August 03, 2020
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The Black Buck Stops Here

Villagers form the vanguard in revitalising India's natural resources

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The Black Buck Stops Here
Drought-prone villages that now have surplus water, once-starving farming communities that today produce enough to export, barren hills now covered with verdant forests, rural stretches from which migration to urban centres has stopped. Wishful thinking or celluloid fantasy? Not quite.

Hiware Bazaar, near Ahmednagar in Maharashtra, started harvesting rainwater and revegetating the hills around it in the 1980s. Prior to this, it had to beg authorities to send water tankers in summer. Today, it provides clean drinking water to all its residents, and irrigates much of its agricultural land. All village children now attend school and health facilities have improved considerably. Several hundred villages in the Alwar district of Rajasthan have achieved water self-sufficiency and increasing agricultural stability through water harvesting structures promoted by the Tarun Bharat Sangh.

Marginal farmers (many of them Dalit women) in seventy-five villages in Zaheerabad area of Andhra Pradesh's Medak district had to migrate elsewhere for work. But now, after over 15 years of sustained efforts by villagers aided by the NGO Deccan Development Society, there is self-sufficiency in food production, which has generated several thousand human-days of work. Remarkably, this has been done by reviving traditional seed diversity, linking up the production of traditional cereals to the public distribution system, and promoting organic farming.

In Orissa, researchers looking at satellite images of forest cover have noticed a marked improvement in some parts of the state. This is due to the untiring efforts of villagers to reclaim greenery. They have also initiated 10,000 forest protection committees with little or no outside help. Their motivation? Improved availability of fuel and fodder, revitalisation of water sources and greater control over their immediate lives. Other such initiatives have sprung up across many states: protection of sea turtle nesting sites in Orissa and Kerala, people's sanctuaries in Rajasthan and Nagaland, conservation of black buck, cranes, or waterbirds by communities in Andhra Pradesh, Punjab, Rajasthan, Orissa, Bihar and elsewhere.

While many of the above examples are initiated by villagers themselves, there are also many that have been catalysed by government officials or NGOs. In Periyar Tiger Reserve, a situation of rampant poaching and hostile villagers was transformed by officials to one of assistance in fighting the menace and a resultant drop in hunting. This was done by helping adivasis generate income through community-based tourism. The NGO Rural Communes in Maharashtra has helped villagers overcome drought and other problems through watershed programmes.

Community efforts, though widespread, have not yet translated into a national localisation movement. There are far too many hurdles to overcome, not the least being the government's stranglehold on common lands like forests and water bodies. A series of measures related to globalisation, including Special Economic Zones and the dilution of environmental impact assessment procedures, will undermine many more community initiatives. Orissa's community forests are under threat from mining leases given by the state government, while the community-based ecotourism efforts near Corbett National Park are threatened by the recent mushrooming of commercial resorts owned by outsiders.

The country's citizens can change this situation. Civil society groups forced government to enact the Right to Information Act, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, and the forest rights act. In all of these, implementation will be tough. The Forest Rights Act will provide tenurial security to thousands of adivasis and forest-dwellers, though there're concerns that its misuse by political and land mafia can lead to deforestation and conflicts in some states.

India's privileged urban (and elite rural) populace need to recognise the reality and potential of localisation and join communities in their struggle against powerful economic forces. They should try to channelise some of globalisation's positive potential to their own benefit. And the media needs to move away from its fixation on India's billionaires, fashion queens, and spoilt cricketers, and devote more attention to the silent small revolutions across the country.

(The author is a member of environmental action group Kalpavriksh.)
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