Rewarding local development heroes
The Umed Mal Lodha Memorial Trust was established in 1999 by Seva Mandir and the family of Mr Lodha, who strengthened wasteland development work at the NGO from 1986 until his death in 1999. As a way of marking the contribution made by Mr Lodha in the field of natural resource development, the Trust rewards the efforts of local people to empower themselves. An important feature of the process is that proposals are invited from institutions and individuals who are engaged in working collectively at grass-roots level to address the problems affecting their particular community. There are very few awards of a similar nature across the country. Mr Ajay Mehta presents an award to Mr Uday Singh (Shobhawato ki Bhagal, Khumbhalgarh) In Seva Mandir’s area of engagement, issues of livelihood, poverty and disempowerment are inextricably linked to the natural resource base. Work on improving natural resources therefore assumes significance that goes beyond productivity and the distribution of these resources. Around 70% of land in the area belongs to the state, and acquiring legal access to these common lands is difficult; informal, illegal access is of course much easier. But illegal encroachment of common land disempowers a great many rural people and distorts local relations. Seva Mandir is trying to change this patronage-based approach to development, and the Umed Mal Lodha Memorial Trust awards seek to support this effort, using cash rewards and public recognition to motivate communities across numerous other villages. Three awards are given: to a village for its work on development and management of common natural resources; to a Forest Protection Committee for removing encroachments from forestland and putting it under sustainable management; and to village leaders who have successfully encouraged villagers’ work on natural resource management and people’s empowerment. Prof Rangarajan presents an award to Village Group Mansa Fala, Jhadol The 17th Umed Mal Lodha Memorial Award Ceremony and Memorial Lecture were held in Vidya Bhawan Auditorium, Udaipur, on 12 February 2016. Renowned environmental historian Professor Mahesh Rangarajan was the chief guest and main speaker at the ceremony. Professor Rangarajan said we can learn a great deal from the village institutions and grass-roots leaders who have protected and conserved the environment through local action. He added that, to avert the current environmental crisis, we need an environmental movement on a similar scale to that which existed at the time of Gandhi’s pre-independence Dandi March. Touching on man-animal conflict, an increasing problem in the rural areas, he suggested that new solutions need to be found to deal with this problem. We must understand animal behaviour and the conditions under which they feel threatened. Professor Rangarajan, chief guest and main speaker at the awards ceremony Mr Ajay Mehta, President of Seva Mandir and Vidya Bhawan, speaking after Professor Rangarajan, said that environmental conservation is also related to societal morality: in order to correct environmental degradation, we need to correct the distorted power relations existing in society. The main awards this year went to the village-level institution of Mansa Fala village, Jhadol Block (Udaipur district), and the Forest Protection committee of Dhar Range Bansi village in Bansi Prapagarh district. Five individual village leaders were congratulated on their exemplary work in the field of care and conservation of the village environment. Another group award, to Forest Protection and Management Committee, Dhar (Range Baansi, Pratapgarh District) Villagers attending awards ceremony The rise of a leader The village institutions created by Seva Mandir have worked tirelessly over the years to develop natural resources, including pasturelands. Ambavibai, of Badanga village in Gogunda tehsil of Udaipur, has done significant work in developing and protecting the pastureland in her village. Ambavibai receives her award A member of Badanga Village Development Committee (GVC), Ambavibai, who is nearly 50, was born into a poor tribal family in the economically backward village of Gail. Poverty and early marriage meant that she was not able to attend school. Only a few days after her marriage, her husband was paralysed, so the responsibility of supporting the family fell on her. Before marriage, she had been associated with the patchwork-training programme started by Seva Mandir as part of a Self-Help Group (SHG) initiative. Involvement with the SHG taught her a great deal and boosted her confidence. In 1990, Ambavibai began to play an active part in Seva Mandir’s pastureland development programme, which includes boundary-wall construction, groundwater conservation as well as plantation, and enables villagers to become self-sufficient in fodder and firewood. In 2013, a pastureland in Badanga village was encroached upon by two influential village families. Under Ambavibai’s leadership, the GVC invited these two families for discussions multiple times, but to no avail. Ambavibai encouraged the women of the village to put social pressure on the two families. After repeated refusals by the encroachers to vacate the land, Ambavibai mobilized the villagers and broke down the boundary wall the encroachers had built inside the pastureland area. She encouraged the villagers to restore the pastureland. In traditional tribal culture, saffron is sprinkled on pastureland to bring prosperity to the land, and Ambavibai led her villagers in this custom. Being in close proximity to Udaipur district, Badanga is gradually falling prey to land mafia who are diverting rural lands either for housing projects or industrialization purposes. Over the years, Ambavibai has pro-actively mobilized the women of the village to resist the land mafia, and has been successful in blocking a number of cases of forcible seizure or illegal sale of land. A marginalized tribal villager herself, Ambavibai has refused to bow to pressure but instead chosen to face challenges head on. She had no formal education and learnt to read and write from the village children. She works as a cook in an Udaipur household and with her meager income takes care of her family. Her struggle to protect the environment in her own village has set an example for others. Ambavibai is the perfect example of advocacy and a village community demanding its rights, and of the strength of collective action and decision-making by Village Development Committees for the better management of common property resources and implement thing like free bonus every once in a while.