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Building on indigenous strengths

A voluntary organisation rooted in the principles of Swaraj is making an appreciable change in its area of influence. Here is an outline of the initiative

Vaagdhara is one of the few voluntary organisations in India which has centered its work around the concept of Swaraj, or self-rule based on increasing self-reliance of rural communities. It has worked with this vision for nearly two decades in the tri-junction area of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat, focusing particularly on Banswara District of South Rajasthan, which has a concentration of tribal communities, specially Bhil adivasis. An estimated one lakh households spread over about 1000 villages have benefitted.

The concepts of Swaraj, gram (village) Swaraj and self-reliance of rural communities have particular significance for tribal communities with distinct social and cultural features and identities. There is a clear need to recognise these features and to build on them mindfully instead of neglecting and even displacing these groups. Vaagdhara’s understanding of Swaraj, conceptually as well as in terms of implementation, is mirrored in three basic precepts — True Farming, True Childhood and True Democracy.

True Farming is based on understanding the strengths of traditional practices of the Bhil communities and consolidating them. These include practices of helma (in which instead of hiring workers, farmers cooperate with each other to meet eachother’s peak work needs) and hangri (mixed farming systems which have evolved based on the special needs of the area). Vaagdhara has been trying to build on these strengths and protect them.

Research by Vaagdhara revealed that despite the recent erosion of biodiversity, about 100 kinds of foods were either grown or were available in the villages through collection from forests. Despite this, such villages were being termed backward, while monoculture farming areas were considered most advanced.

Vaagdhara worked to strengthen the community’s faith in its traditional good practices and systems while offering opportunities to improve these through better methods of manure preparation, making available plants to create new gardens and creating and supporting an internal organizational base of volunteers and facilitators. The tribal communities already had rich traditions of soil conservation plant protection, seed preservation and food storage/ preservation. Vaagdhara helped to establish a better and wider understanding of these, and suggested improvements as well.

Vaagdhara’s approach is to support natural and organic farming. This is accompanied by soil and water conservation measures. The overall result is significant soil quality improvement, contributing to better carbon absorption and moisture retention. The planting of indigenous species of trees is promoted, in orchards and in between standing crops, again contributing to soil and water conservation as well as to carbon absorption.

Apart from fruit trees, those that meet fodder, fuel and small timber needs are also grown, as is bamboo, which can meet cash needs in difficult times. Also, apart from cattle and goats, buffalo rearing is also encouraged, thereby increasing farm level milk supply. Dependence on markets for food has been minimised and most farms don’t need to purchase chemical fertilisers or pesticides any more. 

The concept of True Childhood is promoted by checking child exploitation, ensuring education of all children, improving child nutrition, securing higher child participation in decision-making and taking steps to check alienation of high school children and youth from their communities. Kitchen gardens to improve nutrition are propagated, and special campaigns launched to make better use of local foods for more nutritious dishes. Child rights committees have been organised in villages and active attempts to end gender discrimination at the childhood level are made.

The concept of True Democracy is based on strengthening community organisations as well as making much better use of government schemes and programmes, particularly MGNREGA which can contribute to advancing the Swaraj-based approach. NREGA work, for example, can contribute much to soil and water conservation. Communities are increasingly involved in preparing beneficial micro-programmeswhich improve implementation of government schemes in keeping with the community’s priorities. The process is helped by organisations focused on Swaraj-based progress at various levels, called Janjatiya Swaraj Sangathna (JSS) or Janjatiya Vikas Manch (JVM), and Saksham Samoohs of women in villages, their facilitators and volunteers or swaraj mitras.

Tribal sovereignty conclaves have been organised from time to time and Swaraj yatras (journeys) have been held regularly at the local level. One was also held from Banswara to Jaipur, taking Vaagdhara’s message to a wide area and establishing a wider dialogue with the government.

Bharat Dogra, from South Rajashtan