A region from where Gandhiji steered the struggle for Indian independence, sitting in Sevagram Ashram could have so much of neglect and pathos was difficult to understand. Despite a large number of farmers suicide, frequent droughts and deprivation and indebtedness, the state can be so complacent. Some of the NGOs working with Sevagram and others supported by K N Bajaj Foundation are trying to make a dent on the situation. Many of them met at Sevagram on May 5 to discuss what could be done to follow up the lessons likely to be learnt from the Shodhyatra. The Bapu’s kutir had the signatures of Miraben in the design and other embellishments. Maltiben took us around the cattle shed, where every cow, calf and breeding bull had a name. The calves will come out of their enclosure in the sequence in which the mother cows will be milked. So much discipline among the calves would shame any human society. It was ironic that there were not too many young people running the ashram. But among many institutions including Magan Sanghralaya, there were young leaders who were trying to work together to maintain the spirit of service to humanity. There were efforts to make a bank of mahua flowers so that local community could use it when needed. A directory of local seed producers had been developed to encourage exchange of seeds among the farmers. A help line for depressed farmers had also been established. A Science and Technology Commission had been set up at Ghadchiroli to spearhead the local development through local knowledge with the help of Gondwana University. Dr and Mrs Abhay Bang had been spearheading a movement to connect formal and informal systems of knowledge, culture and institutions. There were outstanding traditions narrated in the workshop. There used to be mud walls made out of gadhi soil, which cannon balls could not penetrate, in the olden times. Using stone apple, pulse powder, lime and sand, a mixture was made which would keep the structures intact for centuries. Low carbon footprint and long life, extreme affordability were achieved by drawing upon the genius of local artisans. Dr. Ullas Jajoo, faculty at Kasturba Medical College had inspired many voluntary groups to work towards organic food and other sustainable activities. Deepak Barde had made selection of local varieties and shared the seeds with the farmers openly. When cotton traders in Mumbai introduced Bajaj to Gandhiji, they may not have realized a long lasting relationship that was going to be forged.
A thought displayed in Sevagram remained with every shodhyatri, “only when we align the soul, the heart, the mind and the body, can real education take place.” The yatra for the next week was the test for all of us to track this alignment. In the very first village outside of Sevagram, we had shared a database of innovations and organized demonstrations of several innovative devices. Idea was to carry many low cost prototypes including cycle based sprayer, hoe, low cost high efficiency stove and a tanker based sprinkler irrigation system with us during the walk. The enthusiasm of local communities towards these grassroots innovations was very encouraging. Dharamveer had carried his multipurpose fruit processing machine to show how could local farmers add value to the local produce and improve their income.
I will share more insights learnt during the Shodhyatra in the coming weeks. I must add that we came across many farmers and particularly women householders who were full of hope and faith in future. The fact that hundreds of litres of whey milk was thrown away instead of using it for human nutrition or crop growth promoter was a testimony to the knowledge gap that still continues to exist in our society. The numerous examples of using whey milk after making cheese for agriculture and human consumption had not somehow reached them. A tribal region with pastoral economy had tremendous opportunity for improving livestock based opportunities. The small structures for water conservation were almost absent everywhere. But there were canals in which water had never flown showing the extent to which administrative system had taken people for granted. There were posters in every school about pest control but primarily through chemicals. Apart from a brief reference to a bio control, there was no mention of non-chemical agronomic and herbal pesticide based control measures. In a Gandhian hinterland, the concept of self-reliance, mutual learning and sustainable resource management had been given a complete go-by. But, the hope lies in the curiosity of hundreds of farmers and children we met who wish to turn a new leaf. If Chief Minister of Maharashtra reads this column, he must definitely reflect on the need for reviving the self-help potential of the society by building upon people’s knowledge, skills and values.