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.
An existentialist question or a rhetorical one? Come summer and everybody asks this question – more so in the “other India” – the one that is not part of the Indian growth train! The editorial in the current issue of Down to Earth (http://www.downtoearth.org.in/content/six-sins-make-drought-invincible) is a relevant read particularly the listing of “the six sins that make drought invincible”.
The two “sins” that I’d like to take forward for a discussion are the the fifth and sixth particularly in light of the Draft National Water Policy 2012 (available for downloading and comment at http://wrmin.nic.in/) currently under debate: The fifth sin – “we forget underground aquifers meet a considerable part of water demand. So we do not factor in the need for recharge of groundwater. Instead we extract more and more water, leading to scarcity”. We seem to forget that we are largely a groundwater civilisation with groundwater meeting a large part of not just rural drinking and agricultural water but also urban potable water demands. So unless groundwater management is made the centrepiece of this Policy we are not going to make a dent in addressing this problem.
We also forget that water is a common resource – while land can be owned by a private entity and a well on it may belong to the entity, the water below the land is not the private property of that individual / entity! Water is a universal right and therefore in spirit, letter and on the ground any water policy and resultant legislation must ensure equity and social justice in the access to water. The doublespeak and schizophrenia in the Draft Water Policy is remarkable….the Preamble expounds the philosophy of social justice and equity while the body of the Policy advocates privatization as the panacea to the current water crisis. Nothing new here…..this schizophrenia is the norm be it the Food Security Bill, Land Acquisition Bill or the Water Policy.
The sixth sin – “our inability to link investment in watershed and soil conservation to groundwater recharge. In the past few years, attention has been paid to building ponds and tanks and to protecting watersheds. But investment in these assets—coming largely through employment guarantee schemes—is hardly ever productive. The schemes provide jobs and do not care about the quality of the work. Watersheds are planted with trees but protection of trees is not ensured. The tank is desilted, but the channels or the catchment that bring water to the tank are not.” This country has been engaged in watershed management since 1880 with Government supported programmes coming into prominence since the 1950s. In spite of this vast body of experience we still do not link watershed management to groundwater conservation. Watershed development in some rain shadow areas has led to groundwater recharge BUT this has led to increased water withdrawal to irrigate water intensive crops leading to more severe depletion of the scarce groundwater resources in summer….yet another example of fragmented thinking – the hallmark of our Policy planning.
The agencies implementing these programme do not coordinate with local agricultural or livestock departments to support livelihoods that can be sustained in the long-term because of the improved groundwater resource. E.g. as part of the activities under a watershed development programme provide support for rainfed crops such as millets. This could be in the form of access to hardy, local seed varieties, infrastructure to store, process and add value to the produce, creating local markets etc. Another e.g. could be to ensure that water-intensive white elephants (exotic breeds of cows that are best at home in the Netherlands) are not provided to landless women farmers in rain-fed areas!
Do we need NASA photos to tell us that groundwater levels are abysmal in the Gangetic plain thanks to the myopic agricultural and livestock policies?? And then we are shocked as a nation which passes when the next exciting bit of news appears on our 24×7 news.
To do anything seriously commonsensical about this our erstwhile leaders must find time in Parliament where they are so busy debating over “serious” issues such as the appropriateness of cartoons in textbooks.