For the last 18 years, Palmyra has been working in various places in the 800 square kilometre region surrounding Auroville. How successful has the work been and will it be sustained?
Jürgen, who (who together with Sabine and Associates) runs Palmyra , ponders the question. His office at Aurobrindavan is full of maps and books, many about water conservation, sustainable agriculture and microfinance, areas in which Palmyra has been particularly active. The atmosphere is quieter than usual as certain projects have been completed while new ones have not yet materialised. “We once had ten times the staff we have now,” says Jürgen. “Since Palmyra 's beginning in 1990, we have run projects in more than 100 villages in this area. The projects ranged from 7 lakh to 10 crore rupees. Six projects are still ongoing; and with one exception, all the others have been successfully completed. We are now reflecting on our future course of action.”
What exactly he means by ‘successfully completed' becomes clear when he explains the unique way his latest projects manifested. “Our main work has been the rehabilitation and restoration of large water catchment- tanks (erys) and the cleaning up of their supply channels as well as building check dams and other facilities which harvest water. We work primarily in agricultural areas, where the amount of water in the tanks has a direct bearing on the farmers' income. So they are very interested.”
The Omandur village tank after successful desiltation. From the additional water now available in the tank one more crop can be grown, whereas previously even the irrigation of one crop was not assured.
In one of its projects, Palmyra contributed 70% and asked for 30% participation from the landholders. “We also asked them to create a water users Association. The money collected was deposited into a joint account, from which money could only be withdrawn with two signatures, one from us and one from the water association.”
The approach proved to be successful. The Water Users Association was put in charge of negotiations with contractors and with fellow villagers who had encroached upon the supply channels. “They did a remarkable job,” says Jürgen. “The encroachers were made to realise it was for the common good that they should move. The following monsoon showed the results. When farmers from the neighbouring villages saw the success of the project, they were motivated to do the same.”
Meanwhile, in an open and participatory decision-making process, the Water Users Association evolved water-use strategies to ensure that all farmers had equal access to water. The project earned high marks from the India-Canada Environment Facility, the project's funding agency. “Regarding sustainability, we can be certain that the Water Users Association will now ensure that the supply channels and tanks will be well-maintained,” says Jürgen.
This and other Palmyra projects, he says, have resulted in a big change in the attitude of the farmers. The tanks, some of which have been in existence since the 12th century, had always been maintained by the villages. During the time of the British, a stifling bureaucracy was introduced. The village panchayat had to seek permission to do repairs from the Public Works Department of the district, which meant a lot of travel, bureaucracy and a lot of money being siphoned off. The quality of the work was therefore bad.
When the British left, the system continued. The farmers, understandably, were not willing to put their own money into such a system and the tanks and supply channels silted up. “But in our project they had control. They saw that every paisa they invested came back many times, and that there was absolutely no corruption,” says Jürgen. “The farmers, through their own Water Users Association, are now taking full responsibility for the maintenance of the project. They are enjoying an increase of income as they have more water to grow their crops. At the same time, they have learned about the necessity and benefits of water conservation.”
The spring-fed irrigation pond at Anumandai after being enlarged and desilted by Palmyra
More or less as a spin-off, Palmyra has also been active in introducing water-saving systems in agriculture. It promotes the SRI (System of Rice Intensification) type of paddy cultivation which requires 50% less water, less seed and gives up to 30% more yield. It also encourages farmers to use sprinkler systems for peanuts and flower cultivation and install underground pipe systems to reduce evaporation. “More and more farmers are willing to take this up,” says Jürgen. “The revolution takes place by itself, they just see what their neighbour is doing and follow suit.”
Related work is also carried out on improving the socio-economic standard of women, youth and landless persons by training them to master various skills so that their earning capacity increases. An example is the Palmyra Women Self Help Group's Federation which provides training to 75 self-help groups in the Vanur and Marakanam area. “We concentrate on introducing micro-finance systems, creating educational infrastructure, providing health care and sanitation and starting youth sports clubs. These activities are now well-established. Even if Palmyra stopped functioning tomorrow, these activities would continue,” says Jürgen.
Harvesting a rice-field cultivated under the SRI Method
Importance for Auroville
“When you asked the question about how successful these projects have been, you meant ‘successful for the villages'. But the success of these projects also has a direct bearing on Auroville itself. I believe that this is less realised,” says Jürgen.
“A large part of the bioregion serves in effect as Auroville's water catchment area, as monsoon rains filter into the groundwater which is later pumped up in Auroville and elsewhere. Ideally, Auroville should be able to influence what happens in these areas. We do not need to own the lands, but we need to work hand-in-hand with district officials and village panchayats to ensure that there will be sufficient water for everybody in future. But we'll have to think far beyond Auroville's present Master Plan, particularly as we may never own about 40% of the planned Green Belt, the area from Edaiyanchavady village up to Kottakarai which includes three villages and a huge lake. Added to this is the fact that every drop of water harvested counters the possible effect of salination of our aquifers. This work needs not only to be better appreciated but in fact seen as a priority-activity in our city of the future.
“The city area should be secured as planned, but the concept of Auroville's Green Belt should change and include areas that can secure the water resources for the future township.” Jürgen believes that this type of planning is quite feasible. “The Government of India is actively looking at solutions where urban and rural developments are merging. Auroville could be a prototype and I believe we can raise substantial funds to make this a reality.”
Photos courtesy Palmyra