The story of the people of Sundhi Kateni (in englischer Sprache)

Way back in 1998, in Odisha, a state in the eastern coast of India, there was a fire mishap in a small remote village, far away from the city.

It gutted most of the houses. Why could the fire be not extinguished in time? WATER—because there was no water in the village! The villagers were helpless, they saw their houses burning. The community was dismayed.   

WATER was playing on everyone’s mind “If only there was water, we could have averted the mishap”.  

But WATER has been on women’s mind for a long time, even before the fire. No water in the village meant women walked miles to fetch a potful—it was drudgery.  

“If only there was water, close home!” How strange that each and every one—the entire village–was thinking of water.  

But they never talked about it among themselves, as a collective. “Why don’t you all sit down and talk about WATER,” suggested an NGO. Why not, thought the villagers?

That’s how the WATER worry leapt out of people’s minds into the discussion. It became a talking point...and then an action point for the community.

“The dilapidated pond”, “dredging and reviving it is the solution to our problem”, said many!  

“Why was nothing done till now?”  “Oh! but, we did not get together and talk about it!”  To be able to ask a question clearly is half the way to finding the answer.

The community was unified by the cause of WATER.

A good start, but where is the money for the works—the village did not have any!  

Help came as a small financial support from the NGO but that was just insufficient.  

“We can top it up with our labour”, said some.  “But will everyone come forward?” “How many days should one contribute?”  

Collectively the villagers took a decision. “Every household—whether better off or poor, landed or landless—contributes a fixed number of days.” Cash in-lieu of labour was not accepted. All were equal!

The dilapidated pond was renewed. Monsoon came but did not fill the pond! Why?

A 50-year old water channel from the hills, 3 kms long, that brings down the rain water to the pond needed to be cleared. People agreed to work together.    

The channel was cleared. Monsoon came and the pond brimmed with water. There was water for the village! The community celebrated its achievement.  

A happy ending it was, was it?

Water is life.

Soon, the land downstream of the pond got recharged with moisture. It was just right for Rabi (post monsoon/winter) cropping. A few farmers with land along the edges of the pond benefitted from the second crop. 

“Some are getting an added benefit—a Rabi crop.” “That’s not quite equal”—this emotion gripped people’s minds.  

Some said, “Why not contribute a portion of the Rabi crop yield to the community?” But, “who is community?” asked a few. It was all but also none—it was name-less and face-less.
Sensing that the time was ripe, the NGO suggested for a community institution to be set up. A people’s institution that can address everyday issues! A village council was duly formed. Its form and function were laid out.  

Slowly but surely, the village council became the go-to place. The first question that it confronted--“why a few and not all farmers were benefitting from the water in the pond during Rabi?”  
The council led village-wide consultations. Contribution of a portion of the yield to the community was not acceptable to many. A consensus emerged, “the land by the pond should be cultivated by the entire village in Rabi season—yes, the land became village Commons in Rabi season.” Every household got a small but equal share of the land to cultivate.

A few years went by, some daily wagers approached the council with a real situation they were facing. “It’s difficult for us to cultivate our share of land in Rabi by ourselves.” They were poor and had to earn their daily living. If they worked on the land, there was no way for them to earn daily wages to keep them going. Rules have to be equal but they have to be just too! 

A new rule was thus made. Shareholders could lease their land to other farmers, but to only those from their own village. Leasing brought cash or crop produce to the daily wagers from those who rented their piece of land. The poor benefitted. The village community was able to evolve rules as needed through the village council. 

A village gutted down by fire, became strong and resilient because its people came together. They created a people’s institution, framed rules and evolved them to suit their needs. Contestations and conflicts found a solution in the council. Justice and fairness bring equality in its true spirit. 
 
The Village Council stood for equality, equity and justice. WATER, came to be a profound source of equality and resilience in this small village.

Epilogue

Sundhi Kateni is a remote village located in Kamakhyanagar block of Dhenkanal district. It lies in the foothills of Anantpur Reserve. People here primarily depend on agriculture and the forest for the livelihoods. 
Water in the village, today, is a source of ecological and economic wellbeing. Its absence was as much a source of perennial hardship challenge only until people came together.  

In the year 1998, after a fire mishap, water reliance became the source of unity, for the village community. Collectively they revived the water harvesting structures. Village level institution was formed and rules evolved. It addressed the water challenge, evolved rules that were just. The lessons from Sundhi Kateni demonstrate the collective power of people. It is a story that is worth repeating and learning from.  

The NGO in the story is Foundation for Ecological Security, based in Anand, in the state of Gujarat in the west of India. It stood with the people of Sundhi Kateni that made their village water adequate. FES works towards conservation of nature and natural resources through collective action of local communities. Collective action leads to an effective management natural resources and invaluably contributes to equality, equity and justice.

Written for Foundation for Ecological Security by Rajeswari Gorana Namagiri.

April 2020