Gram Swaraj intervenes both at micro- and macro level for community-based social, socio-economic, socio-ecological and socio-cultural restructuring, reforms, and developments for helping the local communities realize the strength of the Gandhian concept of Gram Swaraj in the following ways:
Similipal landscape is a large tract of hilly tropical forest that hosts an incredible variety of flora and fauna. These forests are also home to many indigenous peoples, including the Khadia, Mankdia, Lodha, Santhal, Kolha, Bhuyan, Bathudi and many others, whose life-styles depend to a large extent on the survival of the forests.
Gram Swaraj has endeavored to strengthen elements of participation and democratic forest governance in both Protected Areas (PA) as well as non-Protected Areas around the Similipal Biosphere Reserve.
Since its inception, Gram Swaraj has engaged itself with forest-fringe communities and their conservation institutions for regeneration, conservation and management of the forest ecosystem. Gram Swaraj is facilitating ‘people centric forest governance’ by recognition of rights over community forest resources under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006. Teams of Barefoot Ecologists are constituted to record and monitor ecological changes of their neighboring ecosystems, which is used as a tool for biodiversity management. As per the provisions of the Indian Biodiversity Act 2002 and the Odisha Biodiversity Rule 2012, Biodiversity Management Committees (BMC) have been constituted at the Gram Panchayat level and subsequently People’s Biodiversity Registers (PBR) are being prepared to ensure systematic recording and documentation of flora and fauna. Additionally, plantations of native species are done regularly through the establishment of nurseries.
Focus is also given to the plantation of the Simili tree (Bombax ceiba) after which the biosphere is named locally and which serves as an important ecological niche for the honeybees and the Hill Myna (Gracula religiosa). Seed exchange programmes are being carried out to save the endangered and rare varieties of plants, and a seed bank has also been established. Different types of indigenous seeds including those of paddy, vegetables, millets, pulses and oilseeds are being documented. Seed festivals are organized to encourage farmers to demonstrate traditional and local seed varieties. In order to conserve agro biodiversity, attempts are under way to stop the use of chemical pesticides and promote ecologically friendly agricultural practices.
Recently, initiatives have been undertaken to conserve the rich avifauna of Similipal and sensitize people about the importance of bird conservation. A Bee Conservation Programme has also been initiated through the capacity building of honey hunters to promote the sustainable harvest of honey with minimal harm to the honeybees and beehives. Integrated natural resource management activities are promoted to conserve the soil, water and forests in a village ecosystem. Gram Swaraj is engaged with tribal cultural institutions, tribal priests and village headmen for the conservation of wildlife. More particularly, their crucial role is sought to minimize ritual hunting. People’s institutions like forest protection and management committees under the framework of the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act 1996 (PESA) and the Forest Rights Act 2006 are being constituted and strengthened for sustainable management of the community forest resources. Similipal Lok Sansad (People’s Parliament), a community-based institution, is being promoted at different tiers and to spearhead the Save Similipal Campaign.
Gram Swaraj perceives livelihood as a comprehensive subject which not only ensures regular income but improves food security and societal responsibilities for the households.
Historically, the households with whom Gram Swaraj has been working are dependent on forests and agriculture for their livelihoods. A very small holding of rain-fed agricultural land does not cater to the needs of the families round the year. Hence, collection of NTFPs as food, medicine and income is a defining activity. The tribals receive almost 37 - 50% of total annual income and 60%-80% cash income from Non Timber Forest Products (NTFPs). However, the sale of Non Timber Forest Products (NTFPs) fall prey to the unorganized markets and exploitative clutch of middlemen. The strategies of livelihood improvement take care of organizing the producers and NTFP collectors into groups, aggregating their small quantity into marketable scale and then integrating in the value chain.
Gram Swaraj works intensively with tribal households to increase their income from NTFPs. It works for capacity building programmes related to sustainable harvesting of forest products. It promotes the skill of primary collectors for product development. It also promotes the market access through aggregation of products. “Swabalambi Producer’s Company Ltd” –a collective of NTFP collectors and small farmers, is being strengthened to sustain the livelihood activities in the framework of a community enterprise institution.
To ensure food security, diversity of crops is promoted through agriculture. In addition to this, the components of uncultivated foods or wild/forest foods are brought into the discourse of food security. Documentation of wild foods, sharing of knowledge related to wild foods and popularizing it among the younger generation is another approach to livelihood improvement.
Increasing access to programmes of the government is another dimension to livelihood security. Sharing information of different schemes and creating platforms for interface between all stake- holders is given due importance for effective convergence.
Gram Swaraj uses local health traditions within their operational villages to meet the primary health care needs of human beings, their livestock and crops.
Gram Swaraj has made an effort to fuse Traditional Knowledge with modern health systems and improvement of health services through local health practitioners by capacity building in quality medicine preparation. Production of medicine through community-based enterprises on the basis of local compositions through scientific support of documentation, assessment of local health knowledge, and product standardization by modern laboratory has been done too. This is an attempt to increase the availability of affordable medicines in rural and remote villages; these medicines will sell over-the-counter through Self Help Group (SHG) members and folk healers. Since most of the traditional knowledge is unwritten, hence Gram Swaraj has focused on documenting such rich knowledge in the form of ‘Community Health Knowledge Register’. The organization also promotes “Home Herbal and Nutritional Garden” “ in the backyards to ensure primary health care at door steps and to increase the nutritional level amongst the Adivasi’s. These gardens comprise of 10-15 herbal plants commonly used in the locality and also a range of seasonal vegetables. Efforts are on way to bring the folk healers into common platforms towards better sharing of knowledge and learning.
Institution building for holistic development of villages has been adopted as one of the major approaches. Institutions play a very significant role in strengthening community efforts in the ecosystem management and establishing swaraj in villages. Each institution signifies its presence in their specific role and Gram Swaraj engages and helps these institutions at different stages and perceptions. Gramsabha as the supreme institution in the village takes the responsibility in formulating policies and strengthening governance. Women members form Self Help Groups (SHG) for financial stability and gender equality.
Village forest management committees look after conservation of the forest and wildlife. Forest rights committees facilitate implementation of Forest Right Act. Traditional healers’ associations are trying to mainstream the traditional health healing systems in the society. Formation of associations, groups, federations, village institutions at cluster and district level increases community strength, builds leadership and ensures information sharing and confidence building.
Traditional knowledge is an important theme in the works of Gram Swaraj. We understand traditional knowledge represents experience gained over thousands of years of direct human contact with the environment. Especially in the adivasi cultures, where life is organized around a highly refined awareness of the ecology and environment, traditional knowledge is a cumulative body of knowledge which is transferred down through generations by cultural transmissions; and its preservation and practice has been one of the major initiatives of Gram Swaraj. Gram Swaraj works with the folk healers who possess enormous knowledge on medicinal plants related to human, livestock and crop health. This knowledge is documented and scientifically assessed. Gram Swaraj’s intervening populations include the communities who still lead the pre-agriculture lifestyle and are still dependent on the ecological resources to a greater extent.
Village elders, cowherds, NTFP collectors, traditional healers, and honey hunters are built into teams of ‘barefoot ecologists’ who know better about the plants, animals, birds, bees and also their relationship with other biotic and abiotic elements. They regularly document the resources and the changes taking place in their environment. In addition to this, they provide critical inputs to village forest management committees for developing strategy for biodiversity conservation. Wild food is another aspect related to traditional knowledge which ensures food security and gives option in case of severe stress. Wild foods and related knowledge is documented and shared. The organization works with farmers to conserve traditional agricultural knowledge, climate resilient measures and conservation of local variety seeds. Traditional seed festivals and wild food festivals are organized for intergenerational sharing of wisdom and knowledge.
Gram Swaraj promotes appropriate technologies towards reducing drudgery and increasing productivity. Most of these are focused on women who are in acute need of such technologies. Augmentation of income of rural masses is one of the primary reasons of promoting such rural appropriate technologies.
Gram Swaraj works with other institutions to develop and field - test these technologies. Gram Swaraj also gives trainings and facilitations to the users of these technologies. Some of the technologies include the promotion of puffed rice machine(puffed rice or mudhi being one of the famous cultural and economic identities of the Mayurbhanj district); NTFP processing equipments such as Sal (Shorea robusta)- and Siali (Bauhinia vahlii) leaf plate & cup making machines, oil expeller , and seed decorticator; fuel efficient smokeless chullah, sabai grass (Eulaliopsis binata) rope making machine, soap making machine, honey collection and filtration equipments and technologies and so on.
One such initiative is the installation of two manual oil expeller machines in the remote villages of Sorishapal Gram Panchayat in the Shimilipal Biosphere Reserve which helps the local people extract oil from their mahua seeds without going to distant mills. These machines are managed by the local communities and provide low cost services.
Minimizing gender disparity and empowering women is one of the prominent activities of Gram Swaraj. Building women institutions and improving their capacities is a priority for the organization. Over the period of time women in our working villages are taking lead in ecological restoration and financial inclusion. Women are becoming leading examples in the families in the society as well. In the process of capacity building, many women have emerged as good leaders and are holding important posts in the Panchayati Raj Institutions. Through concerted efforts, women have improved their bargaining power and increased their financial status. This has helped the women to assert their roles in the decision making process in the family and at community level at par with their counterparts.
Food and nutritional security is considered as a critical element for livelihood improvement in Gram Swaraj’s activity. Farmers are encouraged to increase the diversity of their crops. Nutritional gardens are established through exchange of seed programs amongst farmers. In addition to this, seed packets are provided on cost sharing basis. The forest fringed communities meet their nutritional component to a large extent from forest foods like yams, tubers, fish, crabs, fruits, mushrooms and greens. This finds very little space in the mainstream food security discourse. Eventually, Gram Swaraj is attempting to communicate the importance of wild foods to policy makers in the food and nutritional security programme.
Gram Swaraj implies to self-governance and the organization is looking towards self governed villages. To make this concept into reality, Gram Swaraj facilitates self-governance in natural resource management through the better functioning of Gramsabha. Community educational programme is undertaken on different acts and laws which empowers the villagers to manage their own affairs. A team of peoples’ advocates has been created who train and educate villagers for better implementation of Forest Rights Act (FRA) and Panchayati Raj Extension to Schedule Areas (PESA) Act in their letter and spirit. This is particularly important because Mayurbhanj district is a Scheduled Area, and has diverse indigenous communities dependent on forest lands and resources.
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