Monday, March 21, 2005

Womyn warriors of the middle Himalayas

March 8th:

On Tuesday morning, we were supposed to head out at 8 am, but I ended up chatting with my hosts and their kids and... Anyway, we left at about 9 am and having missed the govt. bus, got into a private one for Shaherphatak. From there, we had to take a jeep to Bhidapani but no one was ready to come unless we hired the entire jeep. There aren't many vehicles in this part of Nainital dt. - towns are few and far between and villagers often have no choice but to walk. The view all along this route is magnificient, with dense mixed forests in bloom and a glimpse of the upper Himalayas, including Nanda Devi.

We reached Bhidapani and the house of Vimla and Mohan, staff members of CAC, at 2 pm. Vimla and Munna, another staff member, were out in the field informing women about the meeting tomorrow. I had discussed with Ritu my feelings on inviting these women all this distance and also my interest in actually going to a village and seeing their forests. But she hadn't been able to contact Mohan and anyway, informing all the 9 villages of this change in plan would take days. They tried to come up with an alternative plan of giving me some 'field' exposure. They had considered having me visit just one area and spending more time there, but there were problems in that approach too, in terms of my being exposed to all areas of their work as well as local feeling that 'someone visited that area and not our area'. The upshot of all this, as Mohan put it, was that I was just being given a trailer – I'd have to spend a few weeks there to see the whole movie! This is of course true with any group, but even more so in the hills.

Anyway, the afternoon plan turned out as follows: a session of washing clothes on their rooftop and then a walk through a nearby forest and a visit to a local shrine. The shrine was actually just an idol under a pipal tree. It was surrounded by trees of all kinds – oak, rhododendron (in glorious red bloom), kaphal and more varieties than I can remember. Mohan recounted how, 3 years ago, this forest was almost bare. Action by villagers, and overwhelmingly the women, succeeded in creating social fencing. The forest was not fully mature yet, so it was forbidden to collect wood from it – Mohan told stories of people being fined, their axes confiscated etc. We passed through forests owned by different villages, some in better shape than others. Enforcement seems to be working better in some places than others.

Back at Mohan's house, Vimla and Munna had returned. Another person had joined us on our walk – a high school physics teacher who lives in a room on the roof. The talk had turned to education and the reverse pyramid that seems to be in place in village schools. As he put it, “One teacher is responsible for all children in classes I to V. Further, (s)he is responsible for building maintenance, miscellaneous other tasks and has to participate in events such as innoculation drives. Where is the time to teach the children?” The result is that when children reach his class, they do not have even the basics in place. “Only recently have they introduced the shiksha mitr (teacher's aide),” said Vimla. “And even that is not enough.” On the plus side, the Bhidapani area school has teachers in attendance – many rural schools have absentee teachers living in Nainital or Almora and siphoning off government money. Where hospitals are concerned, they pointed out the one facility with beds in the area – a yellow building far off in the distance, atleast 10 km away by road. “There is only one person there who does building maintenance,” said the teacher. “And he remembers the days there were actually doctors there.”

The talk turned to agriculture. In this part of the hills, cash crops had been introduced 10-15 years ago – cauliflowers, peas and potatoes(these have been around for longer). No grains are being grown here any longer and some traditional seeds have been lost completely. Where men in the villages were concerned, cash crops brought in more because they could go to the market, sell them and see the money come in. For women, the equation was different. Fodder was no longer part of the harvest and so they had to do more work to collect it. This may have been the reason for the rapid depletion of forest cover in the area in the recent past. Now fodder has to be bought, along with chemical inputs, and in the final tally, the 'old' method of farming may make more economic sense. And not to forget – a lot of subsidies on fertilizers are being withdrawn. “Where you could buy urea for Rs. 1000, it now costs 3-4 thousand,” said Munna. “Now everyone is questioning chemical farming.”

That said, it is not easy to go 'back' to organic farming. The fear exists that, for the first few years, the land has to be repaired and will not yield a good harvest. So most people are reducing chemical inputs gradually, in a 3-5 year plan. Simultaneously, they are learning about vermicomposting and biopesticides made from walnut, timur etc. Some banjar (waste) lands are being revived organically to provide an example, without liabilities if not successful. CAC is also thinking of purchasing small plots in each village where experiments with different techniques can be conducted.

There has been no seed bank program in this area in the past, but now with renewed interest, seeds are being brought in from the Maniagar area. 4-5 women have distributed these among themselves and are working to increase them.

According to the staff, discrimination against Dalits is not so high here – there are common hamlets and Naulas (water sources). Therefore their work has been with a mixed group of women. There are more health problems in this area, but the women are also more mobilized and tough. They have been able to affect changes in their schools and PHCs and of course on the forest issue.

It being Mahashivaratri, Ritu requested pumpkin sabzi with hemp seeds, a seasonal speciality. Mohan and Vimla obliged and the result was delicious. If hemp seeds are available in the US, I have a new recipe on my hands. Anybody listening?? :)

March 9th:

Based on the turnout of women 2 days ago, we expected about 10 attendees. More than 25 women turned up. They were from a number of villages – Chhoti Nai, Chak Dalar, Chama... Mohan asked the women to suggest a village-maintained forest I could visit. This created a little discord for a while because each group wanted me to visit their village! Finally they decided that Chak Dalar would be suitable.

The women talked about their vigilance efforts to maintain the forests. All violations such as tree cutting are reported to the Panchayat and the perpetrator is fined and other penalties imposed. The women use dry wood, fruits and other produce from the forests. The health of the forests has had a positive impact on their lives – this they knew would happen at the outset. But CAC facilitated formation of groups, conducted workshops to put their problems in perspective etc. As one woman put it, “Bolna sikha diya” - they taught us to speak.

I asked about cash crops and seed availability – the women complained about pests in seeds obtained from the market. They also complained about lower prices for caulflowers, peas and potatoes in the market and the increased cost of production. They sounded open to the idea of farming with local inputs, especially in banjar lands, and the revival of local grains.

What they sounded most enthusiastic about was their anti-alcohol campaign. In this, they have not involved CAC – in fact, they have told the staff to stay out of the picture because the fight is theirs' and should stay local. In a recent incident, they broke into a liquor store and destroyed all the liquor in it. A Rs. 8000/- fine was levied on them but they refused to pay up and continued fighting. Finally the store was closed, with support from the zilla (district) panchayat resulting in the fine demand being withdrawn. During this struggle, one woman's husband demanded she not leave the house to join the protest. She refused, shrugged of his hand and left. Looking at the mild CAC staff (with the exception of Vimla), one had to believe that the women had this courage in them waiting to express itself.

Other activities they have been involved in include getting a man arrested for molestation, intervening with ANM's for drops etc. and demanding good teaching from their local school. The results were good in Nai last year, they told me. One issue that was concerning them and which they planned to work on was the demand for 4 months of school fees plus computer fees in a lump sum. “This is too much for us,” said one woman. They have had a meeting with their Pradhan and have written to the school – follow-up actions were discussed.
The focus of attention turned to me and the women started asking all kinds of questions about America. The one question that invariably comes up is: 'How much does it cost to get there?' After many other questions, they asked me if there are cows and buffaloes in the US. I told them about conventional dairies - how cows are kept caged in, fed food and antibiotics and milked through a machine. They were horrified and everyone started talking about how important it was to treat cows and buffaloes with respect and reverence. They told me that I had to do something about the ill-treatment of cows - 'Go, fight for their wellbeing'!

We (about 14 women) then left by jeep to Nai from where we were to walk to Chak Dalar. As we neared Nai and people came into view, one woman started the slogan, “Juya sharaab band karo” - Stop gambling and alcohol – at the top of her voice. We all joined in and literally stopped people in their tracks! Sara was with us during all this and I had a great time translating all the action for her. She asked if these women would be considered radicals in India. What say? I told her they were not radical in the least, just vocal!

In Nai, we got down and headed towards Chak Dalar and their forest. In the forest, the women talked about how bare it was before their activism. They talked about some of the problems they were still having with neighboring villages and their efforts to educate them. The last house we passed and its inhabitants received harsh words from the women – it seems they have some sheep that have been breaking branches and being generally destructive. The sheep owners were warned that if they didn't monitor their sheep, they could be confiscated!

We walked up the slope into a vista of red – the buraansh was in glorious bloom. Another overwhelming education session ensued with the women pointing out trees and their products, the medicinal values of various plants and grasses and other asides. A certain kind of grass stings like mad if you touch with your bare hands, but is extremely tasty and nutritious when cooked – you just have to know how to cut it – and so on. One old lady who joined the group, and was the only one still wearing traditional Kumaoni garb, commanded me to visit in May-June when a whole lot of fruits are ripe and ready to pick. She also kept teasing Ritu. The village women, and CAC staff, seem to have a very comfortable, non-reverential relationship with her – good to see.

The forest here was a marked contrast to the one near Parkhola. Sara commented on the quality of the soil here – loamy as opposed to sandy – and the coolness of the forest. In the monsoon, one woman commented, the forest is twice as green and lush. I walked away from the village, after being plied with chai as is always the case, with a strong wish for the continued strength and determination of this band of women.

Since it was raining, we decided that I should leave an hour earlier, so the driver and I left at 4 pm. On the way, we picked up a tourist on her way back to Nainital after visiting Mukteswar. She complained about what a dirty town Nainital was. Having not visited it myself, I couldn't comment, but kept thinking what a different trip I had. I had to keep a lid on my tongue to prevent giving her a spiel. She said she was from Bombay – Santacruz – but had more of an accent than I. Help! Spare me from show-off Mumbaikars :)

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