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'Paniwali bai aali'

Updated on: 02 February,2020 08:14 AM IST  |  Mumbai
Meenakshi Shedde |

On Republic Day, we went back to the basics, visiting tribal hamlets in Jawhar and Mokhada talukas in Palghar district, 150 km or four hours from Mumbai, with Raah Foundation

'Paniwali bai aali'

Illustration/Uday Mohite

Meenakshi SheddeSo, I learnt to tell a boy papaya tree from a girl papaya tree. The boy papaya tree's flowers grow in clusters on a stalk from the tree trunk; the girl papaya tree's flowers grow directly from the trunk. Boyfriend papaya tree may be on the neighbour's farm, but pollination depends on bees, the wind…farmers are occupied with such imponderables.

On Republic Day, we went back to the basics, visiting tribal hamlets in Jawhar and Mokhada talukas in Palghar district, 150 km or four hours from Mumbai, with Raah Foundation. The NGO, founded by the dynamic couple Girish Kulkarni and Sarika Kulkarni, has been working in Palghar since 2014. The area had water scarcity, poverty, unemployment, malnutrition and migration, but undaunted, the Kulkarnis have used their professional management backgrounds to generate impressive systemic changes. I have been involved in development work—gender, water, education and health issues—for 20 years, and was keen to see their work.

The 30-odd tribes in Palghar, including Warlis, are animist, and pray to Hirvya (green, trees, nature) and Waghya (tiger, i.e. all animals). So evolved! So they don't need to demonise any community as institutionalised religions do. A liberal society, many couples live together in a relaxed way; marriage may or may not be an after-thought, and sometimes parents and children get married in the same pandal. The Kulkarnis realised that no development would be sustainable, unless the water problem was addressed. Women walked up to six km each way with water pots daily. Raah (way) has built about 160 check dams and wells, so 25,000 locals in 44 villages in Palghar now have year-round water supply. They have encouraged farmers to adopt drip irrigation and biodiversity. Farmer Gulab Janu Tokare proudly shows us his flourishing mogra crop, along with papaya, watermelon and veggies, apart from traditional crops like rice and millets like nachani. Average mogra income from 500 plants per annum in a decent year is about R1,50,000. While Raah also taps government schemes and gram panchayat funds, it insists on the villagers' shram daan (voluntary labour) for its projects.

We soon joined the locals in the circular Warli dance, followed a delicious lunch with nachni bhakri, methi bhaji, batata bhaji, dal-bhat, kanda, papad and lonche (pickles). We noticed a birth had been registered, scrawled in chalk, on an overhead wooden beam at our host's house: "Adarsh birth date 1.1.2017." Kya kaagaz? Kya birth certificate?

Post lunch, we visited Rajesh Sapta's organic vegetable farm, and Nilam Bhau Gadge's grocery store that she runs from home. Raah has given 110 women micro loans and skills for small businesses, to earn about R400-R500 a month. They also encourage and sell Warli art on household products. Sarika is a likeable, no-nonsense woman in a black kurta, blue jeans, sneakers and short hair. Her brisk body language is that of one who has work to be done. The call goes out "Paniwali bai aali" (the water woman has come), and the deep affection with which women invite her in home after home, speaks for itself.

Meenakshi Shedde is India and South Asia Delegate to the Berlin International Film Festival, National Award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide and journalist.
Reach her at meenakshi.shedde

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