There are over 705 ethnic groups, which are recognized as Scheduled Tribes in India (International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, 2020). These groups have their own unique Gods, beliefs, rituals, practices, and social systems. The Indian subcontinent is known for its rich cultural heritage and vibrancy, a distinction, which has been earned due to the rural and tribal folk arts, crafts and traditions.
The tribal lands of the country abound, not only in their many distinct art and craft forms, but also in traditional practices and systems, which make them stand apart from the caste system.
Tribal societies have an inscrutable bond with mother nature, which enables a deeper understanding of surrounding environs and an inherent urge to protect and conserve natural resources. Their cultural ethos and practices resonate with this bond, as these practices promote collective action to promote sustainable usage, protection and conservation of resources.
One such tribe is the Bhil tribe. According to Census 2011, Bhil is the most populous tribe in India, constituting 37.7% of the total tribal population. The Bhil tribal community lives in the mountainous regions of Western and Central India in Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra.
Bhils, also known as the ‘brave bowmen of India’, have a rich culture and various practices aimed at protecting their environment. The tightly knit tribal society also advocates community action for solving issues and problems facing them.
The basic tenet of Halma is collective action to solve problems. When any member of the Bhil community finds that he/she is unable to solve an issue or problem despite his/her best efforts, he/she calls upon the village community for help. The village community collectively surmounts the challenge which the individual member was unable to (Sahasrabuddhe, 2020). Halma calls for collective action to achieve a common goal.
One of the most pressing issues faced by the tribal communities residing in central India is water scarcity both for drinking and livelihoods. As most farming is rainfed, crop failure is a common phenomenon.
Construction of water harvesting structures, watershed works and plantations are the most obvious solutions, but the gap lies in the funds needed for implementation. Most of these structures are implemented under Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), the process of planning is arduous and the gap between planning and implementation is huge. Halma is, thus, a perfect solution in this situation, as it removes the funding constraint and calls for collective action for water resource development.
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 are 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 described below:
- Preparation of a cadre of village volunteers and village engineers
- Village-level meetings and Invite
- Arranging logistics
- Halma Management
- Performing the Halma
Preparation of a cadre of village volunteers
The facilitating organisation develops a fleet of village volunteers, to mobilise the tribal community members at a large scale. Rapport building and engagement with community is key, so local volunteers are preferred.
A cadre of village-level engineers referred herewith as Gram Engineers is also developed. This is done, so as to make the community familiar with the technical aspects of water structures. At least 2 volunteers from every village are trained as ‘Gram Engineers’ through the delivery of an objective-based course module of 14- days.
This course has been designed in collaboration with technical experts from prominent institutes such as Shri Govindram Seksaria Institute of Technology and Science (SGSITS), Indore. The Gram Engineers serve the crucial role of making the community self-dependent in terms of structure design and planning.
Village-level meetings and invite
Several village-level meetings may be required in one village to elicit interest and build trust. Post the village meetings, ‘Notras’, or invitations; carrying details of the event, along with the date, time and venue of Halma are delivered to individual households and interested members from the households are requested to join the mobilization drive.
As tribal community members from many villages congregate at a single place to undertake the Halma, the community attending from distant villages is provided a transport facility. Stay arrangements are made by villagers in the vicinity of Halma site. They act as hosts to distant community members. The tools needed to undertake the manual labour to perform Halma are usually brought by the attending tribal community, however, the organisation arranges for spare tools. Food arrangements are made for the attending community members and visitors.
The Halma day sees congregation of tribal community in large numbers. Detailed planning and scheduling of activities is done by the intervening NGO to allow for smooth operations of the event. The tribal community led in groups headed by village-level volunteers arrive at the pre-decided venue where the purpose of the Halma and its significance in community-led water management is reiterated. This is followed by a procession to Halma site.
Performing the Halma
The construction of physical works such as excavation of contour trenches on denuded hillocks, construction of water harvesting structures, plantations, desilting of existing structures, etc. is undertaken by collective contribution of physical labour. The activities to be undertaken are planned in advance along with structure nuances, dimensions, land slope, depth, etc. On the Halma day, excavation activities on the site, are supervised by Gram engineers and watershed experts.
- Increase in water harvesting and recharge potential
- Increase in forest cover
- Reduction in runoff and soil erosion
- Ensured irrigation and drinking water security
- Shift from rainfed to irrigated landholdings
- Collectivisation leads to the development of huge social capital
Replication and scale-up potential
Bhils are the largest tribal group in India (Census 2011) and are also the most widely dispersed tribal group (Williams, 2020). This presents a good scope of replication of the intervention. The Bhil tribal community live in the mountainous regions of Western and Central India with a dispersed presence in East India too.
The districts with a good presence of Bhil tribal community are:
- Dungarpur, Banswara, Pratapgarh in southern Rajasthan;
- Ratlam, Jhabua, Alirajpur, Dhar, Khargone of Madhya Pradesh,
- Panchmahal Godhra, Dahod, Narmada, Tapi, Dang, Navsari, and Tapi of Eastern Gujarat
- Nashik and Dhule in northern Maharashtra
The potential to scale up the Halma is huge; as can be witnessed from the experience of Shivganga Samagra Vikas Parishad (shared in the next section). A single organisation with its presence in merely two districts mobilized more than 20,000 tribal community members in a single event.
Grassroots movements of people should not only be seen as reactive acts of resistance against oppression but as tools for socio-economic development. These movements have the power to set up new institutions, construct massive structures and devise new and novel techniques to be freed from poverty.
Lessons for replication
- Rapport building with the community is a must. It is recommended that in the initial phase, replication be undertaken in tribal districts with an established NGO, which has already built its trust with the tribal community.
- Building a cadre of village-level engineers is a must to ensure long-term sustainability, They possess the knowledge and skills to design the water harvesting structures required, and as such can play the role of planners.
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).