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Category 20th Shodh Yatra
Title Richness in Scarcity: From Purulia and Patamada to Bankura: West Bengal
Details A week long walk, every summer and winter in different parts of the country for more than a decade to recognise, respect and reward the grassroots innovators and traditional knowledge holders, creative children and centenarians has taught us a great deal about genius at grassroots. Walking in Purulia and Bankura, and Patamda, drought prone regions of West Bengal and Jharkhand was reminder of the cultural richness of a semi-arid landscape. With single crop of paddy in most parts of Purulia, fields after fields showed the standing dried stubble of paddy. Animals could graze anywhere but would not find much greens. Water in the ponds would dry up in the next two to three months. Cycle of migration would begin if not begun already. For a region that has remained deprived of many basic amenities, occurrence of extremists’ violence is not unexpected. But why would people protest if the welfare arm of the state, or opportunities from markets or civil society could extend to the people in need? Some succour was provided by a few NGOs involved in organisation of the Shodh Yatra. But a great deal remained to be done. The life of Santhal tribals was a lesson in simplicity, frugality but also submission to the situation of scarcity of basic needs that existed. Ayodhya hills are quite rich in biodiversity and forests. But, should that be the reason for so much poverty to exist? In most houses, one would only notice dried fallen or chopped wood for fuel purposes. More than the food, the fuel seemed scarce. And that meant long hours for women. The knowledge for survival was so abundant and yet valued so little, not only by outsiders but even many of the local people. Why else would something known and effective in one village be not known to other people suffering from the same problem just two kilometers away. A herbal healer Gohiram Soren, Celingdha disclosed his formulation for asthma where he uses the combination of four plants viz. ‘Kosum’ (Schleichera oleosa), ‘Kumbir’ (Careya arborea), ‘Bahera’ (Terminalia bellirica) and ‘chatni’ (Alstonia scholaris). We called up our colleagues at NIF, Ahmedabad to find the available literature on these plants. After the scrutiny of scientific literature, it was found that out of the four plants, two were reported for asthma, the third was reported for cough and cold, and the fourth one was reported for pneumonia, which proves the credibility of the folk claim made by Soren if such proof was needed. Another herbal healer Sitaram Murmu who has a herbal garden consisting of nearly 100 species in it, disclosed the formulation for malaria, which consists of combination of well known and less known plants in classical literature. Many other distinctive practices for treating several diseases like jaundice, typhoid, and asthma were also documented. The informed consent of the healers was obtained on video and paper wherever possible so that further research could be started. Some of the healers would also be supported to streng-then their local phar-macy. As we walked through the forests and talked to the local communities, it became more and more apparent that even the tribal societies were becoming ‘vertical’ rather than maintaining their ‘horizontal’ nature. State interventions, weak as they are, have created hopes of vertical structures coming to rescue for the local communities without contributing to the strengthening of local structures. This is a challenge not just in West Bengal but all over. The knowledge network at local level has to be strengthened so that we do not find so much gap at such a short distance. In most of the schools we visited, before organising an idea competition, we played a small game. We asked everybody as to what did they do with the match stick after lighting a candle or fire. Everybody said that they threw it away. Our next question was, imagine how much of wood was being wasted when millions of people around the world threw such sticks away. Everybody realised the point. At this stage, we asked them to redesign the stick so that it can last longer. Then followed very interesting ideas almost everywhere in the same vein. One could put the combustible substance on both ends of the stick or make the stick longer. Stick could also be reduced to one third size and popped out by pressing the box having a hole and then picked with a holder. The extinguished stick can then be dipped in a small bottle with quick dry combustible substance so that one could dip it and ignite as long as possible. The point was quickly made that to invent or innovate one did not always need lot of material resources, a big workshop or too much of education. Anybody, by changing the context of the problem, could discover new ways of solving it. In some places, we followed up this exercise with another one. We asked everybody to find different uses of the extinguished stick. The ideas that emerged quickly ranged from making a toothpick, painting stick, clearing nails to putting vermilion mark on the forehead. More than forty such uses were mentioned. Being innovative was easy, and it did not require a special skill. The new technique was brought out in few minutes. After that the students were challenged to come out with new ideas and in many places, they did think of absolutely original ideas. In Basudha, Binodbaati we organised a two-phased competition for new ideas on the last day. In first one, we called two boys, one from the village and another from Kolkata and asked them same questions about the uses of match stick. And then opened it to everybody. The little boy from the village scored much higher than the other boy from Kolkata. In the second round, everybody was asked to come out with an idea of a new product. One of them, Bapi Roy came out with a fascinating idea of a four sided television. In most of the meetings in rural areas, people prefer to sit in a circle so that they can look at each other and at the same time, enjoy a fire in the winter or a folk theatre performance. The multimedia database that we were showing required people to sit behind each other and face other person’s back. The suggestion of the four-sided television would make it possible for people to sit in a circle and watch the programme and also look at each other. On further investigation, we found that no such product had been developed by anybody so far. On the way from Patamda in Jharkhand, another student Sanjay Karmakar thought about a fishing rod with a siren and a light. The idea was that many times while waiting for the fish to be trapped, the mind gets diverted and one misses the fish. Alarm and the light will be switched on the moment the bait is bitten by the fish. Akash Kumar from Patamda gave an idea to develop a 'ludo' for the blind and illiterate it on a poster. All along the Shodh Yatra route, we gave prizes to the students who came out with such very creative ideas. All the Shodh Yatris who viewed the exercise realised that when children could be so creative and discover their own potential so easily, why could not they, as adults, also innovate? Discussion on this issue kept them animated in the whole journey and some of them even started thinking of new ideas. While passing through Kashipur crossroads, we had a roadside meeting in the evening. Initially, the response was lukewarm. We took out the laptop and showed the videos of some of the innovations. The amphibious cycle developed by Mohd. Saidullah of Bihar, which worked on road as well as in water, was always an instantaneous hit with the viewers. So were many other videos like washing cum exercising machine of Remya Jose, tree climbing device of Appachan and Mushtaq Dhanjibhai, a polio affected person for modifying a three wheel scooter which he could drive, Kanakdas for a cycle, which converted the shocks generated by bumps on the road into propulsion through gears linked to the rear wheel, etc., were also appreciated. The bystanders than understood the point. One of them told us about a workshop mechanic who made paddy threshers and we went there to see his designs. Another one mentioned about a young boy Raju who had developed an FM station, which broadcasts music at no cost to anyone. We could not meet him on that day but later we managed to contact him. Though his station was illegal, he was performing a great community service. He did not broadcast any advertisements. He had a phone-in-service in which anybody could request for a song or announce a spiritual or social event. He had such a great understanding of the sequence and the location of about 2500 songs on different CDs and cassettes that he could immediately locate and play the desired song. He also publicised government’s programmes for polio vaccine, education, and other activities. He had developed a transmitter with 25 km range in just Rs. 5000 as against commercial transmitter with about 70 km range costing Rs. 3,00,000. The problem was that public policy did not favour a low cost innovation, which could create tremendous impact on local economies and socio-cultural conditions. New performers could become popular and thus might get livelihood opportunities by being invited to various functions and local administration could monitor the proper use of such transmitters. Madsudhan Kalandi had made ‘Chaudal’, a battery operated boat model in Mekhada village Kashipur. Nepal Pramanik had such an extraordinary skill in making clay parts that he could make them shine through a clay polish. There was a particular kind of soil, which was used for polishing. Sushanto Saihis had used wooden triangular frame in his cycle instead of steel frame. Surayakanta Murmu had made a simple torch light by joining old cells without too much of casing and other attachments. While passing through the villages, we honoured many herbal leaders and senior citizens above 90 years or 100 years. Several recipe competitions were organised through which we learnt about the creative uses of either uncultivated plants or less obvious parts of plants or different processes of using existing materials. The notion that the food of the rich is quite poor and that of the poor often is rich, at least nutritionally, came out forcefully in several recipe competitions. Similarly biodiversity competitions were organised among the school children all along the Shodh Yatra route to assess their knowledge on the locally available herbal resources. It was a delight to notice rich awareness of the students about the uses of several plants and also to know that transfer of this knowledge was actually taking place from the older generation to the younger. The students with outstanding entries were rewarded with prizes. Weed Control in Paddy by using the mulch of pigeonpea leaves: This was a common practice among a small community at Ayodhya hills. They used pigeon pea leaves as mulch before transplanting paddy. When we searched the literature databases in the evening we did not come across any report of this kind. In Cassava, the leaves had been used but there was no such widespread practice anywhere in the world. This could, after validation, become a very important technology for weed control and soil fertility management. For poor people who can not afford chemicals and others who did not want to use chemicals, this could provide a sustainable alternative. It is a different matter although that the Agriculture Department may have no incentive to diffuse such non-chemical, non-monetary technology, which helped people become self-reliant. Farmer researchers at Basudha have been using pigeonpea leaves for eight years to control 'mutha' (Cyperus rotundus) grass, a difficult weed of paddy field. Creativity in scarcity: While passing through a village Loahardih, we came across extraordinary designs on the mud walls of the huts. The Santhal tribal people did not have much material resources inside the hut but maintained a very high degree of cleanliness outside. The art work on the walls by Sumita Mahato, Sonali, Sabitri and Rebati Mahato were outstanding contributions. Why wouldn’t they be recognised as artists? How do we create platform for such grassroots artists to share the richness of art and culture in everyday life? Couldn’t some of them become designers of walls and wall murals in the cities and neighbouring villages? Why such skilful artists should be considered only unskilled labourers while conceiving various poverty alleviation and employment programme? How could India become a knowledge society without learning to value the knowledge and culture of such artists? In an earlier shodh yatra in western Uttar Pradesh, we had come across an outstanding painting on a heap of dung cakes. Wherever creative women found a space they could call their own, they gave vent to their creative impulses. Creating music out of leaves: Phatik Bawri was an outstanding performer who could create very deep classical tones in the music performed by using just any leaf. He demonstrated his talent in Jorda village. All the shodh yatris were spellbound listening to his extraordinary music. Samar Kumar Dutta in Chakaltor village could tell the day of the week for any date hundreds of years before or after the date. He seemed to have a system of calculation by which he could quickly find out which day of the week, a particular date would be. A herbal skin cream: While having roadside meeting in the small town of Bangla Indapur, we were talking about innovations and invoking bystanders to help us locate somebody who has developed a new solution to any local problem. For more than half an hour, we could not find any innovator though there were a few herbal healers whom we honoured. Then came a little girl, Preeti Choudhary who brought in her bag, a skin cream made by her mother. They had heard our appeal on the public address system. This was a very remarkable moment. The innovation by Mrs. Rina Choudhary, mother of Preeti, could be seen by everybody through the samples Preeti brought. She claimed that this was very good for skin and had a good fragrance too. Prashant Bhui from Aailtya village in Bakura district had designed a cycle-based mobile charger. Deeplai Pal of Danga village shared the idea of pumping water employing a joy ride used by children. In the same village, Bappa Ghorai gave an idea of generating energy from the wind thrust created by a fan. Developing new paddy variety: 'Asit Kalma' A young farmer, Asit Dey went to see his relatives around 17 years ago. While coming back, he saw some plants which looked very different. He decided to collect some seeds and then grew them separately. Every year, he selected the plants which were disease free, did not have much attack of the pests and yielded well. After a few years, he developed a variety, which he gave to some of his friends and neighbours for evaluation. In the last five years, the variety has covered almost all the fields suitable for the purpose in the village. Farmers called that variety as ‘Asit Kalma’. The traders found the grains very similar to ‘Swarna’ variety although farmers grew it without much fertiliser and pesticide. In fact, many farmers grew it completely organically. They got about eighteen quintals per hectare yield, which was comparable to the best local variety but without any additional cost of purchased inputs. The traders mixed the grains of ‘Asit Kalma’ with that of ‘Swarna’. Most of the farmers growing this variety had small holdings. They could not afford to sell it with a separate name. Even if one pooled the production of this variety by all the farmers of the village, it would not fill even half of the truck. Thus, the variety had diffused but the consumers and the market did not seem to know about it. When asked about the experience, Asit said, “I have seen what Basudha had done. They are maintaining more than 500 varieties, I have developed only one. I am extremely happy that other farmers have liked it so much. I don’t expect anything in return.”
Volume No. Honey Bee, 18(3) & 18(4):40-43, 2007