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Bundelkhand poors' 20 yr struggle for land pattas, water conservation, natural farming

By Bharat Dogra* 

It was nearly 20 years back that a young social activist Basudev made the rather difficult decision to move from a bigger voluntary organization in Chitrakut to a very remote area called Marwada (Lalitpur district of Uttar Pradesh). This was an area much affected by feudal terror, and when a call for working here came there were not many takers. Finally Basudev decided to come, although coming here with family was a difficult decision for the young man.
Even earlier along with social activism he had been involved in reporting on issues relating to socio-economic injustices for leading Hindi newspapers, and these reports had attracted a lot of attention. He decided to make similar efforts here, but soon started getting into more trouble at the new place.
The new organization Bundelkhand Sewa Sansthaan (BSS) which he had started here was taking up rather tough issues like the poorest people including the Sahariya tribals not getting possession of the land pattas allotted to them.
At first some leading officials were angry at such complaints being repeatedly made by a new organization, but when one of them came for investigation and such complaints were confirmed by the affected people, the senior official went back with a new-found respect for the BSS. These and further efforts of the BSS helped about 280 families to get land.
However soon the new organization was in the middle of a new storm for raising the complaints made by many Sahariya tribals that they had been forced to eat rotis made from fikra grass due to widespread shortage of food in a difficult year, a situation aggravated by malfunctioning of the public distribution system at the local level. 
This led to a campaign for improving the public distribution system, and nearly 1,600 ration cards for supply of food grain in the cheapest category were sanctioned soon.
The BSS helped people to link up with government schemes at numerous levels, without getting entangled in the web of corruption.
While the earlier phase of the work of the BSS was dominated more by such advocacy of the rights of weaker sections, in the latter phase this work diversified to a considerable extent. 
However even when the earlier projects ended, the BSS continued the justice related work in some of its core area villages and even in its various constructive works a special care was taken to extend help to weaker sections. In particular the BSS has been more active for wider implementation of MGNREGA and for trying to ensure timely and proper payment of wages.
With the passage of time water conservation became a high priority for the BSS, with emphasis on farm ponds, small check dams and field bunds. At an early stage, the efforts of the BSS contribution to better utilization of the water of Bandai river. Perhaps the most creative work it has taken up in recent times has related to the revival of several rivers and rivulets.
Its efforts have been in the context of bringing to the attention of the panchayats and the administration ideas and possible sites for this work as well as mobilization of communities for this, while the actual work has often taken place under MGNREGA, bringing out the potential of this scheme for this kind of work also on a significant scale. The results of the river rejuvenation work can be seen particularly in the context of the Banai river and Odi river.
While most of this water conservation work has been taken up by the BSS in its core area of Marwada, in addition it has also taken this up this in other parts of Lalitpur district. In neighboring Tikamgarh district (Madhya Pradesh), the BSS has taken up water conservation work on both sides of Ur river.
Elsewhere also the BSS has been venturing beyond its core Area. In Damoh district of Madhya Pradesh the BSS combined forest rights act related work for land rights of tribal communities with watershed development work.
Bundelkhand NGO has helped spread natural farming with emphasis on cultivating diversity of vegetables
At the same time, a new project the BSS has initiated in Jhansi district has related to protection of child rights, reduction of child labour, protection of vulnerable children and reduction of child marriage. Even within a short period of a few months, some helpful results have been obtained in this work.
In its core area of Marwada new important work has started in the form of an adult-literacy (broadly 15-50 age group) among some of the poorest sections. This has received an encouraging response, with people coming in for classes even after a very tiring day’s work.
This is partly because the effort has kept various time options for people to attend classes, and partly due to the efforts to make the initiative more relevant to the needs of the people. In the 13 villages where this project is being implemented, the teachers also try in several ways to help people in difficult times, apart from helping to link them with some government schemes as well.
The BSS has helped in the spread of natural farming with more emphasis on cultivating a diversity of vegetables. Fruit orchards have also been promoted. The organization has also been involved in tree planting at various places.
The BSS has tried to use renewable energy in ways which are more relevant needs of the people here. Solar pumps, for example have been much appreciated in the context of irrigation, while in the more recent work of adult literacy, solar lamps will be used to light up some of the night classes.
The two decade journey has involved many-sided efforts, but the basic concern has always been to contribute to sustainable development of the region, with special emphasis on weaker and vulnerable areas. 
Increasingly by exploring opportunities of increasing the overall impact of its work by securing the cooperation of panchayats and administration, the BSS has tried to make an impact which is higher than its own limited resource-base.
Its recent emphasis on water conservation and natural farming is also significant in the context of its increasing importance in times of climate change. What is more, with the recent emphasis on taking tap water to all rural homes, the importance of water conservation has increased further and this is also reflected in the work of the BSS.
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*Honorary convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include “Man over Machine”, “Navjeevan” and “India’s Quest for Sustainable Farming and Healthy Food”

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