Version classiqueVersion mobile

Construire les savoirs dans l’action

Marie-Claude Mahias

Community planning or planning by community1

Anupam Mishra

Texte intégral

  • 1 Dr Anupam Mishra is a member of the Gandhi Peace Foundation working in the field of enviro (...)

1While in office, the then President A. P. J. Kalam had come up with a scheme called puraProviding Urban Facilities in Rural Areas. In a country of more than 5 lakh (500,000) villages, the scheme was to cover 7,000 villages only. No rational explanation was given for selecting such a tiny number. The scheme anyway never got going because of Centre-State conflict: villages were in the states, funding was to come from the Centre and the Planning Commission of India had no such allocation. Moreover the President ended his term and the scheme did not find favour with his successor.

The scheme nevertheless remains a classic for understanding our supercilious attitude for rural areas and their development. It was envisaged that the villages would be grouped in clusters of 20, with a circular road around them. There would be health and educational facilities and a communication centre. Transportation would be provided by buses running on batteries. There would be employment for 50 % of the people in the cluster. What would happen to the remaining 50 %? How would the batteries be recharged? Such questions remained unanswered. Such noble vision for rural areas would not have done badly in the cities either. Such facilities, after all, are desperately needed in urban areas too.

In Hindi and Sanskrit, Pura means an inhabited area, be it a village, a town or a city. Several hundred place names ending with “pura” can be found in our country. It is ironical that our highest public office either does not know this concept, or restricts it to the planning of less than one percent. How do the remaining 99 % of villages and habitats in our country live? Who is planning for them? Is it the government? Not really if we go by our development record. In the past 60 years, government’s plans either have caused disruption or had very little effect on our rural areas. Money was spent in huge sums but it is no secret that much of it was siphoned off. The one rupee concept of our late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, that as much as ninety-three paise are spent on the government machinery itself out of every one rupee given as grant, is quite apt. And what does get invested is invariably misdirected. That is why our villages do not gain or loose anything if our highest office plans for them. Across party lines, political leaders do not go to find out what could be wrong. The same can be said of successive Planning Commission of India also.

India is a country of 5 lakh villages. It is a cliché worth repeating, because it is quite unlikely that whatever we do would substantially change this reality. Talks of inclusive growth must therefore begin with an honest question: how much do we know about our villages? How do they plan, how do they draw upon their environment, how do they finance themselves, create structures to sustain themselves, and also maintain them for generations, on their own?

Of course, villages need to benefit from new technologies and opportunities that emerge out of links with industrialised parts of the economy. They need telecommunication, means of transportation, and access to modern healthcare and education facilities. But while they need all this, it would be wrong to assume that our villages do not have their own sophistications, or that they are waiting to be urbanized and become “developed” overnight. Indeed, one will find marvels of traditional engineering, systems of resource utilization, and models of voluntary governance, that are difficult to replace without paying a huge social and environmental cost.


Allow me to transport you to Ramgarh, in Jaisalmer district of Rajasthan. Having the lowest population density in the country, Ramgarh also receives the lowest rainfall. Its strategic location on the India-Pakistan border brought good roads, but up to a certain point and for defence purposes only. Connection with the villages is poor, and a large area has remains deprived of electricity, schools, postal services, communication and healthcare. The place is ignored by the State as well as by the so called non-government charitable institutions (ngo/Non Governmental Organizations).

Villages are strung out at locations where, over the years, they have been able to carve out for themselves an existence based on the availability of water and pasture lands. Since they are isolated, the villages have their distinct way of planning, based on social customs, traditional technologies, and their equations with the local environment. The villages do not depend on social workers and bureaucrats. They govern themselves.

Wherever the State has tried to intervene, it has failed miserably. The main reason is the lack of appreciation and understanding of time tested methods that have sustained these societies for centuries. One would come across numerous Rajiv Gandhi schools built and lying unused, and one should not be surprised to see them without teachers and pupils. Many such examples are spread across all development sectors. The biggest farce to be witnessed is the Indira Gandhi Canal planned in the 1970s. The canal promised to bring sweet water from the Himalayas to the desert, across the plains of Punjab and large parts of Rajasthan. According to government documents, the area is a 99 % irrigated one. The ground situation however is far from the promises made. Channels from the canal have always remained dry. One could also ask about the 1 % left non irrigated! Or perhaps it is the other way round. Incredibly the government believed that the canal would promote agriculture amidst the sand dunes.

The meagre annual rainfall of 6 to 8 cm prevents people to take to widespread farming. Nature however endowed them with pasture lands covered with nutritious grasses. Rearing livestock came therefore naturally to this people. This precious gift from nature was preserved and sustained over generations.

The ground water has mostly been saline. So insignificant is the rainfall that it is not even possible to do water harvesting, the great ngo solution to scarcity of all kinds. Where there is some rainfall, we find nadis or small ponds.

There are a few sweet water wells that serve people spread across an area of over a hundred kilometres. But since this is a pastoral economy, people do not crowd around the wells. Interestingly the pasture lands are not close to the wells. So people draw on the wells in a use-and-go fashion. Their attitude to water is to use and preserve, instead of to use and throw. The wells may be over 800 years old, and people have kept them in good condition over generations. The whole society keeps on shuttling, travelling between pasture and sweet water wells. This is their life circle and they have no complaints about it. Animals too know instinctively how to find their way to these wells and back to pasture.

Chhang is a herd of animals. Creation of a new chhang is a fine example of the local inclusiveness. Each herdsman gives one or two animals to an aspiring chhang owner, who can be a young man setting out or a brother branching out. Animals are given so that a new chhang would have a base number of roughly twenty. A key condition is that the animals cannot be sold or killed during the first two years. By then the chhang of twenty would reach an optimum of sixty or seventy. The new chhang is now on his way. There is no unemployment; the society takes care of everyone. The State would instead draw various employment guarantee schemes, provide bank loans and subsidies, but none of even these turn into realities.

Whatever little agriculture does take place is done on very special agricultural fields called khadeen. They have existed for thousands of years. A new one cannot be created. In this sandy area, they have been traditionally located above a bed of gypsum. The gypsum retains moisture, that would otherwise dissipate in sandy soil and desert conditions. In fact, such is the effect of the gypsum that despite very low rainfall it is possible to grow wheat in a khadeen as a rabi crop (spring harvest also known as the “winter” crop). It is the only place which allows agriculture to be done. The Indira Gandhi Canal with its hundred crores of rupees of investment is no match for these marvels called khadeens.

The khadeen functions on the principles of a commune or co-operative. Such a precious field cannot be owned by any private individual. It is owned by all the families of villages. Everybody works on it, and the crop is shared with every family. But there are no workers, all are masters. If someone is unwell and cannot work, his or her share is still given. There are no caste distinctions. Suppose someone leaves the village, goes to the city and returns after a few years, his or her share of the khadeen will be restored at once.

Hundred of such khadeens of various sizes can be found here. The State machinery has not yet been able to fathom their philosophical or geographical depth. Even after 60 years of independence, the district administration has not been able to comprehend this structure as a common property resource.

National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (nregs), the flagship program of the Central government, deserves a special mention. It aims at providing guaranteed 100 days of employment in a public work to all adults of a rural household. It is ironical that this $ 8 billion scheme is meant to provide each worker with minimum wages of approximately $ 1. That reports of corruption have been in the media since its inception does not need to be elaborated here. But in this part of the desert, villagers would prefer to work without wages in their khadeens, in their nadis, on their pastures, with their own marvellous system called laas. The word laas comes from the Sanskrit word ulhas meaning pleasure and happiness of a superior kind. The open invitation is spread through the word of mouth. A date is decided. Each and every person turns up on the designated day. There are no muster rolls. No duties are assigned. Each person works according to his or her own strength and capability. Long standing disputes are forgotten, traditional songs are sung and a meal is shared. Work no longer remains work, it is a game played for months and transformed into one big festival.

In this desert, thousands of water works, water bodies, have been created by ordinary people. One such example is the Gunga ki Nadi or the nadi made by a deaf and dumb person. This is the only source of sweet water in the area. It could be 200 years old and has served several generations of surrounding villages. That a physically challenged person could create such a structure with dexterity is a proof of the inclusiveness of the community. Similarly, there is a sizeable pond that has been created by a herdsman. It is an ongoing process of asset creation by the community with internal resources and for specific uses.

For the government and the Planning Commission to intervene in a society so intimately woven with its geography, environment and local customs would require huge amounts of learning. It is all a question of being honest about our “pura” quotient. Please do not do for one percent only. Plan for 99 % and even 100 %. Then it will dawn upon us that we cannot just plan but that we have to become a humble part of the community, the planning community, the creative community.


1 Dr Anupam Mishra is a member of the Gandhi Peace Foundation working in the field of environment protection and water conservation.


Auteur de deux ouvrages très remarqués et plusieurs fois réédités sur les techniques traditionnelles de l’eau, Anupam Mishra est un gandhien rattaché à la Gandhi Peace Foundation de Delhi, où il collabore à des programmes relatifs à l’environnement et tout spécialement à l’eau.

© Éditions de l’École des hautes études en sciences sociales, 2011

Conditions d’utilisation :

Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search