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.
- River and tank irrigated zone
- Black cotton soil
- Saline water and salinity affected zone
- Mining zone
- 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.
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
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.
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.