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Working with Adivasis to create farming system 'suitable for local nutrition needs'

By Bharat Dogra*

At a time of increasing economic inequalities and ecological ruin, the search for alternative development paradigms has increased and an important aspect of these efforts has been to learn more about indigenous and tribal cultures and world-views as a source of guidance. 
While these efforts can be seen more in a few countries like Bolivia and Ecuador, there have been some scattered efforts in India as well.
Such efforts in India and elsewhere often seek a better understanding and appreciation of the strengths of tribal communities. Such efforts are welcome at a time and in situations where frequents efforts have been made to impose alien development patterns on tribal communities without trying to understand if the tribal communities, in terms of the world-views and cultures, may have a much better heritage and the effort should be to build on these strengths instead of imposing something alien which may well be harmful and disruptive too for tribal communities.
It is heartening in such a situation that some organizations are making a conscious and very clear choice in favor of asserting the strengths of tribal communities and evolving a pathway of future progress in keeping with and respecting these strengths.
Vaagdhara, a voluntary organization has been working with tribal communities based on this understanding. Its work is concentrated more in Southern Rajasthan, although it also reaches out to a lesser extent to tribal communities in adjoining states of Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh (tribal tri-junction region).
It is interesting that Vaagdhara has tried to integrate this broad approach to more specific but also inter-related efforts to improve farming and related livelihoods, nutrition and health, education and child welfare. 
Towards this end, from 2015 onwards Vaagdhara has organized a number of conclaves as well as marches or yatras in the course of which hundreds of meetings have been called to evolve suitable policies, demands and actions in these important areas of development.
In the case of agriculture and livelihoods, a lot of emphasis has been placed on prioritizing the saving and spread of indigenous seeds of diverse crop varieties. Organic farming based on these seeds is promoted.
A campaign has been launched to create a farming system which is best suited to meeting local nutrition needs. At the same time other important aspects such as improving NREGA and seeking more support of government for marketing as well as obtaining a fair price for various kinds of produce of tribal communities have also been taken up.
In the case of nutrition, while anganwadis are demanded also for smaller villages and efforts to improve them are made, the main emphasis has been on a more holistic approach to nutrition. The rich bio-diversity associated with traditional life of tribal communities provided a much better and richer source of providing balanced nutrition compared to the communities and therefore protection of this biodiversity has been emphasized.
During 2021 a special nutrition campaign was launched, reaching about 750 villages, in which recipes based on nutritionally rich local foods were not just discussed in village meetings but in addition dishes based on these were actually cooked and served on the spot, mainly to children. This campaign also provided opportunities to improve health and nutrition monitoring of children, and to improve information on hygiene and immunization as well.
At the same time the importance of the subsidized rations provided by the government is recognized but policy change of providing a more diverse food-mix is recommended. Replacement of refined edible oils with natural oils is recommended.
A continuing campaign to reduce the consumption of tobacco and liquor carried out by Vaagdhara has also helped to improve health. Better status of traditional healers has been advocated, while better availability of herbs and plant based medicines has also been emphasized in the health programme.
An important aspect of the work of Vaagdhara has been to give very high priority to many-sided child welfare, and an approach that provides more room for participation of children as well in community level efforts.
Many efforts have been made to improve school and minimize the possibility of children dropping out, calling upon not just government help but mobilizing voluntary work from within the community as well. Beyond this, there are efforts to create more child-friendly villages, taking a more comprehensive view.
The efforts to strengthen democracy have emphasized community organizations as well as strengthening rural decentralization as per the provisions of PESA law, or the law for extension of panchayati raj to scheduled areas, and the various constitutional provisions for protecting rights of tribal communities.
In this context several conclaves of tribal sovereignty have been organized and the right as well as the need to seek the progress of tribal communities by building further on their various strengths has been asserted.
However, it must be recognized that these efforts must be seen along with the working of several other forces in society which follow a different approach and several forces which are also harmful to the interests of tribal communities. The net impact of such efforts must there be seen in the context of this wider reality. 
Nevertheless, the importance and the high relevance of such a participative approach which makes a conscious effort to gain a better understanding of and to build further on the strengths of tribal communities should be emphasized and such efforts should be welcomed.
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*Honorary convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now; recent books: ‘Planet in Peril’, ‘A Day in 2071’ and ‘Man over Machine’

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