Thirsting for Social Change: Women, Agriculture, and a Stream of Opportunity

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ImageThe cows were judging me. The unforgiving Indian summer sun was beating down on the crop field where I stood, and though I desperately wanted to listen the soft-spoken villager who was explaining the trials and accomplishments of his agriculturally centered village, my attention was pulled to the cattle several meters away. Perhaps I was dehydrated, perhaps a little woozy, but I am not proud to say that I could have sworn those grazing beasts were eyeing me, watching me wither under the intense gaze of the mid-afternoon sun. “Weakling,” They seemed to say.

And perhaps I was.

From my brief time spent in this rural, South Indian village, I had seen people deal with far more than the uncomfortable heat. These villagers like many throughout the rural areas of South Asia, worked long and tedious hours in their fields. Heat was not simply a discomfort, but could mean less water, less grass to feed the cattle, fewer crops, and, as a result, the inability to sustain spending on education, healthcare, and sanitation.

But my purpose in writing this is not simply to highlight the troubles that befall rural villages facing harsh conditions. These conditions are already fairly well known. Rather, while working at the World Bank for the past few months, I learned of watershed and other agriculturally-centered development efforts. Upon reading into some of the initiatives, I found that they may bring assistance to not only the crops, but to the overall livelihood of the people.

ImageThere is a woman named Bima Devi who lives in Sherpur, a village within Himachal Pradesh’s Chamba district. Like the villagers I visited, Bima and the 300 families in her village faced harsh environmental conditions: no forest cover and little water close by. Heavy dependence on natural resources had dried up nearly 15 percent of the natural water source. However, many villages were able to turn this situation around. Beginning with initiatives for plantation, soil conservation, agriculture, horticulture, and water harvesting, approximately 30 acres of land has been turned into a lush forest area with renewed resources.

Villages are abandoning old methods in exchange for a more sustainable agricultural approach, such as harnessing watershed structures to bring previously unused water through irrigation channels and to the fields where water is needed.

Most inspiring is the economic and social impact this system has had. Villager Sushuma Devi claimed to be earning much more than she had before, capitalizing on the lessened need to physically search for water and greenery. She now spends more time knitting and poultry farming, both of which have led to increased income for her family. Other women are following suit, joining self-help groups aimed at inspiring women to take on income-generating jobs, becoming more independent while also helping their village. Approximately 5000 of these groups have formed a driving force behind the activities. These villagers, these women, are gaining confidence and catalyzing change.

ImageBack in the village I visited in South India, my friend Udaya, or Uddu, as we affectionately call her, elbowed me out of my heat-induced daze. Uddu is a woman to be reckoned with. Growing up in India, she pursued her own education with great fervor. Now, entering her final year in a Master’s program at Christ College in Bangalore, Uddu is turning her determination to the agricultural fields of India.

“I have been lucky,” She told me once, “I am a woman, I have an education. I am healthy, I am self-dependent. Why should they not be?”

Why should they not, indeed. Perhaps the village of Sherpur provides an idea of what the first streams of success should look like. Bringing a more dependable agricultural system through methods such as consistent water inflow is only the beginning. The people are thirsting for more, for healthcare, for education, for a lush landscape of social change.

For Bima, for Sushuma, and for my dear Uddu, I like to believe in the reality of this possibility.


Photos Courtesy of Brittney Davidson

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