Thursday, 7 March 2013

Small Farmers Construct Road to Prosperity

Despite having fertile land and availability of markets in the vicinity, the villagers of Khushipura seldom grew vegetable for selling. The reason may sound strange for an outsider but it was real for Khushipura villagers. During the vegetable growing season or Kharif, which normally is a rainy season, Khushipura would get disconnected from the main road which actually was just a kilometre away, as the crow flies. The only road link of Khushipura to the highway to Shahgarh city, a promising market for agriculture produces, is an 8-km long narrow pothole-filled lane that circles around several hillocks before joining the highway. In the rainy season when the villagers can grow vegetables, the track would turn into a snaking stream of puddles and dirt traps which makes it impossible for villagers to transport the vegetable by head-load or bullock-cart. None of the villagers are rich enough to afford a tractor which can wade through the ditch and dirt of the road.

The sleepy village, falling under Narwa panchayat of Shahgarh block of Sagar district of Madhya Pradesh, has a population of 121 households, majority of which belongs to the lower caste community of Ahirwar, i.e- Scheduled Cast.  As many as 78 per cent of these community members are marginal farmers involved in subsistence farming and the remaining are landless agriculture labourers. In the past, several villagers had taken the demand for the road to the panchayat. But every time their pleas fell on the deaf ears of the upper caste panchayat members who exploited the lack of unity and absence of strong leadership in Khushipura. The panchayat representative from Khushipura himself was marginalised and nearly banished from the panchayat by upper caste panchayat members.

Things took a turn for the good with the start of Small Holder Farmers’ Collective (SHFC) of SAFBIN, an agriculture action research programme of Caritas India which works with small farmers. The SHFC of 17 farmers of Khushipura would meet every fortnight and discuss and identify solutions for the common agriculture and social issues. This European Union (EU) supported SAFBIN programme for promoting climate change resilient agriculture is being implemented in 10 villages of Sagar district. SAFBIN has constituted a network of 30 SHFCs in the ten target villages as platforms for exchange of experience and knowledge. In one of the SHFC meetings, Fundi Lal Ahirwar, the president, raised the issue of the road and the collective agreed that the key to prosperity of the village was creating road connectivity. Fundi led a group of small farmers to the panchayat with a demand for road. The Sarpach or the village elder gave several excuses for not starting the road construction. While turning them away, the Sarpanch said that his panchayat cannot build roads during or immediately after the rainy season. Fundi and his SHFC members returned empty-handed but the scorn and cold attitude of Sarpanch did not kill their determination to construct an approach road to the village.

The SHFC met again and took a unanimous decision to construct the road. An announcement was made in the village on 15 July 2013 that the SHFC members and their families would start working on the approach road. It was announced that the work would be purely voluntary and no wage would be given for the road construction work. SHFC also finalised the road construction plan according to which the road would be cut through the communal land which was rocky and uneven.

SHFC members gathered implements, spades and pick-axes and the work started. Villagers under the leadership of SHFC members made small monetary contributions for meeting the expense on a tractor that was hired for bringing earth and boulders for road levelling. For SHFC members the work was fun and they enjoyed their unity and the shared resolve. Soon other villagers also joined the movement and the road construction took the shape of a village celebration. Women of the village also chipped in as some women took up spades while the others fetched water and tea to the workers. After two weeks of toil, a marvel of community participation unfolded before the village with the opening of a boulder-levelled, semi-treated road that can withstand the ordeals of heavy rains.

Khushipura villagers have decided to cultivate vegetables from the next Kharif season. They are now confident that the newly-built road will give them access to market for their vegetables. Fundi Ahirwar attributes the success to the SHFC formed under SAFBIN programme. With a beaming face he elaborates the success, ‘Akele chana bhad nahi phodta, kuchh parivartan lana hai to samuh ke dwara hi sambhav hai’ (Gram seed cannot break its pod on its own. Similarly only a collective of people can make changes possible).

By Manish Kumar
District Project Officer, Sagar, Madhya Pradesh

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