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Anand Kapoor, the co-founder of tribal advocacy group Shashwat, passed away last month at his home in Manchar, a town near Pune. He was 65. Kapoor was an automobile engineer by training. He studied at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kharagpur, but chose to work along with his wife, Kusum Karnik, for the Mahadeo Koli, Thakar and Katkari tribes of the forested Bhimashankar area in Maharashtra.

The couple started Shashwat in the 1990s, and worked passionately and relentlessly for years. Recognition came in 2012 with the Equator Prize from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), acknowledging their “outstanding community efforts to reduce poverty through conservation of biodiversity.”

Shashwat developed as a true grassroots initiative in response to the displacement of tribal peoples by construction of the Dimbhe dam in the 1980s, submerging eleven villages and destroying cropland in another thirteen.

In a research paper co-authored with a fellow activist, Kapoor wrote passionately: “The Dimbhe dam always provoked me to anger and despair. I have seen these once-green paddy terraces and the small, peaceful hamlets with quaint, red-tiled roofs and the bustling market town of Ambegaon go below the water, the gentle, soft-spoken tribal people of this area transported to faraway resettlement colonies with their few belongings and cattle…”

He further wrote how the dam was filled to capacity in 2000, inundating 2202 hectares land of tribals. “The face of the command area changed completely due to irrigation. The fields are lush green round the year and farmers grow all sorts of vegetables, fruit and flowers. Yet the displaced and affected families have only suffered the backlash of development. They lost all their best lands near the river and have been forced to shift to the hill slopes above the water level, to somehow eke out a living on stony land.”

Over the years, the organisation helped local communities to develop small-scale fishing activities in the dam reservoir, and improve agricultural production on the remaining cultivatable land, much of it located on steep slopes.

The dam reservoir was well-stocked with fish and Shashwat supported the local population to obtain fishing leases, boats and nets. The community came out with their own solutions that included a state-of-the-art technique of rearing fish in floating cages & pens, collective management, net size regulations, strictly observed closed season, and a ban on dynamite fishing to ensure fish stocks were replenished.

On the other hand, tribal farmers were encouraged to cultivate small paddy terraces on steep slopes in the local catchment area. Through lobbying and partnership with the local government, the organization successfully provided farmers with light-weight pumps and pipelines for crop irrigation.

The organisation also supported the locals with land tenure securitisation (official ownership documents). Revenues from Shashwat activities were reinvested into eight primary schools and a health clinic that primarily served women and children.

One of Shashwat’s first endeavours was to initiate dialogue between tribal communities and the Government of Maharashtra. The goal was to leverage financial support for the construction of terraced paddy fields on the steep slopes overlooking the reservoir – slopes which, until that point, had limited the ability of the displaced communities to undertake productive agriculture.

The negotiations took years. In 2002, the state government agreed to fund a pilot project under the rubric of the Maharashtra Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. Between 2002 and 2004, 203 farmers participated in the construction of paddy terraces on their lands. The work was carried out using the traditional ‘padkai’ system - a practice of community mutual aid in which community members work together on a rotating basis to complete work on individual plots of land.

The paddy terracing pilot project was the first of its kind in Maharashtra. Because of its overwhelming success, the government was compelled in 2010 to implement a full rural employment scheme in the area. Initially sanctioned and funded by the Tribal Development Department, the programme expanded from five villages in 2010 to 20 villages in 2011-2012. The programme was also approved for replication in other hilly areas of Maharashtra under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS).

Shashwat also supported community conservation of local forests and sacred groves and assisted communities in advocating for their rights to use local forests. The tribal communities of the area have traditionally conserved sacred groves in the forests surrounding their villages. To document and profile community relationships with the local forests, and their commitment to sustainable forest management, Shashwat initiated the People’s Forest Research Institute.

The establishment of this institute addressed a clear and persistent problem in the region: a lack of appreciation for the environment and development benefits possible from community-based forest management.

Before the Shashwat fishing cooperative was established, the Dimbhe reservoir was almost barren, with less than half the net aquatic productivity required for sufficient fish production. By stocking the lake and planting dhencha or taag green manure crops on the banks of the reservoir – banks that become submerged when the water level rises – the cooperative has effectively rejuvenated populations of a number of fish species and restored a fully functioning ecosystem. The conservation and sustainable use of the lake ecosystem has become a source of community pride and a rallying point for community action.

Perhaps the most significant impact of Shashwat’s work has been the empowerment of tribal communities that were displaced by construction of the Dimbhe dam. It encouraged these communities to demand more from their government representatives, to invest in the community as a source of transformational change at the level of landscape and economy, and to defend community ownership of land and stewardship of natural resources.

As Kapoor wrote: “How long could we continue to bemoan the fact that these people just happened to be born on the upstream side of the dam wall?”

From day one, Shashwat’s work was guided by the underlying belief that one must respect the people one works with. “Our vision and mission are not written on a board somewhere high above the office, they are discussed; and the values we believe in – fraternity, equality, freedom, justice, truth, love of fellow human beings, and valuing physical labour – are often brought up regarding day-to-day matters, thus keeping this spirit alive,” Kapoor would remind those who cared to listen.

Today the tribal women are rearing goldfish, the men are busy farming the terraced fields and the young are pursuing education. For them, Kapoor’s passing away would certainly be an irreparable loss.

Yet, as he himself would say, the struggle continues and hope burns bright.

Comments   

#1 Lourdes Cardozo Laur 2015-02-13 21:57
We send our condolences to Mrs. Kusum Karnik on the death of our dear Anand Kapoor.
I met Mr Anand during the Equator Initiative awards ceremony in 2012 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and I was very excited about his work in India.
In 2014, I met Mrs. Kusum in Bangalore. The strength of Anand and Kusum's work still shines and is a source of inspiration for our struggle in our communities here in Brazil.
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