Tribal Farmer Woman Drags Water to Farms

Barren land Blooms in 100 villages

Jaipur, India – Farmers’ larger worry in the country may be inconsistent income, unpredictable climate and uncertain produce forcing them for menial labour and abandoning farming for the period of stress. This is a reality for those tribal regions also where mother nature has showered abundant grace but poor natural resource management has pushed the otherwise self-reliant tribal population into the vicious cycle of poverty, shifting a major burden on lakhs of women.

However, the silver lining is the sheer grit of a handful of women farmers breaking this cycle to see life smile back in the villages embracing change and pragmatism for the benefit of whole generation. Shahbaad bloc falls in the Baran district in south east of Rajasthan near coaching hub Kota with major population of Saharia and Bheel tribes. When one would cross either of the three rivers Kunnu, Reti and Sirsa to reach the Purampur village of the bloc to meet one such spirited farmer Kotha Bai from Bheel community, the scenic water streams of the rivers would flow freely touching our feet but ironically not deep enough under the ground.

Seasoned social worker Cheetar ji briefs about a vicinal village in dark zone because of utter neglect of water related works here. And that was a serious worry for the people here who would know the value of channeling water for sustainable agriculture and a safe future but not the methods of accomplishing this feat.

By the time we reached the village, dusk had gripped the village but the bustle of rural life was usual amid electricity cut. Kotha Bai was just back spending arduous hours in her fields under cultivation to attend to ailing goat, hungry cattle and inquisitive guests with equal warmth. This simple heart resolute 55 years old woman shares a story of real dark spells of her life when she would force migrate to cities with her husband for months to work as a daily wage labourer. No water, no work and food shortage in the village left no choice for them but to leave children and old parents to the mercy of the almighty. It was suffering beyond redemption, she recalls. Once, when the entire district was hit by severe drought and food crisis, the footprints of community organizations kindled hopes among women like her who joined the relief works undertaken by the government and social sector in her village.

She started participating in all village development activities and meetings to join the process of finding long term solutions to overcome misery, drudgery and poverty. Constructive interventions of social institutions working on the Gandhian model of holistic development guided the villagers to work collectively, dig water pits (talai) to store rainwater and to make way for rivers to their fields, recalls social worker Manju Bala Joshi who was part of this transformative action force. It took a few years of hard toil to build two check dams (anicuts) in the year 2006 in this village inhabiting about 60 families.

Each family contributed 20-25% of the cost of construction for sharing fruits of development and community ownership. Kotha Bai was president of the village development committee (VDC) and this was an opportune time for all to share concerns for reviving agro-economy by adopting small savings, restoring community culture, ensuring education for all, care for girl child and enjoy benefits of government schemes. Water passages (nadi) and canals (nahar) were also built, 4000 feet pipelines rolled out to reach each village farm and water was river-lifted from check dams.

Kotha Bai was at the forefront of every effort and would also face a backlash from the orthodox members of the community when she started devoting more time for village initiatives. But she remained firm with the rock support of her husband Hath Singh, who would value her relentless work and possibilities of opportunities unleashing with change in mindsets. She lost her husband some years back but has already earned enough respect that the villagers now look up to her for every major decision.

With the water reaching directly into farms, the irrigation and cultivation movement started to see the village economy flourish. Now every household in Purampur village has a bank account, small savings, gas cylinder and knowledge about farm markets for fair deal. Most are affording tractors and motorcycles also.

Kotha Bai is leading a network of more than five thousand women from nearby villages and enjoys all love of her sons, daughters in law and grandchildren. It’s her five hectares of cultivated fields we saw in another visit in daylight with one crop damaged by locust attacks but rest that of maize and sesame grown in a larger area nourishing the soul of Kotha Bai and those who take pride in her success. She shows us her pucca house alongside the original wooden-mud brick one, built from Prime Minister Awaas Yojana money with two out of three rooms stacked with pea and wheat grains. She earns Rs 3-4 lakh a year from these farms, keeping best quality grains and vegetables for daily nutritional needs of her family. Her one son helps her in farms while other works as a school teacher. With the check dams, water passages and canals she built, the groundwater is getting recharged for nearly hundred adjoining villages and her ideas of multi cropping are adopted by many smart farmers in the region.

This indomitable woman with strong faith in karma wakes up to the call of every crisis and once started repairing the broken check dam, the lifeline of farms here, alone. Only after seeing her strain, the whole village joined hands later. This is how she leads with the power of her actions. Her words implore fellow villagers to care for nature and long stretches of barren land bows to bloom with the profundity of her wisdom and experiences.

Minimalist living and pure fresh food cooked on a unique two mouth earthen stove (chulha) and hot plate (tava) served with affection assure us of revival of deep ecology if this village model is replicated faster in regions wrestling with similar challenges and pain of migration.

Shipra Mathur
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