Seeds of development

Print edition : July 18, 2003

Improving the quality of life in villages and instilling a sense of pride in farmers about their occupation is a crucial developmental question. The Wadi project in south Gujarat gives some answers.

Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

- Rabindranath Tagore

AS the aroma of daal wafted from the kitchen and filled the air, the children sat themselves in neat rows to partake of the mid-day meal at a primary school in Patan district, not very far from the majestic sun temple at Modhera. While they waited for food to be served, I walked around talking to them to get a glimpse of how they viewed the world. "What would you like to be when you grow up?" I asked them. A familiar, oft-repeated question, it nevertheless evokes bright, fresh discussions. No exception this time. Doctor, engineer, teacher, said quite a few. Significantly, no one said farmer. I prodded them and asked how many of them had parents who were involved in farming. Nearly all the hands went up. "Doesn't that interest or excite you?" I persisted. The general answer was a clear `no' and one boy retorted, "Can't we dream and aspire to sit on a chair and work to earn a salary like you all?" While I was still groping for words to reply, the hot food arrived almost as if to my rescue. Soon the children were busy devouring their meal and the retort was lost in the eating and belching. This simple remark conveyed volumes.

Traditionally, rain-fed farming is fraught with risks. And in spite of the farmer toiling hard, the yield is seldom commensurate with the effort put in. This fact disenchants and frustrates farmers. Simultaneously, the media, the education system, social factors and the desire for white-collar jobs induce villagers to migrate to cities. Often they are forced to settle for odd jobs as labourers, living in urban slums in overcrowded and unhygienic conditions.

Some weeks later, while visiting Chikalda village in the south Gujarat district of Dangs, I found an apt solution in the Wadi project. Farmers of Ghodmal village had started the project in 1982, with support from the Bharatiya Agro Industries Foundation (BAIF) and funding from the tribal sub-plan of the government. It is an initiative in Agri-Horti-Forestry where barren land in units of one acre each are used for drought resistant fruit plants as the chief crop; fodder, fuel and medicinal herbs as the windbreaks; and local crops in the inter-space. The efforts of the farmers were supplemented by government-funded fertilizers and pesticides. Various national and international funding agencies such as the German development fund, Kreditanstalt fur Wiederaufbau (KFW), and the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD) have come forward with their support. Over the next seven years the project was replicated in 37 villages across 5,500 acres, covering 6,000 families.

Devrambhai, a farmer of Chikalda village, recalls hearing success stories from neighbouring taluks some years ago. He attended a demonstration at Nani Dabdar, funded by the State government. His interest in the project led him to participate in a full-day demonstration workshop attended by over 2,000 farmers. Then, with a fairly clear idea of the `how and why' of the project, he led a team of about 35 farmers from three villages and visited the actual Wadis in Dharampur taluk. The diffusion of innovation led about 31 farmers out of 52 households in Chikalda village to adopt the Wadi project in 2001. They had planted 20 saplings of mango and 40 saplings of cashew each, in a unit of one acre with 500 forestry plants such as saag and bamboo for the boundary. Each of the units carried out soil and moisture conservation work such as building bunds, levelling and constructing tree-platforms. Although cashew is a non-traditional produce of the region, scientists carrying out the agro-climactic zoning and mapping found that the environment was well suited for it.

Involving 205 villages, 19,000 acres and 20,000 families of the region, the Wadi project's produce of mangos and cashewnuts are processed in nine cooperative units. The Vasundhara cooperative enables the Wadi farmer to develop and establish market linkage through value addition to his produce. A family maintaining an orchard is able to earn Rs.18,000 to 20,000 once the trees start bearing fruits in five to six years.

This clearly demonstrates the efficacy of this method in checking migration and improving the quality of life. Asset creation and profit-making fuel the aspirations of the current generation. This has also spawned a backward integration activity with women self-help groups of the village now involved in forest nurseries and vermiculture. With regular meetings and micro-credit operations, the groups have stabilised and are now building and implementing a lift irrigation project with support from the government. Community mobilisation has also improved health indices in the region. A scientific analysis of the resources in the area, identification of the right project or activity and extension of financial and technical assistance until the project stabilises and starts yielding good results along with value addition and forward linkages, can not only improve the quality of life in villages, but can also check migration and inculcate a sense of pride in the local residents. Extending this method across districts and states using suitable resources and technologies could greatly aid the development of the country. Perhaps, this is a solution to the question troubling the minds of youngsters such as the boy who raised the issue at Patan.

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