It was in the middle of May, 2015 when I started working in Mandla, MP, on the Block level team of an NGO. Most of the population are tribes like Gond, Ahir, Pradhan, Baiga (PVTG: Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group) and OBCs. It is a Scheduled Area and is administered under the Panchayat (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act. Agriculture and allied activities along with NTFP (Non-Timber Forest Products) collection from forests are the major sources of income. However, degradation of forests and strict forest access rules have ruined these sources. In this district, it is my experience in a village called Kusumpani, where our team was working with a Gram Paryavaran Samiti, that I wish to share.
The Gram Paryavaran Samiti- which includes all villagers as its members and works under the Gram Panchayat at the habitation level- once had Rs 10,000 in its account that needed to be disbursed. The entire village decided to use the money for a common cause. The question before us was how to use the money in a way that every villager could benefit from it. An option in front of us was to ask the people themselves and the same was done by the team. The villagers came up with plenty of suggestions and two of those suggestions were finalised.
The villagers suggested that they could either purchase a diesel pump or start a fishery in a nearby pond. They opted for a fishery, because a diesel pump could be used only by those who have land. Our team helped the villagers in arranging the seeds for the fish and the villagers took responsibility for the rest of the things. The entire village soon started visualising the ownership of the fishery and the benefits of it. A decision was taken to offer shramdan to clean the pond, the rules and graduated sanctions for those who failed to follow the rules were formulated, and the fish-varieties were chosen by the villagers themselves.
Everything was functioning smoothly until one day we were informed that a woman had damaged a pond while irrigating her field. We thought the woman would get punished by the villagers. When we reached there to participate in a meeting convened to address the issue we found a completely different scenario. People were listening to the woman. She told those present that she is a widow and does not have other sources of income and so it was necessary for her to do what she did. The Samiti considered her situation and amendments were made in the by-law to accommodate her needs. She was asked to take the water she needed by using a pipe and also asked to repair the broken tank and plant trees on it to ensure the recovery of the bund.
In another unfortunate incident that we encountered, one night it started raining unexpectedly. We were not ready and so the pond overflowed, making the fish float. Although we didn’t get as high a production as we had expected, we did have some fish. Equality was maintained in their distribution. The village needed financial stability and so the fish had to be sold below market prices but the money invested was recovered. After the recovery of invested amount, the fish were given to the villagers free of cost. This ensured the sustainability of the fishery.
This was a learning experience for me. I am not glorifying the traditional knowledge of the villagers. I do accept that even they have some misconceptions which need to be addressed through modern scientific knowledge. But for those of us who think that people living in these villages need ‘development’, these stories should serve to explain that villages are capable of self-governance and of building on their own traditional knowledge provided its people own its resources.