With 70 percent of Tamil Nadu’s population reliant on agriculture and related activities for their livelihoods, awareness and education about land conservation and organic farming methods are vitally important for a sustainable future. Marie McEvoy ventures to a rural area near Nilakottai in the Dindigul District to learn about the Centre for Improved Rural Health and Environmental Protection (CIRHEP), an NGO working at a community level to bring about change, not only for farmers and their families, but also for future generations
India, a country of contrasts: bustling, dusty cities, arid deserts, snowy mountains, and lush green farmland; intense beauty interspersed with pollution of varying severity, and a desperate need for clean water. It has a population of around one billion people, where 48 of the world’s billionaires (according to Forbes Magazine 2012 list) share the same air as almost a third of the world’s poor who languish in substandard living conditions. In a place with several social inequalities and ecological issues, it is difficult to know which areas to address first, how much aid to give, and on how large a scale these actions should be. Each state has its own individual problems and prospects, and methods of rectifying them.
Agriculture and associated activities provide employment to around 70 percent of Tamil Nadu’s population. The relationship between farming, conservation and health presents both a challenge and a solution for a more sustainable future. Creating and promoting positive change is often best led by non government organisation (NGOs) who work at a local level with a community focus. The Centre for Improved Rural Health and Environmental Protection (CIRHEP) is a registered voluntary NGO that currently focuses on the integrated development of 32 villages situated around the Kadavakurichi Hills, 4 kilometres southwest of Nilakottai town in Dindigul District, Tamil Nadu. \
“An NGO is not a single man organisation. It is a group of people running the show”
CIRHEP was set up in 1994 by a group of six passionate people following their involvement in the Palani Hills Conservation Council (PHCC) based in the Western Ghats. Now CIRHEP President K. A. Chandra, 55, a social worker and educationist trained in Sweden, joined together with PHCC founder J. Jeyakaran, CIRHEP Secretary P.M. Mohan, 50, M. Kasuppiah, 50, K.V Ramamaj, 49, and Dhakshina Moonthy, 45. J. Jeyakaran, an authority in biodynamics, and P.M.Mohan, who has over 14 years experience in natural resources management and biodiversity conservation, had known each other already for five years, and would often plant trees and seedlings as a hobby. Mohan also witnessed the conservation activities taking place in Auroville, near Puducherry.
“An NGO is not a single man organisation. It is a group of people running the show,” Mr Mohan explained. CIRHEP works in conjunction with the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD) and Future Earth, a Swedish Group, to deliver a number of different projects such as Watershed Development Programmes (WDPs), Nature Schools, Self Help Groups (SHGs) for Women, and organic and biodynamic agriculture. Mr Mohan said the idea is to “Create a sustainable human – ecology relationship and improve the quality of rural life by striving to alleviate poverty, provide education and conserve the environment with active participation of the rural community.”
Watershed Development Programmes (WDPs) are one of the larger schemes, assisted by NABARD and currently covering over 5,000 hectares of land within five main areas in Dindugul district: Kadavakuriciho, Musuvanuthu, Mallanampatty, Kombaipatty and Sivagnanapuram. A watershed is the entire area that supplies water to a central stream or river, or an area that collects rainwater and drains through gullies and streams to one outlet. If not managed properly, it can lead to flooding, causing the loss of nutritious topsoil, micro-organisms and much needed water.
Depending on the needs of the farmers, there are several methods available within a WDP, such as check dams, stone walls, sunken ponds and rainwater harvesting. These enable ground water levels to rise to help maintain soil health for crop cultivation, and replenish wells for drinking water.
Dry and drought prone villages and those with noticeable soil erosion are selected for the scheme. When people first settled in the Kadadakurichi hills area, they discovered a wealth of fertile soil in which they grew water intensive crops such as coconuts, bananas and rice. These crops, however, are classed as using ‘inappropriate agricultural processes’ and one of the main reasons why the area was identified as requiring assistance.
Nilakottai is P. M. Mohan’s native place, so he wanted to start here and give back to his community by bringing about sustainable change to agriculture in the area. “We wanted to create a model where these degraded wastelands can be made into more productive agricultural lands.”
He believes that WDPs are one of the best methods to help restore the lands. It is basic work that has such a positive impact: “In this area, most of the people migrated to other places because they felt that it was not a good area for living. The only reason that this place became like this [not suitable for cultivation and livelihood] was because of the mismanagement of natural resources.” He explained how native dwellers may move away to bigger cities and towns but, being more experienced in agriculture, they experience difficulties finding employment there, and may be forced to get involved in illegal activities to earn a living. Mohan wanted help farmers be self-sufficient enough to be able to settle in their birthplaces.
“We will concentrate on the farmers and make them self reliant, increase the fertility of the soil and improve the technologies and products that they are using”
He shared one of his proudest moments at CIRHEP so far: “For one watershed, we spent Rs. 450 lakh, but the return that we get now from the WDP is almost Rs. 6 crores (6 million).”
Another commendable achievement was highlighted by P. Ramesh Pandyan, 29, Training Co-ordinator at CIRHEP. He explained that in Tamil Nadu, the centre was the first organisation to pioneer watershed development programmes. Now, there are more than 150. After people came and saw examples within the model farm, they started replicating the methods in their own native villages.
Between 1998 and 1999, just before WDPs were rolled out, CIRHEP also started a drip irrigation project. Every farmer in the area now uses this simple, cost effective method. For an hour every morning from 6:00am – 7:00am,10,000 litres of water from a tank flows through tubing dotted with small holes hydrating crops for up to 5 days. It has proved particularly effective because it is not labour intensive and requires little maintenance. In fact, tests have shown that more than 40 plants can be watered with just 10 litres.
Keeping it natural
CIRHEP’s progress so far has been separated into two decade long stages: 2000-2010 and 2010-2020. In stage one, they formed ‘the people’s organisation.’ Mohan said that they succeeded in, “Converting land that the people thought was barren into workable areas that they can cultivate and from which they can make a living and profit. We have set a foundation now for the future, and we have created a system to work towards that.”
To achieve their aims for the next 10 years, he states, “We will concentrate on the farmers and make them self reliant, increase the fertility of the soil and improve the technologies and products that they are using.” They hope this will take the people of the local villages “to the next stage in life.”
Mr. P. Pandimuni, 32, educates farmers about using organic methods and biocontrol. One of the benefits of these methods is low input costs. Previously, when using chemically based fertilizers and pesticides to cultivate one crop cycle, it would cost a farmer between Rs. 7,000 and Rs. 9,000, meaning that once they had garnered the produce, they would just about break even. By using natural methods, he said, the costs are reduced to around Rs.3,000 and, although the size of the profit made is relative to the size of the farm, farmers are now more able to meet additional expenses such as medicine and education for their children.
He also helps provide seeds to farmers, depending on what they want to cultivate, the expanse of land available to them, and the type of soil. Someone from the NGO will go to the field and assess the soil, check the water sources and levels, give training, and support the management of the land accordingly. About 75 percent of the work is done during follow up checks to give continual feedback on progress to alleviate doubts and concerns of dubious farmers. Ironically enough, he said that they were worried about incurring losses by using natural methods, but once they become more aware of the problems caused by chemical farming, which is essentially like slow poisoning, they become more responsive.
Biocontrol is a way of diverting insects and harmful creatures away from crops using no poisonous, expensive pesticides. A recommended strategy is to grow castor seeds around the healthy plant to act as a diversion. Another approved method is creating a deterrent mixture made with cow urine and the leaves of five medicinal plants, crushed, mixed and left for five to seven days, at no real cost to the farmer. The point of organic farming is a simple, peaceful one: to keep things natural, follow the food chain, and not kill anything.
Before informing villagers about any scheme, CIRHEP will first test it, and only when they are satisfied that it meets their standards will they tell people how to implement it. Trialing organic farming methods takes two to three years.
Different kinds of manures are applied to see what works best. The main success stories are vermicompost, which uses earthworms, and Panchakavya, an organic fertilizer made from five types of cow products: cow dung, curd, cow urine, milk and ghee. The cow derived concoction is mixed together with coconut, water, banana and jaggery, and allowed to ferment before being applied to crops in particular saporta and jasmine flowers.
The organic fertilizer helps improve the quality of the yield. Previously, once a crop had been harvested, farmers would burn whatever was left in the field, seeing it as a waste product. As part of their training, CIRHEP teaches farmers that this material can be used to nourish the next set of produce, and the land becomes accustomed to housing more than one sort of crop. Organic fertilizer helps enhance the fragrance of flowers such as marigolds and jasmine, one of the main exports of the village, enabling farmers to fetch higher price at local flower markets.
Unfortunately the products are not certified organic, because it costs Rs.25,000 to obtain this classification. It has, however, been noted that shoppers can tell the difference in quality. There is not yet enough widespread knowledge with regards to organic farming to justify the expenditure of certification, even if several local farmers were to group together to gain it.
K. G. Ramachandran, 60, has 25 years experience in tackling environmental issues, and praised CIRHEP’s work in the area. “When I visited this place for the first time in 2000, it was a desert, completely covered by brown sand. Nothing was grown here. There was no prosperity at all. Now the villages are most prosperous,” he said. “This is one of the most successful watershed programmes in India.”
He comes to the centre to provide information for the presentations, and to talk about climate proofing. “Protecting farmers from the effects of climate change by educating them about it and what steps they can take to prevent and deal with it. They are not fully protected by the watershed alone – watershed is first aid.”
“The environment is not an isolated subject,” he continued. “In order to understand the environment, you need to understand biology, evolution, sociology, microbiology... the subjects are infinite.”
His take on organic farming, however, was a little more pessimistic. He believed in it, he said, but a totally organic future was highly unlikely. “India is a densely populated country. When you have a big population, you need to feed them. And when you feed them, you have to practice some sort of monoculture; you cannot do organic farming in monoculture. Otherwise we have to change our food habits. Yet the government is promoting rice eating; rice is very heavily subsidized and very freely distributed to poor people. Every family gets 20 kilos of rice, so they’re not going to change.” This is in addition to the fact that the Government subsidises about 30 percent of pesticides, he informed us.
Farming for a Future
Ayyanan, 83, and his son A. Venkatachalapathy, 43, are farmers in the Veelinayakampatti village, where the first biogas plant in the area in being trialled., Funded by Krishi Vigyan Kendra (KVK) and NABARD, the hole is filled with a mixture of cow dung and water, and covered with a drum. Once formed, the biogas is transferred through an underground pipe to the kitchen of the family house where it is used for cooking. So far, enough biogas is produced to cook food for five members of the family.
“If we don’t start organic farming now, then we are not going to have any lands left, and the whole soil is going to be wasted”
Ayyanan has been working in agriculture since he was ten years old, and can recall a time before chemical fertilizers. It is almost as though the process is turning full circle. “We just used cow dung. This is the only method that was good.” His son, A. Venkatachalapathy, followed his family footsteps into farming, and was dismayed at the condition of the lands when he first started out aged 20. There were no clean drinking water facilities, he explained, and the land was very dry. They would go about 10 km from their farm to Anaipatti, near the Vaigai River in Madurai, to get water. The education system was also so poor that the people of the village used to pay each student Rs.5 to make them go to school, and the teachers were paid Rs.150 to teach.
Now, as owner of the lands and head of the family, he is concerned for the future. “Even in our time, this place is very bad; maybe in our children’s time there is a possibility that this place could change into a desert.” With this in mind, he joined hands with CIRHEP, and got actively involved in the NABARD Farmers Clubs, where they run evening school schemes for children and older people.
His wife is also part of a CIRHEP self-help group, and looks after the farm whilst he takes care of the watershed. The whole village is involved in the watershed programme, and he said their lives have improved significantly, with all the children in the village going on to complete their schooling. In some families, members have even progressed enough to receive their Bachelors degree. On a personal level, Venkatachalapathy said, his family have, “A very good status, and that is because all the people in the village are good. If others are good, we will also be.”
He is fully in favour of organic farming too. He can grow chilies, chrysanthemums and coffee, as well as taking fresh honey from his beehive. In the next few years, he wants to cultivate his crops using solely organic methods, if only for health reasons. There is a concern that he and younger generations will not enjoy the same life span as his father, due to the quality of the food they have consumed for most of their lives, most of which has been grown and treated with chemicals. Now he only cooks what he grows himself. “I just thought about it one day – already my longevity is going to be less; how will it be for my sons and daughters if this chemical process goes on?”
He has been receiving training from CIRHEP for the past ten years, and in the future, he is adamant that the term ‘chemicals’ should not be heard anywhere. “If we don’t start organic farming now, then we are not going to have any lands left, and the whole soil is going to be wasted.”
Mr. Mohan also believes that India can become a wholly organic nation. He acknowledges that it will not be a hasty process, but the benefits will be much more long term. “We are looking 100-1000 years ahead. Chemical farming has had a very negative impact, and we should try to change the mindset of the people and create awareness about organic farming,” he said. Through the promotion of these methods, CIRHEP’s aim is to,“Maintain the natural resources, for the future generations to come. We don’t have a right to spoil natural resources just because we want to increase productivity.”
When we visited CIRHEP’s training centre, a day – long tutorial was underway. In attendance were approximately 23 people from the village of Konnkkonnad in Kerala, where one watershed development programme is ongoing. As it is a hilly and therefore considerably more sloped area than the flat plains of Tamil Nadu, they had come to the area to compare water flow. There were several women within the group who claimed they had come to learn to be self-sufficient with support from SHGs.
One member, Mini Matthew, has a poultry farm, breeds cattle, and is involved in banana cultivation. Some women had even climbed the ranks to become heads of their villages, thanks to an elevated status as a result of leadershihp skills developed through self – improvement. One of CIRHEP focuses, as Mohan explained, is “Showing the people that they can solve their problems on their own.”
In the Kadavakurichi Hills area, there are 100 women in SHGs, where they are advised on how to open bank accounts and given awareness about financial loans. P. Rajkumar, 35, a trainer at the centre since 2004, said, “This is a temporary solution.” The logic behind their approach is that once a person is aware, they will then be in a position to come out of poverty and support themselves financially. “Other self help groups provide loans, this one provides awareness.”
Through SHGs, groups of up 10 women and some individuals will take a lease on a portion of land for a specific number of years, on which they will cultivate crops and earn a living. After six months to a year, they will take the profits from the yields and share it amongst themselves. Every group has a president, secretary and treasurer, ensuring that they obtain book keeping and accountancy skills, and realise the importance of being thrifty.
Mr. Mohan said, “Women must be able to handle money, and they can use that money for their children’s education, and for their personal needs. This is why CIRHEP is providing them with options such as revolving funds provided by NABARD.” Revolving funds support the ongoing programme of SHGs. Money is given to groups, and once a profit has been earned, the funds are then replenished back to the benefactors, who then invest the funds back into other SHGs. Other income generation programmes include beekeeping and honey processing, garland making, and mushroom cultivation, all of which help women improve their skills, become more independent, and advance their status. These methods also mean that borrowing has decreased, and that they can send their children to school, thus increasing the quality of life for future generations.
CIRHEP also houses 21 pharmacy laboratories to teach people about new pharmaceutical methods, so that they may move on from using traditional ways of advancing their health and sanitation. They are planning to increase the number of laboratories by way of a project called CRL – a new scheme started in collaboration with DATA, an NGO based in Madurai.
Children are the future
CIRHEP is also concentrating on supporting and educating children, both in life skills and the environment. In 2010, a new project was founded to raise awareness about issues affecting adolescent girls. Groups of 15 teenage girls make up forums for discussions on issues such as reproductive health and hygiene, early marriage and pregnancy, and gender equality. There are forthcoming plans to establish similar groups for boys.
In 2000, with funding from Future Earth, a Nature School was founded to teach children ways to lead a more conservation aware life through activities and play. People who have completed high school or done teachers training, a bachelors or masters degree, or even those still in high school but who have a lot of knowledge in a particular field, teach the children. Topics covered include: how to conserve energy, methods of organic farming, protecting and maintaining watersheds, and decreasing water wastage.
The team at CIRHEP believe that the children are the future of any country, state or place, so values are being ingrained in them from as early an age as possible. Free eco-clubs run on a daily basis, where older high school children teach approximately 20 of their juniors. Special attention is also paid to ‘dropouts’ – those that have left school due to financial reasons, but still want to study.
CIRHEP sees the bigger picture by valuing and encouraging the cycle of continuous learning. Farmers who have been taught the new techniques and shown new technologies, then pass on what they have learnt to other farmers. ,Even heads of NGOs and government level officers from NABARD attend training days at CIRHEP. With guidance and leadership from organisations such as CIRHEP, India and its people will continue to learn that ‘the environment’ is not restricted in meaning to just flora and fauna. ‘The environment’ is the culmination of all living things, and the way in which they must coexist in a sustainable way for years, decades and centuries to come. Education is not just about acquiring the skills for the modern workplace, but rather for the modern world and all it encompasses. People are learning that co-operation with the land will create a better life for themselves. At the heart of this approach is the concept of working together as a community on a local and global scale.
With mutual understanding, positive thinking and patience, the small steps taken now will hopefully yield significant and sustainable results for the earth and its population. As K. G. Ramachandran pointed out earlier, to truly understand the environment, you need to have a wider scope of knowledge on subjects that influence it. But with improved education comes improved awareness. After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day.