The adage, from your lips to God’s ears gains new meaning as I find lessons in remote northern Indian villages. The lessons which South Africa has forgotten and needs to re-learn.
I am squatting on the floor of a hut in an Araku tribal village in the north of Andra Pradesh, a populous state of over 80-million in the south of India. It reminds me of the many villages to which I travelled while organising workers in the sugar farms and mills of Natal in the 1980s. The rolling hills, the lush green vegetation, the mango trees filled with ripening fruit. The people are excited. They are members of the Araku Co-operative Society. They have 11,000 farmer-members.
I am a guest of Naandi, an innovative NGO launched in 1999 as a public-private partnership to deliver a hot, nutritious midday meal to children in Hyderabad when the Supreme Court of India ruled that was a child’s constitutional right. Today they feed over 1.3-million children across India.
But the organisation has grown beyond social responsibility and today, with more than 6,000 employees, it is one of the largest civil society development enterprises in India, focused on building sustainable livelihoods through social businesses. I have spent two weeks with them travelling to their projects. There is so much that is relevant to Africa.
The indigenous tribes of India are poor and marginalised communities. Public investment in these rural areas is not evident. Stretched across the northern part of India, they officially number over 80-million and are listed in the constitution as scheduled classes. They are among the “invisible people” in India.
I asked Manoj Kumar, the dynamic CEO of Naandi, why he started working in Araku. “It was chosen for its remote location, in which there was a Maoist insurgency led by the Naxalites against government, an absence of NGO presence and abysmally low indices in maternal and infant mortality and school enrolment. We felt if we can crack Araku, we can solve poverty anywhere in the world.
“We thought we would bring development to Araku. We realised that the farmers knew the land better than us. So together we built an army of ‘barefoot development change agents’ by training adivasi farmers as our team of trainers in their own fields. Now they can teach our staff about development.
“My tryst with Araku was an occasional visit in 1998 when I had fallen in love with its panoramic beauty. But I was also moved by the facade of nature hiding the privation and poverty of the people. In 2001 I went again as Naandi CEO to expand our first programme – namely starting schools for children who studied under large trees where the community built the school with sticks, straw and mud walls. In three years we’d built 425 schools and ensured almost all kids are in schools now, run by government,” Manoj tells me.
In August 2002 while ‘inspecting’ his school programme he met Canadian linguist, Uwe Gustavson, who had lived in Araku for 35 years working on literacy programmes and codifying the tribal dialects.
“He told me, ‘I watched you work with such dedication on the education programme. I wish you would do the same for landless peasants who have an acre of leased land from government to grow coffee, but whose lands are unproductive because they lack the skills and tools of agriculture’.”
Naandi proposed they lead a cooperative of farmers using fair trade coffee and black pepper routes with a bio-dynamic framework for development. The journey began in 2002 with 1,000 farmers and has now grown to be the largest empowered adivasi coffee farmer cooperative in India.
At that time farmers were earning $1 for a kilogram of coffee. Working systematically they were trained in organic farming; how to make natural fertilizer from cow dung; how to process the coffee beans according to their quality; when to harvest and an organisation was built from the village upwards.
I met the board the farmers controlled. These were confident leaders focussed on their duties. They proudly showed the training manuals using pictures to describe the techniques and detailed records of the farms all put on a GIS system so that farmers had legal title to their land.
Naandi organisers reminded me of the dedication of unionists with whom I had worked. They put the farmers through a rigorous process of organic certification and negotiated access to global markets. Farmers have now increased their incomes to an average of $5/kg, cut out the middle men and are working towards connecting directly to the consumer.
The coffee combined with other commodities in the Araku are about helping create a small sustainable source of income and at the same time creating opportunities for education, medical care, better food sources, nutrition and fresh water.
David Hogg, a Naandi organic farming guru, preaches, “Sustainable organic agriculture is all about the restoration of sovereignty to farmers in seeds and appropriate local technology to ensure fertile, carbon rich soils and nutritious food that has a direct market linkage to consumers. To achieve this requires a social transformation.” I absolutely agree with him.
Naandi began working on a broader project of empowering farmers to plant a million mango trees using carbon credits to fund the operation. In this project they are working on communities developing vegetable gardens that will make them food-secure and earn an income from exporting surpluses to the cities. No artificial fertilizers or pesticides are used.
The outcomes demonstrate one essential point. This is sustainable development. It comes from painstaking organising of communities around livelihoods. Cosatu succeeded in organising workers, not because we “sold” politics, but because we organised workers around wages and working conditions.
I meet the chairman of the Araku Coffee Co-operative, Garam Kumbo. He is a proud man. “I have educated my daughter, Seetha, and my son, Chandra. Last year we bought an ambulance with our profits of the co-operative. This year we want to introduce health insurance.”
I go down to the village. The water system has collapsed. They have pestered government officials to fix it. Months have passed. Today they have collected money. They will contribute half and the co-op will contribute the rest. But they are also going to organise the nearby villages to march on the government offices demanding that they do the jobs they are paid to do.
The next time a political party comes to ask for their votes, they have some tough questions on what they have done for the community. They are not powerless anymore. Already they have demanded that teachers are in school on time and teaching. And those that don’t comply are chased away. Power here is slowly but surely returning to the people.
I meet the village committee in the village of Mattam Korthur. It is an amazing encounter. They have built a community meeting place under a tree that I am honoured to inaugurate. The village looks successful.
Photo: Community interaction in Mattam Kotthur Village. DAILY MAVERICK/Jay Naidoo.
Houses have been improved. The children in class are immaculately dressed and disciplined. They are excited to see strangers coming from a distant country to their village. They don’t really know where South Africa is, but they have heard of Mandela. He is the Mahatma Gandhi of Africa, they say.
They explain their programmes. I ask what their problems are today. A young woman called Sumoni stands up and says “We have banned alcohol in our village”. The majority of women and men applaud. Some men are sullen. A drunken man from another village wonders in curious about the gathering. He is thrown out of the meeting. They are serious about their decision.
I meet Tranadh Somani. She is 38 and has two children. She is a village committee member. Her job as a volunteer is to monitor knowledge transfer. She has been trained and is proud of her knowledge as she takes me through the fields.
She shows a quiet confidence. “My children will have a better life. They will have better education. I am learning how to look after their health. Naandi has shown me that women are an equal part of the community,” she says. These traditional communities have been educated to respect a woman’s rights. That is the Araku way. It is a lesson we need to re-learn in South Africa. DM
For more information, go to Nandi website.
"The surest defence against Evil is extreme individualism, originality of thinking, whimsicality, even—if you will—eccentricity." ~ Joseph Brodsky