The god of ecological things

  • 14/03/2008

It was the mid-1980s. Environmentalist Anil Agarwal was on a mission: track down the person who had conceptualized the employment guarantee scheme in Maharashtra. His search - I tagged along - led him to a dusty, file-filled office in the secretariat. There we met V S Page. I remember a diminutive, soft-spoken man who explained to us why in 1972, when the state was hit with crippling drought and mass migration, it worked on a scheme under which professionals working in cities would pay for employment in villages. This employment was guaranteed by law, which meant it provided an entitlement and put a floor to poverty. Since work was available locally, people did not have to flee to cities.

Anil was excited - by the fact of employment during acute stress, but also saw potential for ecological regeneration. We had just visited Ralegan Siddi village where Anna Hazare was overseeing work to dig trenches along contours of hills to hold water and to recharge groundwater. On our visit, we saw the first bumper onion crop because of increased irrigation. Page agreed to the scheme's ecological potential, but explained that since the scheme was designed for employment during acute distress, the district administration looked for the easiest way out, in most cases breaking stones, building roads or public work construction.

In the next few years, the idea to use this same labour for natural asset creation gained ground in Maharashtra, emphasis changed to soil and water conservation - building check dams, bunding fields, trenching hills and even planting trees. The Central government employment programmes - clones of the Maharashtra scheme - followed suit, mandating in some cases the minimum percentage to be spent on planting trees for ecological regeneration.

This was also the time when the country was learning how to plant trees that survive; or build the tank that would not get silted next season. Bureaucrat N C Saxena worked out how many trees would there be in each Indian village if all the trees planted survived - a veritable forest, which existed only on paper. Anil wrote on how employment programmes had perfected the creation of perpetual unproductive employment - dig a hole, plant a sapling, the sapling is eaten or dies; next season dig the same hole again and plant again. Follow this procedure each year.

This lesson led to new understanding - village communities had to take ownership over fragile natural assets. People had to be involved in decisions and, most importantly, benefit directly from regenerated fodder grass, trees and water structures. Fractured bureaucracies - forest departments, agriculture departments or irrigation departments - did not lead to holistic planning at the village level. It was a time when development experimentation blossomed

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