Jhabua, a tribal-dominated district with more than 85 percent population belonging to Scheduled Tribe (ST), is an agrarian district. Water security is, thus, a crucial element for its agriculture-based livelihood economy. Deforestation in the last 70 years, has converted this district, which had thick forest cover in pre-British India, to a denuded landscape.
The average rainfall of Jhabua district is 900 mm, which is a decent amount, but however, the district has lost its ability to harness the rainwater. It is due to this reason, that the district has one of the highest rates of outmigration in the country.
In 2008, Shivganga Samagra Vikas Parishad, a Jhabua based NGO that consisted of local leaders, called for youths in ‘Vananchal Youth Empowerment Camps’ to recall and recognise the pains of their villages. The persistent water crisis emerged as the most stressing one, and hence the youth started a movement for water conservation.
Various rounds of discussions were held with the community, regarding the probable course of action to solve the water crisis. During one such discussion, ‘Halma’ emerged as a possible way to collectivise the community for water conservation efforts.
There is a well-laid down process on how to call a Halma, in whose presence can it be called, etc. Halma was devised by the Bhil tribal community in a way, so as not to cause embarrassment to the person seeking help. The Halma is called in front of a deity in a village-level meeting. Thereupon ‘notras’ are sent out to individual households of a village detailing the venue, date and time of the Halma, along with the details of the help sought.
While the scale of Halmas called upon by tribal community is mostly village-level, these can be scaled up to mass-level movements by a facilitating NGO with the wherewithal to mobilise tribal communities from many villages.
The process for implementing huge watershed works through Halmas is: (i) Preparation of a cadre of village volunteers and village engineers (ii) Village-level meetings and invite (iii) Arranging logistics (iv) Halma management and (v) Performing the Halma.
The Bhil tribal community members suggested that, the organisation call for Lord Shiva’s Halma to satiate the thirst of the earth, based on Bhagirath’s story of bringing Ganga river on the Earth. This instantly connected with the community. Shivganga was officially named after this mythological tale.
Since 2009, the organisation has been calling for an annual Halma every year. Tribal community participates in huge numbers in the annual congregations. Men and Women throng in large numbers, carrying their ‘geti’ (pickaxe), ‘phawda’ (spade) and ‘tagari’ (pan). The annual Halma is organised on Hathipawa hills; one of the most important hills of Jhabua, where community members gather in huge numbers and collectively dig contour trenches on the hills and dig pits for plantation.
In the last ten years, the annual Halmas have grown into mass movements with over 20,000 tribal community members participating from over 500 villages in the latest Halma of 2020. It also saw the attendance of 500+ visitors from academia and the corporate world. A total of 40,000 contour trenches were dug by the efforts of the participants, which have created a capacity to conserve 360 crore litre water in the next five years.
The annual Halmas organised by Shivganga, led the tribal community to revive and revisit their own tradition. These events gave rise to small-scale intervillage Halmas, called by the tribal community members to create water harvesting potential in their villages. Halmas are called by community members from March through June to enhance the water harvesting potential of the area by constructing of earthen check dams, gully plugs and taalabs.
During the monsoons, the tribal community members call for yet another Halma drive, to plant saplings on community sacred groves. These sacred groves known as, ‘Matavan’, (community-protected forest areas), are another tradition of the Bhil tribal community, which calls for the protection of the forest ecosystem.
Each Bhil village has at least one such Matavan with an average size of 5 acres. During the monsoon Halmas, saplings are planted at Matavans in huge plantation drives. Tribal villagers take the responsibility to nurture every planted tree. If a sapling planted dies, the villagers replace it, increasing the survival rate manifold.
120 such Matavans have been revived by the tribal community-managed Halmas.
Over the last 11 years of work, Shivganga has successfully facilitated the construction of 65 water harvesting structures; including 10 earthen check dams and 55 water reservoirs (taalabs), 1,41,000 contour trenches, plantation of 1,10,000 saplings and skill development of over 12,000 empowered youth. The organisation has been successful in extending its reach to 1320 villages in Jhabua and Alirajpur districts.
The rise of community-led Halmas was the ultimate aim of the organisation and it evolved organically as the community saw the power of its own tradition to solve the water crisis. The reason that Shivganga was successful in its efforts is the adoption of ‘Involve and let Evolve’ strategy. Thus everything, from recognizing the problem, to designing the solution to the eventual execution, is done by the community themselves; the organization merely acts as a facilitator.
International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs. (2020, May 11).
Indigenous World 2020: India. Retrieved from IWGIA: https://www.iwgia.org/en/india
Sahasrabuddhe, K. (2020, August 13).
Reviving Tradition with New Mandate: Shivji Ka Halma. Retrieved from Vikalp Sangram: https://vikalpsangam.org/article/re-casting-bhil-halma/
Williams, V. R. (2020). Bhil - Indigenous Peoples: An Encyclopedia of Culture, History and Threats to Survival. California: Santa Barbara
This article is a part of the ‘Compendium of Best Practices: Water Management in Tribal areas’, a document developed by AKRSP(I) and Axis Bank Foundation (ABF).