In the Uttam Gram (exceptional village) initiative of S M Sehgal Foundation, various development activities undertaken by the foundation team are being sustained in the selected villages with village development committees and gram panchayats. The Uttam Grams are good-practice, demonstration villages for motivating or guiding the local population and organizations who want to undertake activities to develop a village and sustain it through community participation and local institutions.
Punas village in Samastipur district, Bihar, is one such Uttam Gram, where a number of development activities on agriculture development, water management, and local participation have been undertaken by the foundation team and its partners in short span of a few years (2017–2020). The village development committee that formed to take forward the development is taking a keen interest in replicating and maintaining the interventions so that 5,290 villagers will continue to receive the benefits of the project.
Punas village has six wards spread over 380 hectares. The main source of livelihood in the village is agriculture, but farmers still depend on rain and use traditional agriculture practices. They have no access to training from government or research stations despite being 10 kilometers away from the Dr. Rajendra Prasad Central Agricultural University, Samastipur, Bihar. Villagers access health services from a local primary health center and Samastipur hospital, and children have access to preschool education and meals from the six Integrated Child Development Services centers.
Training farmers on a good package of practices of cultivating wheat, paddy, and maize began in 2017. About twenty-five farmers were given crop demonstrations, and many more were oriented in the village-level meetings. In addition, an enterprising farmer was provided with a zero tillage machine, and an agreement was signed with him that he would provide services of zero tillage to other farmers at subsidized rates. About seventy farmers of the village have been benefited from the machine over four years, covering nearly 250 acres. It has helped farmers in saving input costs of sowing of wheat. As a result of the application of a good package of practices and zero tillage, farmers have seen a 20 percent increase in yields of wheat and maize.
The foundation team also introduced solar irrigation pumps in the village. They reduce the cost of irrigation for the farmers and reduce dependence on diesel. One pump addresses the irrigation needs of ten farmers (appx. 10–12 acres) per cropping season, who have agriculture fields in the vicinity of the pump. Solar irrigation pumps are a sustainable source of water and reduce the dependency upon rain-fed agriculture. Regular supply of water also increases the agricultural productivity thereby increasing the income of the families.
Further, the health and nutrition needs of women, adolescent girls, and children were addressed through initiatives on health and nutrition awareness camps and wellness sessions in the communities. The health awareness camp in the village was attended by nearly seventy-five villagers who were checked by the doctors present in the camp. Some were given medical advice for further checkup.
Pinki Devi, who attended the camp, shared that females normally don’t take care of their health and she used to do the same, but in the health awareness camp she came to know that regular health checkups are essential. She came in the camp with her child who was suffering from a severe ear ache. A doctor in the camp prescribed her a medicine that provided great relief for her child.
Kavita Devi says that her learning toward her health and hygiene has improved after participating in the health awareness sessions. She has started taking care of herself and immunizing her children regularly.
In the sessions, women are also trained on the themes of gender equality, self-confidence, and leadership. As a result, a number of women are developing confidence to discuss personal issues in the family and development issues in the village.
Rita Devi shared that she was married at a very early age of fifteen, and she became mother before attaining maturity. But now she will ensure that the same does not happen to her daughter. She will let her complete her studies and will not marry her before she attains maturity. The training sessions have helped her in realizing that all girls and women have the right to dream and achieve dreams, and raise their voice if someone is trying to take their rights.
In the nutritional awareness sessions for children, mothers were oriented on kangaroo mother care, optimal breast feeding, hygiene, immunization, complementary food supplements, and diversity of food items in diet, services available at aaganwadi (day care) centers, and holistic development of the child. In the sessions organized for two years, 130 mothers of children below age five participated regularly, and behavior changes for childcare was seen.
The children three to six years also benefited from the transformation of an aaganwadi center under an initiative. The center was made into a learning hub for children with educational wall paintings and learning tools. After the transformation, children find it more attractive and informative. The plan is to equip the center with television and audio visual learning sessions run on a solar system. Poonam Devi, the aaganwadi staff, said that the pictorial images of animals and birds, and Hindi and English alphabets have made teaching easy. Now children can easily connect with alphabets and their learning skills have improved. Further, the clean center attracts women and children, and footfall has significantly increased since the transformation.
Adolescent girls are the group which is often untouched by government or NGO programs. In an initiative, twenty-five adolescent girls were trained on the issues of health, hygiene, and sanitation for a period of two years. As a result, they have become change agents for nearly 100 adolescent girls in the village. Peer learning among 125 girls on changes faced by them from infancy to adolescence, menstrual and reproductive health and hygiene, nutritional needs and communication skills, made the girls confident to talk about these issues and approach health volunteers and doctors in the village if they are facing any health and nutritional issues.
The digital literacy classes in the school-going girls is very popular in the village, and more girls want to enroll in the classes. Twenty girls are now attending the classes, learning the basic computer and internet skills.
The issues related to health have been a major challenge in the times of COVID-19 since 2020. The villagers are confused by the number of allopathic medicines being prescribed by doctors. They are looking for information on home-based remedies, so that they can take care of small illnesses at home. Wellness sessions focusing on home-based remedies by ayurveda doctor organized in the village became an instant hit with the villagers. In these sessions, the villagers were made aware on the usage of medicinal plants and herbs to treat small and common ailments. Community members were informed on the process of fulfilling nutritional needs for the locally available food.
Sangita Devi, a regular attendant in the well sessions shared that she learned about the treatment of many small ailments at home with the help of the things available in kitchen, home, and in their garden. Now she has started using tulsi and giloy for normal coughs and fever. She is also growing these medicinal herbs in her backyard and using them in her daily diet.
A number of villagers from nearby areas have come to see the changes in the Punas village. The village development committee formed in the village to sustain the initiatives is keen to showcase the village and share their experiences with others. They have aspirations to see similar changes in their village. They want the help of government and NGOs. They also realize that most of the changes are behavioral, which can be furthered with repeated reminders. The lesson of Uttam Gram is that the village volunteers must make the “wheel of change” move, with external agencies taking note and supporting in whatever way they can. Yes, the beginning has to be made by the local communities.
Authors: Mati Murmu and Rahul Kumar
(Mati and Rahul work with Local Participation and Sustainability, Bihar, S M Sehgal Foundation)