It was September, 2018 and the whole state of Maharashtra faced a severe drought, affecting 26 districts and 151 tehsils. 18-year-old Rohit was yet to appear for his school leaving examinations when the drought hit but was forced to put his education on hold to help his mother. His alcoholic father did not contribute much to the family income. One of Rohit’s key responsibilities was looking after his two buffaloes and a cow. Apart from a small piece of land, these animals were the only asset the family had. In most other pockets of India, Rohit would have been forced to take loans at exorbitant rates to keep feeding his livestock during the drought or sell at least one of them to feed the others. The worst-case scenario for Rohit would have been to sell all his livestock and move to the city in search of work.
The prospects for hundreds of people like Rohit from Mann Desh, spread across the 3 districts of Maharashtra – Satara, Sangli and Solapur, would have been dire had it not been for the Mann Deshi Foundation and its cattle camp. Located in a rain shadow area, these districts receive merely 4-5 inches of rain a year and that year, the only natural source of water, the Mann River ran dry. The local population, mostly farmers and landless labourers, rely on raising goats and cattle and migrate to cities seasonally in search of work. This drought had threatened to push them into extreme poverty due to shortage of fodder, water as well as foodgrains.
In the face of such challenges, the Mann Deshi Foundation’s work since 1997 has transformed the region into an oasis of empowerment. The Mann Deshi Cattle Camp was one of their key interventions, which provided a lifeline to small and marginal farmers and their livestock during periods of drought. Staying at the camp in 2019 for months, Rohit slept in the enclosure allotted to him and his livestock, collected their milk in the morning and sold it to the dairies which came to the cattle camp, collected the fodder from the several fodder stations at the camp and also volunteered to assist with the camp activities. It was in response to the drought of 2018 that Mann Deshi foundation set up its cattle camp in January, 2019. Within a week they had close to 10,000 animals at the camp. It had become a sea of green sheds and makeshift settlements, where farmers had shifted during the drought to protect their only asset, their livestock.
The camp provided water and free nutritious fodder for animals, made at the site itself, in a systematic manner using a token-based transparent system. In 2019, the camp was divided into 24 wards with 4 fodder stations, from where farmers could collect fodder. Water was distributed through water tankers and kept at a few central locations throughout the camp area. For large animals like buffaloes and jersey cows, the foundation provided 20 kilograms of fodder every day per animal. For medium sized animals, like cows, 15 kilograms per day per animal and 7 kilograms for small animals like goats. In addition, cattle feed of 1 kilogram per animal per day was also made available, and farmers could purchase additional fodder for lactating animals.
In an innovative example of circular economy solution in action, the organisers devised a system to aggregate dung and sold this vast quantity of dung to collect funds for operational expenses. The cattle camp illustrates how solutions that recognise the priorities and lifestyles of local populations can be the difference between uprooting entire communities on the one hand or building resilient systems that can withstand the onslaught of natural calamities such as droughts.
BEHIND A SUCCESSFUL INTERVENTION:UNDERSTANDING THE LIFE PATTERNS OF LOCAL COMMUNITIES
The Mann Deshi Foundation had organised first cattle camp in 2002 in response to a drought and a decade later, in 2012, a second cattle camp was set up, which stayed operational for 18 months. The success of the camps and the overwhelming response of the local population to it was mainly due to the fact that the Foundation was able to understand the unique bond between livestock and their owners in Mann Desh. The animals are the only asset owned by these poor families. At the same time, they are considered a part of the family. It was important to incorporate this relationship into any successful interventions in the region. For families like Rohit’s, the pain of abandoning or selling an animal often severs their only connection to the locality, leading to uprooted migration to the cities. Thus, by ensuring fodder and water for the livestock, it was possible to help these families to tide over this period of drought and save them from extreme poverty and uncertain life of migrant labourers.
SOCIAL CAPITAL AND COMMUNITY INVOLVEMENT
Mobilising people to undertake a project on such a massive scale is possible only through strong ties to the community. This is where Mann Deshi Foundation’s long-term investment in patiently building social capital in the area pays off. Mrs. Chetna Sinha founded Mann Deshi Sahakari Bank in 1997 as the first cooperative bank set up by and for rural women to serve those excluded from the formal banking system. Mrs. Sinha had been living in Mhaswad, Maharashtra since 1986. She decided to set up a bank for women in Mann Desh when she met Kanta Bai in 1997. Kanta Bai, a welder, and her family lived in Mann Desh. She wanted to keep her earnings in a bank as her savings were often spent by her husband. Several banks turned down her application to open a savings account, because her daily savings rarely exceeded Rs. 5. Thousands of women in the region faced the same issues, where a hand to mouth existence dependent on sales in local markets and inconsistent earnings meant that they did not have bank accounts. In the days before PM Jan Dhan Yojana and the MUDRA scheme, this meant exclusion from the formal banking sector and lack of formal credit. This is where Mrs. Sinha decided to step in and set up a women’s cooperative bank. 1335 women pooled their savings (7.8 lakhs) to set up the first bank for and by rural women in India. The Mann Deshi Bank provided not only flexible means to save, but also innovative credit instruments tailored to local needs (like loan to buy fodder, pay for treatment of livestock, joint liability group loans, weekly market cash flow facility, micro enterprise loans and even vehicle loans). The bank has a repayment rate of 96% and continues to grow.
Since then, the Mann Deshi Foundation has also started literacy programs, livelihood training modules focussing on local requirements (their goat veterinarian programme has been a major success), set up farmers and producers organisations to sell agricultural produce directly to consumers, a sports programme which has produced national and state level athletes and even a community radio station. Today the Mann Deshi Foundation office at Mhaswad has a fully staffed bank on its premises and one of the few ATMs in the town, where women from across the region line up on a daily basis to withdraw money. All these initiatives have built a relationship of trust between the Foundation and local residents, which formed the basis of outreach to farmers during the drought. Further, the camp operations depended heavily on volunteers, several of whom were the farmers staying at the camp themselves.
BUILDING RESILIENT STRUCTURES
The camp addressed the immediate distress associated with the drought, but the Foundation recognised the need for holistic solutions to agrarian issues and water scarcity in the area. Through their Water Conservation Programme (launched after the 2012 drought), the Foundation has so far built 14 check dams rejuvenating 400 wells and irrigating an area of over 1200 hectares. Such dams also replenish dwindling aquifers and groundwater levels. Water harvesting structures such as bandharas were also built. This approach has prevented villages close to bandharas and other structures with water available, from moving to the cattle camp.
After staying at the cattle camp for months, Rohit was able to return to education, with all his livestock still alive. Without it, he would probably have permanently dropped out of school and left with no choice but to leave Mann Desh. Climate change is likely to increase the number of extreme weather events and affect agrarian livelihoods. In Mann Desh itself droughts have become more frequent in just the 20 years since the first cattle camp opened its doors. The reverse migration caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is also likely to worsen the impact of such events in rural areas, with urban migrants returning to their villages, without any prospects of going back. This increased burden on agriculture also means that any path to prosperity must address the issues around agrarian growth, which cannot reach required levels without being supplemented by animal husbandry. Against this background, interventions such as Mann Deshi Foundation’s cattle camp provide an example to be studied and replicated to protect small and marginal farmers. A network of such initiatives, adapted to local circumstances, may provide the support that millions like Rohit need.
My Livestock, My Wealth: Lessons from the Mann Deshi 2019 Cattle Camp