For days a stream of curious villagers thronged the small plot of land that Halimabai Usman owns in Nanhi Arhal village, Nakhatrana taluka (block) of Kutch, Gujarat. They all begged to do the honors - pressing a switch that would magically start the pump for the well. In a land where every drop of water is precious, the solar-powered pump was indeed a novelty. But no less ingenious is the farming model that Halimabai and three other women are attempting through the Saiyere Jo Sangathan (SJS), which roughly translates to 'a group of friends' in Kuchhi.
The SJS, now an independently registered trust, was hived off the Kutch Mahila Vikas Sangathan (KMVS), which for years has been active in empowering the women of Kutch.
Kutch is bound by what is described as a "schizophrenic ecological divide" - the sea in the South and the desert towards the North. This fragile eco-system is subject to regular spells of drought every two or three years, while the indigenous grasslands have been devastated by the prolific spread of a non-indigenous thorny bush - Prosopsis Julifora, known locally as 'gando bawal' (mad weed). The species, planted by the forest department in the 1960s to prevent erosion, has taken over huge tracts of grasslands, thus adding to the woes of the villagers whose cattle feed on the nutritious banni grass.
Kutch is also home to a varied number of tribes and ethnic communities whose livelihood is dependent on dryland agriculture and animal/cattle breeding.
The drought economy has been particularly harsh on women, imposing multiple burdens on them. They often spend at least three or four hours in collecting water. Punniben, Jamilaben, Meghuben and Nanduba Jadeja - all eco-workers with the SJS - recall how they used to spend a whole day waiting for a tanker, and how they fought over water. When the cattle began to die or had to be sold, migration was inevitable. The women who were left behind were forced to shoulder all the responsibility.
As women bore the brunt of ecological degradation, KMVS realised that environmental regeneration is the key to women's empowerment. Along with its partner NGO, Sahjeevan, KMVS sought to educate women in natural resource management.
The stress was on village-level self-reliance in three basic areas - food, fodder and water. Sahjeevan provided the technical inputs along with field workers and barefoot engineers.
After studying the geological conditions and using both modern technology and local knowledge, different irrigation and drinking water schemes were drawn up for the 13 villages in Nakhatrana. The villagers agreed that they would provide 50 per cent of the cost. "When the government provides total funding, many are not bothered about how it works. But when the people partner it, there is ownership and responsibility," explains SRS coordinator Iqbal Ganchi.
Women were trained to understand small technologies (trenches, check dams and underground dams), drinking water issues and water management.
Jal Samitis (water committees) have been set up in the village, with women forming half the membership. This is mandatory for those who want to access Sahjeevan's technical expertise. Whenever there has been some resistance to women being part of the committees, the eco-workers quote examples of others. Punniben says: "I point towards Baghuben of Dador. She was illiterate but one of the fastest to learn all about water harvesting."
Watershed development has shown tangible results like a reduction in women's workload. Once the water problem was solved, they were encouraged to tackle the problem of food through farming. The model at Nanhi Arhal is an interesting experiment in women's initiative.
Halimabai, who had formed a self-help group in her village and encouraged collective savings, suggested to SRS that her brother-in-law's vacant land be bought for dry farming. The SRS team arranged for the loan but there was one condition - the land should be in women's name. Three women of the Muslim community - Halimabai, Sarifaben and Hazraben - along with Nathibai, a Hindu from the lower caste, jointly bought the land.
Their first activity was practicing vermiculture, so that they could produce enough compost. In the beginning there was only a diesel pump and the sale of the compost provided part of the cost for the diesel. But the women found it difficult to handle the cranking of the diesel pump. They were then given a solar-driven pump on a rental basis of Rs 8,900 (1US$=Rs 45) for eight months.
It is still early days but already the women have reaped benefits in the form of growing wheat, carrots and a local plant variety used for fodder. They hope to sell the fodder and thereby recover the cost of hiring the solar pump.
Although there has been pressure to use chemical fertilizers, the women have stuck to using the organic form of manure that is being advocated by the SRS.
The entire process has helped Halimabai become more independent. "No one asks me 'Where are you going?' If I want to attend the Gujarat Social Forum in Ahmedabad, I just get up and go," she says. This is particularly noteworthy in a region where ojhal (restrictions on mobility) is prevalent.
Enhanced stature in the community has also increased the women's ability to partner with men on issues like conservation, animal husbandry and assessment of credit needs for agriculture.
In Dador village, a new experiment of group wells is being undertaken in which 22 families will have access to four wells. In one of the wells, a pump driven by a 'grass fire' is being used. This is fuel provided by the Prosopsis Julifora - the thorny scrub.
Punniben and Jamilaben are far more confident about themselves today. "In this kind of work we travel extensively and may reach home even after midnight. It is absolutely no problem," they say breezily as they walk across the sands of an arid wasteland.
Today, the women are not dependent on government-aided relief schemes. They have acquired the knowledge to look after their own wells and tanks and assist in spreading ecological awareness giving women the necessary confidence to change the environment.