Meghalaya villages join hands to save environment and bolster women empowerment

Water collected at a mega dam in a village in Meghalaya (Image Source: KM-MBDA)
Water collected at a mega dam in a village in Meghalaya (Image Source: KM-MBDA)

Langsymphut village in Meghalaya has ample water now. Gone are the days when the water starved village was barren with its streams dying a slow death. And that too when it is located only 22 kilometres away from Mawsynram village, known to be one of the wettest places on earth!

It is also  one of the few villages in Meghalaya that has succeeded in creating  an enabling environment for women to exercise decision making and authoritative rights.

While Meghalaya is one of the few existing matrilineal societies in the world, the exercise of authority and power by women in the state continues to be limited and a widely debated topic. Majority of the village heads in the state are men and women have a very little say in issues related to local governance

How did this happen

The roots of this change began with the attempts made by the village community to deal with the problem of water scarcity that they regularly faced.

The rapidly degrading environment in the village led the members  of the village governing body to think of a  speedy intervention to change the situation.  This was when the community initiated a proposal through MGNREGS to rejuvenate the almost dying river as well as to protect the environment through other NRM interventions.

Around the same time, a World Bank funded Community Led Landscape Management Project (CLLMP) also identified the village as one requiring intervention, as the village was included in the North Eastern Space Applications Centre (NESAC) list of highly degraded villages. In June 2019, a sensitisation exercise was held in Langsymphut village, and thus began the journey of the village towards protecting their natural resources.

Check dams changed the situation in the village

Under the  convergence effort between CLLMP & MGNREGA, work began for construction of an RCC check dam at Phodtongksiar, adjacent to the Lumsymper peak, an area with a huge potential for promoting natural tourism. This dam was completed between 20.8.19 and 04.10.2019.

Water collected at Photdongksiear dam (Image Source: KM-MBDA)
Water collected at Photdongksiear dam (Image Source: KM-MBDA)

Following this, a mega project at Langsymput village was also initiated in 2019 and is at the final stage of completion.This is an RCC check dam taken up in convergence by MGNREGA and CLLMP at ThweiOling under Langsymphut VEC. It remains the biggest check dam undertaken by CLLMP and its impact on the lives of the people here has been tremendous.

Roningstar Kharbani, Secretary of Langsymphut VEC, who is also the member of  the VNRMC reveals that under the CLLMP project, the village has been able to plant tree saplings and dig trenches which will trap the moisture in the community land. The land which was barren and arid a few years ago, is now moist and supports the growth of saplings as well as grasses. The land is now fit for grazing cattle as well. The water levels in the streams have also gone up due to check dams thus aiding fish to thrive in the waters.

Both these check dams are located near the famous LumSymper/Symper Peak, which holds a huge potential for tourism in the years to come and boost the economy of the village. The villagers feel the need for preserving the natural resources all the more to promote sustainable and natural tourism.

Women promoted as leaders in natural resource management

The role of women in natural resource management is also now being promoted in the village through the constitution of Village Natural Resource Management Committee (VNRMC) as a part of the Community Led Landscape Management Project (CLLMP) facilitated by Meghalaya Basin Management Agency (MBMA).

With natural resource management being the key focus area, CLLMP aims to put emphasis on women empowerment through VNRMCs by putting them in key power positions in the project. Although the head of the council is the Headman of the village, it is ensured that the other top positions always include women members.

The Mawsynram Declaration- Villages unite to harness water

The efforts have not been restricted to one village. It was realised that other villages in and around Mawsynram too  suffered from water shortages, especially in the winter months. A conversation with some of the Village Employment Council (VEC) members of Langsymphut and Mawteibah villages revealed that  there was no  mechanism to tap the tremendous potential of rainwater harvesting within most of the villages falling under Mawsynram, inspite of the area being hailed as the wettest place on earth.

By the year 2019, many villages around Mawsynram  began to realise that there was a need to harness the tremendous amount of rainfall that the area received and started undertaking steps to  identify catchment areas for  harnessing rainwater.  

Massive afforestation showing enviromental degradation in a Meghalaya village (Image Source: KM-MBDA)
Afforestation activities undertaken in Langsymput village (Image Source: KM-MBDA)

In the month of August 2019, as part of field visit under Jal Shakti Abhiyaan (JSA) by Sampath Kumar, IAS, Commissioner & Secretary, C&RD Department, a surprising fact was revealed. It was found that in order to harness rainwater, a village had purchased land from a private land owner as the land fell under the catchment area. Realising the importance of putting the catchment area into good use, the village members, after negotiations with the land owner, purchased the land. This act set precedence for what later was conceptualised as the Mawsynram Declaration.

Several villages came together and mobilised efforts to materialise the Mawsynram Declaration. VECs signed memorandums with their respective village institutions (dorbar) to allocate community land for this purpose. Twelve villages with no community lands even purchased a plot of landfrom private land holders, for the sole purpose of harnessing rainwater!

And the effects have been for everyone to see! A total of twenty-four villages have become a  part of the Mawsynram Declaration. Of these, around ten villages have completed the construction of water structures and the remaining are underway. The village of Langsymphut has taken great strides and the VEC members have spoken at length about how the construction of the check dam in their village has greatly benefitted the community.

Another village that greatly benefitted from the Mawsynram Declaration is Mawteibah village. The former headman of the village was the owner of the land and gave away a portion of the plot to the village dorbar for public use. In conjunction with a water harvesting structure, the village has also started afforestation and land development  activities through constructing recharge pits and trenches in the vicinity of the site. Mawhiang village is another village that has taken care of its water problems by coming together and identifying the need to construct a check dam.

The way forward- Sustainability and gender equality

By bringing several villages together, the Mawsynram Declaration has created an environment of cohesion amongst all the villages and the state in general.

Furthermore, an enabling environment is also being created  for bolstering women empowerment. Projects like CLLMP make it mandatory to constitute a VNRMC executive committee, whose members are elected through a democratic voting process. Seven to nine members from the community are selected to be on the council, out of which minimum 50 percent are women.

Involvement of women in decisionmaking has helped (Image Source: KM-MBDA)
Involvement of women in decisionmaking has helped empower them (Image Source: KM-MBDA)

In addition to the above, in what may be termed as a historic decision by the State, the Meghalaya Cabinet on August 7, 2020 approved the policy on Reservation of seats for Women in Village Employment Councils (VECs). This is the first time that 50 pc seats are being reserved for women in the local bodies in any state of India. It is realised that the role of women in VECs is by and large for the community, and will go a long way in setting a perfect example of inclusivity and equality.