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Visiting the past to find a viable plan for a better future

An organisation working in Rajasthan and neighbouring states is focussing on evaluating traditional strengths of the tribal lifestyle to improve livelihoods and nutrition. As part of the larger picture, such efforts may lead to more sustainable development models

Even as economic inequalities and ecological ruin increase, the search for alternative development paradigms has intensified, and an important spin-off has been enhanced knowledge of indigenous and tribal cultures and world-views. Efforts to find a sustainable way forward in India and elsewhere often seek to build on the strengths of these communities.

While on one level there is increased pressure on tribal communities to accept alien development patterns, some organisations are making a conscious choice to leverage traditional strengths to evolve a pathway of progress. Vaagdhara, a voluntary organisation, is one such entity. It has been working with tribal communities, particularly in southern Rajasthan, and to a lesser extent in the adjoining states of Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh.

Interestingly, Vaagdhara has brought this broad approach to bear on specific efforts to improve farming and related livelihoods, as well as nutrition and health, education and child welfare. From 2015 onwards, it has been organising a number of conclaves as well as marches or yatras, in the course of which hundreds of meetings have been held to evolve suitable policies and formulate demands and action plans in these important areas of development.

In the case of agriculture and livelihoods, a lot of emphasis has been placed on prioritising the saving and spread of indigenous seeds of diverse crop varieties. Organic farming using these seeds is promoted. A campaign has been launched to create farming systems best suited to local nutrition needs. At the same time, other important aspects such as improving NREGA (National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) and seeking more governmental support for marketing and ensuring a fair price for various produce have also been taken up.

In the case of nutrition, the main focus is on a more holistic approach. The rich bio-diversity associated with the traditional life of tribal communities provided much better and more balanced nutrition and therefore protection of this biodiversity has been emphasised.

During 2021, a special nutrition campaign was launched, covering about 750 villages. Under the campaign, recipes based on nutritious local foods were discussed at meetings and, what is more, dishes were actually cooked and served on the spot, mainly to children. The campaign also provided opportunities to disseminate more information on hygiene and immunisation.

While recognising the importance of the subsidised rations provided by the government, the need for a policy change to provide a more diverse food-mix has been raised. Replacement of refined edible oils with natural oils is one of the recommendations.

A continuing campaign to reduce the consumption of tobacco and liquor carried out by Vaagdhara has also helped improve the health of tribal communities. Giving traditional healers a better status has been advocated, and increasing the availability of herbs and plant-based medicines has also been emphasized in the health programme.

An important aspect of the work of Vaagdhara has been the high priority it gives to many-sided child welfare, and an approach that provides more room for participation of children in community-level efforts. Steps have been taken to improve the school experience, and minimise the possibility of children dropping out, reaching out to both government and voluntary workers from within the community. Efforts are also being made to create more child-friendly villages, taking a more comprehensive view.

Steps to strengthen democratic principles have resulted in strengthening community organisations as well as facilitating rural decentralization as per the provisions of the PESA (Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas) law and the various constitutional provisions for protecting the rights of tribal communities. In this context, several conclaves on tribal sovereignty have been organised, asserting the right to seek the progress of tribal communities by building on their various strengths.

It must be recognised that these efforts exist alongside other, different approaches, and the resulting conflict is harmful to the interests of tribal communities. Nevertheless, the importance of such a participative approach to gain a better understanding of tribal communities and build on their strengths needs to be acknowledged.

October 2022