July 2007 | Jai Wadia

Water of life

The Sadguru Foundation shows by example that grassroots-level developmental programmes work best when the NGO bridges the community-government gap

Roopsing has a refrigerator. It may not sound like much but in Roopsing’s life and the societal reality of his village, the refrigerator is a milestone, an indicator of changing fortunes and possible futures.

Roopsing is a farmer who owns land in Bharsada in the Dahod district of Gujarat. A semi-arid area populated by tribals who eked out a precarious existence, life here was made more difficult because of no rainfall. Agricultural activity was impossible and Roopsing, like many others in his village, was forced to migrate to Surat where he worked as an unskilled labourer earning a paltry Rs70 a day.

But life changed after the NM Sadguru Water and Development Foundation (NMSWDF) initiated the watershed development and management programme in Dahod. So much so, that Roopsing and his fellow villagers are returning to their land to become farmers once again.

Today, Roopsing earns about Rs1.5 lakh a year through the horticulture and floriculture projects that he started with the help of SWDF. He has just finished building a pucca house, has acquired two motorcycles (for himself and his son), and is connected to the world through a telephone and a cell phone.

NMSWDF was set up in 1974, in response to a crying need for change in the backward regions of Gujarat. The founders first conducted an intensive socio-economic survey in nearly 250 villages of Dahod that showed that water shortage and food insecurity were the most impending problems of the predominantly Bhil tribal communities living there.

Focus on water and food
The immediate focus was on local water resources. NMSWDF started working towards better storage and usage of available water by constructing check dams, lift irrigation schemes, and the use of advanced technology of drip and sprinkle irrigation. The next step was setting up projects that would help build better lives for the community.

NMSWDF also started projects in the areas of micro-watershed development, environment conservation, forestry and institution building at the community level. It supports activities like promoting women’s non-farm income generation schemes, renewable energy options, and diversification of crops — vegetables, spices, fruits and flowers. All these activities hope to achieve one objective: to improve the living conditions of rural and tribal people and thus reduce migration to urban areas.

In the last 30 years, NMSWDF has expanded its area of work into three neighbouring states — the tribal districts of Dahod and Panchmahal in Gujarat, Jhabua in Madhya Pradesh and Banswara and Jhalawar in Rajasthan. Today, the project touches the lives of more than 1.3 lakh rural households in over 500 villages.

Rallying together
NMSWDF believes that only the active participation of communities in all programmes will build responsibility and ensure ownership and sustainability of the projects. This was a challenge as years of exploitation had left a deep sense of mistrust of outsiders among the tribals. Founder and director of NMSWDF, Harnath Jagawat, says, “It took quite a long time to gain the confidence of the people. It was hard work but the results were tangible. As time passed and projects started building up, the people’s confidence in us grew more and more.”

It took an equally long time to build a relationship with the government. With evidence of visible improvements amongst the tribal communities, the government now fully supports NMSWDF’s work. It is recognised by the departments of rural development of Gujarat, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. Funds flow in from the state and central governments, as well as national and international funding agencies for its rural and tribal poverty alleviation NRM programmes. More importantly, the government has also involved NMSWDF in various decision-making committees from the district level to the planning commission.

In his review report on NMSWDF, Girish G Sohani, executive VP of the BAIF Development Research Foundation in Pune, writes, “The focus on water resources through water harvesting structures and community lift irrigation schemes has been a very powerful mobilising intervention. As a result, there are a large number of these interventions around which an equally large number of community organisations have been formed and are being nurtured.”

The focus on community has resulted in many informal and small user groups being formed — for instance, the savings and credit groups, nursery raising and floriculture groups, etc. Some of these groups are formally registered as cooperatives, such as the Lift Irrigation Cooperative, Joint Forest Management Cooperative, Women’s Horticulture Cooperative, Dairy Cooperative, etc.

In addition to these primary organisations, a few apex organisations have also been promoted. The Federation of Lift Irrigation Cooperative, for instance, makes available new technologies such as drip irrigation system and provides back up maintenance services for the schemes. The Federation of Women’s Horticulture Cooperative helps in collective marketing of vegetables.

Partners in support
NMSWDF has been receiving support from the government, various funding agencies and the SDTT, which has been supporting its activities since 1997.

The first grant of Rs185 lakh was given to NMSWDF for three years for building dams and lift irrigation schemes in Dahod district. In 2001, another grant of Rs300 lakh was pledged to additionally cover afforestation activities. A third grant of Rs10 crore, including Rs3 crore as a corpus fund, was sanctioned in 2004 for a period of five years.

The last grant incorporates two innovative components. First, it will help support the establishment of a Tata Sadguru Chair, to replicate the Sadguru model at other sites, undertake research and documentation on tribal livelihoods, network with other academic institutions and upgrade the NMSWDF training centre. The second part aims at encouraging progress through a reward programme. Biswanath Sinha, programme officer at SDTT, explains, “Part of the corpus money will be used to fund an annual award for the ‘Best Village Panchayat’ at the project location. This is to encourage good work by giving some monetary incentive and recognition.”

More power to the community
Sinha says that SDTT would like to see the project expand to other backward regions with similar topography and population. “There is a need to build many more such federated institutes where the power equation and ownership moves from the NGO to the people.”

The support from SDTT has played a crucial role in the consolidation and growth of NMSWDF. “The funds have helped us to mobilise more funds from other sources. This has helped expand not only our activities but also the geographical area in the last ten years,” says Jagawat.

With 30 years of experience and a multi-pronged approach that has successfully transformed the lives of thousands of tribal farmers in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, NMSWDF has a developmental model worthy of emulation and replication in other parts of the country.

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