Turning dusty land into a flowering orchard

Posted: 16 November 2000

Author: Bishakha Datta

Author Info: Bishakha Datta is People & the Planet correspondent in India.

Bishakha Datta reports on an Indian success story.

A sickle. A shovel. A steel plate. A schoolbag. A waterpot. A couple of coins. And a handful of paddy. All carefully lined up in the middle of a south Indian village. What on earth does it mean?

This spontaneous sculpture - put together by the villagers of Meenakshipuram in the southern state of Tamil Nadu - is the outcome of a community mapping exercise held on a sultry August evening in the village square. Using participatory rural appraisal techniques, the exercise aims to understand the benefits of a water conservation scheme that was initiated in the village four years back by a local non-government organisation.

Watershed improvements transform the land© Jules Pretty

The sickle indicates a good harvest, while the shovel points to greater employment that the scheme has generated, that too in the dry white season, when the soil is parched and the land is just a leap of the imagination. About 45 extra work days were created, the villagers say, which leads to the steel plate, an unlikely symbol of migration.

Each year, the men of Meenakshipuram travel to the neighbouring state of Kerala in search of work when the rains end; they migrate to fill their stomachs, hence the steel plate. In 1997, they didn't have to go away for the first time in two decades, since they had enough work on the water conservation scheme. The villagers also got higher quality crops in 1998, symbolised by a handful of paddy, and made more money - spent on buying household goods ("the waterpot") and school expenses ("the schoolbag"). "If we hadn't had this money," explains a garrulous old man, "we would have taken a loan from the moneylender at 5 per cent interest each month. Our lives have really changed."

Hidden tanks

Behind this outpouring of public goodwill is a complex process that was started in this drought-prone district almost a decade ago with the formation of SPEECH (Society for People's Education and Economic Change). Kamaraj, the district where SPEECH works, is Tamil Nadu's dryest district, so dry that conventional notions of landlessness have little meaning here. Even a farmer who owns 200 acres of land, is in some senses landless, since land without water will not produce anything.

When Kamaraj, after whom the district is named, was chief minister, he planted clumps of prosophis, an imported quick-growing weed all over the area. The weed was used to make charcoal and generate incomes in a district with few employment opportunities. Today, hordes of green prosophis bushes have greedily taken over the landscape and completely robbed the soil of whatever little fertility it once had - a classic illustration of the fundamental paradox that sustainable development tries to address.

SPEECH firmly believes that natural resources cannot be conserved nor development be sustained unless people and communities themselves are involved. "The responsibility of the people has been eroded, since the government has taken responsibility to maintain natural resources," explains Rajan, who manages SPEECH's field programme. "We need to rebuild the people's sense of ownership and responsibility."

SPEECH attempts to rebuild this sense by forming and strengthening local community groups - from 1993, the focus has shifted from organising the community to organising women. "Although women are the real breadwinners," explains women's organiser Parvati, "they are not recognised as human. They are not economically independent. They have no access or control over natural resources."

In Meenakshipuram, 33 women are members of the sangha or group formed in the village. The project started off here in 1993 with non-formal education classes, where women came together not just to chant "A for Apple, B for Ball" but to actually discuss common problems. Why are there no streetlights in the village? Why is there no drinking water? How can rainwater be harnessed?

Sangha discussions, supplemented with PRA mapping exercises, gradually revealed the presence of a 50-year-old tank system in the village itself. The tank hadn't been maintained by the government, since it had never been categorised - either as a union tank or a Public Works Department tank.

Using an approach that had succeeded in other villages, SPEECH motivated the villagers to refurbish the tank system. Responsibilities were divided: villagers had to clear the land, running wild with prosophis, build bunds and pits. SPEECH took the onus of ploughing the land, and got the government to test the soil and build a percolation tank to recharge groundwater resources. The women's sangha supervised the entire process, negotiating free labour for some tasks, fixing equal wages for others, and deciding that each family must contribute half a bag of paddy for maintaining the tank system.

Tank to conserve water© Jules Pretty

If this process has empowered women to take control of a vital natural resource, it has also provided a lifeline for the community. The tank system, watered 20 acres in 1998, will ultimately irrigate 70 acres, benefiting 32 of the 33 sangha members who own land here. "The landless also get employment in desilting and excavation activities," explains Rajan. "When the barren land becomes productive, they will be employed as farm labour. So they will also benefit."

The benefits are already visible among sangha members, many of whom are descendants of Thevars, or ancient soldiers. "Previously we would sit at home, cook our food, eat, not bother about anything else," says sangha treasurer S Ponirul, whose pierced, bejewelled earlobes stretch almost to her shoulders. "Now, once a month, we come together with one mind. We don't just worry about ourselves but also about our village."