working at bringing like minded young people together at the Panchayat level to strengthen grassroots democracy.
What triggered this post was a morning out on the hills in the remote hamlet of Pulusugunthalu to discuss the problems faced by the pastoralists in accessing traditional grazing lands, growing food in an increasingly water-scarce situation. I heard one of our young leaders from the collective articulating his experience of how coming together provides strength to face the challenges. His articulation, his conviction, the energy that seemed to come from working together was a learning experience for me. The young man said that coming together is not about agreeing on everything, not about consensus but it is about talking to each other, listening, understanding our problems more clearly, struggling for solutions, emerging stronger from the effort and at the end of the day being part of it because we have a shared vision – a life of dignity – Manchi Jeevitham.
I knew about the power of the collective intellectually – I had read Ostrom and stories of movements – but that morning’s conversation was my own experience. To hear the articulation of the young leader was inspiring.