Monday, March 21, 2005

Pining for the Himalayas

March 5th:

Another comparatively relaxing day. I spent some hours searching for pure wool, in vain, and was told that there is no market for it any longer. I also discussed the Himachal trip with Devinder Sharma – for him, Shivbari and Deri Baba are models of biodiversity protection through religion. But he agreed that such systems cannot be set up from the outside and need to be part of local folklore or locally influenced. We also talked about the follow-up of the GEAC meeting. Based on the report on the failure of Bt cotton by CSA, they deferred the decision on that strain of cotton. But in the meantime, other strains of Bt cotton were approved for use in the North!

In the meantime, NDTV had covered the event and included a commentary from Devinder-ji in a clip, which they ran throughout the day.

March 6th:

I took the Ranikhet express overnight and arrived in Haldwani, from where I had to take a shared taxi to Almora. Ritu Sogani, whose group I had to meet, had advised me to sit in the front and concentrate on the road to reduce nausea. I thought she was exaggerating, but have to say in hindsight that it was a little dizzying, especially because of the speed of the Tata Sumo we were in. Anyway, reached Almora safe and sound and met up with Ritu.

Almora is the only hill-station not 'discovered' by the British during their summer sojourns in the hills. I guess that means it's got more crooked lanes than the rest! Since I didn't go to Nainital and just passed through Bhimtal, I can't say for sure. But wow, what climbs. With Ritu's help, I managed to get my luggage to the house of Sunil and family, my hosts in Almora. Ritu lives in a little room with a shared bathroom, so for weak people from the 'plains' like me, this was the abode of choice.

In Sunil's house, we met up with 2 Americans, students from Michigan State University. MSU has a study abroad program with Lady Irwin college in Delhi, which links them to Buniyaad/CAC and Chirag, another group in Uttaranchal. The two, Greg and Sara, were to write papers on the prevalance and use of Kumaoni language and sustainable agriculture in the region respectively. They were having a great time, the only handicap being their inability to speak Hindi or Kumaoni, which meant that either Ritu or another English-speaking person had to be with them for any meaningful interaction. Later, though, some folks in the group did tell me how some students did manage to communicate inspite of the language barrier and form friendships.

Buniyaad, CAC and Adhaar were formed in the aftermath of Sahyog leaving Uttaranchal. Sahyog is based in Lucknow and works primarily on health issues. It had come out with a report on HIV/AIDS in the region, which drew furor locally and resulted in some members of Sahyog, including Abhijit and Vasundhara, being arrested for distributing 'obscene' literature. When Sahyog left, some of its staff stayed back in Uttaranchal and formed new groups. Buniyaad works in Almora dt., CAC in Nainital dt. and Adhaar is a documentation group working with both. However, with the paperwork and processes associated with FCRA approval, they have decided to use only the name CAC. About 6 people were receiving fellowships from Sahyog that will be expiring this month and thus fundraising and applying for grants is occupying a lot of their time.

In the meantime, we headed out to one of their field areas. To get there, we took a jeep to Maniagar (where their field office is located) and then walked down to Parkhola village, a walk of about 3 km, almost all of it downhill. The Americans were sure-footed even with their backpacks, and of course the locals could go down blindfolded. I provided the comic relief! As we were descending, we could hear music in the distance – a baraat (marriage procession) was heading to a nearby village. Ritu recounted a recent incident where baraat revellers were beaten up by the host village and thrown out for excessive drinking and misbehaving. The cool mountain air must have revived them quickly because they soon went back hungry and repentant!

Parkhola is a little hamlet (little by 'plains' standards) consisting of about 18 families. It is a fully Dalit village – CAC's work in Almora dt. has been principally with Dalit families. Khola also has a seed bank, which we were to visit. Jagdish, one of CAC's staff members, lives in Khola and we were put up at his house. The house offered a beautiful vista of terraced fields and a few Reserve Forests. In this part of Uttaranchal, none of the forests are under the control of people through Van Panchayats – they are all managed by the Forest department. And they are almost completely pine forests. Jagdish and others talked about the problems with pine – how it does not allow other trees to flourish because it grows so quickly and sucks up all the resources, how pine flares up easily leading to increased forest fires (the villagers have had to put out a fire or 2 without any help from the Forest dept.) and how it is generally hotter in pine forests than mixed ones. The villagers in the area do want to help maintain the forests, but not unless they can also use them. Therefore, the Maniagar (Almora) group has not been able to do significant work on this issue.

The Seed Bank is another matter altogether – it's housed in one room of a villager's house and serves Khola and 7 neighboring villages. It was opened 15 months ago and its modus operandi is set by a seed bank committee that meets every 3 months. Seed needs and availability are discussed and an effort is made to obtain seeds that are presently not available in the bank. Almost 100 types of seeds, all of them local varieties, are collected and, at present, the seed bank has about 300 kg (3 quintals) of seeds. Since its capacity is only half that, some of the seeds are being stored in seed committee members' houses. The room housing the seeds was quite neat and Sara remarked that the last time she had visited there, it was a mess. It seems there was a rat infestation – folks showed me plastic containers that the rats had bitten through to get at the seeds inside! Presently, the seed bank does not have enough money to operate a full-time caretaker, so the present caretaker looks after it along with his other tasks. “Chuha bhagaane ke liye bhi samay chahiye,” he said – 'I need time to chase the rats'!

“Why is this seed bank necessary?” was a question in many AIDers' minds and I put it to the mixed group assembled in the little room. The answer was not quite what I expected. It seems that traditional seeds are still very much prevalent in this area – there was no need to 'revive' the practice. Instead, there is a caste-based problem. The upper castes have bigger land holdings and grain reserves – therefore they were the traditional providers of seeds. But they would provide or not provide seeds on their whims or ask the requestor to clean their house or provide other such services in addition to the cost of seeds. “Sometimes they say that this is such-and-such day and they cannot touch seeds,” said the caretaker. “Other times, they provide bad seeds and half to three-fourth of the crop fails.” The humiliation of such events was clear in the men's voices. The women didn't speak much, but when they did, it was their wasted efforts and frustrations that came through. I had thought that caste-based discrimination was less here than in the plains. “Well, people don't get killed here,” replied Jagdish. “ But there are still all these things which build up in our psyche.”

The next question was about the benefits of traditional grains. Here, people were ready with a host of answers – apparently they had been thinking of this issue for a very long time. The health benefits of various grains were enumerated and some of the nutritive values expounded on. Greg and Sara commented that, so far, they had only been fed wheat and white rice, both of which are obtained from the market. It emerged that self-sufficiency in local grains had not been obtained – local grains provide food for maybe 4-6 months of the year. The rest of the time, grains are obtained from the PDS (Public Distribution System). There is no market for local grains in the towns, only within villages. Also, every year, the group has been selling produce in the Nature Bazaar organized in Delhi. They promised to feed us rotis made of 'Madua' and traditional brown rice – I think there was a little bit of hesitancy of using these grains for us city and foreign folk! Where 'organic' practices are concerned, with traditional varieties, there is little needs for pesticides anyway. Most people use cowdung in their fields. Also, a few have learnt vermicomposting and are applying compost as well. As Ritu put it, there is no need to 'educate' people about the value of these methods.

Along with farming and seed maintenance, the caretaker is also a vaid (local healer). He is illiterate, but has an extended knowledge of medicinal herbs. One of the diseases he has been most successful in treating is jaundice – Hepatitis A. He said he gets about 100 cases every year. He does not ask for any fees, though sometimes people do give him something. “They usually come to me when they've tried everything else,” he said. “By that time, they have spent so much on their treatment. Or they are extremely poor. If I asked them for fees, they would not be able to pay. Then how can I be a healer?” He does not openly practice his trade because he hasn't passed a mandatory exam for vaids in Uttaranchal. We talked about the health conditions in the area – the nearest place with any kind of 'modern' facilities is Panvanola, a half hour walk away. Beyond that, the nearest hospital is in Almora. Therefore, there is a high reliance on local knowledge. Childbirths are attended by the village women – in the event of complications, chances of death are high. On the positive, action by local women has improved the services of health center ANM's. Now, if they do not turn up for their regular duties such as vaccinations, the women complain and even land up at their houses! The women in the area have also started making 2 herbal medicines – one for treating white discharge in women and the other, an oil, for treating aches and pains. These are currently sold locally or in the Nature Bazaar and the women would like to exchange info and prepare more such medicines.

Later, we met with Mithilesh, Harish and Raju of the theater group 'Dhad'. This group was set up and trained on social issues in the Sahyog days and continues to perform in the area. They use the Forum theater method, which tries to elicit answers from the audience. They have done plays on people's knowledge, health and environment, women's participation in Panchayati Raj, caste etc. All plays are performed in Kumaoni and use local styles such as Baul and Ramol. They were extremely entertaining and talked about their experiences at the World Social Forum, where on the first day they were lost in a morass of English. They went to listen to a talk, but unfortunately it was completely in English. Since they were in there with no easy way to the exit, they pretended to understand the lecture and even took faux notes! But the next day, they had a lot of fun with the other theater groups. “There, language is no barrier,” said Harish.

March 7th:

On Monday, we returned to Maniagar and went to the field office, where women from other villages in the area were expected to congregrate. Having seen how much time is spent on traveling here, I realized that these women would end up losing an entire day's work or wages, especially hard during the planting season. It seems Ritu had planned this trip based on earlier visitors' requirements and I hadn't provided her enough inputs, content to leave trip planning to her. In retrospect, I feel I should have gone to more villages and not inconvenienced people as much. On the flip side, a visitor seems to be a big thing for this as well as other such groups. So, short of staying there a month, there may not be an easy way to avoid creating a 'tamasha'!

About 7-8 women turned up. They talked further about the seed bank and its advantages. On prodding from Kiran, a staff member, they started talking about an anti-alcohol campaign they had carried out a few years ago. A bhatti (country alcohol shop) owner refused to close his shop and sat down in front of it. Four women got together, lifted him out of the way and proceeded to close the shop. The owner then filed complaints against the husbands of the women (he was too embarrassed to name the women!) and got them arrested and sent to the jail in Almora. The women protested there and the dharna went on for 3 months, after which they got justice, with the DM personally taking an interest in the matter.

The women from Thola also talked about the problems in their Van Panchayat. Their forest is insufficient for their needs, so they have realized the need to protect it and allow it to grow. But the Sarpanch has been cutting down trees on the sly. They complained to the Tehsil, demanding an investigation. Along with people like the Sarpanch, some villagers have also continued to cut down trees without thinking about the future. They have started discussions with these villages and are hoping to form a separate forest with 7-8 other villages genuinely interested in protecting the trees. They talked about the problems of soil erosion and destruction of farms and various ways of preventing them, including strong walls and planting of trees. We ended the meeting with the women singing beautiful Kumaoni songs (not without a lot of coercion beforehand!)

We left Maniagar for Almora. All along the way, here and there, one could notice the depradations of humankind – washed out slopes, bare mountains and in places with greenery, the never-ending pine trees.

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