Guwahati, March 7, 2019
Aben village, situated in the remote hilly jungles of Tamenglong district of Manipur which barely saw the sign the modern civilization was transformed into a ‘Golden Village’ in years.
All this has been possible due to the unflinching efforts of a couple in their mid-50s who left behind their comfortable life in the cosmopolitan city of Pune. David Gandhi, an agricultural scientist with over 30 years of experience and his wife Usha, a seasoned educationist who took up this project giving up all the creature comforts of life.
David, who been a consultant in the NGO sector for the last 15 years visited Aben in 2016 for a project on agriculture and natural resource management. Soon, his wife Usha also joined him there. PESCH (Peoples’ Endeavor for Social Change), a Jiribam-based NGO helped them set up base in Aben.
Locals had complained that yields have reduced by nearly 50 per cent, and rice production was sufficient to meet their food needs for only six to seven months in the year. David took it upon as a challenge to stay in the village and understand the process. The idea was to discuss these concerns with locals and find a way forward.
Aben is a village populated by members of the Zeme Naga tribe, who depend on shifting cultivation (jhum cultivation) and the forest for sustenance. The nearest town, Jiribam, located on the Assam-Manipur border is 60 km away, and it takes six hours to get there because no pakka roads link the village.
It rains for eight months a year, and the only way to reach the district headquarters of Tamenglong is either by foot or a 4×4 vehicle – and this is possible for only about four months in a year.where the nearest cell phone tower is 20 km away
For David, the solution lay in adapting the SALT (Sloping Agriculture Land Technology) approach, first developed on the sloping agricultural fields of the Philippines. The village adopted SALT method of cultivation over Jhum Cultivation to to increase the yearly production of rice while raising the
SALT (Sloping Agriculture Land Technology), when suitably adapted to the local conditions, it has the potential to offer the hill tribes with an alternative method of agriculture, which while being climate smart, will also provide the farmers with a means of sustainable livelihoods.
The SALT initiative in Aben also involves rearing livestock, like goats who are fed with leguminous fodder species cultivated on the hedgerows. Rearing goats serve three essential functions—an additional source of income and food security, besides their dung, which is composted and applied to the soil to maintain soil fertility.
SALT requires less labour, few external inputs, offers food security, and marketable product. It is climate-friendly as well.
In jhum cultivation, farmers clear a segment of the jungle (mainly bamboo forests) and burn the vegetation left. The ash left behind provides nutrients for the crops they grow, primarily rice. There is no need for any external fertiliser.
However, it is not possible to cultivate crops on the land for more than a year, and experts have argued that it’s an unsustainable form of agriculture resulting in increased air pollution, soil erosion and even landslides.
Due to the rising population, there has been a fall in the yield since the reduction in the duration of the jhum cycle does not allow sufficient time for the land to recover. Moreover, jhum is an extremely labour-intensive endeavour, and there are very few young people to work in the fields.
“I’ve been here for nearly two and a half years, and barely any government officers have visited the village; it does not even have a health centre. The government presence is minimal,” he told The Better India.
“My wife and I aren’t retired. We are in our mid-50s and thought we should do something worthwhile before we grow old and feeble,” says David.
Depending on the season, he would take them through different agricultural techniques, livestock development, water harvesting, poultry vaccination and piggery, among others.
“What I told them was that they didn’t have to stop jhum cultivation entirely, but at least try out the SALT model. In 2017, we did a SALT demonstration with one willing farmer for the entirety of the agriculture season,” says David.
Change of wind
Eventually, even the 20 out of the 25 farming households who didn’t opt for SALT approached David asking for the same. Finally, for the 2018 cropping cycle, 70 out of 75 farmers implemented SALT.
Today, the village grows a greater variety of crops besides the traditional rice and pumpkin, like pineapple, tapioca, ginger, turmeric, banana, papaya, and other fruits and vegetables, and is on course for greater food security, mitigation of risk and other advantages associated with greater biodiversity. Avoiding the perils of mono culture, the village is on course for greater food security, mitigation of risk and other advantages associated with greater biodiversity.
There is also a livestock component. Each female goat delivers four kids in a year. The males are sold for meat, and marketing them doesn’t require a significant investment.
David’s application of SALT has received recognition from the Climate CoLAb, a project of the esteemed Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), USA.
Back to roots
When the Pune couple visited the village for the first time, the only primary school there lacked the basic amenities and infrastructure including a blackboard, government-appointed teachers hardly visited the school, and the educated ones who had either passed their 10th and 12th board exams from the village served as substitute teachers. The medium of instruction was Zeme and were completely unfamiliar with the English language.
Finally, there were classes only from the nursery section to Class 5. She also noticed the huge dropout rate. For example, in Class 5, there were only two students, whereas, in the nursery section, the enrollment was more than 30. So, Usha took it upon herself fix this problem. She started with the KG section in 2018 but soon found out that they didn’t even have a syllabus.
Usha’s friends and family donated books and materials like crayons, and colouring books, while she purchased alphabet charts and other learning books last year and sold it to families here at half rate, which allowed students to continue learning at home.