A Disagreement In Andhra

Between November and December 2005, I worked as a consultant on a World Bank project to create market linkages for self help groups in Andhra Pradesh through the private sector. What follows is a story I wrote about that experience.


eleven in the morning. the tired, dessicated landscape of telengana, its aged, withered hills, its omnipresent boulders, sprawls all around me. it has been an hour since the car turned right at Siddipet, quit the highway connecting Hyderabad with Karimnagar, and began trundling down this narrow road that will lead us to the village of Mulkanoor. This is a fact finding trip. The rural cooperative bank at this village has managed something of a feat. It has created its own market linkages. Every harvest, it buys its members’ produce, processes it, and ships it directly to buyers as far away as Surat, Bangalore and Mumbai.

it was february. i was in the south indian state of andhra pradesh. and market linkages had been the flavour of the three months gone by. over the past eight or so years, 78 lakh women in andhra had come together to form self help groups. a stunning number — seventy eight lakh women translates to 86% of all the rural poor households. And, in the 620,000 or so SHGs that had been formed, credit discipline had been inculcated, lines of credit had been arranged, the women themselves had graduated from borrowing to cope with unexpected crises to borrowing for starting small businesses – rearing livestock, stitching, running small kirana shops in their villages… but, in the absence of market linkages, most businesses started by the women centred on the village economy. This put a cap on how much they can earn.

and now, the world bank, which was bankrolling the andhra pradesh rural poverty reduction programme, had concluded a profit-oriented, private sector linkage was the most sustainable, most scalable alternative. And so, focusing on a handful of industries that employ the rural poor — agriculture, dairy and non timber forest produce – it was trying to interest companies in those verticals into using the social infrastructure that had been created for social empowerment, for economic development, as an alternative procurement and distribution chain.

it was a stunning thought. partly because previous attempts to create market linkages have floundered in this country. cooperatives fell to political meddling. linkages provided by the state, through the Markfeds and the Food Corporations of India, with pricing mechanisms more attuned to political insecurity than market demand, offer uncertain sustainability.

partly because a development agency as powerful as the World Bank now wanted to harness the private sector as linkages. Parmesh Shah, Lead Rural Development Specialist at the Bank, and the manager in charge of the Andhra project, described the idea as the “next generation of bank projects”. he had just started work on a similar poverty reduction programme in Bihar and there too he planned to create linkages through the private sector from the beginning. Other states like Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh were making similar noises as well.

and partly because the stakes are so high. late in december, addressing a world bank seminar called to evangelise this concept, ck prahalad, who wrote <I>The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid<I>, reminded the audience that markets can be exclusionary. right now, he said, “700 million people in India are not privy to the benefits markets bring in their tow. They are not participating as consumers, with global access to products and services. They are not participating as producers, with better livelihoods and global access to markets.” What was happening in andhra, he said, through self help groups, through village-level empowerment, was nothing less than the next phase in the democratisation of commerce.

between november and december, working as a consultant to the world bank on this project, I had a ringside view as the developmental process took shape. Interesting as the notion was, it threw up a lot of questions. would it work? Can the private sector be used as an engine for development? Or, would it, given its nakedly commercial outlook, impoverish the poor further? These were not woolly left-wing concerns. It’s the reason why the Andhra government was balking at the thought of working with the private sector. There were other questions. Given that the poor are so vulnerable, how does one shield them from market risk? What is the role the state should play in the creation of linkages? Should it micro-manage the whole process from group formation to interactions with the markets? Or should it stop somewhere in between? If it went the whole way, what did that imply for empowerment? For local level participation?

and so, once the project ended, I travelled on my own, talking to the main actors in this debate, trying to understand matters in more detail.

The perfect solution

it was less debatable if companies were interested. they were. indian companies have never been more interested in the opportunity that rural india connotes. and yet, between low volumes, high operating costs, high attrition among employees, the absence of local knowhow and relationships, most of their forays have failed.

take godrej agrovet. this mumbai-headquartered company sells cattlefeed. nearly all its business comes from individual cattle farmers. Seventy percent of whom have just a cow or two tied up in the backyard. the cost of converting these small and marginal dairy farmers to organised feed is killing the company. today, to convert a block of 100 villages, agrovet stations 10 executives in that area for anywhere between 8-10 months. they audit demand, study current feeding practices, tom-tom the product, customise the feed to the cattle’s palate (really), monitor to ensure that farmers don’t give up on the feed halfway through the course, and so on. it was an expensive model. ar subbarao, the affable senior manager at godrej agrovet, calculated that it cost the company rs 25 lakh to develop such a block. once developed, he said, it would generate rs 3 crore in sales in the first year, about 3.6 crore in the second year, and then settle down to a gentle 10% growth rate. margins, he said, are not too high in this business. And so, it might take the company anywhere between 5-7 years to recover that initial investment.

The bank wanted Agrovet to try selling through the SHGs. Being in the village, they could develop markets cheaper. Once the concept took root, they could switch to selling the feed itself. It would be a win win. The women would gain a livelihood. Agrovet would gain a new, lower-cost salesforce.

It was not as though agrovet would have to tap individual SHGs. All the groups in a village report to the village organisation. All the VOs, as they are known, report to mandal samakhyas. Which, in turn, report to the zilla samakhyas. Which, in turn, are overseen by a Hyderabad-based organisation called SERP (the Society for the Elimination of Rural Poverty, a quasi-government body staffed by bureaucrats and funded by the World Bank and the state). To work through the groups, all agrovet would have to do is contact SERP, which would then organise the training sessions at the Zilla and mandal levels, and then, the SHGs would take over and tomtom the cattle feed across the state.

This was a practicable proposition. Some months ago, sbi life decided to sell a life insurance policy though the groups. just twenty days after the concept was introduced to the Mandal Samakhya, the first policy was issued in the village. Or listen to markfed. Till two years ago, in keeping with its mandate to provide a support price for farmers, this state-run procurement agency used to pick up cereals and pulses from the mandis. It was a suboptimal solution. Small farmers, knowing they would gain little by lugging their sack or two of marketable surplus to the mandis, kept selling, even below the MSP, to the village-level aggregators. Larger farmers who went to the mandi faced other problems — they would have to wait for 3-4 days, sometimes a week, before the sale was done, then, there were the faulty weights, the delayed payments…

In 2003, it decided to try buying through the village organisations. When I met MT Krishna Babu, the head of AP Markfed, a month-and-a-half after the workshop, he was ebullient. The value of procurement through the village procurement centres, he reported, had climbed from Rs 10 million in the first year to Rs 1,000 million in 2005. It would, he hoped, touch Rs 10,000 million by 2007. Farmers were selling their produce faster, at the MSP. As for Markfed, not only did decentralized procurement help it meet its mandate, it was far more cost effective. Similar gains, he insisted, could be made by any company that used this network.

Incidentally, Agrovet was just the sort of business Shah wanted to bring aboard. Its cattle feed, the company swore, would boost milk yields by anywhere between 20-30 percent. Indeed. Sort through the companies eyeing the opportunity that the bottom of the pyramid connotes, and you will find four categories. Those that boost rural incomes through traditional (agriculture, handicrafts) and non-traditional (BPO) means; those that sell productive investments to the poor (like Agrovet); those that, while doing nothing to boost incomes directly, make the poor far more financially robust (weather insurance, health insurance schemes like Narayan Hridayalaya’s Yeshasvini, the commodity exchanges); and, then, those that rejig their product and distribution mix to make the product more accessible for the poor (HLL’s Project Shakti). In this last category, while there might be some incremental job creation, the impact on the village economy (in terms of whether more monies flow in or out) is still open to debate. It is a tad simplistic to tar the entire private sector as extractive and harmful for the rural poor.

That, then, was the proposition. Shah badly wanted companies to begin working through these community-based organisations. Talking at that workshop, he said: “When the World Bank finishes with all these projects, there will be 2 million SHGs across India. There will be thousands of village organisations. Each of them is capable of generating a consumer business and an output business.” Companies, he insisted, had to begin using such social organisations as franchisees.

And interest among the private sector was high. At the end of the workshop, 17 companies– in contract farming, animal feed and extension services, using the groups to market financial products, two wheelers… — had evinced interest. The problem lay elsewhere.

A disagreement in andhra

T Vijay Kumar was not convinced. And since he heads SERP, that put something of a spanner in the World Bank’s plans. He didn’t think the private sector could do any good in this context. Partly because he felt it was extractive – an impression that has only been reinforced by the recent suicides among women who had taken loans from private MFIs in andhra. Partly because when he looked around, wondering how to connect lakhs of the rural poor to the markets, he could barely see any any business initiative that has achieved scale — KRBL, one of India’s largest basmati exporters, has contract farming agreements with 24,000 farmers; Global Green buys from about 12,000 farmers. Partly because he was chary of taking the poor into unfamiliar territories, unknown crops.

And partly because he thought the big opportunity lay elsewhere – in the internal consumption market that the poor of andhra constitute.

There are, he would tell me, some staples that all houses in andhra consume — rice, pulses, tamarind, oil, chillis and so on. No village was self sufficient in more than two or three of these. And so, he wanted to use this social infrastructure of SHGs and village organisations and mandal samakhyas and zilla samakhyas to create trade between villages. There would be some commodities that cannot be procured at a village level. Those orders would be escalated a step higher to the mandal level, or higher yet to the zilla level. For producers, it would create an alternative to the mandi. It would lock value within the community. And, along with the producers, the consumers – who, as poor prices, have paid a penalty in higher prices – would gain as well. In the longer term, said Kumar, the model would cover the state’s urban poor as well – creating a two-way flow of goods between the hinterland and the cities.

What about the private sector? Those linkages would come in, said Kumar, but only in categories like cotton where production could not be soaked up by internal demand.

It was an idea that left Shah cold. Yes, he would say when I met him in Delhi, there are definite opportunities in selling to the internal market, but it cannot absorb more than 30-40% of what the state produces. Also, going forward, the state’s role in procurement will diminish, agribusinesses’ will grow, and he wanted Andhra’s poverty alleviation programme to be geared for that future. A third factor was more implicit. As the thrift movement grew larger, it was getting politicised. After the congress came to power, it had slowly replaced all project directors (the rung that interacts between the government and the zilla samakhyas) with its loyalists. And they were starting to push the ZS to favour party loyalists. Worried they might yet go the cooperatives way, Shah wanted to free them from the state. Profit-oriented private sector linkages were one way to ensure sustainability.

It was an extraordinary situation. Two managers, both very commited to their jobs, both working on the same project, and both with such contradictory ideas on how to connect the poor to the markets. much, much later, when I met him, itc’s sivakumar would describe both shah and kumar as victims of immediacy. Chagrined at the steady politicisation of the network, shah had concluded that only linkages with the private sector could free the groups from their dependance on the state. at the same time, also mindful that the typical World Bank manager doesn’t stay too long on a project, and that there was no telling who his successor might be, he intended to move fast.Unfortunately, Kumar suffered from similar anxieties. As a bureaucrat, he could be transferred as easily as Shah. And so, like Shah, he was convinced he had the right idea, and that time was running out. the result: both were digging their heels in.

one morning, wondering which of the two approaches was better, I called a senior manager in a private sector bank who had attended the workshop. His anger was palpable. Mark my words, he said, “Velugu will be dead and buried in five years time.” No one, he said, his words rising to a shout, can ignore the market. It is too strong. The world is getting more complex. The poor cannot manage all that complexity on their own. The private sector is the best placed to deal with that complexity.

fastforward development?

cut to pastapur, a small village in andhra’s medak district, and home to the deccan development society. that evening, i sat on the ledge flanking the walls of periyapatna’s ochre-red house, listening to him talk about the villagers’ experience with private sector market linkages. Some years ago, some villagers entered into a contract farming agreement for gherkins with a local company called vazir sultan. things went awry. the company could not buy what the villagers had grown. And it cited quality issues to reject the whole lot. the villagers lost everything.

back in november, soon after starting work on the project, I attended a hugely interesting meeting between two world bank consultants, annu ratta and vijay kalavakonda, and vikram puri, the new head of mahindra shubh labh. that morning, kalavakonda was doing most of the talking as he tried to gauge Puri’s receptiveness to the idea of allying with the community based organisation in andhra. puri was interested. His company was going to kick off a contract farming business, and export niche horticulture crops like gherkins. And so, he was looking for 2,000-3,000 small and marginal farmers who could grow these small cucumbers. Even at two crops a year, he said, they would make Rs 30,000 in profits in a year.

there was a catch, however. Puri wanted an agreement that bound the farmers to mahindra shubh labh. without it, his supply chain would be hammered if the farmers sold their produce elsewhere. It was a knotty question. mahindra shubh labh is struggling. After seven years ofbeing around, it has inched up to a rs 21 crore turnover, and is hoping to turn around next year. In its new avatar, it would be competing with far more established players in the market, like Global Green, that focused on these crops. incidentally, at last count, 22 companies were exporting gherkins from india.

it was fascinating. exclusivity was essential for the company but could hurt the groups. in the runup to the workshop, as the prospect of allying the community organisations with the private sector threw up many such bewildering questions, something strange was happening. The world bank was micromanaging the show. It spoke to the companies, pressed them to attend, it tried to cobble alliances.

Here, the haste complicated things. it created schisms within the bank team. one set of managers wanted to work out the specifics and then create linkages. The other lot, in a greater hurry, wanted to go out and create linkages, and then hammer out the problems as they cropped up.

it was a problematic thought. Thanks to the haste, both shah and kumar ran the risk of trying to decide for the local community. This became painfully evident during the first day of the workshop itself. A group of village women sat through the first session, impassively hearing the inaugeral addresses. they sat through the second session, hearing the project leaders from the world bank’s poverty reduction programmes in madhya pradesh, uttar pradesh, andhra pradesh and tamil nadu, talk about their poverty reduction efforts, the scale they had reached, and the commodities they could supply to companies. and then, after lunch, in the third session, one of the speakers, while talking about the women who run the village procurement centres, asked them to stand up. they stood up. were gaped at, and then sat down again. end of participation in workshop on how to empower the poor (note – the women did speak the next day. but that was after they told the organisers that they wanted to share their experiences).

this underlying condescension came in for flak. India, prahalad would caution, is not a monolith. there is no universal solution for a billion people. ICICI Bank’s Nachiket Mor agreed as well. “One way is to sit in judgement somewhere and make decisions about the occupational choices people must make or the skills they must acquire. That approach has been tried out several times in the past. But it probably doesn’t sustain very well. It might be a better option to stay patient, letting people express what they want — in a real way, not an interview, but through the occupational choices they make.”

At the workshop, Mor was also unsure if contract farming was the way forward. As markets and opportunities expand, he said, farmers and producers might not be willing to work in the tight framework of a contract. “We have seen this in wheat and rice where, when the market price is higher, nobody honours the contract. When the market price is lower, they buy from their neighbours and sell to you.” A better option, he said, was to connect the poor directly to the national market – through the private sector mandis (like the Safal Mandi outside Bangalore) and the commodities exchanges. These markets, he said, will not distinguish between big and small farmers. In the commodity exchanges, he said, it is just a matter of time before you can go down to a fairly granular piece. In the wet markets, at Safal, even very small lot sizes can already be traded. There is still a need for CBOs to move the produce to back and forth from this market. But certainly for the generic products, tomatoes, potatoes, bananas, mangoes, he said, these markets could offer an interesting and a more stable, long-term view.

Reflections on it all 

And then, finally, the reporting ends, other commitments, like applications for higher studies and so on end as well, and I am back in this cool, dark room where I do all my writing. impeccable logic, I think, market linkages. take a bunch of desperately poor people languishing in rural india. connect them to larger markets outside. the producers would find more buyers, better prices. the consumers would find more suppliers, better deals, lower prices. and yet, the deeper one went, the more confusing things got.

Micromanaging looked like a faulty idea. partly because this is work that the local community needed to do if the model is to achieve any semblance of sustainability. and partly by trying to derisk by choosing the companies, the bank ran the risk of presuming what the poor wanted. A better way was to create systems that would not let the poor get hurt. Like an escrow account where any company wanting to source from the poor would have to make an upfront payment. And yet, to some extent, the bank’s hands were tied. a lot of the new systems called for SERP’s participation — it would have to tabs on the negotiations, ensure that commitments were honoured. But, with kumar balking at the thought of working with the private sector, the world bank was working solo.

The haste was not the only thing complicating the world bank’s plans, the ideology was doing so too. Should we connect the poor to the markets? if so, what is the best way to do so? through the private sector? through a model that sequestered the poor? were intervention required to create linkages, or would the markets create them on their own anyway? what about anonymous markets? who decides all this anyway?

market linkages invite ideology. there was kumar. A believer in the Amul philosophy of creating producer-controlled organisations. The only difference was that unlike Kurien, who created an organization that served the local community by selling their produce but was controlled, ultimately, by technocrats, he was even more to the right.

he wanted to create an organisation for the poor, run by the poor, with the technocrats working as a staff function. In other words, all the village, mandal- and zilla-level organizations would be managed by the locals. These would be flanked by a bunch of support organizations, all staffed by the technocrats, who would advise the groups on the more technical aspects. he, as sivakumar would say, comment when we met, “would choose the toughest, most complex, hardest to succeed choice, just because it happened to be ideologically correct.” And then, there were the pro markets people. ideological in their own way. and then, there were others, like periyapatna, who felt that linkages were not needed at all.

ideology is dangerous. it makes one decide what the poor should do. back at the workshop, talking through the video-conference, prahalad made another astute point. “It is time for us to stop using the poor as an ideological battleground. Whether social justice must be precede economic justice or economic growth has to come first. Can poor people think for themselves or if they should just be told what is best for then, and then force the solution on them… Let (the) people at the grassroot level decide because they know what is good for them. Will they make mistakes? The answer is yes. We all do. But I do believe the poor people at the Bottom of the Pyramid (BOP) market are more sensitive, because they cannot afford to make mistakes. Therefore they are going to check with their neighbours and others who have used the products. They will be a lot more discriminating.”

It raised the question about the role that the state had to play. In a sense, mahajan hit the nail on the head. At the workshop, arguing against anonymous markets, he said that “such a suggestion ignore(d) hundreds of years of reality that these people who are left out, some of whom are even below the bottom of this pyramid, require some hand-holding, some support. And they require that support not only in form of purchasing power, but also psychological and institutional support.”

Days later, another piece of the puzzle fell into place after I met sivakumar. he said there are three phases to creating market linkages. in the first phase, one creates small interventions that help markets operate more normally – this could be information access, warehousing… a lot of such distortions exist because of the lack of alternative solutions for these needs. these are quick, one time interventions that will fix the problem hugely. These are also low tech enough to be managed by the community itself. such interventions, he said, can result in incomes rising by as much as 20-50%…

the second intervention, he said, takes people into processing, packaging, grading and so on. it is this that the rural cooperative bank at mulkanoor had managed. many years ago, the cooperative here began shipping local produce directly to the mandi, and then, finding that the gains made by disintermediating the village level aggregator were too low, it began appropriating other functions hitherto performed by the mandi and its buyers, and began selling directly to the mandi’s customers. the margins changed. Lakshma Reddy, one of the leaders of the cooperative, told me that “If we just sell paddy without any value adition to it, we will make an additional Rs 10-15 on 650 per quintal. If we dehusk, that goes upto Rs 40-50 per quintal. Parboil, and that goes higher still, to Rs 60-70.”

It was quite a feat. Elsewhere in this country, cooperatives have failed. In Andhra too, around the Eighties, the state decided that the cooperatives were a great way to consolidate their political base. Loans went to the undeserving. Debts were written off. The institutions slowly got corrupted. After coming back to Hyderabad, I met Praveen Reddy, another leader at the cooperative, and asked him what made Mulkanoor survive? Leadership, he said. Leadership that was strong enough to fight off any pressure at all. that is essential.

And now, as the bank planned the third stage, connecting the people to global value chains, it was racing towards an acid test of its second role — educating people to let them decide what is in their self-interest. That is what made Mulkanoor survive all this time – awareness and its ability to withstand pressure.

For his part, shah felt that the groups were there. that they could act in self interest now. They had, he would tell me, a mind, a value system, of their own. They buy from the smallest farmers, the guys with one or two acres, first. And then work their way up to the larger guys. They can deliver quality, and so both companies and the private sector will want to buy from them anyway. And now, he said, he wanted them to be opportunistic. To sell to whoever looks like the best bet for them — to the private sector, to the public sector, or to the companies of the poor. Others, like kumar, were less convinced.

As I write this, it is impossible to predict how things will shape up. at one end, the first pilots on the linkages are coming up. for these areas, the acid test is coming on up. Has the project been able to educate people to let them decide what is in their self-interest. elsewhere, the standoff between the state and the bank continues. in the meantime, the networks continue to get politicised…

Outlook uncertain.

forest trump

this is the first story i wrote on environment. i was in businessworld where, for the yearend issue, we were left loose to write on anything that took our fancy. and i had reported on ecodevelopment — a world bank assisted programme to create alternative livelihoods for villagers living in the periphery of forests, in the hope this would reduce human pressure on forests.

i picked up two national parks — the reasons are explained in the story — ranthambore and the great himalayan national park. the programme was struggling in the first but faring better in the second. one of the main reasons seemed to be population density. but there were others at work as well. again, more on those in the story.

anyway, this first foray into environmental reporting had left me depressed. i was about 25, and i had been reading natural history greats like david quammen for a while, and i wanted to write articles which were as theoretically informed and passionately articulated as theirs. as it turned out, the field trips were spectacular. i encountered lots of complexity. lots of nuance. loads of epiphanies. but when it came down to the writing, i proved unequal to recounting/analysing what i saw. there was also this stupid urge to tie the story up neatly. and so, the rhetorical flourish in the last para of the story which, as events later proved, was not how things panned out.

anyway, we live and learn, i guess. and, after that long prologue, here it is. the ghnp/ranthambore story. i also found an earlier draft of the story. have appended that at the foot of the final draft.

A Gypsy is racing towards Ranthambore Tiger Reserve. Forest guards have just found a dead tigress. And GV Reddy, the park’s field director, is hurrying there. As we leave Sawai Madhopur behind, the road opens up and we pick up speed. After spending the past five hours with a management report on the problems facing Ranthambore, I am about to see them for myself.

We blur past a gaggle of Rajasthani women. And, suddenly,  Reddy is urgently telling the driver to stop and go back where the women are. That is when I realise the women weren’t simply standing by the road, they were arguing with a forest guard. But by the time we pull up next to him, the women have run into the neighbouring plain. The guard reports the women were cutting firewood in the forest. When told to stop, they began arguing with him. One of the men with them even threatened to kill him. Reddy grimly murmurs something to the driver. And suddenly, the Gypsy accelerates hard, and bumps across the plain towards the women. They take to their heels, quickly scattering in all directions.

Such skirmishes are common at Ranthambore. Occassionally, though, it gets really serious. As it did in September this year when villagers pushed 15,000 cattle into the forest. When the local SP tried to evict them, he was beaten up. Reddy received death threats. It’s hard to say who the bad guys are, though. There is little industrial activity in this area. Mining is banned due to the park. Tourism hasn’t resulted in many jobs. Agriculture isn’t all that great either. That report I read estimated 85% of the villagers, and 28% of the people in the towns, were totally dependant on the forest.

In the month of December, I spent ten days on the road wondering how communities and forests could live together. Previous attempts by the government have been laughable. Take Gir. Its Maldharis, a tribe of nomadic cowherds were given land and told to try agriculture. I found an answer in The Great Himalayan National Park, a little known park in Himachal Pradesh. Its director, Sanjeeva Pandey, has worked a miracle.

The park lies in an isolated part of the Kullu valley. Along its western rim, about 16,000 people live in 130 or so small villages. On the north, east and south, the park is flanked by almost impassable mountain ranges. This is one of the poorest parts of Himachal. While all villagers practise agriculture, most of them own land too small to sustain them through the year. So, they traditionally supplemented agriculture with forest produce.

This equilibrium was disturbed as new finds in the pharmaceutical industry fueled demand for herbs. In 1998, when Pandey took charge, 4,000-6,000 herb collectors entered the forest. So did 20,000-30,000 sheeps and goats. Soon, roots of Dhupe, used for making incense, and mehandi were being removed by the truckload. To describe what happened, Pandey gestures with his hands to form a large O about five inches in diameter. In the old days, he says, “We would routinely find Dhupe plants with roots as thick as this. All we could find now were midgets with roots less than an inch wide.”

Which is odd. In 1994, the World Bank had funded an ecodevelopment project in two parks, GHNP and Tamil Nadu’s Kalakadu Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve (KMTR), to devise a model for lessening locals’ reliance on the forests. All villagers had to form committees. They would be given some money, and asked to invest it such that their dependance on the forest fell. While talking, Pandey carefully places his XX foot on a stool. About two months ago, he tore a ligament hiking. It’s taking a long time to heal.

The committees ignored the village poor, who were the most dependant on the forest anyway. One committee covered 19 villages, or 1,300 people. With that size, you cannot hear everyone. Invariably, it was the poor and the women whose voices were drowned out. Instead, the money went to the rich. Handlooms were suggested as an alternative livelihood. And the World Bank insisted, to ensure that the villagers had a stake in the venture, that they put up about Rs 2,000. But most of the people living close to the forest didn’t have such money. As for the villagers who did buy the looms, some lugged these to neighbouring Sundarnagar, and sold them.

Most villages didn’t even understand what the money was for. Some repaired roads. Others brought Jerseys – which made them even more dependant on the forest for fodder. A lot of villagers started eating more halwa than before. In 1999, the World Bank gave up on the GHNP. In five years, it had spent Rs 5.6 crore.

Now, Pandey tried again. He and the head of a local NGO, Rajendra Chauhan, began by choosing 12 group organisers. And told them to coax the poorest women in every village, into joining small Women’s Saving and Credit Groups (WSCG). Why women? Because they were the poorest. Also, most of the forest related work was done by them.

As the groups formed, microcredit was introduced. All women were told to save Rs 1 every day. The initial plan was to get them to save Rs 2, but the women balked. They had no money. Says Chauhan, “We had to cajole them to save money somehow.” He and the GOs kept pushing – bargain harder with shopkeepers, buy slightly smaller quantities. Desperate to get the savings going, Pandey gave some women jobs at his department’s medicinal plant nursery. One band of women even quarried sand to scrounge up that daily rupee.

By December, some groups had saved Rs 1,800. Which is when Pandey introduced the first income generating activity. Knowing how impoverished the women were, he had been looking for businesses where the returns were quick, where buyers could be found easily. Enter, Eisenia Foetida.

Pandey learnt about this earthworm back when the herb collectors were wreaking havoc. Fearing some plants would vanish altogether, he had started nurseries. While looking for fertilizer, he had learnt about E. Foetida. In just 30 days, it could reduce 40 kilos or so of leaves and kitchen scraps into compost. It looked suitable. Heck, Pandey even could be the first customer. He needed manure for his nurseries.

The women were hesitant. They were being told to spend a hard-earned Rs 1,200 on 5 kilos of earthworms! The momentum began building a month later, when the park management paid Rs 280 (for 40 kilos of compost) to the early adopters. Today, there are 870 compost pits between 72 groups. When the idea was mooted, every group had started with just one pit. In 2001, they groups produced over 6 tonnes of manure every month.

Other businesses have been kicked off. The local hill apricots and walnuts are rich in oil – a kilo will yield 500ml of oil. Earlier, traders would buy these fruits for Rs 16-20 a kilo, extract the oil and sell it at Rs 200 a litre. Today, the women are taking loans to buy seeds and extract oil. Some women have brought handlooms. Others have brought hemp to knit bags and slippers. The menfolk are now being trained as porters, guides and cooks to accompany hikers into the GHNP. The WSCGs have even started cultivating medicinal plants in nurseries, being set up in the park’s buffer. These will grow plants in demand like Taxus beccata. Its bark yields Taxol, which retards tumours. According to Pandey, a 20 year old tree of Taxus can yield up to 30 kilos of leaves and 5 kilos of bark. Which can produce 4 grams of taxol which is priced around $10,000. The women get the proceeds from the sale, and the pressure on the forest falls.

I asked a group organiser, Shakti Chauhan, how things have changed. Well, she said, some of the women in her groups are earning Rs 3,000 every month. The change in the women is impressive. Back when the scheme was started, Pandey used to wonder why the GOs were so enthusiastic. “They later told us that, more than the money (Rs 51 every day), it was the status and independence.” Also, reports Chauhan, the local men have started lending a hand with the WSCG work.

Any dark clouds on the horizon? Well, Pandey might be transferred next year. But he thinks the WSCGs will flourish. “A micro-credit group is one of the longest lasting insititutions,” he says. Afraid the project might rely too much on his department, he has pushed Chauhan and the women towards self reliance. Today, local orchards buy the compost. And the products like the oil, shoes, bags etc are being exhitibited at handicrafts melas, etc. Chauhan is even setting up shops for these.

Now, take Ranthambore again. A similar world bank project has been underway there since 1996. But it hasn’t made much headway. In KMTR, the villagers quickly took up wigmaking, cycle repair et al. In Periyar, poachers have become guides. While at Ranthambore, I met some Gujjars. Reddy’s team has been badgering them to learn new trades – tailoring, perhaps. Or vegetable farming. The villagers demur. That is work fit only for a darzi or a maali, they mutter. Any other job they would like to try? They cannot think of anything.

Reddy isn’t giving up. The villagers have to be educated first. So, he has requisitioned Anganwadi workers from Rajasthan’s Women & Child Welfare department. He is obstinate. It may take ten years, but he will get there.

ps – trawling through the comp, i found an earlier draft of the story. this one is more vividly written but, among other flaws, seems to think the lessons of ghnp can be transposed to ranthambore. also note, again, sigh, the glib ending.

The GHNP story

Headline – Forests, communities and earthworms?

Intro – From the himalayas, a how-to guide on saving India’s dwindling forests

Matter begins: In September, Ranthambore Tiger Reserve made headlines across the world. One night, 400 villagers and 4,000 heads of cattle barged into the park’s core zone. When the local SP tried to stop them, he was beaten up. Some of the villagers were armed, others carried pesticide, threatening to use it against the tigers. The next day, things got even uglier. Seeing that nothing was being done to evict these villagers from the forest, village after village near Ranthambore – there are 94, in all – began pushing their livestock into the battered forest. Before long, 15,000 cattle were grazing inside the park. The villagers occupied waterholes. In the process, they displaced three tigresses, each of which was rearing cubs. It took XX days, and the PMO’s intervention before the park was finally evacuated. Since the invasion, one of the tigresses hasn’t been seen. She and two of her cubs are missing.

Chances are you know that India’s forests are receding. That at the time of independence, they covered 20% of India. And that they are down to just 4% today. But you probably don’t think about this too often. Life is too short to be wasted on dirges. So, the odds are you don’t know who Sanjeeva Pandey is. Or why his work at the Great Himalayan National Park could prevent ugly clashes like the one above, and save India’s forested lands.

The tragedy of the commons

This wasn’t supposed to happen. When the British left, most Indians were utterly dependant on the forests. so, our government had classified all forests into five categories – village, community, unclassed, reserve and protected. Village forests were meant for meeting villagers’ domestic needs. While they could use the community forests for more commercial, and preferably sustainable, purposes. The reserved and protected forests, amounting to a fifth of the total area under forest cover, were meant for conservation. The status of the unclassed forests was left vague deliberately – they were possible buffers for the reserved and protected areas. Take Bihar. In 1952, it had 75,000 sq kms under forests. In 1966, 36,000 sq kms of that was declared a protected area. The rest was common land. Forests for the villagers.

Today, it has 30,000 sq kms under forests. The rest has vanished. Rural development, says PK Sen, the former head of Project Tiger, never percolated down to these villages, which were far from the roads, close to the forest. So as populations grew, people’s requirements rose. And bereft of advances in agriculture and animal husbandry, their hunger for land rose. It is a story which has repeated across all of India. Today, across the country, no village, community and unclassed forests remain.

Even as the village and community forests disappeared, the wildlife protection laws came in. These banned all human activity inside our national parks and sanctuaries. Millions of rural indians were rehabilitated outside India’s 589 protected areas. The traditional livelihoods of several million more people living next to these parks were cut off by the creation of these parks and sanctuaries. As the forests were turned into parks, their rights to use the land were taken away and their lifestyles were criminalised. The ground was now set for a clash. Today, as Sen says, “India has 750 million heads of cattle but no grazing grounds. They are bound to head for the jungle.”

Take Ranthambore, again. There are two lakh people in its beighbouring villages and towns. This is a backward part of Rajasthan. There is little industrial activity. Mining is banned due to the park. Agriculture isn’t all that great either – most land holdings are pretty small. The forest department estimates that about 85% of the villagers, and 28% of the people in the towns, are totally dependant on the forest. Most of them have little option to entering the park illegally to collect firewood or fodder for their cattle. An environmentalist would denounce these activities as destructive. A villager would call them essential. Quite the conundrum.

Unto the breach at Sawai Madhopur

Looking for answers, I went to Ranthambore. Since 1996, the world bank has been finding an ecodevelopment project in this national park. Its objective: reduce locals’ dependance on the forest by offering them alternative livelihoods. Now, while this is a step in the right direction, things aren’t going too well. Seeing that villagers are still behaving like invading mongols, 6 years after the project began.

Here is how it works. Today, the India Eco-development Project (IECD) is underway in about 62 villages – all  within X kms of the park. The World Bank kicked off the process by committing rs 38.38 crore. that was in 1996. Every village is told to constitute an Village Ecodevelopment Committee (VEDC). Each committee was promised money, and asked to invest it in such a way that their dependance on the forest is reduced. For instance, there is a village near Ranthambore called Bodhal. This tiny village, with 100-odd houses, was alloted Rs 20 lakh. It’s spent Rs 16 lakh erecting a wall around its fields. It is surrounded by forests on all sides, and the villagers’ principal grouse was that upto half of their crop would be consumed by marauding nilgais and wild boars.

But is that ecodevelopment? Questions like that have vexed field director GV Reddy ever since the IECD began. While projects like the IECD were overdue (“All this time, we have approached conservation from a very forest-centric mindset. And that hasn’t worked. Because most of the problems facing us have their roots outside the forest,” he says), he is finding the going hard. Bereft of any training, he and his team are struggling to understand ecodevelopment. Take the wall at Bodhal. “It certainly increases the farmers’ productivity. And makes them more amenable to the forest. But it isn’t scalable. It is ecodevelopment only if the expenditure reduces the pressure on the park. With this, they will probably be back pounding at the park gates in a few years.” We are racing in a Gypsy towards the reserve. And I am about to get a taste of the issues confronting the park.

A few minutes earlier, Reddy had received a call saying that his forest guards had found the body of a dead tigress. We were rushing for the post mortem, hoping she wasn’t poached or poisoned. We blur past a gaggle of Rajasthani women. A moment later, Reddy is urgently telling the driver to stop. To go back where the women were. He has, I realise later, noticed that the women weren’t simply standing by the roadside. They were arguing with a forest guard. By the time we pull up next to the guard, they have all run into the neighbouring plain.

The guard reports the women were cutting firewood in the forest. When told to stop, they began arguing with him. One of the men accompanying the women even threatened to kill him. Reddy grimly nods, leans ahead, murmurs something to the driver. And suddenly, the Gypsy is accelarating hard, bumping across the plain towards the women. They take to their heels, quickly scattering in all directions. The Gypsy turns back. As we again head for the place where the tigress was found. And Reddy is talking about the challenges of Ranthambore. “What can we do with these people?” exclaims Reddy, “They are still cutting firewood even though they have all been given LPG stoves.”

In the ranks of india’s forest officials, Reddy is an exclusionist. Some time earlier, out of curiosity, he had picked up a copy of Where Communities Care. This book recounts cases where local communities have come forward to conserve india’s woodlands. Reddy hasn’t been able to finish the book till now. “Our thinking just doesn’t match,” he smiles. According to him, all this thinking goes for a toss the moment people start using the forest not for their subsistence, but for commercial reasons. That is what is happening at Ranthambore.

The tigress is lying under a tree, halfway down a steep gorge. She is about 12 years old, and appears to have died of old age. By the time the vets come to this conclusion, it is getting dark. So, instead of lugging her already decaying carcass up to the plateau, the rangers collect sticks and dry branches, and cremate her on a large rock nearby.

On the way back, Reddy’s in a relaxed mood. He is the son of a range officer – who was deeply impressed by his father’s DFO boss. “Looking at him, I also wanted to be a DFO some day,” he smiles. Today, he is one of the best forest officials in the country. He certainly has one of the more dangerous jobs. He has received death threats from the villagers. And a police guard now accompanies him everywhere.

According to him, ecodevelopment will take another ten years before it materialises in ranthambore. A lot of that has to do with the local people, he says. In Tamil Nadu’s Kalakadu Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve (KMTR), IECD has been very successful. Local villagers have picked up new jobs like wig-making and cycle repairing with great alacrity. That is not happening in Ranthambore.

To understand why, I went to a village in Kela Devi Sanctuary the next day. there are XX villages inside the forest. And the Gujjars living inside carry out limited agriculture and keep cattle. The money from the IECD has been deployed almost entirely in making dams and water reservoirs. “Most of the villages here have just one community – either Gujjars or Minas. They are not self-reliant at all,” says Lal Singh Chaudhary. He and his team have been trying to convince the villagers to pick up new skills – so that they don’t have to pay outsiders for tailoring, cobblery, etc. But to no avail. The villagers are a proud people. they refuse to learn tailoring as that is the work of a ‘darzi’. They refuse to grow vegetables as that is the job of a ‘maali’. The villages near Ranthambore are relatively better off. the villagers at Bodhal – who constructed the wall – aren’t too happy. The five-foot high wall isn’t much of a deterrence, it seems. At another village, Hindwad, a group of villagers allege that the ecodevelopment committee has been hijacked by the local brahmins.

We are learning slowly, says Reddy. For instance, he says, “We now know that the money should be spent in generative activities, not consumptive ones.” He is starting to write a paper on ecodevelopment models. One of the points: a macroplan for the region is needed along with the microplans. Otherwise, There is no coherence between the plans of all villagers.

I travel to Shamshi…

A little known national park in the Himalayas has cracked each of those problems. To learn more, I took the overnight bus from Delhi to Shamshi – an ordinary little town on the outskirts of Kullu. That is where Sanjeeva Pandey, director of the Great Himalayan National Park (GHNP) stays. Pandey is an inclusionist. He believes conservation will work only if treated on par with the needs of the local people. As we settle down into the interview, he carefully places his XX foot on a stool. About two months ago, while on a hike, he tore a ligament. To his vexation, it’s taking a long time to heal.

The GHNP is about two hours away from where we sit, in a relatively isolated part of the Kullu valley. On the north, east and south, it is flanked by almost impassable mountain ranges. The only human habitations, 130-odd villages, are strung across its western rim. In all, there are about XX households in the area, with the population hovering around 16,000. Most villagers are very poor. All practise cultivation on small parcels of land. Which provides subsistence only for a part of the year. Additional income comes from the commercial grazing of sheeps and goats, the extraction of medicinal herbs for use by the pharmaceutical industry, and collection of local mushrooms.

Here too, the park came under pressure once the villagers came into contact with the outside world. Where villagers went in earlier for just domestic reasons, they now began going in for commercial reasons. By 1998, when Pandey took charge, about 4-6,000 herb collectors and 20-30,000 sheeps and goats were going into the forest every year. Medicinal plants like the XxdhoopXX were starting to vanish. In the old days, it was commonplace to find plants with 6-7inch wide taproots. Now, the only XX to be seen were midgets. Each with a root size less than an inch.

The GHNP is one of the first two parks in India to experiment with ecodevelopment – KMTR was the other. In 1994, the world bank had funded a FREEP project here – this was the precursor to the IECD. Here too, villagers had to form VEDCs. But, by the time pandey came aboard, the villagers were as dependant on the forest as before. Something had gone wrong. To start with, the villagers did not realise that the money was to be used for kicking off new livelihoods. The VEDCs used some money to repair roads. Some brought Jerseys. Apparently, a whole lot of villagers brought halwa.

More seriously, the microplans were not representative. For example, one microplan covered 19 villages, with an overall population of 1,300. And, while the key was to address the needs of the poor, who are the most dependant on the forest, the VEDCs ignored them. He says, “If you make a microplan for 1800 people, you cannot hear everyone. And invariably, it is the voice of the poor and the women which is hardly heard.” Instead, the money was going towards the rich. For instance, handlooms were suggested as an alternative livelihood. But, to ensure that the villagers had a stake in the project, they had to stump up a part of its price – about Rs 2,000. Trouble was – most of the people living close to the forest were too poor to afford that. In 1999, the world bank too gave up on the GHNP project. In five years, it had spent Rs 5.6 crore.

As for Pandey, he tried again. Before his GHNP posting, he was teaching ecodevelopment at Dehradun’s Wildlife Institute of India. he had some ideas about ecodevelopment. For instance, he doesn’t think conservation is the inevitable fallout of giving people alternative livelihoods. It is also about economic, social and political empowerment. The stint at the GHNP was a chance to put those into play.

Since then, working with Rajendra Chauhan, the head of a local NGO called Sahara, Pandey has quietly transformed the lives of the villagers. His tools – smaller groups, a focus on the local poor, and introduction of self help groups. The duo began by choosing Group Organisers. These were 12 women who were matriculates, had good communication skills, and were willing to go into the houses of scheduled castes.

Every group organiser was given responsibility for about ten villages each. They had to go to these villages, identify the poorest women and persuade them to form a small Women’s Saving and Credit Group (WSCG). A typical village in this part of the country is really small. So, the GOs would simply stand outside a village, and size up people’s relative prosperity by looking at their houses. Their hunches could later be corroborated when they visted the villagers. In one group, there were about 8-14 women.

And as the groups formed, Pandey and Chauhan introduced microcredit. All women were told to save Rs 1 every day. the initial plan was to get them to save Rs 2, but the women balked. They had no money. Agrees Chauhan, “We had to cajole them to save money somehow.” He and his GOs just kept pushing – bargain harder with shopkeepers, buy slightly smaller quantities. Desperate to get the savings going, Pandey gave some women jobs at his department’s medicinal plant nursery. One group of women even quarried sand to scrounge up that daily rupee.

And then, Pandey and Chauhan waited. By December, some groups had saved Rs 1,800. Which is when they introduced the first income generating activity. Knowing how impoverished the villagers were, Pandey wanted them to get into only those businesses where the returns were quick, and buyers could be found easily. Enter, Eisenia Foetida.

Pandey learnt about this earthworm species in the days when the herb collectors were wreaking havoc. Fearing the plants would vanish altogether, he had started a few nurseries. And, while looking for fertilizer, he had run into a Pune-based salesman for E. Foetida. It looked like a suitable income generating activity for the Kullu women. For Rs 1,200, they would get five kilos of earthworms. From there, it was a simple matter of making a compost pit, and giving the earthworms about 40 kilos of leaves and vegetable scraps to munch through every month. In a month, these would be reduced to compost. Which the forest department itself would buy – at Rs 7 a kilo. Pandey needed manure for his nurseries anyway.

The women were initially hesitant. the idea looked dubious, and they had saved the money with great difficulty. But, eventually, some groups brought into the idea. A month later, they sold between 40-60kg of manure to the park. The women were ecstatic, and momentum began to gather. Other groups began to buy the earthworms as well. To understand how bullish the women are on E. Foetida, consider this. In the early days, every group had one pit. Today, there are about 72 groups. And 870 pits. In the month of XX, the groups produced 7 tonnes of manure. Chauhan’s had to look for other buyers. He is now also selling the compost to local orchards.

Since then, new income generating activities have been flagged off. earlier, local traders would buy hill apricots and walnuts for Rs 16-20 a kilo. These are very rich in oil – a kilo will yield up to 500ml of massage oil. The traders would extract the oil and sell it for about Rs 200 a litre. Now, the WSCGs have gotten into the act. They give money on credit to their members to buy the seeds and extract the oil. Now, the WSCGs are even professionalising. As Pandey says, “The first batch was packaged in 1-litre mineral water bottles and sold predominantly to forest officials.” Since then, the women have started packaging the oil in shampoo-like bottles – complete with label and all. Some groups have used their kitty to buy handlooms. Others have kicked off knitting businesses – they buy hemp and knit bags et al from it. Now, an ecotourism programme has been kicked off for the menfolk as well. they are being trained as porters, guides and cooks to accompany hikers into the GHNP.

In its latest initiative, Pandey is encouraging the WSCGs to run medicinal plant nurseries in the park’s ecozone. These will grow only those plants sought by the market. Like Taxus Beccata. Its bark yields taxol, which retards the formation of cancerous cells. When the plants mature, all proceeds from their sales will go to the women. At the same time, the pressure on the forest reduces. Today, there are 10 such nurseries. The GHNP is creating a marketing tieup.

The impact of all this on the villagers has been electrifying. I spent my second day in Kullu at the park. I spoke to people like Shakti Chauhan, one of the 12 group organisers. I ask her about how things have changed for the villagers. well, she says, some of the women in her groups are now earning Rs 3,000 every month. Pandey’s scheme has been so successful that the HP government has amended its PFM rules to allow the XX

The change in the women is impressive. Says Pandey, “I used to wonder why the GOs were so enthusiastic. We could only pay them Rs 51 every day, the minimum wage. They told us later that more than the money, it was the freedom and the status.” Even the local men are getting involved today. If a women has to go out and, say, dig a pit. The husbands have started lending a hand. Chauhan tells me about a recent meeting the women had with the local district collector. He was telling them about his rural development programmes. “Those of you who want a bee-keeping unit, raise your hand,” and so on. Not one hand went up. What the women asked for was training classes.

Any dark clouds on the horizon? Well, Pandey is expecting to be transferred next year. In running the park, he has made quite a few enemies among the local politicians. As it were, the typical tenure for forest officials in HP ranges between 2-3 years. And he has already been in GHNP for 5 years now. But, he thinks his WSCGs will continue to flourish. “A micro credit group is one of the longest lasting bodies,” he says. Also, this is why he has consciously underplayed his role – encouraging the local women and Sahara to come up with new ideas. And wherever he is, he says, he will back Chauhan. In the meantime, he has told the NGO to develop a core fund which it won’t touch.


So, do communities conserve? In an e-mail to me, Pandey wrote: “Effecting a change in profession cannot be done by simply offering an alternate income generation package. Before organising the WSCGs, mere distribution of handlooms, beekeeping boxes, etc, did not make much difference. Organising the community in user groups, selection of an income generation activity which is acceptable and marketing of produce are all very important.”

In the final reckoning. Things are starting to change. Ranthambore might just remain a reminder of what could have happened to our forests. Not a dire portent of things to come.


NOTE: THIS IS SOMETHING ELSE THAT MY NOTES SAY ABOUT THAT EVENING. “Dusk slips away and is replaced by night. One man continues to hack away at a tree with an axe impounded earlier in the evening. From high above the gorge, someone is playing a powerful light where we stand. In its restless light, others are walking around collecting sticks and dry branches. I am trying to shake off a sense of unreality. All these people are preparing to cremate a tigress.” extraordinary trip, extraordinary.