The Deccan Development Society (DDS), is a two and half decade old grassroots organisation working in about 75 villages with women's Sanghams (voluntary village level associations of the poor) in Medak District of Andhra Pradesh. The 5000 women members of the Society represent the poorest of the poor in their village communities. Most of them are dalits, the lowest group in the Indian social hierarchy.
The Society has a vision of consolidating these village groups into vibrant organs of primary local governance and federate them into a strong pressure lobby for women, the poor and dalits. A host of continuing dialogues, debates, educational and other activities with the people, facilitated by the Society, try to translate this vision into a reality.
The programmes initiated by the Society have evolved over the years into a strong political for rural women. What started off with the intention of ensuring the simple sustenance needs of the sangham members has become a tool of empowerment for them to address the larger issues of food security, natural resource enhancement, education, and health needs of the region. The conscious integration of various activities the Society has helped is intended to retrieve women's natural leadership positions in their communities, and to fight the lack of access and control over their own resources. These activities, alongside ensuring earthcare, are also resulting in human care by giving the women a new-found dignity and profile in their village communities.
At the heart of all activities of DDS is the fundamental principle of access and control, which leads to the autonomy of local communities. The autonomy becomes far more important in a globalising world, shrinking national boundaries, and disappearing national sovereignties. In this context, it is crucial for local communities to take over certain spheres of autonomies to protect themselves from being trampled over by invisible globalising forces. It is in this scenario that the women of the DDS sanghams have worked towards the following autonomies:
Responding to the emerging global challenges, the DDS communities, which had worked towards ensuring their food security over the last 20 years, are now moving into a regime of food sovereignty. Their collective effort over the coming years would be to smoothen this transition by ensuring their seed sovereignty, through practicing principles of permaculture, establishing eco-insurance and production of biomass to enhance the fertility of their soils.
Towards Food Sovereignty
Since 1985, the women of DDS sanghams have used between them about 1.2 million eco-employment days to bring back under active cultivation over ten thousand acres of degraded agricultural lands. Consequently, they have been raising over three million kilos of grain every year, which is six times more than half a million kilos of grains they used to produce earlier.
Since 1996, they have designed and managed a radical, path breaking Alternative Public Distribution System (PDS), based on the principles of local production, local storage and local distribution to create a series of Community Grain Funds. Through this programme, they have reversed the trend of increasing centralisation and the tyranny of chosen foodgrains. Participating in this Alternative PDS programme, about 3000 women in 50 villages have enhanced the productivity of over 3500 acres of land, mostly fallow or highly marginal, to grow more than a million kilograms of extra sorghum in their communities every year. This activity has translated into production of nearly 1000 extra meals per each participating family per year, thereby demolishing the myth of the need for permanent government patronage for their food security. The village level Community Grain Funds, which the women in 50 villages were able to establish, serves the critical hunger time food needs of the poorest and the destitute in their communities.
The women's groups have shown that even the very poor farmers, once in control of their agriculture and natural resources, with a bit of help and access to financial resources, can feed themselves and the non-food producing members of their community. They have proved that even in some of the most degraded land areas of the world, people do not have to seek out Genetically Modified crops or multinationals to feed them.
The DDS women's sanghams have worked on the improvement of their natural
resources in multiple ways. Since 1990, they have regenerated over 1000
acres of common land in and around their villages by raising neighbourhood
forests. In 28 villages, they have planted over a million trees on the
degraded village commons. One of the DDS sanghams has won the prestigious
national award called Vrukshamitra (Friends of Trees) from the Government
of India and has earned the distinction of being the only dalit women's
group to have won this award in the country.
In eight special Dalit Watersheds, the women have demonstrated a different vision of watersheds to the nation. They have made it possible for women and local communities to design and shape small areas of land as watersheds and enshrine strong principles of food production through biodiversity based farming systems. In this fashion, they have breathed life into all kinds of lands around them: the most degraded forest lands, degraded common lands and their own cultivable fallows. A remarkable contribution from them in improving their natural resources.
The DDS market is another dimension of the Society's discourse on control. In the age of globalisation, where market and media work in tandem to shape peoples ideas on food and agriculture, the need for strong alternative markets has never before been felt so acutely. Such a need, coupled with the importance of the poor creating their own markets and defying the dictates of the mainstream market can bring a sea - change in the relationship between the poor and market.
In fulfillment of this need, DDS sanghams set up their own market in the year 1999. The total membership of the market is around 2000. At present, the sangham members are selling some of their agricultural and other produce to this market and are buying most of their needs from it. In 2001, a mobile van was introduced into the system to transport the products to the villages regularly in order to provide people an easier access to their market.
An extension of the people's market has been the formation of the Zaheerabad Consumers Action Group in order to advocate among the urban consumers the principles of ecologically produced safe food, and the need to rebuild local markets through a consumer-producer network.
Slowly these consumers are shifting to organic foods produced by DDS sanghams. The DDS Community Media Trust has supported this activity with a series of cuisine films called Mana Pantalu-Mana Vantalu (Our Crops-Our Cuisines). A millet cookbook has also been published by DDS to help this segment of consumers. By widening the circles of consumers for forgotten foods, the women's market has been able to earn a decent profit over the last five years.
A further step in this path is the establishment of CAFÉ ETHNIC, a millet restaurant set up in Zaheerabad. This is meant to help the urban food consumers of Zaheerabad further adapt to the millet and organic food culture.
Further amplifying their strength, the DDS women, in another remarkable initiative, have shown that given an opportunity, they can bring a new vision to the concept of media. Transcending their barriers of non-literacy, the DDS group of women have produced successful videos to raise dialogues within their Sanghams and inform the outside world of the accomplishments of their fellow women.
A stunning film, The Sangham Shot, produced with more than 75% contribution of visuals and sounds from the video women, has been making waves across the world. Their compelling statements on why they should have a media of their own are forcing the academic and development world to rethink media policies. The women have also established a Community FM Radio Facility, controlled and operated by themselves. Born from the collective aspiration of the women to own an alternative medium of expression the content and the form of which they can control, the DDS FM Radio is five years old and has canned nearly five hundred hours of programmes. In the face of the government's rigid rules which facilitates the ownership of media by media tycoons but excludes the communities, the DDS radio facility concentrates on narrowcasting. The programmes that are regularly produced and disseminated among the DDS communities through audio cassettes.
In 2001, the video and radio women formed themselves into a rural women's media collective known as the DDS Community Media Trust. Some of the recent films of the Community Media Trust include:
Pacha Saale, the Green School
Education, for DDS, encompasses a range of activities, starting with balwadies [community managed pre schools], which provide a creative learning environment for young children to Pachasaale, a unique school for working Children, which takes formal learning and life skills under one umbrella, and transforms education into an area of relevance for rural children. Within this Range are fitted other educational efforts like intensive workshops for adult women, and village night schools for out of school children etc.
Pachasaale is a special school for out-of-school working children in the 10-16 age group, with a special focus on girl children. The School has a strength of about 200 children now. Along with the formal stream of education, children also learn life skills like ecological agriculture, carpentry, pottery, paraveterinary sciences, herbal medicines, masonry, permaculture, tailoring and book binding.
The School, funded by the Ministry of Human Resources Development, Government of India is recognised among a select band of innovative educational experiments in India.
Started fifteen years ago as simple childcare centres for the farm labouring women the BALWADIES of DDS have emerged as centres of creative learning and nutrition that have been appreciatively discussed in international fora like the Global 2000.
The 25 balwadies run by DDS sanghams cater to nearly 700 children 60% of who are girls. The DDS communities control their balwadies through Mothers Committees. In a telling metaphor they say that they keep a watch over the functioning of their balwadies with a thousand eyes!
The nutritious food in Balwadis is not exotic. It is made up of the crops grown in the same villages: sorghum, millets, a bit of wheat and a range of uncultivated greens. Being highly superior to rice, the millet-based meals provide a nutritional advantage to the children, meeting 70% of their nutritional requirement and helping their mental and physical growth. Besides they also enable the children respect their own food culture by adapting to it at a very young age.
The range of creative methods used in the Balwadies to help the children's mental growth include songs, stories, sand and water play, theatre, conversations, puppets, card games and weekly outings. Some creative curriculum development efforts are being made to integrate the DDS concerns of biodiversity and local food culture into the consciousness of the small children.
Krishi Vigyana Kendra
Sustainability is the key element in the vision of DDS Krishi Vigyan Kendra, the Farm Science Centre. The DDS-KVK believes that the methods and technologies used to ensure sustainability in agriculture must be organic, environment friendly and based as much as possible on local knowledge systems. Therefore, in all its programs, the DDS-KVK tries to develop a dialogue with the farming community about the hazards ingrained in the practice of chemical agriculture and the improper exogenous market-driven farming systems, which have been replacing socially, culturally and economically well- adapted local systems. The DDS-KVK strives to explore the alternatives for the follies of green revolution by way of collaborating with the institutions thinking on similar lines, and by conducting independent participatory farming research with the local farmers who are rediscovering the treasure of indigenous knowledge of this region.
About a thousand children are enrolled in the thirty night schools. Approximately fifty percent are girls. The night schools are a stepping-stone for working children to be enrolled in regular school. Teachers in the school are local dalit men and women with some education. They are supported by regular training, a monthly newsletter and have designed their own textbooks up to the third level.
Child centred learning is encouraged by teachers and supervisors who visit the schools regularly and provide on site assistance to teachers. Children graduate to summer school and move on to study at regular schools by joining Social Welfare Hostels and Government Residential schools. Children from the Night Schools are now studying at more than twenty Government Hostels. These educational efforts address a wide range of issues from literacy to life skills.
Central to these attempts is the relocation of people's knowledge in the areas of health (through revitalising the traditional healthcare systems), and agriculture (understanding, documenting and promoting people's knowledge of farming systems and practices) etc. These attempts have spread over a number of land related activities.
Behind each of these programmes is a basic philosophy, which ensures that all activities have the total participation of the community concerned, particularly the women. Using Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) methodologies as a basic tool, each of the DDS programmes ensures that the community starts with the understanding of their conditions and DDS only acts as a catalyst to guide the community into those activities that the community decides to pursue.
The Safe Home Committee of women sangham leaders ensures that women facing domestic violence in the surrounding villages are supported and provided an opportunity to rebuild their lives with dignity. The short stay home provides a space to women to recover emotionally and learn new livelihood skills. The home committee helps to settle marital disputes through local Panchayats and approach the Police and Judiciary only as a last resort. To work towards sustainability the DDS family of Sangha members have all agreed to contribute Jowar regularly to ensure healthy diets and reduce costs.
The shelter is also a home to adolescent girls studying at the Paccha Saale. This has supported our campaign to prevent child marriages. During the summer, working girls attend Back to School programme and are mainstreamed into regular schools.
The Committee members have acted as a resource team at the National Police Academy, Hyderabad.
The Mobile Biodiversity Festivals [Jatharas] of the Deccan Development Society(DDS) have become an icon in the South Asian region and illustrate what the communities can do to reflect the rich agricultural diversity of their region in a celebratory fashion. Since 1998, these annual Biodiversity Festivals have dialogued with over 150,000 farmers of the region on ecological agriculture, control over seeds and organic markets.
These jatharas have refused to become a sterile exhibition of the biodiversity that exists in the villages. Nor have they reduced themselves to theoretical discourses, professing the virtues of traditional farming. They have refrained from taking the shape of simple awareness programmes.
Instead, the jatharas have become an expression of the deep emotional and spiritual relationship between the farmer and soil, agriculture and environment. Farmers have repeatedly made strong statements that agriculture for them is not simply a means of livelihood but it embodies an entire way of life, culture, rituals and traditions.
The jatharas have provided an emotional catharsis for the villagers. Men and women have become nostalgic when they have seen such a gamut of traditional seeds and crops reminding them of their past culture and traditions. There have been instances where women have cried at the sight of these traditional seeds which vividly bring back the rich past of their communities. For one woman, the sight of the traditional seeds in the jathara served her long time dream to get in touch with her past. After witnessing the jathara, she felt that there was nothing more she wanted in life and she could die peacefully the next day.
The jatharas have served a religious purpose for many. People, participating in the jatharas, have placed seeds in small earthen pots and worshipped them together. In village after village, as the carts passed by their houses, people have washed the feet of the bullocks and worshipped them. The caravan has been halted in front of every shrine, mosque and church in the village and special prayers offered.
The NBSAP (National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan), of the Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India has accepted biodiversity festivals as the most important community cultural campaign on the issue.
DDS has lead a number of major campaigns:
Major workshops and public hearings held in recent years include
Major workshops and public forums held in recent years include:
NetworkingAndhra Pradesh Coalition in Defence of Diversity [APCIDD] 1998
DDS has been consistently working on the issue of agrobiodiversity with local, regional, national and international communities. It founded the Andhra Pradesh Coalition in Defence of Diversity, a coalition of over 142 civil society organisations from all the 22 districts of Andhra Pradesh. APCID has carried out several biodiversity campaigns and has worked with local communities to prepare community biodiversity registers. The APCID has also published a compendium called Agrobiodiversity in Andhra Pradesh.
ADARSA, [Alliance for Democratising Agricultural Research in South Asia] is an exciting new collaborative initiative between DDS and the International Institute for Environment and Development [IIED]. ADARSA aims to look at the trends of agricultural research in the region, organize farmer-scientist-civil society interactions and initiate processes to put the control over the governance of agricultural research in the hands of farmers through a set of Farmersí Juries.
Food Sovereignty Alliances 2005
To move the agenda of food sovereignty beyond DDS borders, DDS initiated the APAFS, AP Alliance for Food Sovereignty in 2005. The Alliance has anchored practical food sovereignty action among local communities in many parts of the sprawling South Indian province of Andhra Pradesh. In 2008, the borders were further extended to include partners from five more states of India. This constitutes a larger community of grassroots practical action on food sovereignty.
Genetic Resources Internationational [GRAIN]
GRAIN is one of the most prominent civil society organisation in the world that has built up a scholarly advocacy for biodiversity in agriculture, works against genetic engineering, TRIPS and other such issues.
Millet Network of India [MINi]: 2007
Deeply convinced that millets hold the key to food sovereignty in rainfed India DDS calls them Godís Own Crops. To showcase the extraordinary capacity of the millets to survive on the least fertile lands, to highlight their health and nutritional value for the poor and their ability to withstand climate crisis, DDS initiated MINI, Millet Network of India. The only such network in the country, MINI has representations from almost all parts of India.
National Environment Awareness Campaigns [NEAC] 1990
As the Regional Resource Agency for the Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India, DDS has been networking, since 1990, with over 500 civil society groups in AP on environmental issues. The Society coordinates a major annual campaign called the National Environment Awareness Campaign that uses tools like seminars, workshops, lectures, exhibitions, science fairs, competitions, street and folk theatre, rallies, food marches to reach all sections of people on issues of environmental importance.
Organic Farming Association of India [OFAI]2002
DDS is the National Steering Committee Member and the AP State Secretariat for the Organic Farming Association of India [OFAI] India's only organization of grassroots organic farmers. OFAI is committed to promote organic farming in India through mobilization of farmers, training in organic techniques, workshops and policy advocacy. OFAI's labeling scheme through Participatory Guarantee System [PGS] provides an assurance of guarantee of organically grown produce exclusively for domestic consumers. OFAI rejects organic farming for export purposes.
PGS Organic Council of India 2007
As one of the nine members of PGS Organic Council of India, DDS has been in the forefront of the fight for the small and marginal farmersí right to be recognized as organic farmers. DDS has fought the inherent injustice in the rampant commercialization through organic certification systems which have deliberately kept millions of small and marginal farmers-- organic for multiple generations-- out of the organic certification. It was pure justice that DDS was the first to be officially accorded PGS organic label in 2008.
Southern Action on Genetic Engineering [SAGE] 2004
South Against Genetic Engineering, SAGE, is a South India Alliance initiated by DDS to bring together farmers, scientists, consumers, civil society groups and media to combat the threat of genetic engineering in food and agriculture. The five year old Alliance has carried out multi location research on Bt cotton, campaigns against Terminator, many workshops on GE and Health, and is working towards cementing the collective efforts of civil societies to redeem the threat of GE technology
South Asia Network on Food, Ecology and Culture [SANFEC] is a major South Asian coalition of which DDS is the India Coordinator. As a member of this network DDS has participated in /initiated a number of regional workshops, farmer exchanges, caravans, researches and publications. The 200+ members of SANFEC have brought a special perspective to the issues of food and ecology.
The Society has initiated a number of studies related to bio-diversity in agriculture. The major studies are: