Just got back from a great week in India, including my first attempt at a phone vlog (above).
One of the drawbacks of being a generalist is that you go somewhere, hear riveting stories of organization, resistance (and sometimes of course, of failure), but then never find out what happened next. But last week I managed to return to one of the places and stories that really got me thinking about how change happens – Tikamgarh, in Madhya Pradesh.
A decade ago, when I first visited to gather material for From Poverty to Power (the 2008 book, not this blog), the story of the fishing communities’ fight for the rights to ‘ponds’ (in reality, large lakes stuffed with fish) got me thinking about the interactions between technology, citizens, the state and NGOs: in brief, when people learned how to seed the ponds with fish fry, productivity rocketed, upper caste landowners smelt money and booted out the traditional fishing communities. They fought back, formed cooperatives, with the help of an upper caste former civil servant whose NGO, Vikalp, played a key role in supporting their organization, and started to win back control of a few ponds. They found allies in the state (a sympathetic fishing minister) and got new policies spelling out their rights. By the time I arrived in 2006, about 100 ponds were under their control.
This time round, we spent two days with the communities, talking and making a short video for the book website and associated MOOC. Filming makes you do stuff like actually catch go out with the fishermen (hence the wobble on the video – I was bobbing about in a small boat at the time).
So what’s changed since 2006 (apart from the omnipresent and irritating ringtones that interrupt every conversation)? The good news is that the fishing communities have carried on winning – they are now up to 250 ponds and have their eyes on the whole 2000. The government is now leasing the ponds to fishing communities rather than the upper caste landlords, at lower rates and for longer periods. The fishers’ organization, Machhuwara Sangathan, has consolidated itself and no longer needs NGOs to intercede with the authorities on its behalf.
The women were amazing. 23 of the ponds are now run by women’s cooperatives and everyone agreed they are more productive, because the women take care of the fish better and the police are more worried about incidents of theft involving violence against women, so react faster when thieves try and steal their fish. They spoke with remarkable ease and confidence in front of the men, and grilled me in some detail about the state of the fishing industry in the UK. At one point I was even forced to ask ‘can we hear from the men too please?’, which is certainly a first in my experience.
The fishing communities come from the lower Kewat caste, and the deep psychological roots of caste remain (people kept coming up to touch the feet of Vikalp’s Brahmin boss, Omprakash Rawat, during our meetings). But they say they feel prouder of their identity these days, celebrate the birth of their caste heroes, and both men and women stand for local elections, and win. All unthinkable until this process kicked off.
But it’s not all milk and honey. The upper castes are fighting back, seizing the fertile soil exposed when the dry season comes and the pond waters recede. Farming that land is crucial to the fishing communities in getting through the hard (and hot) summer months. Some communities told us they lacked the funding to organize the big rallies that won political support and kept the upper caste farmers at bay.
Then there’s the drought, now in its third year. Only about 10% of the ponds still had fish and water in them when we visited, and it’s still two months til the monsoon comes. Incomes drop, land conflicts break out, and some people have to temporarily migrate to the cities to find casual labour to see them through.
But what was striking was the greater self confidence these days. There was a drought when I visited in 2006, though not such a severe one, and people were very anxious about their future. Not this time – it made me look at that over-used word resilience in a new way. Through self-organization, these people have acquired greater resilience to both drought and attempts to destroy their livelihoods. In this case, an effective form of ‘disaster risk reduction‘ turns out to be empowerment and organization, something that I suspect is true much more widely. At least that’s what this new Oxfam framework on resilient development argues.
Brilliant visit, and big thanks to Nand Kishor Singh, Ranu Bhogal and the rest of Oxfam India for making it possible.
Here’s the full account of the Tikamgarh story from Neelkanth Mishra and Mirza Feroz Beg, published in 2011