The ground for grassroots technology

A Delhi-based agency has improved the standard of living of a Himachal Pradesh village by providing it simple devices at subsidised rates

By Rakesh Agarwal
Published: Tuesday 28 February 1995

The ground for grassroots technology

-- FOR the residents of Nari, a village of 700 households in the Una district of Himachal Pradesh, underdevelopment and poverty is losing its harsh edge, thanks to the introduction of a few simple and cheap devices like water seal toilets and biogas plants. The devices are being promoted by the Energy Environment Group (EEG), a Delhi-based ngo, in about 30 villages in the region.

Says Meher Chand, a 55 year-old village farmer at whose house the eeg installed a water seal toilet 3 years ago, "Our women do not have to wait till it is dark to go out and relieve themselves. And children don't feel miserable when they get diarrhoea in the monsoons." Besides, Chand got the facility free because the EEG was carrying out a promotional drive for water seal toilets at that time.

The concept of a toilet inside the home has today caught on among the villagers and as many as 150 households have already opted for the convenience, with the eeg charging just Rs 500 for setting it up. Avers Chand, who has also taken eeg's help in installing a biogas plant in his backyard, and a Nadep compost tank near his 1 ha field, "These devices should be adopted by every household in every village."

Nadep compost -- named after its originator, N R Pandharipande of the Kumarappa Gowardhan Centre in Pusad, Maharashtra -- has also been welcomed by the villagers. The compost makes use of cowdung and other agricultural waste easily available in the rural areas. Says Shyam Lal, who works with the EEG, "Earlier the villagers used to fertilise their fields with urea without getting the soil tested, and would throw away the agricultural waste. Now, the waste is being effectively used to yield good manure rich in all the 3 necessary elements -- nitrogen, phosphorus and potash. There is no need for soil testing."

Six months ago, Lal built a 5 cu m Nadep tank at Kripal Singh's 2 ha field in nearby Jhamber village, and taught him how to fill it and use it. Singh is about to use the manure in his field and says, "Besides saving money -- since I won't be buying urea anymore -- it gives me a sense of satisfaction." Lekh Raj Sharma, head of the local Rural Technology Demonstration Centre, says that "it is this sense of satisfaction that we try to arouse among the farmers. Earlier, they mostly used self-made, simple home and agricultural devices. But with the spread of urban culture in rural areas, now they want everything readymade." The centre spreads awareness among the villagers and the facilities demonstrated at the centre are subsidised. Some villagers such as Nirmala Devi of Nari find these devices useful but unaffordable.

To overcome this problem, in the beginning the EEG provides the devices at very subsidised rates. Over time, they return their cost. The water seal toilet -- a modification of the 2-pit Sulabh pattern -- was provided free at the start. The design of this toilet allows one pit to be emptied and its contents used while the other repeats the cycle of filling. But free distribution does not lend itself either to economic feasibility or to propagation. For instance, the EEG had distributed the mud solar cooker free to about 100 households but found most of them them lying unused. "When we get kerosene easily, why should we cook on this slow and cumbersome cooker?" retorted Rama Devi of Kadyana village, who dumped a cooker she received 3 years ago.

The EEG modified the concept and introduced a biogas plant model -- the Deenbandhu model -- charging a token Rs 1,000 for installing the device, which actually costs Rs 3,200. Besides meeting part of the production cost, the token fee also forced the villagers to use it and to maintain it in proper condition. The villagers went on to find biogas cooking very convenient. "No more blackened utensils and no need to chop balan (wood) in the mornings," says Gyanu Devi, 50, of Nari. "Everybody in the beda (cluster) has adopted it."

While the EEG has been successful in spreading technology in a seemingly well-off area of Himachal Pradesh, it has failed to involve a cross-section of people at an institutional level. It has not, for instance, set up a mahila mandal or a yuva kendra. It has a crafts training centre for girls but the centre has no provision to give its students an opportunity to cash in upon their skill. Says Meena, 17, "My training will be over soon and then I (will) have to sit at home." This is the EEG's major weakness and it raises doubts about the sustainability of the entire project. Unless it starts involving people from the word go, there will be persons like Ram Asare who regard the orgainsation as a mere commercial venture. "This is just another profit-making enterprise," he says wryly. An organisation working to improve people's living standards must work along wider parameters.

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