Saga of two villages

Sukhomajri was a dirt-poor village in Haryana. It started pulling itself out of its hole in the late 1970s, making a dizzying ascent to prosperity built on the regeneration of its natural wealth--forests and water--in the following decades. It succeeded because it had a village institution with the autonomy and power to make decisions. All that started falling apart when the forest department intervened, robbing the village of resources and initiative. Its condition is thrown into relief by the success of Bunga, a village 30 km away, which emulated Sukhomajri but staved off state depredation. Autonomy creates spaces for development. That's the lesson supriya singh learnt in Haryana

Published: Thursday 15 November 2007

Saga of two villages

Sukhomajri, a village in Haryana's Panchkula district, became a model of self-reliant development in the 1980s. Its journey from the depths of poverty to a level of prosperity that made it the first Indian village to pay income tax has been a source of inspiration the world over. What lay behind this incredible story was its success in managing its ecological wealth by creating a powerful and united village institution the Hill Resource Management Society (hrms).

Down To Earth(dte) has tracked this village's fortunes close on 15 years (see 'Partners in prosperity', February 15, 1994; 'Sukhomajri at the crossroads' December 15, 1998; and 'Foisting failure', August 31, 2002). On its last visit it found changes--not all for the better. Gurmel Singh, the president of the hrms, says the village is no idyll anymore. "I have just inherited the lustre of past laurels," he says.The debates over managing resources that used to churn the community have died--hrms has not met once in the past five years.

Not surprisingly. Sukhomajri thrived on forests and water resources--hrms managing both. But the equation has changed. The forest department has hijacked the forest the villagers created, while control of water is going into private hands. "There is hardly any reason for the society to exist," says Gurmel Singh.

Down to EarthThe journey
Sukhomajri's journey began in 1976 with the arrival of scientists from the Chandigarh-based Central Soil and Water Conservation Research and Training Institute (cswcrti). They were looking for a solution to the silting of the Sukhna Lake, Chandigarh's only water source. The scientists found the problem was run-off from the denuded hills there. Their solution lay in preventing the villagers from grazing their cattle in the forest, who had no stake in listening to them. They agreed to stop the grazing only when the scientists agreed to build dams--the first in 1976--that would provide them water. Enlightened self-interest won villagers got water, protected forests and got more water and fodder; Sukhna too was saved.

"In many ways the Sukhomajri experiment was the first instance of challenging the top-down model of development," says S P Mittal, one of the scientists who started the project with the late P R Mishra, who inspired the Sukhomajri model.

In five years, the village got three more dams and in 1983 formed hrms with a member from each household. Later all adult residents became members. All residents got equal rights over water (see timeline Divergent trajectories). To inculcate efficient use, the tariff was based on period of consumption rather than the amount used. hrms's revenues from various sources were used to maintain the dams and the pipelines to distribute water, and protect the forests.

The results soon began to show. The yield of wheat and maize, the two staple crops, rose by over 50 per cent between 1977 and 1986. Production of grass, crucial as fodder, rose from 40 kg per hectare (ha) in 1976 to 3 tonnes in 1992. In the forest, the number of trees rose from 13 per ha to 1,292 per ha. With more fodder available, the number of goats fell from 246 to 10 from 1977 to 1986, while the number of buffaloes rose from 79 to 291. Milk production rose steeply as a result.

Sukhomajri is still wealthy--at Rs 15,000, villagers earned 2.5 times Haryana's rural per capita income in 2005. Almost every family owns a car. Close to 560 buffaloes and cows provide 3,000-4,000 litres of milk a day, sold at Rs 12 per litre. "The annual per capita income has doubled from the 1990s and tripled from the 1970s," says Gurmel Singh.Down to Earth Loosening grip
But the problems are growing. "The strength of hrms is fading. Our hold over forest and water is weakening," says Abhay Ram, a 60-year-old villager, who was a part of the core group that began the initiative. The first signs of decay are private tube wells, now increasingly used for irrigation instead of water from the dams. The village has 60 ha of arable land. The area irrigated by the dams came down from about 33 ha in 1985 to 10.2 ha in 2001, when around 17 ha was irrigated by tube wells and the rest not irrigated at all. Now the area irrigated by the dams has shrunk to just 5 ha, says Abhay Ram.

The increased extraction of groundwater does not augur well groundwater levels are falling. "Before the dams, water was hit at around 120 m," says Abhay Ram. "When the first tube well came up in 1981-82, the groundwater level was 40 m." The situation is now heading back to square one. Water was found at close to 90 m in 2006 down from 56 m in 1996. Kuldeep Singh, the sarpanch, believes that due to percolation from the dams, groundwater won't be depleted. But Abhay Ram's testimony offers little scope for such certitude.

Water distribution has suffered because the pipelines are in disrepair. The dams have silted up. With no funds to maintain them and the distribution network, the society is helpless. "Fearing loss of crops after the lowering of water levels in the dams, even I switched to a tube well," says Gurmel Singh. "Nowadays we irrigate only to save crops. In my father's times water was aplenty but now things are no longer good. It is just that due to the forest the moisture in the soil is good otherwise there would be a drastic drop in crop yields."

Sukhomajri's prosperity was built on the revenue it generated from fodder and bhabbar, a grass used at that time by the paper pulp industry, and water from its dams. In its best year, 1996-97, hrms earned over Rs 1.7 lakh, up from Rs 43,797 in 1986-87, the first year it earned revenues (see graph Square one). Since 2002, it has struggled to make Rs 4,000 annually.

In the early period, all went well. With water conservation and the rejuvenation of forests there was plenty of fodder and bhabbar. Since the forest belonged to the forest department, hrms had an arrangement with it to collect and sell bhabbar, to the paper industry, and fodder, to villagers. In 1990, however, the system was tweaked. In addition to the lease, hrms had to pay 25 per cent of revenues as tax. It weathered this because it had irrigation revenues and the village had become well-off.

Down to EarthRoot cause
The big blow came in 1998. Under joint forest management (jfm) guidelines, the forest department started extracting 25 per cent of the society's profits from bhabbar and fodder--with this hrms had to shell out 55 per cent of its forest proceeds. Under the new arrangement, villagers were also prevented from harvesting mungri (forage grass). Circumstances were especially perverse the bottom fell out of the bhabbar market as the paper industry shifted to wood pulp. Now, after paying taxes, there are no profits to be had from bhabbar and fodder grass and hrms does not lease in the rights. "Most of the farmers get fodder from their land or buy it. Only the poor still depend on the forest for fodder," says Ram Kishan, a villager.

Down to EarthThe intervention of the forest department has trapped Sukhomajri in a vicious cycle. With funds now falling to 5 per cent of 1997-98 levels, hrms can no longer maintain its dams and pipelines. As of now, only the big dam built in 1978 is used extensively for irrigation--hrms's finances are being further undermined. Earnings from irrigation fell from a peak of Rs 4,000 in 1994-95 to almost nothing from 2000 to 2005. With two dams repaired, this rose to Rs 3,300 in 2006-07.

The forest department has been more than predatory. Its obstructive policy has denied Sukhomajri a huge income. Under the jfm agreement the villagers' share in the timber from its khair trees, should the trees be harvested, would work out to a significant amount--an automatic bailout (see box Untapped resources). But the government is not harvesting it.

Help wanted
Villagers want help. "The dams should be repaired by the government, because we don't have money," Kishan says. Rakesh Kumar, a forester, says, however "One dam was repaired this year, another in 2005. The embankment for another dam was repaired and the height increased by 2 m. Clogged pipes were cleaned. Soon villagers can start using water." The dam repaired this year had become defunct in 1992.

The development cycle is jamming--institutional decay and shrinking resources feeding on each other. It doesn't have to, however, if policy is more sensitive. "We've dug a grave for Sukhomajri," says Swarnlata Arya, senior scientist, cswcrti.

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