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How NGO's 'sustained work' has brought hope to weaker section villagers of Bundelkhand

By Bharat Dogra* 
 In times of climate change and adverse weather conditions, rural livelihoods come under increasing strain and there is increasing need for efforts which can protect sustainable livelihoods, particularly in the context of small and marginal famers and other weaker sections. In Bundelkhand region of Central India the work of Arunodaya Sansthaan (AS), a voluntary organization, has consistently lived up to this role. 
As this organization completes its two decades of work ( 2003-23) this year, it can take well-deserved pride in bringing hope to several villages with its many-sided efforts.
Arunoday Sansthaan (AS) has worked in Mahoba and Banda districts (Uttar Pradesh) as well as Chattarpur district ( Madhya Pradesh). Even at an early stage of its work, AS did not hesitate to accept the challenge of more difficult conditions in some of the villages where it worked. In Kutra village, for example, some experts wondered if it was advisable for the young organization to accept the task of soil and water conservation in a village with dune-like conditions where this work was considered to be very difficult.
As Abhishek Mishra, founder coordinator of AS, recalls, an experienced official estimated the cost of this work at around 2 million Rs. but the available funds were only half million Rs. However, by adopting cost saving methods and involving community members closely, AS was able to complete this work satisfactorily within the highly limited budget, Abhishek recalls.
Elsewhere there was also the challenge of making rural communities accept some new approaches and methods. Several farmers were initially reluctant about the idea of farm ponds, but when this gave good results in the first few efforts then there was more ready acceptance. 
Similarly regarding some changes in soil conservation practices, AS followed the approach of working patiently to first achieve success on a few plots of land and then convincing people on the basis of what they could see so near to them. This helped to ensure more willing and enthusiastic involvement of villagers.
Working first with the cooperation of a voluntary organization Srijan and then with Niti Ayog, AS contributed to the cleaning and silt removal from nearly 70 village tanks. This fertile silt was taken by farmers to their farms, and this in turn contributed to conducive conditions for the spread of natural farming on many of these farms.
Multi-layer vegetable gardens and fruit orchards contributed further to increased income and sustainable livelihoods of small and marginal farmers. Farmer producer organization contributed further to increasing returns from farm produce sales and value addition.
A consistent effort of AS has been to enable people from weaker sections to gain better access to various government schemes for their welfare. This is discussed at monthly meetings, followed by help for preparing applications complete with various documents that may be needed.
One aspect of this work which is emphasized by AS is to look out if any really poor family has been left out from the list of beneficiaries and then try to ensure the inclusion of this family in the list of beneficiaries. This is important in the present conditions when influential persons seek to include themselves or their supporters even though they may be quite well-off and hence those who really need government help may get left out. 
AS activists bring such cases to the attention of officials with the aim of getting really deserving cases included in the list of beneficiaries.
AS activities increase further in times of more acute distress, whether caused by an acute drought or the recent pandemic or other crisis situations. During acute drought times AS has been active in establishing food banks, arranging food distribution and seeds distribution. In many settlements of its work area AS contributed significantly to the ability of the people to meet their basic needs. In addition it assisted many returning migrant workers.
At the time of a spate of farmers’ suicides, AS activists led by Abhishek contacted several farmer households and offered their help.
Several landless households are given farmland pattas but are unable to cultivate them because of the pressures of powerful persons or encroachments made by them. AS has extended help to several hundred persons who faced such difficulties.
Apart from its work relating to soil and water conservation, natural farming and tank/well protection and renovation, AS has been involved in the planting of over 2 lakh trees. Hand pump repair work in several hamlets of the poor helped in reducing their water crisis.
AS has helped several victims of injustice, and the strength of this campaign in the earlier days contributed a lot to bringing it close to people in several villages in a short time. Most of these victims have belonged to Dalits or other weaker sections. As Malkhaan, a senior activist, recalls: 
“We held public hearings, we organized special yatras or public marches to go from village to village to raise social consciousness on justice related issues. In this way more information about victims became available and a strong voice against injustice could also be raised.”
Such efforts received close cooperation from women’s Chingari organization.
During a serious drought situation AS drew repeated attention to the distress being suffered by people, and in the course of this work several cases of fraud relating to rural loans were also exposed. This also attracted national level attention and AS feels strongly that this contributed to the loan waiver announced at the national level.
With the help of Chingari organization, Arunoday has contributed significantly to the success of taking up several cases of injustice suffered by women and helping to get justice in many such cases. This work is also rooted in the nearly 176 women’s self-help groups organized in the work area of AS.
Several landless households are given farmland pattas but are unable to cultivate because of the pressures of powerful persons
These groups have reduced the dependence on exploiter moneylenders by helping women to meet their emergency or other credit needs, facilitated the cooperation and unity of women in confronting several common problems and in addition provided a strong base for taking up and resolving several cases of injustice suffered by women. 
The opposition offered by these groups to any injustice against women has created conditions in which the possibility of extreme cases of injustice has decreased in these villages.
On the other hand, the possibilities of women of stepping beyond the traditional limits and playing a wider social role have increased. Even with very little education and sometimes with hardly any formal education women have come forward to play an important role in taking up and resolving several problems relating to women or even wider problems of their village.
Apart from women’s groups, 36 groups of adolescent girls called Kishori Samoohs have also been organized. These have helped to improve their education and health, while avoiding possibilities of child marriage.
Some separate groups of adolescent boys too have been organized. In the smaller age-group, joint groups of male and female children called bal samoohs have been organized, which are linked to wider efforts to improve education and the functioning of village schools. In a particularly shocking recent case a teacher was exposed for sexual exploitation of students and following this exposure, he was jailed.
AS has been active in the reform of panchayati raj or rural self-government agencies. It has helped several elected representatives from weaker sections, including women, to overcome difficulties created by powerful persons. In Thurhat village, for example, when a Dalit representative was being threatened and her husband had even been attacked, it was the timely help provided by AS which helped to resolve a difficult situation here.
At the same time, despite making prolonged and sincere efforts, in some cases AS could not achieve the desired results due to the odds being heavily against them. The khadi cloth of Belatal is famous for its quality and the weavers here are known for their special skills. Unfortunately, a powerful and corrupt person gained institutional control and started selling other cloth under a wrong label, thereby depriving highly skilled weavers of their livelihood.
Despite the adversary being very powerful, AS fought a long battle to bring justice to weavers, and although at one time the battle appeared to have been almost won, eventually the livelihood of weavers could not be restored.
From time to time such adversities also have to be faced, but at the same time AS has been able to bring hope to a significant number of people and villages in the course of its 20 year journey so far. This journey which started with 15 panchayats in Mahoba district has now reached about 80 panchayats in 3 districts of two states (Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh). AS looks forward to continuing and extending its work with commitment and zeal.
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*Honorary convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include “Planet in Peril”, “Man over Machine” and “India’s Quest for Sustainable Farming and Healthy Food”

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