Can decent rural livelihoods = regeneration of society and forests?

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Fragmented communities with numerous social difficulties,  depleting natural resources and daily survival struggles appears to be the norm for the Adivasi tribes in India.

Adivasis fit into the scheduled tribe administration system of India and generally considered to be on a low rung of the socio-economic ladder, subject to exploitation and other forms of discrimination by the rest of society.  Migration for work is common, especially to cities where conditions are appalling. Migration further fragments the community, culture and family at home and social problems increase.

When Saha Astitva first came to Gorad we did see signs in the community of degradation, fragmentation and unreliability.

Slowly and patiently, trustee and social worker, Naresh Somwanshi visited all the nearby hamlets, trying to recruit whoever was willing to help come and build our organic farm on a barren soil.  After a few weeks he found Ladku from Dhodadepada who showed reliability and initiative.  Ladku was made into a kind of foreman and slowly began recruiting his own team from his hamlet, mostly youth male under 30.

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Most of the new team had no fathers and had left school early.  But they were bright and willing to work hard.  Slowly Naresh helped them become reliable.  They were soon sticking to working hours and deploying team members to ensure the basic needs of the farm were met should another pressing engagement come up.

We adopted an ultra flexible working approach – employing casual (day labour).  After some time we realized that some of the boys were showing up consistently and displaying real flair for skills in agriculture and construction.  We tried a revolutionary concept – monthly salaries, with bonus and paid holidays!  The idea was met by outsiders with scorn. Kalyani was inspired by the US company ‘Patagonia’s Yvon Chournard.  He has a policy of flexible working to allow his staff to go wave-surfing when the conditions are right, and as a result has a team of passionate, dedicated and loyal staff.

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Kalyani suggested that the team would work regular days; but if some need came up – farming their own lands or improving their villages, then they could take unpaid leave at short notice.  Two years on we now have 6 of the 8 regular workers on this system.  As a result we have given them security, something that is not often seen in these communities. The boys requested to change their working hours to give them more recreation time for improving their village and social life; so hours are adjusted during the year according to the season.

Another trick to successful employment with these outstanding young men is to give a list of tasks to the group and let them decide how to divide them up according to their own dynamic.  They take initiative and responsibility.  They are not afraid to try something out of fear of getting it wrong, as we do not punish them in any way when mistakes are made.  Instead we work with them to discover the best way incorporating all ideas.  Laxman and Bhushan are the ones who take care of most of the growing and receive regular training in organic techniques.  These two recently met our farming guru Bhaskar Save. (Read article).

Ladku still remains as a kind of foreman.  Vijay is currently off on unpaid leave, building a ‘pukka’ house to share with his brother and their families.  He grew organic heirloom rice on his own land for us two years in a row, and is now renting out this improved land  for a decent rent to another organic farmer.

Wasin and Govind have just joined the monthly salary initiative.  Wasin is great at construction and has learned basic masonry and Govind is a great all rounder, with particular focus on the cow care.  The youngest ones (all under 20): ‘Small’ Vijay, Kishor and Akshar still remain on casual day rates.

As we’ve reported before, the boy’s hamlet has greatly improved over the last 18 months.  Villagers have been inspired by many local NGOs and have created Committees, goals and Plans in several different areas (cleanliness, health and education).  Saha Astitva gave around 30 trees a year ago, of which 100% are alive, one year on!  Delighted by their commitment to Saha Astitva and impressed with their initiatives in their village a supporter recently donated Rs 5000 for equipment to create their own gym, a target in one of their Plans!  (Read article).


As a result of the progress the hamlet is getting a lot of attention and has been a Bollywood film set twice.  It is beginning to receive regular pre-booked groups for Warli art painting lessons.

We are still concerned that the local forest is depleting as a natural resource, but we feel the lure of the big city is less of a pull.  We’d also like to understand how the boys managed to shape their village so beautifully so that can be replicated throughout the beautiful Tansa Valley.

NGO Vyam has seen success in Jowahar through first getting local livelihoods taken care of and secondly in education of their rights to forest produce and joint forest management schemes.  Founder Milind Thatte declares that “once people’s bellies are full for a year, then they can start to take care of other things”. (And that begins with regular work).

We are joined by Guillaume Resche, Social Scientist and Masters research student in Leisure, Tourism and Environment at Wageningen University in the Netherlands for a 5 month internship.  His aims are to apply an academic model of ‘participatory approach‘ to engage villagers in shaping their future, based on sustainable development.  As such he will help them develop their eco-tourism initiative, encourage a committee for local sustainable development and help us understand the factors involved in the success of the village, for replication.

He was amazed when he saw how far the hamlet has come.  Assisted by IIT graduate & volunteer farm engineer, Utsav, as his translator he has been connecting to the lives of the boys and understanding their immediate needs.

Utsav and Guillaume were amazed when they visited the village and saw all the young men going to the gym and working out after work.

As a social scientist, Guillaume explains “there will be many contributing factors, according to social science, to the success of the village”.  Guillaume makes reference to a proven theory – Maslow’s hierarchy.  This backs up Milind Thatte’s realization that livelihoods for one year are necessary before villagers can be encouraged to take care of their local resources.

Now that’s something Saha Astitva has been able to do – provide local livelihoods to at least 10 villagers and encourage self-empowerment through their work.