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Silk sustains Indian desert community


SEPTEMBER 14, 1992

Silk sustains Indian desert community

By Ashali Varma

PAL India –On June 13th 1992, 127 world leaders met at Rio to debate on how to preserve the earth for future generations.  Two continents away, in one of the poorest areas of India, Andoo bai, a tribal woman, was unaware of the significance of the Earth Summit.  The terms biodiversity desertification, and sustainable development were words she might never know, yet ironically, her life in one of the world’s most barren regions could have best described the terms being debated.

Twenty five years ago, the village of Pai in the Aravalli hills of Rajasthan was richly forested.  Over the years pressures of population, poverty and unrestricted logging, depleted thousands of acres and turned the once lush hills into a virtual desert.  For Andoo bai and other women of the Bhil tribe living there, day-to-day survival was an effort.

Andoo’s memories of her childhood reflect the hopelessness of her life.  “There were 10 of us in the family and we couldn’t grow enough grain.  We had a cow and we could get some milk and we would all have a little milk and manage to fill out our meal.”

To augment their income, the women would cut wood from the forests and walk all night to the city of Udaipur to sell it.  They would then line the roads looking for jobs as day laborers in the construction business. As Andoo explained, “We used to find six months work in the village with the maize crop and the wheat and for the remaining six months we used to walk all the way to Udaipur to work as day laborers and we used to get eight rupees [20 cents] a day.”

As economic providers of the family, tribal women do most of the hard work, from collecting firewood and water to plowing the fields, cooking, and looking after the cattle.  Even after she got married to Kalia her life remained unchanged.  Andoo recalled the hard times when she lived with her in-laws, “My father-in-law and mother-in-law, when they were running the house, even to buy the oil and the salt and the grain, they would first have to go to the money leader to get a loan.” Caught in an eternal debt trap villagers often had to sell a portion of their land or a cow to repay loans.

In 1983, Rajasthan’s Tribal Area Development department, decided to introduce sericulture as part of a program to help tribal families in 12 villages outside Udaipur.  Sericulture is the growing of mulberry plants and raising silkworms for silk production.  Mulberry, a hardy plant with deep roots takes full advantage of arid soils and adapts well to desert conditions.  Fields of mulberry bushes prevent soil erosion and help to combat environment degradation.  In addition, farmers can get three to four times the amount of money from mulberry than they get from traditional crops. 

At first villagers were reluctant to try a new crop.  Already living on the edge of survival, they felt it was taking too much of a chance to experiment.  However, given incentives by the government, they were persuaded to try growing mulberry plants on a portion of their land.  “When we began I was skeptical,” said Andoo.  “They came with some dried up sticks to be planted in a part of the farm.  We wondered if it would be better than our maize crop or worse, but after the first crop there was no looking back.  Now I have mulberry growing on this side of my house and that side and I am very happy.”

From an income of less than 3,000 rupees a year, Andoo’s family now could look forward to almost 10,000 rupees annually.  With the help of UNIFEM and a local NGO called ASTHA, 500 hundred tribal women and their families reaped the benefits of sericulture.  They were able to get two crops a year even in drought conditions.  Women without land holdings were encouraged to raise silkworms and taught how to handle the cocoons.  Some were employed to spin silk thread from the cocoons, others were taught how to weave the thread on handlooms into reams of silk.

Andoo and the tribal women also learned about other benefits of growing mulberry. The cuttings from the bushes could be used for fuel, the berries were sweet and nutritious for human consumption and the leaves provided fodder for poultry and cattle as well as food for the silkworms.  In addition, they were taught to intercrop vegetables between the mulberry plants.  This not only resulted in a more effective use of the soil but also intensified the use of land resources.  Vegetables are a valuable supplement where holdings are small and arable land is scarce.  Not only were the families able to eat better but they could also sell the surplus vegetables.  Andoo proudly spoke of earning an extra 300 rupees from her vegetable crop.

Once the women became economically self sufficient they were encouraged to organize themselves into community groups called Mahila Mandals.  Tulsi behn, one of the few tribal women with formal schooling, was instrumental in moving the women to form groups and discuss their problems. Among other things, the women were taught the benefits of managing money by opening small savings accounts.

They became aware of the importance of family health, hygiene and the value of education.  The women and their children no longer had matted hair and dirty clothes, food was always kept covered and cooking utensils were scrubbed until they shone.  Mothers were determined to send their children to school and even daughters who were so far deprived of an education were treated with the same respect as sons and encouraged to learn.  Andoo claimed proudly that her two daughters were in a boarding school now and she had started taking lessons on how to read and write.

Driving through the Aravalli hills today, one can see green fields dotting the barren landscape.  Trees that were once cut for fuel and fodder are being replanted.  Now that they have a stake in their environment, the women refuse to let commercial logging take place and guard the new saplings from cattle and intruders. They have the confidence to take up the causes that affect them.  If their village needs a clinic or school or a tube well they have the courage to go up to the local authorities and make their demands heard.

In less than a decade the lives of the tribal women of Rajasthan has changed dramatically.  Today, they have the capability to manage their lives and can dream of a better future for their children.