Resilience story of Harichanda village

5 kms from Darbhanga town, Harichandra village of Darbhanga District has over 1200 households and is populated by predominantly SC and OBC families. The most popular livelihood options are agriculture and local construction work, the average income per household being Rs.24,000-30,000 per annum. Harichandra falls under a flood prone area and because of it closeness to the Kosi river, suffered severely during the 2008 floods. The S-S Project in the village first started with eight SHGs in 2010 and has now grown to include 12 active SHGs with the aim being building community’s resilience against the frequent phenomenon of floods. Women from Harichandra have been most upbeat in identifying infrastructural improvements to reduce the community’s risk during floods – improving school facility and building concrete roads being the most prominent. Their pro-active attitude towards engaging with government entities to meet their development goals has been admired both by the community and the officials themselves. Cultivation of dhaincha [1] and SRI[1] have been key agricultural innovations adopted by them.

Context

Like Maulaganj, Harichandra (its neighbouring village) in recent history experienced a disastrous flood (Kosi Floods) for the first time in 2008.  However, because of its close proximity to another river, which usually overflows during the monsoons, the village gets flooded every year. Over just a few hours most houses get submerged with ankle-deep water, becoming most challenging for those who live in the high-lying areas as almost the entire village, along with their livestock and belongings, flocks to their houses for safety.

During the 2008 Kosi Floods, the rainwater gushed straight to the agricultural fields, making it completely un-productive due to sand deposits. Most lost their only means of livelihood, as well as their stored grains, livestock, and other precious belongings – “Stranded in the village without any supplies, many of us fasted – ate one meal a day or sometimes not even that.” Children’s education got discontinued for almost a year and water-borne diseases rampantly afflicted children. “No medical facilities were available. Also, since there were no toilets, the state of sanitation was very poor – widespread diseases were inevitable.”

After the disruption which lasted for almost six months, it was very challenging for the community to build back their lives. Most families in the village own very marginal pieces of land or none and thus, usually take land-on-lease for cultivation. Those with such land, cleared it of the river silt by using their bare-minimum savings and started vegetable cultivation for initial income. A large number of men found work in Darbhanga town or even migrated to Punjab and other cities in the North.

Almost all women admitted to not having ever thought of planning ahead for a flood till the 2008 floods hit them – “We had never seen a massive flood till the 2008 Kosi Floods. Our parents had told us about the floods in 1973, but since nothing had happened for so long we never planned ahead for one.” The only aid the community received from the government was distribution of rice and one rescue boat per village during relief work and distribution of 50kgs of rice and wheat each, and Rs.2500/household post floods. Efforts of the village men to channelize government schemes and funds to the region bore no success. “The Mukhya has never paid heed to anyone’s request – our husbands used to go to request cooperation from the Gram Sabha and other PRIs to rebuild our community, but no concrete action was taken by them.” In a state of despair, the community was floundering about how to rebuild their village.

The partial flooding that affects them every year, impacts critical aspects of life – commuting becomes impossible; access to drinking water gets affected as handpumps get submerged; state of sanitation, health and hygiene plumits because of no toilets, poor sewage and drainage facilities and, lack of availability of healthcare facilities; schools come to a halt for 1-2 months as water surrounds the school premises and its impossible for the school to run in such a risky environment. “We are scared of sending our children to school – they are bound to fall ill if they study in such dirt. There is no toilet in the school premises and children have to walk 2kms to use one. In heavy rains it’s very difficult for them to walk such distances and we parents also worry about their safety.”

DRR Journey

Having dealt with the fury of floods for a few years, eight SHGs which had earlier been formed under the BGRF[1] but had dismantled due to the 2008 floods, were re-mobilized by Kanchan Sewa Ashram[2] in 2009. The SHGs had a renewed mandate of building community’s resilience against floods and climate change, reviving sustainable agriculture and, boosting overall village development, all via women-led collective action and by co-partnering with government bodies & PRIs.

The eight SHGs started by conducting a three-day mapping exercise for which they were mentored by experienced women leaders from Maulaganj village– “Our women friends from Maulaganj explained to us the merit of the programme, how we could all work together to improve our village. Creating a map, identifying problems faced by the community and also solutions to them – all this was taught. Since they were there we developed confidence in the program.” The exercises brought to notice the crucial need to concretize the artery roads of the village, improve the village school facility, build better sanitation provisions (toilets and sewage system), raise village handpumps and enhance agricultural productivity. Post consultations within the women’s groups and other village leaders, women members prepared a Community Development Plan which proposed seven issues warranting government support. On sanctions by the District Authorities, three of the seven issues have been tackled over the last three years.

Issue Problem Statement Activities Undertaken
 

 

 

Health

Poor functioning of government’s medical machinery at the village and Panchayat level – no ANM visits, absence of any immunization at aanganwadis, etc Liaisoning with government authorities like Public Health Department (Civil Surgeon) and District Magistrate to ensure timely and effective delivery of medical services in the Panchayat
Mobilized government support (DM) to organize a medical camp to check the rapid spread of measles among children in the village
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Education

 

 

Insufficient facility – Only one building with 2 rooms for 7 batches of students

 

School gets partially sub-merged every monsoon with dumps of garbage all around it

 

The school master was approached by the women but he took no action; Created & forwarded a proposal to the MLA, Block Development Officer, District Development Commissioner and the District Education Officer to improve the facility in all aspects
On orders from the District Education Officer and funds of Rs.14 lakh from the Bihar Education Project (Shiksha Pariyojna), following actions were taken

·         2 new rooms built in the school premises

·         Building raised to avoid flooding

·         Garbage dumps cleared (by civic authorities)

No toilet at school – walk 2kms in rain and dirt to access a toilet A toilet is in the process of being built within the school premises via the Bhihar Education Fund
 

Sanitation

No toilets at homes- forced to travel long distances to  fields even during floods – safety concern for women and girls and landlords also protest Created proposal for installation of toilets for every household in the village
Group of 10 women approached PHD but matter still unresolved during to red-tapism and blatant unfairness
Connectivity Un-cemented roads – difficult to travel within and around the village post rains/floods; Absence of drainage systems resulting in clogging In close collaboration with the PHED, the village roads concretized via the BRGF (Rs.3,89,000) and MLA’s Development Fund (Rs.2,70,000)
 

Sustainable Agriculture

High and ill-informed use of expensive pesticides and fertilizers leading to poor fertility of land Vermi-composting

10 women (2 SHGs) trained in 2012 on how to use agricultural and organic wastes to produce home-made compost at a fraction of the cost of fertilizers/ pesticides. 6 women now do it and are substitute it for fertilizers

Unusable nature of agricultural land during monsoons (high levels of flood water) SRI (Sytemic Rice Intensification) (Flood-Friendly)

From 2011-2012, 30 women from five SHGs attended training on SRI of which 25 have taken it up on individual basis. Training was conducted by the Block Agriculture Office, facilitated by KSA.

Cultivation of ‘Dhaincha’[3] Crop

5-6 women leaders learnt Dhaincha cultivation via peer exchange at Shivdaspur (organized by KSA). All SHG members were also told by the KSA team of the merits[4] of growing dhaincha. KSA distributed seeds free of cost for women who were willing to cultivate it – 35 women now actively farm dhaincha on an individual (land on lease using savings) and collective basis (using CRF) – first time cultivated dhaincha using CRF in January 2013. Also save the seeds such that can sell them in times to come and also save on costs of buying them.

Besides large-scale development activities, women members formed a Disaster Task Force in late 2011, comprising six committees[5] to ensure timely and effective management of the community just before, during and after floods. “Earlier women used to only worry about their own families, but through this initiative there is a rise in community spirit and cohesion”. All SHG members also prepare and keep aside dry foods atleast two months prior to the monsoons – inspired by them, all non-SHG members also follow the practice.

While on a one-off exploratory visit through the village, the Medical Team of the Task Force detected a bout of measles affecting 15-20 children about which no government action had been taken. Alarmed by the Aanganwadi’s negligence, women leaders petitioned the Block Public Health Department. As a result, the District Magistrate promptly ordered a camp to treat patients immediately, which demonstrated to the community the real power that these women now wield. “People very openly said to us that never before had they scene so many doctors/nurses/ANMs in our village. They were surprised to see how we had managed to arrange that. People now know that we are here to look after the interests of their families and children.”

Women leaders from eight of the twelve SHGs have visited 7-8 active women’s groups in other villages in the district. Most exchanges have been centred on sustainable agricultural practices like cultivation of ‘Dhaincha’, maintaining a seeds bank, and also how best to function as the Task Force Committees (Jamal Chak and Maulaganj). “We learnt functional and easy early warning strategies from the Maulaganj women, as well as how best to function as teams within the Women’s Disaster Task Force. Seeing and learning from them gives us the confidence that someday we will also be able to be as proficient as them.”

The groups have received a total of Rs.15000 via the Community Resilience Fund – Rs.5000 in 2011 to cover their expenses for community development initiatives, and Rs.5000 each as revolving funds in 2011 and 2012 for collective farming. Till date, seven groups (5 members each) have made use of revolving fund to cultivate on 5kathha of land (0.41 acre) each, with each rotation lasting 6 months. Besides vegetable cultivation, a couple of groups tried Dhaincha and made a profit of Rs.1000 per group member per rotation, proceeds from the sale of Dhaincha seeds and firewood. Profits from SRI[6] have been in the same range, and the CRF was used to incentivize it as people otherwise found it a very risky proposition.

Impact of DRR Initiatives

The 25-30 women who have adopted sustainable agricultural practices, now recognize tangible benefits of the same – reduced costs of inputs (Rs.2000-3000 per woman per annum) owing to lower use of fertilizers, higher soil fertility and better use of wastelands to name a few. They have also reported increased income from collective cultivation of rice & dhaincha – Rs.1200-1500 per member per rotation which fares as an additional month’s income for their households. “Till few years back, we were forced to get loans at an interest rate of 5% to take agricultural land on lease. Now we can use the CRF amount to do collective farming which doesn’t seem very burdensome and investment-heavy.”

Those who engaged in SRI and kept the produce for personal consumption, share that they now save on the cost of buying rice from the market and instead can spend that money on their children’s books and health. Like before, we still take money to buy rice from our husbands, but since we grow our own rice, we spend that money responsibly on our children’s healthcare and educational needs. We also convince our husbands about practices like vermi-composting, mixed cropping and SRI.”

Sustainable practices like vermi-composting have re-emphasized the wisdom of old traditional practices that their ancestors used to follow – “Our ancestors used such organic ways only to produce compost, where did we have DAT, urea and other pesticides in those times. Now we have slowly understood the merit of their knowledge and will give it more credence from now on”. 30 families are also making better use of available resources like wastelands by leasing that land at a fraction of the cost (5times cheaper) and growing dhaincha, which can be done on unfertile/flooded wastelands. It has also resulted in improvement of soil fertility – not only are the farmers pleased, so are the landlords.

From no stake in their own households’ decisions earlier, these women are now not only major contributors to their family’s income and growth, they share a sense of responsibility for their village’s progress as well. In their own village, the expansion and improvement of the school premises and roads are cases in point – “We shoul contribute to make our village prosper and progress – if we won’t then who will. Many people also compliment our determination and that we have been able to attract government funds and schemes to our village. Everyone’s kids study in a better school now, so they would obviously be happy.”

The fact that the programme started with only 8 SHGs in Harichandra, and has grown to 12 thriving SHGs, demonstrates proof of concept and that the women pioneers have been able to convince other women to also join the bandwagon.  They have also inspired women from across the Panchayat to establish SHGs. – Based on our own experiences we have prompted women across the entire Panchayat to establish SHGs and have also made them aware of the benefits of collective farming, vermi-composting, disaster preparedness, etc.”

Inspired by the women’s activism in Maulaganj, women members from Harichandra interacted with a host of government authorities at the local, block and district level for a range of issues – besides the issue of toilets, the women have been successful at garnering the authorities’ support and appreciation for their constructive contribution to village development. Liaisons with government have meant that the women in Harichandra have been able to mobilize almost Rs.21lakhs of public funds via various government schemes and funds. Partnering with the government has not only meant petitioning and demanding improvements but also monitoring the functioning of government projects in the village, something that has been entrusted by the government/PRI authorities themselves. “The MLA told us that she had never seen women work in such a unified, empowered and aware manner.Interacting with the government officials has also boosted their self-esteem – We have been respected by government officials and representatives. Our minds have opened up and we are certainly more confident after having met various dignitaries. Earlier, our husbands only used to handle these matters and we had never thought that there would be a day when we would ourselves go to meet officials and negotiate with them.”

The concept of collective action has resonated well with the women – “If we work as a collective force there will be nothing to fear. Many old men and other people in the village taunt us for our boldness but we take it as a challenge. We know that we have to be as unified as ever.”

Future Aspirations – Looking ahead, most women members are enthusiastic about experimenting not only with collective farming but also collective livestock rearing by buying livestock via pooled savings. Having realized the value of technical trainings, peer-learning and workshops, they wish to acquire skills in livestock rearing such that they follow best practices and reap maximum benefits. As part of building resilience against floods, the women look forward to conducting a round of review mapping – installation of toilets, better drainage facilities, and construction of new houses in high-lying areas continue to remain their top priorities. They are also exploring setting up their own ‘samudayik bhawan’[7] for health and schooling provisions during the 1-2 months of floods – the Health Committee of the Women’s Task Force hopes to spearhead this. For the women of Harichandra, ‘collective action’ has been their key takeaway – “We need to continue to work collectively if we are to succeed the same way as we have. We wouldn’t have any voice if we weren’t together. This way we know that we only march ahead and never back out or die down!”

[1] Government’s Backward Regions Grant Fund prompted formation of SHGs to further literacy among women)

[2] SSP’s local partner-NGO looking after the S-S Project in Darbhanga District

[3] Sesbania (Scientific Name)

[4] Natural manuring plant, abundant in flood affected lands which is 5times cheaper, requires minimum inputs and upkeep, good source of firewood, etc

[5] Early Warning, Protection, Search and Rescue, Medical, Management and Relief Distribution

[6] System of Rice Intensification

[7] Community Centre

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