The grass returns
NOTWITHSTANDING the self-applause the government claims on its wasteland development programme in the recent spate of advertisements in leading national dailies, community work at the local level is still being impeded by archaic regulations and the unbending attitude of the officials. Lapodia in the Dudu block of Jaipur district in Rajasthan is a typical example where community efforts to regenerate the local pasture have suffered setbacks due to objections raised by the tehsildar of the block.
Inaccessible by road during the monsoons, Lapodia is an underdeveloped village of about 3,000 inhabitants, mostly scheduled castes and tribes. Many among the villagers are pastoralists and the cultivators also maintain cattle. On the south and east of the village, there are 200 ha of pastures with sparse patches of grass fit only for sheep and goats. The cattle subsist on leaves of neem and khejri and thickets of babool and ker that dot the pastures.
These pastures have been long exploited for their wood. Says Siyaram Das, the 65-year-old head of the gram sabha (village council), "The pastures had been ruined by indiscriminate use. As a result, the pastoralists had to migrate annually to sustain their flocks."
Two years ago, the Gram Vikas Nav Yuvak Kendra (GVNYK) -- a NGO formed in 1980 by Laxman Singh, a resident of the village and a graduate in social work from Rajasthan University -- took up the cause of regenerating the pastures. Says Singh, "After visiting the forests of Ranthambore, Assam and Manipur, I realised that our pastures also had a lot of potential. The main obstacle was convincing the villagers to make the effort. Some of them were openly opposed to the idea and this threatened the effort right from the outset."
Whose pasture is it?
According to Jagbir, the opposition hinged on the fact that neither the village nor the GVNYK had any authority over the pasture. The GVNYK had to convince interested villagers that the regeneration was in their benefit. Recalls Kalu Baba, a 55-year-old pastoralist, "Laxmanbhai said that we must stop the degradation of the green cover by planting trees and protecting the grass, since it not only stops the soil from being eroded but also causes more rain to fall."
To prevent cutting of trees in the pasture, Laxman Singh, on behalf of the gram sabha and the GVNYK, circulated a notice in late 1991 to the effect that any person who cuts a tree has to replant it and render a written apology promising never to repeat it. "A fine of 5 kilogrammes of grain for every tree cut was also instituted," says Ramchandar Saini, a the GVNYK volunteer and the gram sabha secretary.
More than 20 villagers have been fined so far. Although most of the villagers agreed to the plan, the restrictions didn"t go down well with those making money out of their dealings with the contractors. Says Ikram, a GVNYK volunteer, "These are the people who sit idle and play cards. They have no interest in agriculture, so they have no sentiment for the trees either."
He, among other villagers, suspects that it was one of these who complained to the tehsildar. Others like Hanuman Saini think that it could be some villagers who were afraid that the GVNYK might take over the pasture. The tehsildar, Pratap Singh, shot off a letter in February 1992 to Sitaram Das demanding an explanation from the sabha on how it could impose fines and apologies from trees cut from government land.
"We were naturally taken aback," says Laxman Singh, "The tehsildar"s notice put our entire effort in jeopardy. We went to the tehsildar"s office in Mozmabad to appraise him of the whole affair but he was adamant." According to Singh, the tehsildar told him that GVNYK was not a court to pass judgement on the people.
The village will benefit
"I don"t understand the problem in this," says Singh, "After all, this work is for the benefit the village, not for money." When he told this to the tehsildar, Pratap Singh refused to acknowledge it. In fact, he threatened that he will issue a sterner letter, but got transferred before he could do so.
However, Pratap Singh, now a land acquisition officer in the Jaipur Public Works Department, claims that he was never opposed to the efforts in Lapodia. In fact, he also claims that he can"t even remember sending the letter. The copy with GVNYK does not have any name on it and the tehsil office in Mozmabad can"t trace the papers. Pratap Singh himself is categorical that he did not oppose the effort: "Why should I stop the greening of government land, when that is exactly what we want?"
In the meantime, GVNYK was awarded the Nehru Yuvak Award in 1992 by the government in recognition of its work in Lapodia and surrounding villages. "This also contributed to the tehsildar cooling down," says Saini.
The practice of fines and written apologies continue. Now, 2 years after the regeneration effort started, the village pasture has regained its healthy green colour. A proud Kalu Baba points out, "With the grass growing again, the soil has also stayed in place this monsoon." This is apparent from the neighbouring unprotected areas, where the soil run-offs are clearly visible. GVNYK also organised the villagers to voluntarily build a wall around the pasture to keep the soil in. The trees on the pasture thrive as the ban on cutting them continues. "Now we can support our herds in the pasture. Wildlife like hares and peacocks have also increased," says Laduram Gujjar, a pastoralist.
While on the face of it, Lapodia seems to have succeeded in fighting its pasture problems, there are still latent tensions within the village. According to Moolchand Parikh, "How long will the effort last? If the Kendra fails to sustain the efforts, the cutting will start again."
Others also seem to share the feeling. Gangaram feels that the regeneration of the pasture was possible only because GVNYK was involved. "We saved the charagah (pasture) because the Kendra asked us to do so," he says. According to Das, "No one openly says that the ban on cutting is bad, but covertly there are some who are not pleased." The women seem even more indifferent. "The Kendra told us, so it must be good," says Sravani, a 38-year-old housewife.
But, the success of the villagers and GVNYK is reflected in the increasing number of neighbouring villages that are opting for similar arrangements with the help of the GVNYK.
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