Sunday, December 11, 2005

An education at Timbaktu

Saturday, December 3rd:

We woke up early Saturday morning to head to the Timbaktu collective 165 km away. Travelling with Dwiji and me were his parents and sister Anitha. The collective is in Anantapur dt., AP very close to Chennekothapalli. We had heard of this group through various circles and incidentally Ashis, Madhulika's (formerly from AID Austin) husband is working there. Madhu herself is spending some time there after her return from the US and was to join us on our way back. We met up with her in Chennekothapalli and headed to Timbaktu, off the main road (National Highway-7).

One of the major efforts of the collective has been the preservation and regeneration of the local scrub forest. When they first bought the land, about 32 acres of it, it was completely bare. Now, 15 years later, it is covered with trees, shrubs and grasses. They have also protected surrounding areas from forest fires. Overgrazing is not allowed on Timbaktu land and the need to control grazing has been accepted by local communities managing their forests in the area. Of course, not everyone is happy with this – the next day, we overheard an altercation between a goatherd and a member of the collective over goats straying into areas they shouldn't be going into.

We were shown to our accomodations and found that the house we were staying in was built by a Collector who supported Timbaktu and had recently passed away. The neighboring house was built by Uzramma of Dastkar fame, who was also visiting this weekend with her son. Dastkar is a weavers' collective based in Andhra Pradesh which has done amazing work in regenerating incomes for weavers, introducing (or re-introducing) handloom textiles and natural dyeing techniques throughout the country and sensitizing the government and institutions about the problems faced by the weaving communities. Thousands of weavers have been mobilized and now have a powerful voice.

Back to Timbaktu... we headed out to lunch in the collective's kitchen and then decided to visit their demo plot. The collective has started working on agricultural issues a few years ago. Prior to that, they were procuring traditional grains such as ragi, sama and korra and using them to make biscuits, laddoos and other products. These grains were traditionally grown in an organic manner and continue to be grown thus. As time passed, the value of promoting organic techniques for other crops and approaches such as mixed cropping led the collective to begin agricultural interventions. This part of Anantapur dt. is dominated by groundnut production. But though this crop is planted along with pulses (toor), its continuous cultivation has led to lower yields and quality. Like in the cotton growing belt, there have been suicides here and depression, migration etc.

Further, with its commitment to organic products, the collective was finding it harder and harder to procure enough grain for its products. So, gradually, discussions were organized with local farmers and information about sustainable agriculture shared. The demo plot, 'Itavanam' is a valuable tool in this intervention.

The plot was about a kilometer and a half away, so the 'younger lot' walked there with Shailesh, a volunteer at the collective involved in gardening. Shailesh also talked about his involvement in putting out forest fires – the land around Timbuktu is reserve forest, but no Forest Department officials are present in the area. So, when forest fires erupt, the collective members rush out to put it out by beating the fires with palm leaves. Shailesh's job has been to cart up water for the thirsty fire-beaters – a sweat-inducing one in itself! Temperatures in the summer can go up to 45°C and they have to be particularly vigilant at such times.

'Itavanam' is flanked on one side by neem trees and by a variety of fruit trees on the other. Different pulses have been sown alternatively with ragi, castor and varied beans. Groundnuts have also been planted in some rows. The approach of the agricultural group has been to work on pest management first and then on reducing fertilizer inputs. Neem is invaluable in the former and we also noticed some insect traps throughout the plot. As Madhu explained (she has been doing a survey in one village about this) the biggest attraction of organic farming has been the reduced cost of inputs. The yield has not necessarily improved, but as long as it remains the same, farmers will be receptive to the approach.

Dwiji's mother grew up in a village (in Kolar dt.) and used a lot of these plants in her childhood. So she talked a lot about how different types of leaves are edible and in what stage, how certain pea or bean pods could be used etc. We sampled all kinds of grains, fruits and groundnuts – after all, how can a farm trip be complete without grazing?!

Timbaktu operates a number of schools – one in Timbaktu itself (a residential school) and day schools in Chennekothapalli and 3 other villages. We had to decide which school to visit and picked the residential one. We reached the school just as it was closing and the children rushed to meet us. A lot of attention was focussed on Dwiji and his hair, with one kid making up a story about how he is Dhoni's annayya! (for those uninterested in cricket, Dhoni is one of the new stars on the team and sports long, gold-highlighted hair) We talked briefly with one of the teachers and were told that this was the kids' gardening time. They all tend to gardens which supply most of the school's vegetable needs. Also, these kids are all from agricultural families, so this is a useful life skill for them. They get used to mixed planting and organic farming, so get 'trained young'. The kids were extremely enthusiastic, especially dragging Dwiji's mother to see yet another plant or tree. They had beans, tomatoes, sitaphal, brinjal, papaya... the list goes on. With the onset of heavy rain, we finally were able to say our goodbyes!

The school in Chennekothapalli, Prakruti Badi was first started to serve dropouts. As they began getting good results with these 'problem children', more people showed interest in sending their children to these school. Thus, gradually, day schools were expanded to other villages. The residential school was started with the idea to serve disadvantaged children – those with a single parent, extremely poor background, disinterested parents etc. When parents come to the school seeking admission for their children, they are asked to leave their names in a register. Some children are recommended by the cooperatives, villagers etc. Teachers go and investigate the child's background to see if they are suitable candidates for the residential school. Initially the education was offered free of charge, but it was found that this did not encourage parent involvement in their child's welfare. So a nominal fee was instituted. Since the school is fully funded, this goes into an individual savings account for the child. All this was explained to us by Kalyani, one of the teachers in Prakruti Badi, over tasty gongura tea prepared by her. Kalyani is the originator of many of the recipes for Timbaktu products. She is married to Dinesh, who is in charge of the agricultural program. Dinesh was to return the next day from Hyderabad, where a fair was being organized by CSA (Center for Sustainable Agriculture).

After dinner, we went to drop off Madhu in Chennekothapalli. Ashis was working late into the night with the cooperative to pack biscuits and other products for the fair in Hyderabad – he was heading there on Sunday night. The collective had recently participated in an organic fair in Bangalore. This year, they had produced 10 tonnes of products and Ashis was confident they could sell those pretty quickly. To reach the next level of marketing and sales, in his opinion, they would need organic certification. Most such certification is very expensive, working out to atleast Rs. 1000/acre. For a farmer who makes about Rs. 1500 profit/acre, this would only make sense if (s)he can make atleast double that profit. Again, Ashis thinks it can be achieved, but the links need to be established. That is the focus of his work with the collective.

We went to sleep with plans to go trekking the next day.

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