KANKER DISTRICT, India (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Four years after Kalavati Salam was elected to lead the Nangarbeda village council in Central India’s Chhattisgarh state, she has finally got her first development plan rolling.
The plan, focused on reversing land degradation and boosting crop yields, benefits from a generous budget and a dedicated work force. Equally important, it has the support of the Communist Party of India (Maoist), a banned political organisation that has blocked many previous development efforts.
“In the last four years, I tried building a road and a mobile phone tower and laying a water pipeline. Each time, we had to abandon work halfway because they (Maoist activists) opposed them,” says Salam.
“But now we are taking up works like restoring village land. We are trying to change the definition of development,” she adds, visibly relieved.
The process includes levelling the land, clearing it of stones, and then covering it with manure.
“Most of the farm plots here are uneven, lifeless. We remove layers of soil from those plots that are higher, until the entire farm is at the same level,” says villager Sonkumari Bai, 42. “We also remove big and small stones. Sometimes we winnow the top soil before putting it back into the land. Finally, we till the land and cover it with dried cow dung and gypsum.”
The inhabitants of Nangarbeda, which has a population of 2,700, hope this will help improve their harvests.
“The temperature here is increasing day by day. Earlier in the summer, we would grow vegetables like cucumbers and cow beans. But now the land is so dry, we can grow nothing,” says Bhagobai Pradhan, who has a three-acre farm. “This treatment should make some difference. When the rain comes, the once-tilled land will get soaked easily and the manure will mix with it well.”
Kanker district, where Nangarbeda is located, is one of 82 districts that have been severely affected by Maoist activities, according to the Indian government.
ATTACKS ON GOVERNMENT PROJECTS
In 2010, the government launched an 820 crore rupee ($150 million) initiative that includes building roads, supplying electricity and drinking water, building schools and community health centres and implementing the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA), a programme designed to end rural poverty by giving 100 days’ employment a year to the rural poor.
The plan has faced stiff opposition from Maoist activists, who say it will only lead to displacement of local tribal people and give security forces easy access to their forest hideouts.
Salam recalls how Maoists disrupted a government project in 2010. “We brought in trucks full of stone chips, cement and sand to build a tar road. But when the bulldozers came, they set fire to them. We had to stop the work and couldn’t spend the budget allocated for the project,” she says.
A half-built archway at the village entrance, together with heaps of stone and concrete on the roadsides, back up her testimony.
Maya Kavde, head of Makdi Khuna, another village in the same district, says suspected Maoist activists recently vandalised a mobile phone tower in her village by cutting wires and pulling apart the antennas.
But in January, Kavde began carrying out a land restoration project through MNREGA, and so far has encountered no opposition. “We have a budget of 32 lakh rupees ($64,000) to spend on land levelling and deepening the two community lakes. We also have plans to plant 1,000 Neem trees during the monsoon,” says Kavde.
Nanak Baghel, a senior Maoist leader in Kanker, says his party fully supports the land restoration project.
“We are against the government-backed development projects that are just tools to systematically destroy the tribal people. But we never oppose people’s right to better land, water or forest,” says Baghel, an area commander.
Sukhanti Bai, head of Handitola village in another conflict-affected district, Rajnandgaon, describes how soil degradation and falling yields have pushed villagers to restore their land here too.
“There are many companies here mining for iron ore and limestone. They have caused a lot of deforestation. Also security forces cut many trees to build their camps inside forests. Now, we have less rain and a lot of dust coming from the mines and damaging our fields,” she explains.
“Everyone in my village is experiencing a 10 to 20 percent drop in rice yield. Last year, we held a meeting to discuss what work we must make a priority, and everyone said it should be land restoration,” she adds.
The majority of the local people are landless, marginal farmers who own less than 2.5 acres of land. At 146 rupees ($3) a day, the 100 days’ employment under MNREGA is important to these people who have no work in the summer, from March to May, as agriculture is dependent on rain.
Another example is Peda Bandirevu, a village in Khammam district of Andhra Pradesh state which shares not only a border but also the Maoist conflict with Chhattisgarh. It too has seen many violent protests against development projects like road building.
In 2011, Maoists set fire to generators, hydraulic excavators and trucks carrying construction materials. They also allegedly planted landmines to stop security forces from investigating.
This year, however, Peda Bandirevu is implementing MNREGA to restore degraded land, and so far the work has not been disrupted.
The village has suffered from drought since 2002, and has juliflora, a thorny shrub, growing everywhere. The result is severely degraded land with a very high level of salinity.
Srinivasa Rao, a local programme officer for MNREGA, says land restoration begins with uprooting juliflora and covering the land with red or black mud collected from village tanks and ponds.
“These two works – land treatment and de-silting of tanks - go hand in hand,” says Rao. “The moisture of the silt slowly enters the land, making it softer. By the time the monsoon comes, the top soil will be alive, ready for sowing.”
According to Luc Gnacadja, executive secretary of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), including land in development plans will help nations fight food insecurity. “Avoiding land degradation and restoring degraded land should be a centrepiece to every state’s development plans,” Gnacadja said in a recent interview.
For local people, the land restoration projects in Nangarbeda and Peda Bandirevu are not only a step towards ensuring food supplies. They also create a more secure working environment.
Ramulu Amma, a 32-year-old villager in Peda Bandirevu, says she feels safer now.
“For nearly five years we were working on road projects and every day we would anticipate trouble. Though the Maoist activists would never hurt us, they would stop the work and send us home. And every time that happened, we did not get our wages,” she says. “But now, we are working to improve our own fields and there is no fear of a loss of pay or a threat.”
Stella Paul is a multimedia journalist based in Hyderabad, India.