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Go organic in Uttarakhand

Taru Bahl | Updated on August 10, 2019

Women power A village meeting in progress; (above) Reetu Sogani with women Taru Bahl   -  Taru Bahl

Women power A village meeting in progress; (above) Reetu Sogani conducting a training session Taru Bahl   -  Taru Bahl

Women with a view A village meeting in progress Taru Bahl   -  Taru Bahl

Women leaders help farmers grow local crops using sustainable agri practices

Parvati Devi has been van panchayat sarpanch of Nai village of Nainital district in Uttarakhand for two consecutive terms. She represents a growing community of women farmers who are being recognised as custodians of traditional practices that have been part of the Himalayan region for centuries.

During Parvati’s tenure, agriculture outcomes have only got better. The adjoining forests are healthier and more dense. There is a better composition of flora and fauna — the birds and herbs that disappeared from the terrain have made a comeback.

People who had to travel 10-20 km to get firewood and other items from the forest can now source their needs from much closer. Water tables, which are depleting in other areas, are getting replenished here since farmers have moved away from cultivating vegetables heavy on water consumption and, instead, replaced them with crops like millet, local lentils, even wheat.

According to Parvati, their side of the forest has also shown greater climate resilience. “We are not loaded with pine plantations but with a more diverse mix of broad-leaved species of trees.” When the region was deluged by torrential rains in 2010 and 2013, the areas that were not much impacted were those that were following traditional agri systems.

Pockets like Nai or, for that matter, women-headed villages are still not the norm even though Uttarakhand has been declared organic and is progressing towards more sustainable forms of agriculture, with stronger representation of women in van panchayats and in gram panchayats.

Much of the time-tested methods of cultivation have been gradually getting eroded. The process began in the 1970s when people were provided free fertiliser, seeds and pesticide packages. As a result, farm yields increased and so did profits. But after a few years, when soil quality began to deteriorate and production dropped, farmers were forced to step up use of fertilisers and pesticides. Eventually many felt trapped since they could not revert to traditional methods (as they were already entangled in debt) and ended up paying more to grow crops than what they got from selling their produce.

There were, however, sceptics who stuck to growing their traditional crops using sustainable local methods. Fortunately for Uttarakhand, the number of these sceptics was large. As a result, in several pockets, organic farming became the norm, much before catching the fancy of the markets.

Counting on native wisdom

According to Dr Reetu Sogani, development practitioner, with over two decades of grassroots experience in Uttarakhand, “while I would not like to romanticise the notion that all traditional practices are magical or perfect, I will vouch for the native wisdom that continues to be so relevant and in sync with local needs. This is seen in how people cultivate crops, how they prepare compost, herb-based healing practices, nutritious animal feed from biomass, grass, and what forms of the tree, plant, root, bark or leaf are used to cure and prevent diseases amongst humans and livestock.”

According to her, the concept of forest panchayat or van panchayat has been prevalent since pre-Independence here. Managed and used by people, the panchayats comprise sometimes one or 2-3 villages. Committees have seven to nine members. Earlier, these were dominated by men from one community but since 2004-05, the presence and quality of participation of women has increased. There is a 33 per cent reservation for Scheduled Castes as well now. Today, the networks and federations on van panchayat and sustainable agriculture have given women a platform where their views are solicited on policy and governance.

For Reetu, working with marginalised hill communities was a decision she took while in school, inspired by a newsletter on the hinterland brought out by IIM Ahmedabad. Though she pursued MBA and PhD in environmental management, she was looking for an opening at the grassroots. When the position of Research Associate in a rural-based organisation in Uttarakhand opened up, her only condition was that she be based in the village. She moved to Almora in the late 1990s and worked in the areas of forests, water, livestock, agriculture, health and craft. In 2002, Reetu moved to another area in Nainital.

She is a strong believer in local communities being self-driven. “The only thing they need is the right kind of facilitation. It would not be right for donors to make them dependent on funding or technical expertise”, she says.

She recalls how a few years ago she was part of a project to document traditional recipes from the Kumaon region. Once the book was finalised, it was taken back to the community for further refinement. Publishing it with due credit has served to authenticate traditional Kumaon food habits.

Since 2012 (independently and as part of Chintan India) she has made a conscious decision to shift focus towards policy advocacy, mainstreaming the experience of women and marginalised communities into development processes at national, regional and global level.

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Delhi

Published on August 10, 2019

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