The City and Village should meet!
The Farmers’ Centre at Tiruvannamalai
In the summer of 2018, we looked around the holy city of Tiruvannamalai for dryland that we would be able to care for, where we could attempt to revive soils and bring back forests and build a community that can be self-sustaining at least for essentials. We were fortunate to find 80 acres of degraded land full of stones, in Chengam district, in the villages of Manikkal and Kurumapatti. Overlooking this land, just a kilometer away is the Veeramalaian hill, serenely standing witness to all our activities and aspirations. We heard that on Karthigai deepam day, a fire was lit at the temple at the top, just like the karthigai deepam of the famous Arunachala hill of Tiruvannamalai. That made this land more of a sacred space – the clinching factor that would help us work with our commitment to “self, land and community”.
The land was low priced since nothing was grown here for as long as the villagers could remember. The KNA Trust was able to buy the land and so began our journey to create an oasis in a desert, a farmer’s centre in a region where men only aspired to get jobs in the city.
The Vision and the beginnings
Mahatma Gandhi’s emphasis on Gram Swaraj, and his assertion that India lives in her villages were certainly a huge inspiration. But we were city dwellers with no experience of working in villages or with villagers! So with our Trust’s background in education, and with the eagerness of many of the fellows of the Bhoomi College, we dreamt and planned around twin visions: to engage in collective farming by a group of Bhoomi fellows and to create a farmers centre for practical training for organic farming, natural health care, community activities and also a resource centre for schools in the area. The first vision could not be actualized but the farmers centre is happening!
The first task was of course to walk around the land, try to figure out where we needed to create swales, trenches and ponds so that we could harvest as much as possible of the meagre rain water that the region gets each year. And there were huge amounts of stones strewn everywhere – small ones less than a couple of kilos in weight and huge ones that measured 5 to 7 feet across. A job that only could be done by a JCB. The positive side is that we had enough stones for all the buildings we would need to build. And there were innumerable more jobs to be done – digging a borewell, making pits, planting trees, plouging the land, trying out pioneer crops that would survive, making a kitchen near the only small building that existed… and so much more.
Parthasarathy, a Bhoomi Fellow (2018) became extremely committed to spearhead this task of reviving the land, working with villagers and making the farmers’ centre a reality. During the first year we had about 5 or 6 others staying there and working along with Partha. Many of us from Bhoomi Network kept visiting the place to plan and work on many things – particularly, the planting of about 2000 trees in the first two years, and seeing that the first 2 simple houses where visitors could stay were built.
We have a long way to go – but many of the projects we dreamt of have begun – the women’s group have started making products from local herbs and crops; a nursery with indigenous tree saplings has been set up; volunteers have begun coming in to help with and also learn about dryland organic farming. And most importantly groups of women from 3 nearby villages happily look forward to many community activities here.
While Bhoomi has initiated this project, the vision for this farmers’ centre is to beckon to those living in and around the region to co-create a thriving community that can find reasonable prosperity and wellbeing in rural living. We also believe that volunteers and supporters from the city will be much needed today since rural India has been depleted of its vibrancy and resources over centuries.
It is give back time from city dwellers to rural communities. But as we volunteer our time and energies, we often feel that we are the ones who are benefitting from the simple good natured rural folk and the beautiful space uncluttered and unpolluted by the excesses of the city.