Emerging as Torch-Bearers of Resilience Building

Jagir Araji, Supaul District, Bihar

Context

Jagir Araji was one of the worst affected villages in the Kosi floods of 2008 due to its geographical proximity to the area of the breach. The worst flood in over three decades saw the village inundated under two to three feet of water. Unlike in similar floods of 1973 when the waters receded fast, concretization of highways meant that water had few outlets from which to flow out. Most families lost their livestock, grains, fodder and other precious belongings to the floods and were forced to camp out on the highway with little food, shelter or water.

Rescue efforts were largely private initiatives in the form of hired boats by relatives from neighbouring areas. Almost 40-50% of the families fled to their relatives’ homes in Nepal and neighbouring regions while others took shelter in filthy government relief camps, where sanitation and hygiene was virtually non-existent and food, medicine and blanket supplies were limited.

“Many of us were compelled to sell jewelry or whatever livestock we had left to take our kids to private doctors as the medical services in the relief camps weren’t effective at all.”

Six months later, when some of the water had receded, families moved back to the devastated village to find no roads, schools or other basic infrastructure standing.

“We realized that we would have to start our lives with a clean slate and that it wouldn’t be easy at all.”

With no income or agricultural produce, food for almost two months was only the two quintal wheat that each household had received from the government after the disaster, which resulted in malnutrition among not just children but also grown men and women.

The region is also vulnerable to earthquakes (falls under Zone 5 – High Risk) and frequent fires due to the use of firewood as fuel in kuccha houses. Therefore, the necessity for a comprehensive community disaster resilience plan was compounded by the exhausted financial clout of the community to tide over such disasters.

Community Resilience-Building Journey

Since 2010, GPSVS11 had been spearheading rehabilitation work in the region, for which they set up a Village Development Management Committee12 and also revived an erstwhile SHG to promote community and women’s participation. SSP took the momentum forward and incorporated a nuanced lens of constructing resilient and sustainable communities into the group’s existing work.

The thirteen-member SHG was first trained in community disaster resilience concepts and the capacity building of communities against disasters. The concept of ‘collective farming’ and becoming active shareholders in rebuilding their village became the two lodestones of their work ahead.

The women first conducted a three-day mapping exercise that also involved the VDMC members. Not waiting for the already delayed governmental intervention, the women began working on the community development plans. They improved village connectivity by building bamboo bridges and raising roads via volunteer work. They also convinced the Mukhya to raise ten hand pumps in the village. Also, six solar street lights at designated spots were installed using funds mobilized to the tune of INR 1.5 lakhs from the Solar Lighting Scheme of the SDMA13. The women also canvassed for a cemented raised platform to shelter people stranded in the floods and mobilized INR 393,000 from the MNREGA.

Since, eight beneficiaries have received INR 10,000 each and estimate potential savings to be Rs. 100/kathha. Also, 13 women and their families now regularly maintain seed banks, a practice that their ancestors used to follow. Community farming, carried out using the ‘Community Resilience Fund’ disbursed by a GPSVS-created federation, has reaped considerable profits for the women members. CRF was disbursed in three allotments of Rs. 10,000 each-the first in 2011 reimbursed women members’ expenses for pursuing community development activities, while the second (2012) and third (2013) were for collective farming. The entire group of 13 women started by collectively farming jute on 16 kathha (0.54 hectares) of leased land and made use of their profits from the first season to increase the leased landholding to 18 kathha (0.61 hectares). With the cultivation of jute and maize since 2012, each member of the group has made a profit of approx Rs. 2000.

The success in collective farming has helped us to plough back the profits to our personal farming and also wish to save it in future to be able to buy land someday. Also, we have learnt to work together peacefully and figured out a system for the same.”

Over the course of the last three years, five enthusiastic women leaders have emerged from Jagir Araji. After participating in various exposure visits to other model villages in Bihar and witnessing collective farming, vegetable cultivation and organic pest control techniques, they now host peer exchanges with younger groups. A focal point of their shared learning sessions is how they found solutions to interpersonal issues faced while all farming together and how to create accountability when ten women are collectively responsible for a piece of land.

“Since we have been the pioneers in the district to take up this program, it is our duty to spread the word and inspire others to follow suit.”

Also, there is a thriving Women’s Task Force in the village — one that feels responsible for the entire village and also uses local resources to improve its own skills. GPSVS has organized workshops and disseminated information on how families can prevent fires (a frequent phenomenon owing to use of firewood and kachha house). All women members also attended a workshop along with their husbands on how to build earthquake- and fire-resistant houses. Seven to eight inspired women have already convinced their families to build such homes. Two to three trainings have also been held to involve children in the community disaster resilience processes.

Impact of Community Disaster Resilience Initiatives

Despite being one of the recent additions to the pan-India program, the women of Jagir Araji have successfully combined preparing communities against floods or earthquakes with addressing the underlying risks of poor health infrastructure, hygiene issues, sustainable livelihoods through agriculture, etc. Increased understanding of the government machinery and schemes was an enabling factor as well as a by-product of the initiative. During the last three years, they were able to mobilize a sizeable INR 11.4 lakhs of public funds via various government schemes.

These women have also proven that they are income earners for the family too, making cash profits of around INR 2000. They have a complete understanding of the situation that initially the profits may not be too high, as the members paid leases of their land, but it will gradually multiply. They surely have their eyes set on the bright prospects of their collective farming practices. Collective farming has not only resulted in profits but also in better understanding of their own expenses:

“We were never aware of the profits we made via farming as our husbands managed the finances. However, now we can keep accurate profit-loss accounts and equally take part in the family agriculture.”

Also, in families where the male members are migrants, women now experience greater autonomy while running the household:

“Only if new women leaders will come up, will we also learn more. If we are the only women who will work then how will we grow, who will we learn from?”

The fact that these disasters are seasonal but the impact of community disaster resilience initiatives is perennial is what drives most of these women.

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