In Village after Village of Himachal, Women are Unleashing a Silent Revolution for Change

June 4, 2009


Bima Devi woke before dawn and walked nearly 8 km each day to fetch grass for her cattle. Her village Sherpur in Chamba district, home to some 300 families, was devoid of forest cover. Women had to walk to faraway forest areas in search of fodder. Life was extremely harsh and tedious. That was till 2007.

Today, two years later, Sherpur’s women have a different story to tell. Thanks to community efforts and assisted by the World Bank’s Mid-Himalayan Watershed Development Project, undercurrents of change can be witnessed in village after village in several districts of the mountainous state of Himachal Pradesh in north India.

The Project has taken up plantation, soil conservation, water harvesting, horticulture, agriculture and several income-generating activities with community participation. Planted in 2006-2007, a 12-hectare degraded forest area in Sherpur has now been turned into a thick forest area. Trees in the forest are already 15 feet tall. The village is set amidst idyllic surroundings of lush green fields dotted with tall and healthy trees with the beautiful snow-capped Dhauladhar mountain range as a backdrop. A group of young women with well-oiled hair and bright painted lips greet us cheerfully in their Sunday best. These women are part of the user groups that zealously guard their new and upcoming forest. They are only allowed to cut grass for cattle.

“Today our lifestyles have changed completely. Earlier, we would leave early in the morning to get fodder for our cattle. We would come back only in the afternoon and the rest of the day would be consumed by household activities. Life today is different. We are able to rest in the afternoons and also take up other activities that the Project has introduced and is encouraging us to take up such as making paper plates, knitting, and poultry farming,” said Bima Devi. Their produce is then sold through a cooperative store in Banikhet.

Reversal of degraded natural resource base
According to the baseline survey conducted under the Project, erodibility, poverty and accessibility were the key indices used in identifying project beneficiaries. While 90 percent of the people own land, the average size of land holdings is less than half-an-acre.

Himachal Pradesh is largely an agrarian economy, dependent on rainfed crops, horticulture, and livestock.

Nine out of ten households are rural, and most of them live in small settlements, typically located in remote valleys. The rural population is heavily dependent on forests and community land for meeting daily requirements of fuel wood, fodder, and food. Given the topography, there is heavy dependence on the natural resource base, which has degraded significantly and severely impacted people’s lives. In fact the natural flows in the streams and springs have reduced considerably. According to government estimates, more than 15 percent of the sources have dried up. The Project’s greatest achievement is in ensuring sustainable management of land and water resources, while enhancing livelihoods of rural inhabitants.

Water at your ‘doorstep’

One of the Project’s most effective and enduring interventions is in the area of agriculture. Watershed structures are helping harness water that was earlier not being channeled in the right direction. Now water is reaching right up to the far away fields through irrigation channels. This has changed the way people farm in these areas. What’s critical here is that such robust water harvesting structures are adequately backed by community based institutions (created through the Project) that now own and manage them.

With water reaching their farmlands, the villagers are no longer solely dependent on traditional crops such as maize and wheat. They are also growing several vegetables in abundance. Being cash crops, vegetable cultivation is harvesting huge dividends by raising the income levels of hundreds of thousands of poor families. And as incomes improve, families are now beginning to spend more on household assets, children’s education, livestock and better farming tools and implements.

In Sherpur, where villagers are growing several new vegetables, the village head or pradhan, Neelam Sharma, talks of the changes the Project has brought in its wake: “There used to be big fights in our village over water. Now the watershed structure is preventing the water from sliding away. As a result, not only are we growing traditional crops, but, also garlic, ginger, onions and turmeric throughout the year. Our vegetables are going as far as Pathankot (in neighboring state of Punjab)” – thus establishing a sustainable supply chain at the community level.

Self-dependent, the new buzzword
This year Bhavani Thakur alone sold turmeric worth Rs 1,000, onions worth Rs 6,000, and garlic worth Rs 2,500. Sushma Devi, from a very poor family, was earlier skeptical about the initiatives that the villagers were so excited about. But today Sushma Devi proudly asserts: “I am earning about Rs 6,000 to Rs 7,000 more a year through several initiatives such as plantation, poultry farming and knitting. Earlier, I would spend that much just to buy grass.”

In Charuri village in neighboring Kangra district, Pawan Kumar’s family of six barely managed to meet ends from their two-hectare land until a few years ago. The first casualty of their hand-to-mouth existence was the education of his daughters who dropped out of school after studying till the 8th standard. Today, thanks to the Project, Pawan Kumar has a flourishing crop. “Our income from growing vegetables alone in the past six months was Rs 80,000, which was more than double of what we used to earn from growing just the traditional crops,” Pawan Kumar said looking at his resurrected land with pride. Today, the family is making good use of the extra income. Their two-room mud dwelling is now being redesigned into a six-room concrete house.

Shamlal Jharyal, the headman (pradhan) of Charuri village adds: “Earlier, this panchayat had lost up to 100 hectare of agricultural land because of either lack of adequate water, flooding or lack of proper soil treatment. We now seem to have reversed that trend.” For the community, ownership of assets and active participation in their own development seems to be one of the major driving forces in creating livelihood opportunities.

Self-help groups

While their land is clearly reaping rich harvest for the villagers, their womenfolk are unleashing a silent revolution. The self-help groups and user groups are helping women undertake several income-generating activities.

“My husband, a trucker, earns around Rs 6,000 a month. Now thanks to the Project, I am earning as much as my husband does, through different income-generating activities. I don’t have to ask him for money,” proclaimed Bini Devi proudly.

“Self-dependent” seems to be the new buzzword among women in village after village in this picturesque mountainous state, and they use those words quite often. Change is evident – they are more self-assured and definitely more assertive.

“The women’s groups have been one of the main driving forces for the Project. At the moment there are more than 5,000 groups that are actively managing several of the Project’s activities,” said R. K. Kapoor, the Project Director.

Strengthening community level institutions

This truly reflects the mechanism that was followed in designing the Project. In fact, the focus of the Project in the first one-and-a-half years was on building local level institutions through community mobilization where women played a major role. Other initiatives that followed included enhancing biomass productivity in both arable and non-arable land; extensive soil conservation activities, sustainable agricultural practices through moisture retention and revival of various traditional water conservation practices. The result: For the first time, communities are now getting surplus water for both irrigation and for drinking purposes; there is adequate water for both rabi (winter) and khariff (summer) seasons with 100 per cent cropping intensity as against 0-15 percent productivity levels three years back; and high value crops have been introduced to double yield.

Such success has also brought forth several challenges. The Project covers only 20 percent of the state and the challenge for the government will be in garnering resources and manpower to replicate it for the rest.

Having now established a good natural resource base and livelihood opportunities in Project areas, the real measure of success will be evaluated when it is able to catalyze social change along with improving incomes where people are able to demand better healthcare, better education and better sanitation.

The Bio-Carbon Sub-Project: A win-win scenario in HP

In village after village in Himachal Pradesh, resource-poor farmers are being pushed to the brink of poverty because of lack of cash incentives to take on afforestation work and denial of timber rights under the existing forest conservation rules. This scenario is set to change with the Bio-Carbon Project which will provide livelihood options to the rural poor by making them a strategic seller of carbon credit from plantation.

While catchment treatment and soil conservation is an integral part of the Mid- Himalayan Watershed Development Project, afforestation work was not gaining momentum because of stringent forest rules. This scenario will soon change with the Bio-Carbon Project underway in about 10,000 Ha of non-arable and degraded common/forest land.

The focus is only on afforestation for which the farmers will receive cash incentives by being potential sellers of carbon credit on three types of land – non-arable agriculture waste land; degraded forest land; and degraded common property land. Apart from creating a carbon sink, the Project aims to develop innovative and cost effective ways to minimize climate change risks. This will provide multiple benefits to the resource-poor farmers through meeting their needs of timber, pulpwood, firewood, minor forest produces along with carbon credits as cash incentives.

“Earlier, there used to be open grazing in our forests. People from other villages would also come and raid our trees. We are now protecting it and are also responsible for managing it,” said 75-year-old Kushi Ram in Baddi village in Kangra district, where the first plantation was raised in 2007-08. Out of 30-hectare area for afforestation and plantation work, 10 hectare is reserved under the Bio-Carbon Project. Each family is expected to earn Rs 4,000 to Rs 7,000 per hectare per year once the project gets underway.

What is critical here is that this will not only generate environmental benefits through carbon sequestration but also improve revenue-generating capacity of small farmers, thereby contributing to poverty alleviation and ensuring environmental sustainability as outlined under the Millennium Development Goal.However, establishing institutional mechanisms and giving the community the rights to manage forestland was not an easy task. The HP government took major steps to extend the tenure rights to the community through special contractual procedures which were approved by its cabinet. In fact the state is now in the process of creating a roadmap to make HP a carbon neutral state.

Such an intervention seems to be a win-win strategy for both the government and the communities. The government is able to get afforestation work done and villagers too feel they have a stake in protecting the forest.