Living and Well-being In Our Hands

Living and Well-being In Our Hands

Veppur’s struggle for Dignity

Getting to Know the Most Backward Block in Tamil Nadu

Veppur Block is located within the Perambalur district of Tamil Nadu. It is mostly rural in nature, comprising of 44 revenue villages, 33 Village Panchayats and one Town Panchayat. Veppur can be broadly categorized as comprising five regions or ecological-economic zones.

  1. River and tank irrigated zone
  2. Black cotton soil
  3. Saline water and salinity affected zone
  4. Mining zone
  5. SEZ zone

More than 1/3rd of the population of Veppur Block is made up of Scheduled Castes and a small proportion of Scheduled Tribes. Women constitute a major portion of the agricultural work force that remains in the villages, while the men migrate in search of livelihood opportunities. Most of the population do not own land, and work as agricultural labour. In 2014, the wage rate was Rs 150 /day for women and Rs 200-250 /day for men.

Most people migrate to the nearest city for work. Many are engaged in unskilled labour work, transportation, and quite a few prepare and sell samosas. Some also work as masons, electricians, sellers of cooking vessels in exchange for old clothes, and as labour in construction or the hotel industry. Men from OBC communities migrate to the Gulf, Malaysia or Singapore and work in extremely harsh conditions in order to support their families back home.

 

The odds against Veppur

Health and well-being

Mining activities have adversely affected the health of the community in Veppur block. During the basing process in limestone mining, highly alkaline dust is thrown into the air, causing respiratory illness among the population. The leaching of limestone increases the alkalinity of the ground water, contaminating it and affecting thousands of acres of agricultural land. Villagers report that illegal mining is rampant in the area.

Both drinking water and irrigation water are major concerns in this block. If water access, availability, and storage are major issues regarding drinking water, inadequate storage and availability are major concerns with irrigation water.

Filthy identity

As in many rural parts of the country, open defecation is a major problem in Veppur. The main reason is not only the lack of toilets, but also the mind-set in rural areas that doesn’t easily accept placing a toilet within one’s own house. The SC’s have more particular problems, since they have space constraints within their homes. The Dalit colony lives in a very tightly contained area with little or no open space for community toilets. Non-Dalits who own land close to Dalit colonies are reluctant to give their lands for construction of community toilets. Most schools and Panchayat offices are not equipped with toilets, and neither are bus shelters or areas where local people gather. This poses a huge problem for women and young girls, who are forced to control their bladders until they return home.

The issue of sanitation is not just that of hygiene but also of self-esteem and social identity. It leads to freedom from the feeling of marginalization and liberates certain sections of the population who are identified as being ‘unclean’.

Loss of livelihood and self reliance

The main source of income and livelihood is agriculture. The block is part of a dry-land agricultural belt mostly dependent on rainfall. The soil is predominantly of low quality, ground water in many parts is saline and found mainly in deep aquifers. In the last 10-15 years, agriculture cropping patterns have undergone a shift from traditional millets and local varieties of corn to HYV/BT varieties which are fertilizer heavy. Nearly 76% of the cropped area is used to cultivate maize (mainly industrial for poultry feed and to some extent branded cornflakes), and BT cotton. In contrast to previous generations, no local vegetable crop is grown within Veppur block. Private traders and brokers purchase the produce at harvest times from the field itself, at rates considerably lower than market price. Local agents control the sale of seeds and fertilizers, and they also double as credit providers.

In 2007, nearly 3,000 acres of agriculture lands to the north-west of Veppur block were purchased by GVK Infratech Pvt. Ltd, a company from AP state, with the desire to establish an SEZ in the area. The offering price for the land was low, but farmers were promised one plot of land for every two acres of farmland, and an opportunity for employment for any of their family members, based on their qualifications. However, the entire project was put on hold, and for 6 years the land has lain fallow and uncultivated. Wild growth of trees, shrubs and bushes in the area made it a haven for wild animals and birds that disrupt the crop production and harvest for the neighbouring villages. Farmers in the area feel that they have been cheated out of their land, and feel even more resentment that the land has been left to waste.

The farmers of this block are too deeply entrenched in the market driven agricultural system and have virtually lost control over their own economy and livelihood by growing cotton, maize and other cash crops which are all sold to the external markets without any value addition. In reality, there is very little economic surplus which gets added to the local economy. There is a pervasive sense of hopelessness that dominates the minds of the people of Veppur, arising from the lack of security of basic human needs.

We found a deep rooted Dependency Syndrome, given the prevalence of individual survival strategies, weak resilience and poor social solidarity which lead to a lack of innovation, entrepreneurship and occupational diversification. Thus the challenge lay not only in ensuring evolution of a comprehensive, inter-related plan and planning process, but also in facilitating this process. Open-minded monitoring, evaluation, and space for necessary course corrections are essential components of an effective facilitation process.

 

The Barefoot Action in Veppur

The BA methodology, consisting of the Koodam and creating Change Agents at the Village Level, was implemented in Veppur, focusing on the issues of Sanitation, Water Management, and Organic Farming. We worked with the youth and women of the civil society and farmers, as well as Panchayat Presidents and district officials, in order to facilitate a vibrant and proactive community.

There is an urgent need to deschool the belief that the educated are only those who have obtained degree certificates from formal institutions, and that the employed are only those who are employed by Government or Private sectors and earn a monthly salary. There is also a belief that the educated are only those who have obtained an education in English. A community which has been struggling to live a dignified life is a much better school for learning. Much of our work has been to support capacity building within the community and help them regain a sense of pride in their own knowledge bases.

 

Aiming for Clean…

 Our Sanitation Campaign coincided with the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. While the youth and working population, who had migrated to cities, were more exposed to better sanitation practices, their prolonged absence from the villages made them difficult to mobilize. Our main thrust was with school children and their teachers, and this proved to be a successful intervention.

S5 Communication for Total Sanitation

Our aim is to achieve these ODFs through Citizen-Led Movements. Through the Koodam process, we have the opportunity to change attitudes and behaviours. We also use multiple triggers to ignite an emotive learning process that enables people to experience a change. Our communication strategy has centered on

  • Skit
  • Song
  • Story
  • Symbol
  • Slogan

The initial campaign relied heavily on threatening people, “If no toilet, no free rice, BPL card etc”. BA has prepared knowledge kits to make a shift in Behaviour Change Communication Practices, where change is elicited through persuasion and not threat, and where the focus is on the benefits of proper sanitation on the physical, social, and emotional well-being of all.

In the campaign for Total Sanitation, we came to understand that an underlying factor for the sanitation issue was also the lack of adequate water supply. For example, schools in Ogalur village were equipped with toilets but no water supply, hence the children were not allowed to use the facilities. The same was true of several households who had built toilets but were unable to use them because of the lack of water. When faced with a shortage of water, the Panchayat or Municipality prioritizes water supply for drinking, cooking, and bathing and ignores the issue of sanitation. Water security, therefore, had to be addressed in order to facilitate Total Sanitation.

 

…and Green!

We started to look at the water sources in Ogalur. While the village has a huge traditional irrigation tank with a storage capacity of 79.1 Mcft, as well as 9 ponds with combined storage capacity of 80 lakh litres, none of them are in a position to store water as they are encroached by water-polluting weed plants. The ponds, which were once the primary source of drinking water, were in a state of total disrepair. We looked at capacity building of field staff to implement water auditing and budgeting, who would then train local volunteers. This is how we deepen democracy, by transmitting knowledge of practices to communities to enable self-governance.

BA visited and interacted with the following organizations and individuals to understand what possible alternative solutions could be found for the farmers of Veppur. In learning how other individuals and communities had addressed livelihood security, the farmers were inspired to look at their own situation with more hope.

  • Appachi Eco-Logic Cottons
  • Tula – a volunteer initiative of Mr. Anantu of Organic Farmers Market (OFM) and Safe Food Alliance (SFA), which tries to cover the whole chain of cotton from ‘field to fabric’.
  • Sittilingi Tribal Farming Initiative in Dharmapuri – a part of the Tribal Health Initiative (THI), a well-known NGO who have initiated a comprehensive and intensive development model in the area.

 

 

  • August 2013

    The Work Begins

    Barefoot was asked to prepare a Perspective Plan for Alleviation of Backwardness of Veppur by the SPC. We carried out intensive studies and interviews with Panchayat members, various departments within the district, and members of civil society. Following the findings of the study, we proposed a 5 year plan, drawing attention to specific areas of intervention as well as broad thrust areas and interventions.

  • May 2014

    Dignity for All

    BA team facilitated community dialogues in village panchayats, focused around prevention of open defecation as well as nurturing water bodies in the villages. The team encouraged members of the community to reflect on those aspects of their village that made them proud and those that gave them a sense of shame. It emerged from these discussions that sanitation was a pressing issue. In Nallur village of Perumathur Panchayat, it was difficult for community members to give voice to this issue, revealing how deep the shame surrounding the condition of sanitation in the village is. Another major issue was ‘Dignity’ for all, especially women who suffer the most from restricted access to toilets.

  • May 2014

    Establishing Green Brigades

    Two schools in Paravai and Perumathur volunteered to organize two day summer camps, facilitated by Panchayat Presidents. Children from the 8th, 10th, and 12th grade collectively introspected over water and sanitation issues and many volunteered to spearhead movements within the community.

  • June 2014

    Living and Well-being In Our Hands

    BA organized a 3 day workshop for Panchayat Presidents. The participants experienced major shifts of perspective and evolved a comprehensive, long-term vision for future generations, grounded in the values of sustainable development. There was a resolution to implement the Total Sanitation Scheme of the GoI with people’s participation and an action plan created to identify and acquire common land where toilets could be constructed and handed over to individual families for use and maintenance.

  • September 2014

    Total Sanitation Is Our Goal!

    A campaign to sensitize the people on the ill effects of open defecation was initiated. It also sought to motivate them to use the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan scheme (with MGNREGS) to build Individual Household Latrines (IHHLs). The campaign also helped identify potential volunteers in the panchayats to become Village Level Change Agents.

    Following this workshop, 25 families in Andhur began construction of toilets.

  • November 2014

    Block Level Workshop for Village Level Change Agents

    33 participants from 8 Panchayats took part in a 2 day workshop where, through discussions and group activities, they came to understand the reality and extent of the underdevelopment of Veppur. Given the space to share their feelings with one another, and to introspect on the social and economic context of Veppur, they decided to be proactive and take on responsibilities in the development process of their villages. The workshop created more trust amongst the community and allowed more committed individuals to connect with each other with the purpose of alleviating backwardness in Veppur. Each Panchayat proposed certain concrete activities such as deepening lakes and ponds, introducing organic farming, creating proper drainage and public toilet facilities etc.

  • November 2014 - March 2015

    The Block Level Volunteers Make Good On Their Word

    Following their commitment to the development process, Block Level volunteers undertook activities related to sanitation cover and water security in different villages. The Swachh Bharat programme was in full swing, and BA volunteers were asked by the district administration to work with communities to increase acceptance of using the toilets which were being constructed. The administration had failed to understand that the mind-set of the people needed to expand to include health and hygiene as major concerns, and that failing to provide adequate training in the use and maintenance of the toilets was counter-productive to the cause. The administration caught on quickly, and BA volunteers pushed forward. Sanitation facilities in schools and public places were mapped, and this became a starting point for further activities addressing both sanitation and water security.

  • January 2015

    Reclaiming Soil, Self-Reliance, and Sustainable Livelihood

    BA launched the Organic farming and Millets Initiative (reclaiming soil, self-reliance and sustainable livelihood) to educate and support farmers in an effort to reintroduce the cultivation of millets organically in Veppur.

  • May 2015

    Going Green!

    Following a two day conference on organic farming in Veppur, 22 farmers volunteered to grow millets using organic farming methods and 10 have gone on to sow. While initially farmers were reluctant to try the methods, since 2015 more and more have shown interest and have initiated organic farming methods in their fields.

  • 4th September, 2015

    Reclaiming Public Water

    A community based collective action programme to reclaim public water bodies was launched in Ogalur. It began on the 4th of September, 2015 when 6 volunteers from Ogalur along with BA volunteers resolved to clean up a pond close to the dalit hamlet. 20 hours later, the Marudhiyan pond was clean and fresh again. Enthused by the difference they could make, the young volunteers resolved to clean up Chinna Kulam on the 19th and 20th of September.

  • 19th September, 2015

    Mission Possible Mind-set

    In an effort to revive and restore the water bodies, the youth of Ogalur village launched the Mission Possible Mind-set Movement. 65 youth participated in a cleaning of Chinna Kulam, a pond that had provided most of the drinking water for the village in the past but was now used as a dump for village garbage. 120 hours of voluntary manual labour revealed the beauty of the pond as it had once been, and inspired onlookers to align themselves with the movement.

    School children as young as 7 years proved to the adults in the community, that with a little bit of enthusiasm and hard work, one could create a better reality. These Change Champions are now being supported to form an organization in order to forge partnerships with the Panchayat, the Department of Rural Development GoTN, and Barefoot. Efforts are underway to raise funds to continue the necessary work at Chinna Kulam, as well as support the youth in their movement.

    Almost a month later, school children in Ogalur organized a procession as a means to mobilize the entire community around the revival and restoration of water bodies. These efforts cascaded over to other villages and in Odhiyam, school children resolved to adopt a pond, Sutha Kulam, and work for its restoration. The Odhiyam Model with school children will soon be replicated in Andhur village.

  • February - May 2016

    Study Conducted on Water Tank System

    BA carried out a detailed study of the 10 water tanks in Veppur. The findings indicate that the tank network needs to be considered as a single system to work with, while individual attention is paid to each to restore it.

  • August 2016

    Organic Farming Initiative Gains Momentum

    Nearly 50 farmers signed up for a one day conference and field training in organic farming.