My notes and musings …

Archive for July 2008

Bus hopping

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After meeting with RT & Revathi and visiting their farm in Aliyur, we wanted to get to Auroville, about 150 kms away. The first round of bus hopping started. From Aliyur to Nagai was about 10 kms or so. We got a bus as soon as we got to the bus stop in Aliyur. From there we found a bus already on the roll towards Karaikal. In the Karaikal bus stop, we found that the next Pondicherry Transport bus was a couple of hours away. So we asked around and to our surprise found a TN state transport bus ready to leave for Pondicherry. It was a good two hour route and when we got off in Pondicherry it was almost 9 in the night. Auroville was another bus ride and an auto-rickshaw ride away. Not wanting to be stuck in Pondicherry, we decided to impose on our hosts and asked them to keep some food aside for us. As we were asking people to guide us to the right bus, a conductor shouted out that the bus rolling out was going to Periya Mudaliar chavadi, our next destination. We covered more than 150 kms, changing 4 buses to reach our destination in one piece the same day. All this without waiting for more than 5 minutes in any of the bus stops!

The second experience of Tamil nadu’s public transportation system was when we set out to visit the mangroves near Cuddalore while we were in Auroville. We cycled up to a small town on the highway called Thiru. Koot road. From to Pondicherry and then to Cuddalore and then on to Muttalur and then to Parangipettai, a village by the coast, cost us about 5 minutes of waiting. We decided to have lunch at Chidambaram, which was further south of Muttalur and a couple of minutes we were on a bus to Chidambaram. We started back at around 2:30 PM and were back in Thiru. Koot Road by 6 ! We had set out to see the mangroves, but ended up seeing just a couple of mangrove trees from a distance in Parangipettai. We had chickened out of venturing to Pichavaram another coastal village close to Chidambaram. But we did get to experience the amazing Tamil Nadu state road transportation service in the region another time!

Written by Dwiji

Wednesday, July 30th, 2008 at 17:16

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Fish if you can’t sow

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We visited RT and Revathi’s farm on July 17th in Aliyur, half way between Thiruvarur and Nagapattinam. While looking for a piece of land that had some problem, and thereby would be cheaper, they found the 13 acre plot with major water logging problems and purchased. Over two seasons they noted the areas that were water logged, tried different types of seeds to identify what grew better where when not being taken care of at all.

After the first rainy season, they identified 7 spots where water accumulated. Using a Tamil Nadu govt. scheme to encourage rain water harvesting and recharging ground water, they had ponds of different sizes dug in these spots. Using the dry land variety of seeds and techniques that require lower water input, they plan to irrigate the fields around each pond through out the growing season. An extensive drip irrigation system covering their entire farm reduces water consumption further.

In the central region of the farm they have dug a few parallel trenches and in using the soil coming out of the trenches, raised the land in between the trenches by more than a foot. Water collects in these trenches and the raised bed has a variety of fruit and other trees planted. In order to reduce evaporation, they are growing climbers all along the trenches designed to provide a green canopy throughout.

The most impressive part of the farm was what was going on in all these water bodies. When they drafted the plans for the farm, they talked to local fishermen and discussed with them the different kinds of fish, their needs, their market demand, etc. After the ponds and trenches started filling up, they introduced a few varieties of fish. In a month or so they saw that the population was large enough to start fishing ! So while preparing their farm for sustainable agriculture, and even before harvesting anything from the farm, they have managed to set up an income stream fishing in rain harvested water!

Written by Dwiji

Tuesday, July 29th, 2008 at 17:14

The Sri Lanka connection

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I first came to know about Revathi following the tsunami that hit parts of coastal Tamil Nadu in Dec. ’04. Sudha visited Nagapattinam and met with Nammalvarji and Revathi during her travels through India in Jan-March ’05. Their soil desalination work in the tsunami affected land received wide publicity and acclaim from all quarters, finding prime time spots in President Abdul Kalam and then in the former US President Bill Clinton’s visits. When Sudha and I visited Nagai again in Dec ’05, we could see the difference the methods they advocated had made – the productivity of the land said the story loud and clear.

After sporadic correspondence over the past two years, we established contact with Revathi and her partner R.T.. It was decided that we would meet with them in Thiruvarur and visit their newly started farm in Aliyur, between Thiruvarur and Nagai on 17th July. Apparently Revathi had returned from Sri Lanka just a day earlier and had to rush to her son’s school in Coimbatore that evening. In the few hours that we had that day, she told us about the work her group, Tamil nadu Organic Farmers Movement (TOFarM), was doing in Sri Lanka.

Due to the continued violence in the northern and north eastern parts of Sri Lanka, a unique situation has been created. SL is a tropical country and most of its agricultural land were deforested in the recent past. The extremely rich soil means that an amazing variety of weeds grow at a lightening pace. Farmers depend on chemical weedicites to help control this problem. Transportation is exorbitantly costly and unreliable in the region due to the violence and instability. So neither fertilizers nor weedicides are available when they are needed.

Oxfam (Great Britain) hired Revathi and TOFarM as consultants to help move the community towards organic agriculture and greater food security. The initial success of the program was noticed by the local govt. authorities and they pulled out all the stops and soon had Ampara’s entire agriculture dept officials trained by TOFarM. As part of the Rebuilding Ampara project TOFarM has helped move thousands of farmers towards organic farming.

Apparently, impressed by the success of the organic farming program, Tamil rebel leaders have initiated talks to take the program to Trincomalee and other strife torn provinces. If and when the program is implemented in other areas controlled by the Tamil rebels, any questions about the veracity of reports from a govt. agency in the war zone can be put to rest.

Written by Dwiji

Monday, July 28th, 2008 at 15:21

Posted in Feet on the ground

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Need for a puppy ‘swayamvara’

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A few weeks after Stubby died, a discussion started in the family about bringing home a puppy. My father grew up with a dog in the family, and other than the 5 years that we were in Delhi, we had a dog at home. My sister also decided to came to Bangalore for a weekend and it was decieded that we would get a puppy from Compassion Unlimited Plus Action (CUPA) that Saturday.

There were quite a few pups at the adoption kennel at CUPA. After debating whether to pick a male or a female, a brown or a black, an active one or a not so active one, and a few other points, my sister and mother decieded on a male not so active pup with brownish black coat and a white patch at the end of its tail. We called him Stingy for a while, but the name didnt really catch on.

The pup was quite sluggish the first couple of days and we thought it was because of the deworming medicine it received just before leaving the shelter. But it just would not eat anything. We tried everything from milk, rice, boiled egg, bread, roti, biscuits, rusk, and an assortment of many other things. But the answer was a no go on all counts. It was a proper hunger strike and we were just not able to discern why. On the second day I force fed some milk using an ink-dropper. When the fast went into the third day I took it to the vet. Knowing the ways of pups, he said, ok lets try this. He opened a bottle of dog food took a few pieces in his hand. Within no time his hand was licked clean !! The pup attacked it like it hadn’t eaten anything for a few days. Well, it hadn’t !

Hoping to make the best use of the complementary pack the vet gave us, we tried mixing the packed food in different forms, with home cooked food. An adamant no way was all we got. It even refused the dog food by itself. I realized that the complementary pack was a different brand from the one that the vet gave in clinic! It was the seventh day and four force feeding sessions later. My father caved and bought a pack of Pedigree and the pup gobbled it up in seconds. After another unsuccessful round of trying to get it to eat home cooked food mixed with the Pedigree stuff, we decieded we would not be able to feed him packaged food nor did we want his growth to suffer due to the hunger strikes at such a crucial stage in its growth.

10 days after we brought him home, we took the pup back and left him in CUPA. The managers and helpers maintained that they do not feed packaged food to their dogs, or any other animal in the shelter. In one of their cupboards they had a large jar about one third full with the same Pedigree stuff that was the only acceptable food according to the pup. Anyway, whether they accepted it or not, the pup was hooked.

Take home: When you go to the adoption center, take a bowl of whatever you plan to feed. Line up the potential candidates and pick the one that attacks the food and devours it!

Written by Dwiji

Sunday, July 27th, 2008 at 15:32

Posted in Asides

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Using local materials in Dhanametapalli

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Dhanametapalli is located a few kilometers beyond Chintamani as one drives from Bangalore. The arid low rain conditions prevailing in and around Dhanametapalli is typical of Kolar district. Surprisingly even in such a place, tomatoes are the most grown crop in these parts. Extensive use of ground water has resulted in water levels dropping well below 300 feet rendering dry borewells dug less than five years ago.

The stalk of the Agave flower used to build a shade for the vermi-compost pits

The stalk of the Agave flower used to build a shade for the vermi-compost pits

Following a lead from a patron, Prasanna and team approached the MLA from Chintamani to try and implement LEISA-NREGA in some of the villages there. While landless women working agricultural labour jobs came forward in different places, in Dhanametapalli, a farmer also stepped up to offer his land for the project.

Bhagya, a young woman from the local community has been with the project over the past year and leads the group in the field and within the community too. Pramila, another local woman has stepped forward and is coordinating the self help group co-formed alongside the project while also helping spread the ideas of LEISA-NREGA to more such groups of women. Shashi Raj a dynamic young activist from near Mysore is camped in the village to spread the idea of LEISA amongst farmers and wean them away from the monoculture of water intensive crops.

While touring the farm, I noticed that the thatched shelter put together to provide shade for the vermi-culture pits were standing on green pillars. Taking a closer look I realized that they were actually the flower stalk of the Agave that grows abundantly in the area. The male Agave plant sends out a thick and firm stalk almost almost 6 inches in diameter at the base and gradually tapering over its 15 to 20 feet length with flowers at its apex. A classic example of low external input in practice !

Written by Dwiji

Sunday, July 20th, 2008 at 14:38

Parallel processing in Motagaanahalli

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Most of the works undertaken by gram, block, and zilla panchayats under NREGA (National Rural Employment Guarentee Act) have been the usual pond and road construction. There are a few examples of places where land conservation efforts have been taken up. In a few rare cases, works proposed by the community is being taken up by the gram panchayat utilizing funds available under NREGS. Land development and preparing of compost and vermicompost for Low External Input Sustainable Agriculture (LEISA) was approved by the Motagaanahalli gram panchayat earlier this year.

The project is being coordinated by Prasanna Saligram, from AID Bangalore, Community Health Cell, etc. We had visited Motagaanahalli back in Dec. 2005 and met Ravi a confident and determined local activist who had taken up the task of mobilization and working on the social aspects of the project within the village. Using techniques and ideas of LEISA, the project intends to train women from landless families as LEISA resource people. The group would work on fields that a farmer is not cultivating and wishes to see the methods tried out right on his field. At the end of the growing season, the women share one half of the produce with the land owner and the other half amongst themselves. They are also paid a fair wage during the training period. NREGA are planned to be utilized for the non-farming activities within the project, as detailed in Prasanna’s blog on LEISA-NREGA.

On July 11th we visited Motagaanahalli to meet with Ravi and the group of women working on the project. They are all land less, except for one or two with about an acre or less in their family. After going through the prepared land, compost piles, nursery, etc. we settled down for a conversation with the group of women. They took some time from clearing up a region of the land they were planning to cultivate this season. We had a wide ranging discussion about their motivations, goals, ideas, concerns, and fears regarding the work they had undertaken.

As the conversation progressed I started noticing that an expanding area around each woman was cleaner than its immediate surroundings. We have come across many stories of how women, especially rural women, sing when working together in groups. The force of habit, of hands working away while talking, even when they actively participate in the conversation, was a reconfirmation of this old truth …

Written by Dwiji

Saturday, July 19th, 2008 at 14:34

Big enough to fight

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Involving all affected members of a community in a fight for their rights is a challenge in any struggle. If the threat is as non apparent as an SEZ that has received in principle approval, this challenge is made even more difficult to overcome. The track record of state governments scrapping an in principal approved SEZ is non existent. The one proposed to be set up in Nandigram comes close to being counted as one, but then, it has not really been scrapped. And Nandigram has happened at the cost of the lives lost, the injuries & the sexual, physical and mental abuse suffered by its residents at the hands of govt. sponsored hooligans over many weeks and months.

Fighting for one’s rights is not an easy thing. For a small farmer, often it might be much easier to accept the measly compensation, however inadequate it might be. With a land holding of an acre or less, they would have worked on other’s farms or experienced seasonal migration to make ends meet. The cash compensation might seem to be something substantial enough to allow them to ‘settle down’, though there are very few examples of such sucesses.

Usually one can see that the struggle against an unjust acquisition and an even more unjust compensation is spear headed by those with more than an acre or so and less than 10 to 15 acres of land holding. Having built their farm and family these farmers typically are the most vested in their land and know what they would be loosing in case of an acquisition.

Farmers with relatively larger land holdings are either absentee farmers, or feel that they are too big to be bothered by such minor land acquisitions. More often though, the powers that be do not touch the lands of those farmers strong enough to rock the decision of the acquisition. Even if a significant portion of a large land holding is acquired, the land owner can sit back and see the land value soar as the struggle against the acquisition is fought by others. Rarely can one see a large land owner stand shoulder to shoulder with the few small and many medium land holding farmers and fight against the acquisition.

A typical scenrio seemed to prevail in the area proposed to be acquired for an SEZ in Nandagudi, near Bangalore. It was a short four hour visit and most probably we were not able to capture the details of the community coming together to fight for their rights. But from what we could see, Nandagudi Bhooswadeena Horata Samiti (NBHS) (Anti-land Acquisition Committee of Nandagudi) has an uphill battle in front of them to convince both the small and the large land holding farmers of the threat to their land, their lives and their livelihood.

Written by Dwiji

Friday, July 18th, 2008 at 14:15

Organic village

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From what I have heard, Karnataka is the only state in India with a policy on organic farming. It was started in 2005 with an idea of converting 1000 hectares of land in each district to organic farming. In 2007 this was extended to 1000 districts in each tehsil over a three year period. The govt. provides full financial assisstance o an NGO engaged in the field of organic farming to motivate and train farmers from one gram sabha to convert their fields to organic techniques. While covering the full cost of some initial investments like the tanks used for vermi composting, partial assistance is provided for supplies such as earthworms for the vermicompost pits, neem cakes, etc. The NGO is paid about the amount needed to cover expenses of a full time field worker and a coordinator. Labour and other costs are borne by the farmer. A certain amount is also set aside to cover certification.

I visited the organic village work under taken by Sahaja Samrudha in Huliyur village in the Biligiri Ranganabetta Hills of Kollegal district. The soil conservation work by another NGO MyRADA during the last decade can be seen in the many bunds and check dams across the countryside. Chandrashekhar, the full time field worker is working with about 40 to 50 farmers. I visited just before the rains, and hence sowing, began. Alongwith compost and vermiculture manure, they were ready with a variety of different seeds primarily of traditional varities. Many families also had a few heads of cattle and had taken to cultivating Azola, a fern that serves as a high protein food supplement.

I tagged along with Krishna Prasad, the Sahaja Samrudha coordinator visiting the village to discuss the plans for the near future including the upcoming start of the growing season. Most of the land was non irrigated and receive a reasonable amount of precipitation through the season. The soil and the climate were best suited for growing traditional millets like raagi, saame, navane, etc. A few varities of dry land paddy were also being planned to be grown.

Karnataka initiating measures at the policy level to move towards organic farming is a laudable first step. But being the first of its kind the organic village policy has a few desirables. While the policy takes a fairly detailed look at the on-field needs of organic farming, it does not address the market needs of the organic produce. Even though this is mentioned to be a contribution from the primary NGO to the project, it does not allocate the necessary funds. Secondly, providing funds for expanding the program to neighbouring farmers after the first year would help accelerate the spread of organic farming. While a three year program helps introduce the concepts and techniques of organic farming, there is a strong need to make consultations with experts available to farmers on an ongoing basis for a much longer duration. This would allow the farmers to wean themselves off the decades of farming according to ‘extension’ programs and gain confidence to grow and sell their organic produce on their own.

Written by Dwiji

Thursday, July 17th, 2008 at 14:09

Saving the Hallikar

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The Hallikar is a cattle line found in southern Karnataka and north western Tamil Nadu. These are hardy cows that have been used to plough fields, draw carts and water, extract oil, thrash and grind grains, etc. Hallikar were apparently used extensively by Tipu Sultan’s army to cart his artillery across from one battle to another. There are also stories of how the light from the torches tied to their horns and the dust raised by their hooves decieved the British Army of Tipu’s force distributions in the battle field.

These cattle are typically taken to graze in the forest and usually this means a five or more kilometer walk in each direction. Fed on the wild grass and pretty much no fodder, their milk is said to have special medicinal qualities.

A Hallikar among some 20 cattle heads that a Lambani family reared near Odeyarapalya

A Hallikar among some 20 cattle heads that a Lambani family reared near Odeyarapalya

Sahaja Samrudha is starting an endeavor to conserve the hallikar line by working with the communities engaged in cattle rearing. During my visit to Odeyarpalya and neighbouring villages on July 8th and 9th, Krishna Prasad from Sahaja Samrudha discussed some of the challenges in achieving this objective – low milk yield, the competing interest of forest conservation by reducing grazing, the need to define a niche market, and the sheer distance to major markets (4 hours to Mysore or Dharmapuri, 6 hours to Salem or Bangalore).

Before going to the region I had heard and read that families from the Bedara Kampaliga caste consider it their duty to take care of cattle and thereby have herds of more than 30 heads. During the visit I was surprised to find that pretty much every other family had more than 30 heads in their herds! Sahaja intends to work with these families and find ways to encourage protecting the genetic purity of the Hallikar. The challenges are daunting but Sahaja has a lot of experience in facing up to such situations in bringing organic agriculture in southern Karnataka to the state it is in today.</p

Written by Dwiji

Saturday, July 12th, 2008 at 13:55

Indigenous varieties and breeds

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There are competing theories on how the domesticated plants and animals of today came to be. Genetic and archeological evidence have resolved some of the common questions but pioneering claims are made by different communities and many of these challenges are far from settled. But it is beyond debate that even if a particular plant or animal species was domensticated in one place, there are many different varities of the same plant or animal in different parts of the world. Over many generations, various factors from climate and soil conditions, parent variety, other ecological conditions, and human intentions, have created different varities of a particular species. For example, our ancestors selectively bred cattle for better milk yield, or adaptability to local conditions, or to serve as better beasts of burden.

As one variety of a species becomes more famous, more and more people convert to that variety, invariably leading to a decrease in the genetic diversity. In a few cases new varieties are bred using the famous non local variety with local variety to come up with newer ones, increasing the genetic diversity. Loosing the older varieties, especially when they were adapted to local conditions, is genetic wealth that we rob our future generations of.

The advent of genetically modified seeds and the barely tested or challenged theories of the manufacturers have highlighted the need to protect local seed varities. Governments, academic instiutions, NGOs, various societies and cooperatives across the world have set up seed banks to protect local genetic diversity. A less recognized loss is that of indigenous varieties of cattle. Paintings from different times representing the cow, a revered animal among Hindus, shows that almost all local varities were treated with comparable reverence and respect.

Operation Flood brought about a great revival in milk production, and cattle rearing in India. But the stress on higher milk yield also meant a swing away from indigenous varieties. As the adaptability to local climate, health and other concerns started surfacing, development of hybrids picked steam.

One of the objectives of the Central Cattle Breeding Farms of the Dept. of Animal Husbandry & Dairy development is to protect indigenous breeds. Looking at the details of the program, it does not encourage much confidence regarding sustaining traditional varieties beyond the lab. Given the religious values associated with cattle, there might be some traditional gaushalas working in this direction (I am not aware of any).

How far are we ready to go to protect genetic diversity? If we are ready to take steps to protect genetic diversity of grains like rice, wheat, bajra, jowar, raagi, etc. shouldn’t we think of cattle also along the same line?

Written by Dwiji

Friday, July 11th, 2008 at 15:47

Posted in Andolan, Asides

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