“I am above 60. When I was asked if I would learn to operate a video camera, I wondered aloud whether I could do such a thing. People persuaded me to learn and now I can make films!” says Sooramma, a retiring woman from Yedakulpally village in Medak district of Andhra Pradesh. She is a member of the Community Media Trust, one of the many innovative programmes of the Deccan Development Society (DDS).
Formed as an alternative to the official and commercial media in 2001, the CMT has 20 members, all of them poor peasants from the catchment area of the DDS. CMT has produced 12 films till now. The women have been to Peru with their films and even made one on their visit to South America.
These unlettered women, many above 60, poor and dalit, have produced films on sustainaible agriculture, the disastrous Bt cotton experiment, backyard biofertilisers and many other issues ranging from dalit cuisines to an alternative paradigm for globalisation. Clips of these films were on view at the IIC Annexe in Delhi recently. Three CMT members stood there, Swaroopamma, Sooryamma and Narsamma, proud but not arrogant, displaying their video films with love and élan. They had also brought with them little pots full of seeds of all the crops they grow and use to build healthy humans and a healthy earth. These include varieties of sorghum, millets, cowpeas, chickpeas, corn, dryland paddy and many greens. These pots of sprouting speeds were displayed with as much joy as were their films.
The camera has empowered them in many unimaginable ways. Says Narsamma, “As dalits, we had no entry into village temples and homes of the upper castes. Now they invite us home to functions to make films and even if we touch upper caste people to place the mike on their lapels they don’t object.” A step up the ladder of dignity, no doubt.
The CMT is another in a string of successes of the Deccan Development Society (DDS), though its claims of posing an alternative to aggressive globalisation will take some examination and upscaling to ring true. The DDS is a major signpost on roads that lead to alternative approaches to development. An alternative that rests on the strong work-hardened shoulders of the poor and the creative imagination of people who still remember the art of growing crops without tube-wells and managing pests without chemicals. An alternative that firmly places cooperation instead of competition at the centre of the discourse. An alternative that rests on a commitment to and respect for the diversity the earth supports, and working along with nature, not trying to subjugate her with disastrous consequences.
Founded in 1983, the DDS is active in the Telengana region of Andhra Pradesh, a semi-arid zone riddled with droughts. In 1983, it set up the first Sangham, or collective, of poor dalit women in Yelgoi village in the Jharasangham Mandal of Medak district. “It took six months to form that first Sangham,” says P V Satheesh, director, DDS.
Bina Aggrawal, Padmashri awardee economist from the Institute of Economic Growth, asserts that this Sangham model works and contains the kernel of an alternative to globalisation. “The institutional mechanism here is important. The key thing is the innovation. Many of these women had land. Many formed collectives and bought land and pooled their plots to farm collectively. I call it the Sangham model.”
“We need this model,“ says Kamala Bhasin, convenor, South Asia Network for Gender. “It is like a tree growing from below, with roots absorbing nutrients from the ground. It is nurtured by locals, not the Planning Commission.”
The progress of DDS seems impressive though the number of women organised in Sanghams is rather small. Twenty years after the first Sangham was formed it has organised a total of 5,000 women in 75 collectives in as many villages. These Sanghams comprising 12 to 20 women, some spanning three generations, are busy returning fertility to the degraded soils of their villages, growing a variety of crops, building watersheds and even setting up and running an alternative public distribution system to take care of the needs of the poor and destitute and record them on film. How have the village elite taken to this development? Has the collective not posed a threat to their domination and provoked retaliation?
Says Swaroopamma, “The upper caste landlords are afraid of us. There is labour shortage in the village for we spend more time on our lands. They have learnt to respect us now. Earlier we had to cover our heads and could not wear chappals in front of the dominant castes. Now we can sit with them and talk as equals.“
As Aggrawal points out, the Patels, the dominant landowning caste in the region, may no longer be interested in farming. Many are absentee landlords. Many rich landowners are willing to lease out land, including to collectives. This changing economic scenario has kept any serious opposition to collectives at bay. The threat perception of the dominant castes too is low. As she points out, a large proportion of the poor have land in Telengana but it was difficult to cultivate. The DDS has been able to use all these opportunities creatively. The emphasis on organising women was the right ideological underpinning, for women have a different approach to land and resources.
As Narsamma, Sangham member, recounts, the men wanted to sell the land and be rid of the thankless task of cultivating it. “We women did not want to sell the land. It gave us food.” She adds, “When we formed the Sangham we told the men, we must grow only food crops, no cash crops. They did not agree initially. Now they have understood that growing food is important.”
The Telengana region is a semi-arid zone with scanty rainfall. Farming is marginal and rainfed. Drought is a regular visitor to the region. Most of the farmers here are small peasants. Quoting official figures, the DDS says that 59% of farmers in Telengana are marginal farmers with less than one hectare of land, 23% own between one and two hectares and are categorised as small farmers. It adds up to 82% of farmers being small and marginal. Cumulatively, they have access to 43% of the 4.3 million hectares of land cultivated in Telengana, according to 1998-99 data. Most of this land owned by the poor, most of whom are lower castes, overwhelmingly dalits or former untouchables, is of poor quality.
Out-migration from the region in search of work is common. This has also led to the feminisation of agriculture. As Bina Aggrawal points out, feminisation of agriculture in the country is increasing rapidly and 40% of farmers today are women.
It is in this socio-economic background that the DDS started its efforts to organise the poor with a clear bias in favour of women. However its claims to a paradigm shift and posing an alternative to globalisation need closer examination. While the Sanghams formed till now may decide to stay away from contract farming, how small groups like the DDS can prevent the onslaught of industry is a question as yet unanswered.
The idea behind DDS was to ensure the food security of Sangham members using their traditional knowledge of cultivation and replacing the newly introduced rice staple with the more diverse grain used traditionally in the region to meet the needs of nutrition. Contrary to popular perception, rice is not the staple of all of Andhra, only its coastal areas. In Telengana the staple food is a mix of coarse grains, jowar (sorghum) and bajra (millets).
In the process of organising marginal and small peasants to make sure they could grow enough food for themselves, the DDS evolved gradually to empower women to engage with larger issues at the national and international level. These include issues like conservation of biodiversity, setting up seed banks, improving natural resources and opposing genetically modified crops and terminator seeds. The DDS is also trying to meet the education and health needs of the people of the area. Today it even has legal committees to sort out disputes at the village level. “We go to nearby villages when disputes arise to sort them out,” says Swaroopamma, a Sangham member and also member of the CMT.
For Sangham members things have improved, slowly but definitely.
“What we are doing has to be done with close understanding with the men, it is not possible without them,” says Sooryamma, another Sangham member. “Earlier they dominated. They drank away whatever we got from the land. Now every penny comes home. The men also share in the housework. And when the women are away at conferences, it is the men who look after the kitchen and the children!”
The DDS has evolved many innovative programmes as alternatives to even the welfare programmes of the state. Its alternative to the Public Distribution System (PDS) for instance combines the twin objectives of bringing fallow land under cultivation and providing good quality nutritious grains to the villagers at cheap prices.
Under its Alternative Public Distribution System (APDS) the DDS granted loans to the Sanghams to bring fallow lands and commons under cultivation on condition that the loan be repaid in kind -- ie a share of the crop, mainly jowar. The grain collected as repayment of the loan goes into a grainbank that forms the stock for the alternative APDS.
According to P V Satheesh, the cost of bringing an acre of fallow land under cultivation is Rs 4,200, which has to be repaid over a period of five years. The amount of sorghum (jowar) to be deposited per acre is fixed for every year and the rate paid to the growers is Rs 4.50 a kg. This grain is then sold at Rs 3.50 a kg to card holders. Depending on the levels of poverty, villagers are given colour-coded cards and on these cards they are allowed to purchase fixed amounts of grain from this grainbank. The money earned by the grainbank from this APDS is deposited in a separate bank account and the interest earned goes to make up the subsidy of one rupee that the system gives.
“Through this programme, they have reversed the trend of increasing centralisation and the tyranny of chosen foodgrains. Participating in this Alternative PDS programme, about 3,000 women in 50 villages have enhanced the productivity of over 3,500 acres of land, mostly fallow or highly marginal, to grow more than a million kilograms of extra sorghum in their communities every year. This activity has translated into the production of nearly 1,000 extra meals per participating family per year, thereby demolishing the myth of the need for permanent government patronage for their food security. The village level Community Grain Funds, which the women in 50 villages were able to establish, serves the critical hunger-time food needs of the poorest and the destitute in their communities,” claims the DDS website.
The APDS brings in an element of charity that militates against the philosophy of empowerment and inclusiveness that the DDS professes. Satheesh when asked said these grainbanks are meant for the really destitute who are too old or sick to work. He agreed that there is an element of welfare but it will go away as the Sanghams evolve further.
There is also the important question -- what happens once the loan is repaid? Satheesh thinks the collective will continue to keep the grainbank going, for it benefits the producers, generates employment and will become a part of the collective’s ethos.
Another uncomfortable question about the sustainability and viability of the model relates to its continued need for external funding.
The DDS still remains a heavily funded organisation, drawing funds mainly from Christian Aid, UK, organisations from the Netherlands and Germany. It has also got funds under many state government schemes. If the work they have set rolling -- the collectives -- are so empowered, why does DDS still need funds to pump into them? Why has the collective not been able to become financially viable?
P Satheesh replies vaguely that the “funds are for other projects. For the work of the Sanghams we no longer take any funds.”
There is also the uncomfortable issue of the size of Sangham. True, these Sanghams exist in over 75 villages of the region, yet it is still a small number. It has taken the DDS 20 years to organise only 5,000 women. The size of the Sangham is small, with a maximum of 20 members which by definition leaves out the larger sections of the village. Why have other Sanghams not sprouted in the villages despite the villagers witnessing the benefits of the collective? Are the dynamics of caste and community proving to be hurdles too difficult to overcome?
Why is the experiment not being replicated with gusto all over the state of Andhra Pradesh, which has been in the news for a large number of farmer suicides? There are no simple answers to such questions. Local dynamics, the political and social climate and the need for dedicated workers, along with many other reasons, could contribute to this. How then does Satheesh justify labelling DDS an alternative to globalisation? Is it not still a small experiment? P Satheesh insists that replication is possible. He says it takes a lot of committed workers to put this into practice and that is the toughest challenge right now.
The camera in the hands of these women has become a potent tool of communication and advocacy. For instance Sangham members told NABARD officials that they would take loans only if the alternative watersheds they have developed were approved for a loan. NABARD has its own model of watersheds and the Sanghams refused to implement that model. Their alternative model builds a watershed on land owned by dalits to make sure that the benefits are not siphoned off by the dominant landlords. This despite the fact that dait lands are usually located on higher ground where water would not naturally accumulate. Flying in the face of conventional wisdom these dalits have proved that such alternative models work and empower the traditionally underprivileged people.
To prove their point and to demonstrate what an alternative watershed means, they built one and filmed the whole process and showed it to NABARD officials. NABARD approved of their model and sanctioned the loan.
“When we meet and tell people what we have done to change the look of our area people do not understand. When we say our land is degraded they don’t really comprehend. When we tell them what can be done they do not understand. But when we show them the films they immediately understand.”
That is the power of visual media, and the women, in Kamala Bhasin’s words, have “appropriated technology to prove that they can use the most complex of technologies. Technology that people can appropriate is truly appropriate technology.”
Meanwhile the DDS efforts are about to become the talk of the world’s commons with the CMT bringing in visuals of the tribulations and triumphs of the Sanghams using the twin technologies of the camera and the Internet.
“In our community there is so much knowledge. We have done so many things. But nobody comes to us. Media makes ads on toothpastes. They do not want to talk about our hard work, our festivals, our food. Now we have made films and when we send them to these channels some of them telecast it,” says Narsamma.
InfoChange News & Features, July 2008