In the land of Kalam- Part I

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Tamil Nadu, an ancient land, where tradition and modernity sit in tandem

Note:  This post, is part I of  ‘In the land of Kalam’, a month-long series, showcasing ‘sustainable characters of India’s villages.’ Resting on the foundations of economic, social, cultural and spiritual amalgamation of life, these villages, have for centuries, inspired visionary Indian leaders who have sought to turn them into potential powerhouse centers. It is this belief, which I too share, that upliftment of rural communities would be critical in cementing India’s success in achieving the ‘Sustainable Development Goals 2030’, as adopted by the charter of nations at the UN in 2015. And with this belief, I bring to you these stories of an ‘incredible India!’

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A hot, hot afternoon

On one hot sunny afternoon, last month, I landed at the Madurai International Airport. As soon as I landed, I reached out to my mobile phone. One glance on my Twitter timeline and I plunged into a pool of virtual sadness. The inherent nature of social media, makes it a tool, where everybody’s got a point to make.  News of crimes, lynching, mob violence, floods (just in the neighboring state from Madurai), it was as if the world was coming to an end. Remember, social media, always does that to you. But I digress.

Determined, to not let the social media blindside my faith of the real India, which is actually home to a people some creative, some hard-working but all having the ability to imagine or invent something new by combining, changing and reapplying existing life and world ideas, I quickly recovered to realize, I hadn’t yet reached my destination!

I was on a mission of discovering a world, quite opposite to what my Twitter  timeline would have me believe. My host, Vinod Babu from Srinivasan Services Trust (SST),  the social arm of TVS Motor Company (One of India’s leading two-wheeler manufacturer) promised me to show how the India, of our dreams has been working over the last two decades for progress and people harmony across the areas of economic development, education, women-empowerment, environment, health, infrastructure and social development. 

For more than 21 years now, SST has partnered with people, corporate partners, local and state governments and has been engaged in creating strong and vibrant rural communities across 5000+ villages, across India, in Maharashtra, Karnataka, Himachal Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh.  Rooted firmly in the belief of Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is an act of empowerment, and not charity,‘ SST works with individual beneficiaries to convert them into community leaders, who in turn motivate and guide others to eventually bring about social and economic transformation of communities.  I was also told that eventually, SST exits a village after putting systems and processes in place and initial roadblocks have been overcome.

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Understanding the past before the present- the state wasn’t always so green!

A stark past: After a  long yet beautiful drive through some of the remote villages, some bordering on the state highway and some on interior detours, we reached Melaseval. Preparing myself to explore the unknown, I started searching for my notebook and pen, along with my photography gear. As I alighted from our car, Vinod, (as if sensing my curiosity), broke silence, “Traditionally, a drought prone area, Tamil Nadu, has faced a deep agrarian crisis. For over a century now, farmers have had to battle unpredictable rainfall, soil infertility and lack of alternative water resources, all leading to hardships and migration crisis.” I remembered reading the heart wrenching reports of farmer suicides. I merely nodded.

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Siva Subramanian, a local farmer, owns 2 acres of land and turned to organic farming after attending one of the SST’s awareness program on organic farming

Welcome to Melaseval:

A panchayat town in the Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu, Melseval is a picturesque drive with broad roads and clean surroundings. My first introduction to Melaseval, was quite a surprise, with a walk through a vast chromatic expanse of rice paddies and banana fields and clean pathways, despite hoards of cattle thronging the kuccha village roads with their droppings.

Farmers Self Help groups: 

Enjoying the breeze swaying the paddies, a result of this tiny ‘green revolution,’ we bumped into Siva Subramanian, a 43 year old villager. A tall man, with a wide smile and a ‘chandan tika’ on his forehead, Siva introduced himself as the convener of ‘APJ Abdul Kalam Farmer’s group.’ Hearing Kalam’s name, I squealed in excitement. Sensing my excitement, Siva proclaimed in Tamil, (which Vinod translated for me), “He is our president, he was born here and he is inspirational. That’s why our group is named after him!” A few exchange of words in broken Tamil and English later, Siva invited us to his friend’s house, where  the other farmers in the village had gathered for their monthly farmers’ meet.

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The farmer leaders of each Farmers’s self help group meet once a month to discuss challenges and way forward

‘Every month, we gather to discuss emerging market trends, innovative and organic agricultural methods, crop diversification and the water needs,” Siva informed us. With minimum government support, the farmers rely on their learning from the village development officer at SST, adept in know-how of organic farming, majorly rice paddies and bananas.

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The SST village development officer

The result:

Apart from the technical know-how and knowledge sharing that happens under the aegis of SST, the farmers have reorganized themselves into smaller units of five self-help groups, each consisting of 5-10 people. This helped SST conduct awareness programs and field visits for farmers, further empowering them to understand the genesis of organic farming and its inherent benefits. “In 2014, when SST approached us, we began to see the wisdom behind the “back to roots” philosophy to fight lack of irrigation, salinity and economic challenges. We used to spend up to Rs. 15,000 on per acre of land. Today, we have brought down the costs to Rs. 8,000- Rs. 10,000 per acre. There is almost a doubled increase in the yield and quality of the produce,” reiterated Siva.

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The farmers earn an additional Rs.100/- per bag of crop as consumers reckon it is healthy, nutritious and safer

Recognizing the value of organic farming methods, the farmers have now started growing traditional fruits and vegetables such as bananas and brinjals, that are well-suited for the local soil conditions and survive drought. Furthermore, natural produce and wastage such as cow dung & urine, jaggery, pulse powders and papaya are replacing chemical fertilizers and pesticides, offering a ray of hope in the fight against poverty and despair.

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Azolla, cultivated by the farmers, is a floating algae like plant, as a supplemental income. When fed to the cattle, cows are believed to give a little more milk and also reduce the salinity in the farm pond. 

The dream: An hour long discussion later, I am overwhelmed by the enthusiasm and confidence of the farmers I see in front of me. One of them, tells me in his broken English. “Our dream is to see this whole village turn into one big organic farm!”

Disclaimer: I was invited by Srinivasan Services Trust,  to tour the  model villages, where the sustainable development works are underway.  I have also been involved with the communications team of SST previously. However, the series published on this blog are a result of having seen the work myself and are independent of any bearing. 

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