Sweep your gaze in large parts of India's hinterland. Farmer suicides, starvation deaths, absolutely undernourished kids, anaemic women — the poorest of the poor — most of these live in India's villages. A whopping 64 per cent of India's population is housed here. It is here that you find India's poverty and high points of distress. Just imagine more than 44 million of India's 90 million farmer families are neck-deep in debt.
The semi-arid Malwa region in Madhya Pradesh where Grasim's Staple Fibre Division is housed, presents a series of challenges. It has predominantly hard rock geology. As such the recharging of ground water is much below the mark. The crisis of groundwater is so intense that the villages are always in the throes of a severe drinking water shortage, more so in summer time. The rain god seems to be perpetually playing truant with the population here. Years of consecutive drought have pushed farmers to almost the brink of a precipice.
That life in these villages for the farming community is tough, is no secret. In such a milieu, that literacy levels are abysmally low and educational facilities poor, and most women non-entities, should come as no surprise. A very low awareness of health and hygiene, and the absence of healthcare facilities compound the issues. Money lenders who control the economy, hang the sword of Damocles over the poor.
"When we looked at these farming families, we would feel very low", say Mr. Shailendra Jain, (Director, pulp and fibre business) and Mr. S.S. Maru
(Senior Executive President and Head of the Nagda plant). "This calamity in the agricultural sector was good enough a reason to pause, step back and see how and what we could do to change the scenario. We believed that the only way to alleviate their suffering and poverty was by creating strong rural communities on a solid foundation of sustainable farming systems that would ensure on-going livelihood and accord this much marginalised segment some dignity", they aver.
"We were exposed to these grim realities by our rural development team led by Mr. Shiv Santra, which Mr. S.S. Pipara and Mr. A.S. Dagonkar oversee. When we decided to intervene, we gave a single point agenda to Shiv, and that is to lift these farmers from their sub-human conditions and make a difference. They have done a remarkable job." Your editor spoke with the team to capture the essence of their work and the manner in which they spread sunshine in the lives of the poor. Listen to Mr. Santra, Mr. Mansukh Sakariya, and Mr. B.L. Sharma, who are at the core of these activities. "To address their problems, we began with a dialogue with the farming communities. We wanted to understand everything in their context. This was essential to texture our interventions into their tapestry. Out of this evolved our plank for the progress of the farmers. The farm would be the key unit of intervention. Naturally, for any farm-centred programme, water is its lifeforce. So, we took recourse to a people-driven watershed-based development programme and made it the focal point of our developmental strategy in the zone of our villages.
To conserve water through water harvesting structures in both agricultural and non-agricultural land:
These became our key goals. They assumed primacy.
Through these goals we hoped to usher in sustainable agricultural practices, better yields and more land under irrigation. Our activities span 55 villages in the Chambal river catchment area, reaching out to 42,000 people. Every activity is focused and is targeted primarily at farmers and their women-folk along with the youngsters.
As we said earlier, water is the lifeforce of existence. For more than 40 years now we have been engaged in providing drinking water on a continual basis to thousands of villagers and their livestock. Traditional wells have been replaced by bore wells dug 400 ft. down the belly of the earth to tap the natural underground water aquifers.
Wells providing pure drinking water have been dug in villages such as Piploda, Rajgarh, Atlawada, Nainawatkheda, Gidgarh, Kilodia, Parmarkhedi, Jhirmira, Devel, Tarod, Chandoria, Juna Nagda and Sonchidi. Likewise, to quench the thirst of cattle, water troughs have been erected at Umarna, Mokdi, Ninavatkheda, Atlawda, Nayan, Rajghar, Divel and Piploda villages. We plan to fan out to more villages soon.
Water — the lifeforce
Recharging underground water sources has become critical to resolving the water issue. Consequently, we have created roof-water harvesting structures which provide the villages with one totally reliable drinking water resource even in the driest conditions. This is a time-tested technique for recharging tube wells and open wells. It is quite a simple system. Rainwater is collected on the roofs and is harvested to recharge the wells through canals built around the roof. They collect and divert the water to a corner of the roof from where it moves forward to the underground water-table of the bore wells. As a matter of fact, water recharge plans have been a priority area for us even before we began the roof-water harvesting programme. We have constructed check-dams in several villages. These also function as recharging agents for the ground water and maintain a sustainable flow of water in the wells.
In the villages in Malwa, every family has a bit of land. Everyone lives within the ambit of the joint family structure. The family has hectares of land that is held by generations in succession. To utilise this land optimally, we organised a series of training programmes. Among these the most notable have been appropriate farming methods, cultivation of high value crops, organic farming through vermi-compost training and horticulture.
Animals are a valuable resource for villagers. They are excellent multi-taskers. Apart from helping plough the land, pull the bullock cart, they also take the sick to the hospital. Livestock rearing is critical to the livelihoods of farmers. Here too, women play a major role in tending to the livestock. Naturally then they are prized and tended to very affectionately when they take ill. Our initiatives in veterinary extension activities have been impressive.
To address the issue of poverty alleviation effectively, we have evolved a multipronged strategy. Its planks are education, vocational training, formation of Self-Help Groups among rural women. At our Vocational Training Institute, we conduct skill oriented certified programmes for both rural and urban youth. We have linked up with Jan Shikshan Sanstha to provide vocational training to persons between the ages of 15 and 42 years. Jan Shikshan is the arm of the Human Resource Development Ministry which promotes functional literacy and conducts vocational training in rural and semi-urban areas to generate employment and alleviate poverty. All participants have to pay a nominal fee because even in our rural projects we believe there is no free lunch. Once people pay, then they try and get the most out of the course. Motor-winding, screen printing, television repair and other electronic items maintenance form part of the vocational training. These courses offer a tremendous scope for self-employment.
WWomen are trained in tailoring, the art of applying mehndi, arts and crafts and also in making detergent and neel (blue powder) for use with detergents. Practically all houses, whether in the villages or towns, have a need for these. So, the village women are able to eke out a very encouraging subsidiary income and for some of them it also provides a source of subsistence."
Take a look at their achievements and the distance covered.
So, folks, sweep your gaze in these 55 villages in central Malwa, serviced by our dedicated team. And behold an entirely altered scenario. Poverty no longer stalks them. There is a smile on their faces, a twinkle in their eyes and a song in their hearts. Can there be a more fulfilling task?
To read about the Aditya Birla Group's community initiatives, click here.
Dr. Pragnya RamGroup Executive President, Corporate Communications & CSRAditya Birla Management Corporation Private LimitedAditya Birla Centre, 1st Floor, 'C' WingS.K. Ahire Marg, WorliMumbai 400 030.
91-22-6652 5000 /2499 5000
Fax: 91-22-6652 5741/ 42