Collective community efforts can help overcome the vagaries of nature and rejuvenate pastures and farms to restore prosperity, says Dr Anupam Mishra in his booklet outlining a case study of Lapodia, a village in Rajasthan.
The year is 2004. Lapodia is facing another rainless year, one of a cycle of six consecutive years of drought. But unlike other villages in its vicinity, it has managed to conserve its greenery. Lapodia has achieved the impossible by going back to its hoary roots, and nurturing age-old practices.
Some years ago, Lapodia had been lain waste by repeated cycles of drought. Parched fields bereft of grain, dry pastures, and dry tanks had characterized the village. Nearly all able-bodied men had opted to migrate to urban centres in search of livelihood. Jaipur, the closest urban centre some 80 km away was the preferred destination of choice. Even those from well-off farming families were left with little option.
Laxman Singh , the scion of a once-prosperous landowning Thakur family, who commanded great respect in Lapodia, too , was one such individual. A revered ‘Banaji’ of his village, Laxman Singh was compelled to move out of the barren wasteland of Lapodia for better opportunities elsewhere. The year was 1988. Laxman Singh joined the Tarun Bharat Sangh in Alwar. This was a decision that was destined to have far-reaching consequences for him and his village .
His years with Tarun Bharat Sangh taught him how entire communities can be resurrected on the strength of a rising water table. He resolved to utilize his newly-acquired knowledge to once again restore Lapodia to its former glory.
Laxman Singh had been associated with the Nehru Yuvak Kendra in the past. These Kendras, run under the aegis of the central government’s Ministry of Youth and Sports, are meant to organize and enthuse the youth in a positive direction for nation-building. Laxman Singh had then organized a Gram Vikas Navyuvak mandal in Lapodia. Although Laxman Singh and his band of young men had met with little success in the village, they had managed to set up a school for children who had been totally bereft of education.
Laxmanji now harked back to his old days as a village leader, and decided to lead from the front once again. One fine morning in 1992, he picked up his shovel and set out to restore one of the two major tanks that served Lapodia. But this was no small task. As Laxmanji toiled in the sun, 20 others joined him in his endeavour. Eventually, it was decided that every family in the village would contribute its might to the task ahead.
With the combined efforts of the entire village, Lapodia managed to restore one of its two major tanks. However, the subsequent monsoon saw the tank break its banks and flow out. Sandbags had to be piled up to hold back the damaged waterbody from flooding the village.
The following year, the tank was ultimately restored with the expertise lent by the Tarun Bharat Sangh. The next year, irrigation was provided for 100 bighas and another 100 bighoris of land.
With the farms restored, it was realized that the pastures had to be worked upon. Without the pastures, there would be no way to stem migration from the village. However, restoring pasture land is no easy task. Besides, the villagers lacked the necessary expertise.
Pastures need the right amount of moisture to let grass grow. Not too much water, and not too little either. The World Bank was working in the vicinity of Lapodia. They were brought in to restore the pastures. Since finances were no problem, human labour was avoided. Tractors were brought in. After the land was tilled, seeds were scattered to green the pastureland. Fences were erected all around, so that animals would not come in to graze. The idea was to leave the patch undisturbed so that it could be rejuvenated with new life.
But then, pastures are not farms. The contours made by the tractors filled up with water with the first rains, and the pastures failed to come up. Villagers continued to let the animals sneak in, and the entire project flopped.
This was when Laxman Singh and his compatriots decided to go borrow the wisdom of the ancients. Walking around the pasture lands, the banaji now hit upon a novel concept – that of the Chowk. The pastureland could be in the shape of one big and two small chowks. Of course, the land could not be too far from the water-bodies. The distance would have to be well within walking distance so that the herders could bring their animals to drink water and return back to the pastures. There would have to be trees, bushes and shrubs lining up the pasture-land.
It was decided to dig up and flatten the areas meant for grazing land. A new word-santara- was coined to denote the distance to be maintained between the chowk and the place where the dug up soil was being piled up.
But even before the land could be utilized for greenery, and the grass planted, dirty politics reared its ugly head. As against the Gram Vikas Mandal’s reluctance to cut down even a single tree, the panchayat officials sold the rights to cut down trees on the pastureland for Rs 2000 to a private contractor. It was announced that if the pastureland had to be nurtured, only the panchayat had sole right to do so.
However, the villagers had wisened up to these tricks. They had now realized that trees and bushes were their friends, and without any pastureland, they could never supplement their incomes and/or rear cattle.
Hence, the villagers got together to defend their pastureland. They started a satyagraha to uphold the rights to their pastureland. All night, groups of villagers would keep vigil by sleeping in the open pastureland in the freezing winter. Several government officials visited Lapodia to study and analyze the situation. Ultimately, truth triumphed over the wiles of the mischief-makers. The villagers and their organization emerged victorious. It was decided that only those trees that are bad for the pastureland would be removed.
There was another major decision taken. All those in possession of any part of the pastureland would part with the same for the community. Of course, making people agree to this was tough; but Laxmanji remained firm in his resolve. A big feast was organized on the pastureland, in which all 200 families in the village partook. The sweet and savoury fare sweetened relations among the adversaries, and everything ended well.
The exotic foreign babla species had dug their roots deep into the pastureland, and were standing in the way of all other species. Worse, no animal would ever graze on its leaves. Since these bablas spread very fast, the pastureland was practically in the grip of the species, with nearly 600 bablas all over the place. The villagers now set on to remove them post-haste. Each family was given the task of pulling out 3 bablas, and soon the pastureland was free from the species.
In place of these, local plums and other fruit trees were planted. The villagers spread a large number of seeds all over the pastureland. However, since the land had been designed to merely hold the appropriate amount of water, a large number of seeds floated away with the first rains.
However, the water held in the pastures saw the seeds of many other varieties buried deep within the soil, sprout and carpet the pastureland green. Many lost indigenous species too suddenly returned back with the increased moisture in the soil.
With ample pasture to graze on, the cattle in Lapodia started yielding huge quantities of milk. Today, Lapodia produces 1600 litres of milk. Even after meeting their respective household needs, the villagers sell two and a half lakh litres of milk to the Jaipur dairy.
The success of Lapodia has inspired 84 villages in its vicinity to repeat the work done and rejuvenate pasturelands and ponds to overcome the vagaries of drought and extreme weather.
The Lapodia turnaround, though, would never have been possible without the kind of community work that was done. It also teaches us that fighting an outside enemy is easy, but fighting your own neighbours, relatives and close compatriots is no easy task. It means overcoming the devils within us, and the worst in ourselves.