Both of us, Umesh and Meenakshi were born and brought up in Mumbai. 20 years in Mumbai opened our eyes to the various facets of the urban life and the realities behind these. Our search for an alternative brought us to Auroville near Pondicherry where we worked with low cost eco-friendly construction technologies and organic agriculture. But we always wanted to grow our own food organically and have a school where learning was a natural and fulfilling part of life. From Auroville we both moved and tried to work with other development organizations (NGOs).
After working with these organizations for some year we decided to settle down on our own and practice the various alternatives in farming and education. We were financially very constrained and in 1992 we bought a completely degraded 12 acres in the drought prone area of Dharmapuri. There were about 2 acres of arable land where we could grow dry land crops and 10 acres of eroded hill slopes on which we could only hope to regenerate the land by creating a forest. For the first 3 years there were good rains and we were able to do farming and a lot of soil and water conservation work. Numerous indigenous species of trees and grasses regenerated. We also planted forest trees and sowed fodder grass. The completely barren brown piece of land was slowly coming to life when the rains became erratic and undependable. In 1996 the rains failed completely. Our crops all dried up in the fields.
That year we decided that we could not completely depend on rain fed agriculture to support us and so we bought some land in a valley with a dependable source of water. But due to a history of intensive use of fertilizers and pesticides by the previous owners, the first two years of organic farming failed to produce good yields in the irrigated land. In the third year natural balance began to establish itself. We were careful not to apply even sprays when we noticed beneficial insects. By the fourth year the land had regained its health and our outputs improved.
By 1999 we were able to grow most of our food and even sell some rice, oil, dal and spices. Our confidence in natural methods increased. The people around us were becoming curious about these methods because they saw the input output ratio clearly. Around this time we decided to work with local people and help them to convert to organic methods of agricultural, not directly but through their children - the future farmers.
…make learning fun …
Positive changes in the attitude of people towards themselves, their environment, their community can be the only lasting investment towards sustainable development.
People should pay for their development, however little, as they value more the things they pay for than the things they get free.
Rural kids should be taught to value their environment and should be encouraged to take up farming alongside some other small-scale income generating activity.
Women need to learn basic health care, diagnosis of common ailments and their basic treatment and about the importance of children’s nutrition. Knowledge about herbs has been passed on by word of mouth for centuries and that tradition needs to be revived and confidence of people in home remedies needs to be reinforced.
We Umesh and Meenakshi came to Dharmapuri and established ourselves in 1992. The land was undulating , totally bare and devoid of any vegetation . As we started working the land we found that there was no top soil and very little soil over a substrata of hard granite rock
The only resource the land had was “Stones”. Stones of various compositions and sizes. The challenge was to keep the rain that fell on the land ,from further impoverishing the land as a result of erosion. (SOIL CONSERVATION). To slow down the runoff and make it infiltrate the ground ( WATER CONSERVATION) . And to level some pieces of the slope to do rain fed farming .
We decided to make trenches and bunds to hold the water and soil. But found that in many places we could not dig more than 6 INCHES .
So we decided to use the only resource the land had –Stones . We made small crescent bunds using graded stones . * ** ( Sketch 1)
The stone crescents trapped the soil and provided favorable conditions for a variety of grasses and other ground cover plants to regenerate.
Over a period of time , we planted within the crescents a variety of local trees which are now more less extinct from this region . The Aasan (Hardwickia binata), Karungali(Acacia sundra), Rosewood(Dalbergia latifolia), Mahua(Madhuca indica),Sissoo(Dalbergia Sissoo) , Flame of the forest (Butea monosperma) and some bamboos .
We also planted Teak, Acacias, Cashew, Custard apple, Amla,Ber , Palmyra and Red sanders(Pterocarpus santalinus).
The land regenerated itself with Neem, Albizzias and a wide variety of thorny shrubs.
In 1994 we tried to level some parts of the land and found that it was no easy matter. Leveling here is done slowly , digging by hand and separating the hard stones from the weathered stones . The hard stones are then transported to the lower end of the slope by head loads, where they are used to construct a retaining wall and raise the ground level .*** ( Sketch 2)
For the first two to three years the rainfall was timely and we were able to grow many millets and vegetables . Then in 1996 our crops failed due to lack of timely rain and fear set in . What could we do if this continued to happen ? We then decided to invest in some level land with a good water source . In December 1996 we bought 2.5 acres of land about 3 kms away . 1.5 acres of this was level and the well was good . We grow crops like paddy, ragi (Finger millets),groundnuts and other food crops with irrigation on these plots to meet the needs of our house and the school .
The rainfall in this area is very poor . It is often in a sharp strong downpour which rushes down the slope at unbelievable speed taking with it whatever top soil is remaining .
Often after planting the crop , the rains fail and people incur huge losses of investments most of which are loans at very high interest rates.
Therefore , only people who have level land with a good water source in the valley manage to live off the land . Most people who have only dry land on the hills depend on their sheep rearing to keep them going .This puts a lot off pressure on the already poor vegetation and hinders the building of top soil. Besides this the land is cultivated without leveling ,since leveling is such a tough job here . These slopes would be beautiful and more remunerative if planted with trees .