P R Mishra used the power of the community to transform the barren landscape of Sukhomajri into a model for forest regeneration
Gandhi's vision of self-sufficient villages in India still remains a distant dream. Community participation and decentralisation seem nothing but, oft-repeated rhetoric from our politicians. But few individuals do try to rise against the tide and show a ray of hope. Parasu Ram Mishra who died on March 25 this year was one such hero. This protagonist of Sukhomajri's success story was a leading soil conservationist at the Central Soil and Water Conservation Research and Training Institute ( cswcrti ). He single-handedly transformed the denuded hills of Sukhomajri into forest wealth, to be protected by its people.
Sukhomajri, in the Panchkula district near Chandigarh was yet another dry village in the foothills of Shivalik. In the 1970's it was in the grip of severe ecological problems. Although it received 1,100 mm of rainfall, its groundwater levels were very low. It was a cyclic story of woe. The condition of the soil made vegetation sparse which in turn led to severe erosion and runoff. Due to scarcity of land caused by economic insecurity, villagers had started clearing hill slopes to bring them under the plough. While this yielded little, it reduced the land's water retention capacity and fertile topsoil, which got washed away during the rains every year.
By 1976, barely 13 years after the artificial Sukhna lake was created, 15 kilometres from Sukhomajri more than 68 percent of its storage capacity was reduced as it got filled with sediment. The cswcrti , team was sent to survey the catchment of the lake to probe the cause of the high sediment rate. It was soon discovered that, acute degradation had occurred in the hills near Sukhomajri. Barely five per cent of the slopes had any vegetative cover.
As agriculture was in the grip of uncertainty, the villagers traditionally kept herds of livestock to minimise risk. The cattle were allowed to graze in the hills adjoining the village. Uncontrollable grazing with no respite led to severe erosion, and low grass production. The economy of the village was in shambles. Houses had nothing but poverty and malnourished people.
This was the scenario in which soil conservationist P R Mishra entered Sukhomajri. In his own words, he only saw "naked hills and naked people". Mishra and his team's effort to promote soil conservation was met with stiff resistance. They were suspected to be agents of Chandigarh, sent for snatching the poor man's land. Mishra did not lose heart and worked relentlessly to bring the required change. "The people of Chandigarh are rich, they can have the mud removed from the lake", Mishra was told. Recalls Harikrishna, at the service organised in memory of P R Mishra "We used to take the wood used in controlling soil erosion for cooking purposes." Says he in his rustic style "We were unable to perceive any sort of gain for ourselves."
This was destined to change when Mishra got water for the villagers. Water was first made available in the village for irrigation. With the support of the villagers Mishra built two earthen dams to hold back the rain. He realised that, for his efforts to bear fruit the villagers had to be made the direct beneficiaries. The turnaround was slow but remarkable. Assured of benefits from forests and biomass production the villagers potential was harnessed. Mishra introduced the concept of 'social fencing' whereby villagers decided to protect hills from grazing through self-restraint. He also dissuaded the villagers from uncontrolled grazing in their watershed. For the first time, there was water in plenty. Once a small water harvesting system was developed the villagers saw the advantages of planting trees and grasses. Mishra firmly believed that, once the people start managing their ecosystem, problems of survival and growth get sorted on their own.
Jethu Ram was among the first volunteers to help Mishra. Anil Agarwal, chairperson of Centre for Science and Environment recalls an incident at the service of P R Mishra. During his visit to the village, Jethu Ram had asked him then "Tell me what do you see in the reservoir?" "I had replied water". "No he had said, I see milk in it. It is this water that gives us milk and honey." His words proved prophetic. With initial support from the forest department and institutional set-ups things started looking good. The state department gave the grass rights to the village community in return for a royalty equivalent to that the forest department got before the watershed.
The project started by Mishra saw phenomenal success. Tree density increased from 13 per hectare in 1976 to 1,272 per hectare in 1992, says a study by S K Dhar, chief conservator of forests. The village has traversed the path of prosperity. There is no hunger, no destitution. The milk productivity has increased manifolds. The village sold extra grass from the watershed. In 1989, Sukhomajri became the first village in India to pay Income Tax. It was Mishra who developed the concept of ' Chakriya vikas pranali ' It can be defined as the cyclic system of development, wherein the benefits of one investment become the capital for the next. It keeps increasing rural employment, finally making the village self-reliant.
But Mishra's struggle was far from smooth. Later, the prosperity and hope started turning into despair. Soon after witnessing the village prosperity, the government departments, stepped in. Division became the motto. In 1995 the forest department arbitrarily divided the 400-hectare hill tract between Sukhomajri and its neighbouring village, Dhamala.
The division has not only ruined the resources but also created tensions along caste lines. Dhamala mainly consists of upper caste Jats while Sukhomajri consists of low caste Gujjars . The influential Jats have grabbed 80 per cent of the forest grass. The two villages have become competitors instead of collaborators. Many regulations and taxes have been imposed which has reduced the villager's share to 25 per cent.
Despite governmental interference and unfair taxes Sukhomajri has proved to be a successful experiment. One of the most impressive changes has been the reduction in the cost of desilting the Sukhna lake saving the government 7.65 million in dredging costs. It proved that with community planning, commitment and restraint the economy of any village can be turned around. Mishra's Sukhomajri has become an inspiration for villagers all over India. The model of development given by P R Mishra has been replicated in other villages of Haryana, Punjab and Bihar.
Outstanding men leave their marks on the annals of history. But in the words of Anil Agarwal,"One major shortcoming of great men like Mishra is their failure to create an institution that can continue the good work with the same spirit and dedication. Despite Mishra's path-breaking work, his death has gone largely unnoticed''. He attributes this to people's habit of forgetting those who are working at the grassroots.
Mishra may be forgotten by the world but he remains immortal in Sukhomajri, where he is and will remain no less than a God. Whenever sustainable development and the successful story of forest management is discussed P R Mishra will be remembered.
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