IFAD President visits Uttarakhand

The last key meeting for the President in the capital New Delhi, before heading to the field, was with the Finance Secretary Ashok Chowla. The confidence the Indian government has in IFAD’s work, supporting its own anti poverty strategies, was evident.

The President was then interviewed by Doordarshan, India's national prime TV channel, where a young journalist Mark Lynn sought his views on a wide range of issues including governance, corruption and how the Indian Government will be able to tackle poverty issues compounded by climate change.

The President pointed out that while there are some 250 million people living in poverty the government has undertaken several schemes and in partnership with other bodies, including IFAD is striving to tackle the root causes of poverty. He cited the example of the Indian Government upscaling the successful programme from the North East to other regions, with a proposed $160 million from the Government, $120 million from the World Bank and IFAD’s $20 million.

We then travelled to Uttarakhand, to see first hand how our work is changing people’s lives in the Himalayan region. The Chief Minister of the state of Uttarkhand, Ramesh Pokhriyal, welcomed us personally and asked if IFAD could adopt the Himalayas and provide a 100 per cent grant to transform the area. The livelihoods of millions of people in the Indo Gangetic Plain depend on those ecosystems which are also important for the entire world.

Uttarakhand is the only place in India where there is high-altitude farming and it is home to rare species of herbs and medicinal plants not available anywhere else in the world, such as the famous 'sanjivani' life-saving herb. Myth has it that when Laxman, the brother of the Hindu God Rama, was taken ill in Sri Lanka, the sanjivani herb was taken all the way from the Himalayas to nourish him back to health.

When the Chief Minister suggested that encouraging commercial production of these herbs could provide income for local communities, the President underlined the importance of creating value chains and linkages to local markets and of sustainable strategies for the future.

The challenges this might involve became crystal clear a few hours later when we were suspended in a German helicopter at 5000 feet above the Gharwali Himalayas range, with the snow-capped mountains of the Chow Khamba looming. Below us lay incredible terraced mountain slopes and pine forests, as we headed towards Chandra Badni where two rivers meet to form the mighty Ganges. The view was a stark reminder of how remote the Jogiyana village is and what infastucture and conncting roads would mean for the villagers.

We landed at Naikheri Khal and then drove, on what were often little more than tracks, to the village of Jogiyana, to see first hand how the IFAD-funded Livelihood Improvement Project in the Himalaya was impacting people’s lives.

The Gharwali community come from various backgrounds. We had been told that women had a particularly crucial role – traditionally and within the project - but were still slightly surprised to see that at the meeting the front seats were filled by women, with bright coloured headscarves and saris, with the menfolk at back. The President thanked them all, and remarked that in some societies it would often be the other way around.

He told them how deeply impressed he was with their determination and resilience. “The community group approach which underlies so much of IFAD’s work, and the empowering force of self help groups, has been at work here” he said.

Music is a powerful and constant presence in everyday life in Jogiyana, so the welcome event and the discussions with the Self Help Groups were all punctuated by music and local dancing.

But nothing could have prepared us for The Empowerment Song, a version of the civil rights hit “We Shall Overcome” sung in Hindi. The song asks the village to recognise women’s strengths, what they are capable of doing for the wellbeing of the community and their power to deliver social and economic change, with little daily changes leading gradually to a transformation in society.

We heard about these little changes from Khosa Bhat, the Federation President, filled us in on poultry raising and organic vegetable farming, where collection centres for vegetables production and direct marketing of produce has transformed incomes for the farmers. For example, for tomatoes, where they once received 5 rupees per kilo they now get 20 rupees, and the income from citrus fruits has increased fourfold, from 50 paisa each to 2 Rupees each.

“This federation, with 747 members, made 1.32 lakh - about US$3000 - in the last season from selling soya bean and organic seeds. With more market information and better packaging they will be able to improve further,” she said.

“I now produce soya beans and sell them direct to the market, cutting out the middleman”, said Mrs Thapliyar Pratabangar. “What we need next is a soya bean processing plant,” she added.

Despite severe water scarcity, Srimiaty Parmaswari, is now cultivating mushrooms. Popsing is raising chickens – running a mother unit – and rearing about 300 birds.

“It is important that these women are making money, with IFAD’s investment. Yet in this process of empowerment they have hung on tight to their culture and its spiritual value” the President noted.

The project has increased incomes by an average of 12 per cent through interventions in poultry, dairy off-season vegetables and off-farm businesses. The project has also helped reduce migration by 9 per cent, so young people are starting to realize there is a future here for them, that agriculture is business.

We watched a group of women making candles. They recounted how they had borrowed 20,000 rupees and put in 6,000 of their own. And they are making a success of it. At the last Divali – the Hindu festival of Light – they made 11000 rupees from candle sales.

They now want to expand into scented and decorative candles, but will need new moulds and are looking to target tourists at nearby Nainital.

One of the women - Durga Devi – has two boys and two girls – who are now all at school. Since the project began, she said, people are better nourished and families are ensuring their children attend school.

At the end of the visit to Jogiyana village, the President addressed a press briefing, along with Mattia and the project officers, giving their impressions of the project. Some 15 local media asked questions ranging from migration issues to the failure of poverty reduction schemes.

Several newspapers of the region highlighted the IFAD visit, as a sign of the state government’s appreciation that a UN agency head had decided to travel to remote local communities.

By Farhana Haque Rahman and Mattia Prayer Galetti