|Clockwise from top left: (i) Villagers of Saraikheda with PSI team during profile measurement before repair, (2) Roop Singh babba gazing to find the end of water reservoir, (3) Room singh Babba a backbone and guide, (4) Talab after the repair|
Saraikheda is a small village of 60 households, amid the forest of Panna district (M.P.), on the top of the mountain range, leaving them on the fringe of development. The majority of population belongs to tribe “Rajgaur” residing with small fraction of Yadav communities in harmonious way, despite the strong caste-system elsewhere in the Bundelkhand. I think the hardship of life teaches you the wisdom of being togetherness, being community, being society. The economy of the village is dependent mainly on agriculture, usufruct rights over forest produces, and labor work. Rajgaur tribes consider themselves equivalent to Kshatriyas as it a clan who ruled this region once upon a time and hence migration is last distressed, undignified option for them. But the trend is increasing in the form of seasonal migration. Agriculture is mainly rain-fed and gets affected more with the climate change. There have been continuous spell of disasters since more than a decade now. In the last three years, we have witnessed drought in two consecutive two years (2014, 2015) and heavy flash floods in 2016. The climatic harshness on one hand and apathy of government schemes on the other, make their life miserable.
Despite small cultural and societal differences, when it came to repairing the Talab (earthen check dam) with meager Rs. 2 lakhs, the whole village got united. The Talab was built under government scheme before 10 years, spending 8-10 lakhs rupees (that’s what villagers guess) but spill-way was built at a wrong place. Villagers resorted during the construction itself, but “smart” contractor did not listen them rather did some quick-fix work. It did not work. There was hardly any water which would get stored every year. Every now and then villagers put the proposal for the repair wherever possible. Couple of time, it was sanctioned but nobody listen to their idea. No consensus could be built among contractor and villagers and hence Talab remained in the despair for almost a decade. The repair was going to benefit half of the village for irrigation and whole of the village by recharging their only drinking water well. The villagers set up systems in the form of village level committee "Gram Swaraj Samiti (GSS)" and opened a bank account for management of funds. The committee members and bank account signatories were chosen through democratic way of "Aam Sabha". They established a proper wage rate system along with Shramdan to utilize the money effectively and to get done maximum work. The fraction of wages was decided to keep separate i.e. shramdan in the form of village fund "Gram Kosh". Even though Shramdan is an integral part of communities (e.g. in the form of villagers help each other during marriage ceremony, volunteering for cultural festivals ), it took some time to get accepted in the wage system. The elderly Roop singh Babba convinced others that “we may earn more today by taking more wages but we will be in loss for every tomorrow to come. Think about the benefit it will bring us to later”. Moreover villagers were bit skeptical about our presence because many such organizations and government employees had cheated on them. It took some time to gain their trust and trust got strengthened when the funds were transferred their account, signatories were among the villagers and then we told them that 'we don't own your money now.' It gave them sense of dignity, confidence and also responsibility.
When this work was started, degree holder engineers from our team and natural engineering from villagers came together, and decided on how to repair the Talab. It was an eye-opener experience for degree-holder engineers on how to listen to them and not to underestimate their knowledge. Villagers have repaired the Talab with only Rs. 1.5 lakhs. Additionally 7 farm ponds have been constructed and they have saved Rs. 32000 as a part their Shramdan into Gram Kosh. What they will do with the Gram Kosh money? upon asking this question, villagers said that "Gram Kosh has been decided to use only for community purpose, like maintenance of talab or community needs like loan or business ideas which will benefit the whole village. Last Rabi season (2016), villagers used this money for giving agriculture loans to some of the needy farmers and thus freeing them from clutches of money-lenders. They earned additional profit by charging nominal interest rate. This season (April 2017) they have decided to invest this money into value-addition of Mahua and collective selling. (Mahua initiative needs another story) .
There are such 10 villages in the region, who have established a good example of “governance by the people, with the people, for the people” when Panchayati Raj Institution has been weakened and grassroot democracy is subverted. Second, they have established the importance of Talab in the context of geographical and climatic conditions of M.P. Bundelkhand when government wants to push for Ken-Betwa river link which has more cons than pros. The villagers emphasized that people are critically conscious, no matter how much they are submerged into the "culture of silence".
One must realize that –
“One cannot expect positive results from an educational or political action program which fails to respect the particular view of the world held by the people. Such a program constitutes cultural invasion, good intentions notwithstanding. - Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed"
Note: The work is a part of long term action programme "Gram Swaraj Abhiyan" initiated by People's Science Institute, Dehradun in the response of recurring droughts in Bundelkhand. The programme was initiated in 10 villages of Pann distrct in December 2013 with the financially support of Tata Education Trust, Mumbai.