Saturday, June 11, 2005

ARTICLE : Vision Acres to Van Vadi

 Ten Years down the Road …… a reflection and renewal (2005)

by Bharat Mansata
All around,

an emerald ocean;

the hills and ridges

crest its waves.

On a soaring perch*,

Eternity pauses

in silent enchantment,

then breaks

into birdsong.

 And the sky

turns delirious

with colour.

(*  the machaan: a high, rustic, wood-pole and bamboo structure, looking over the surrounding tree-tops. Ours has a wonderful  view of the undulating landscape all around, including the distant hills on
the east and west,  the adivasi table-land closer south, and several villages to our north and north-east.)
Ten monsoons ago, three of us – Ramanand, Sesha & I – walked several hours on this land, drenched in the rain and ambience. It was our first visit, and an unforgettable one.  We were lost. But winding our way through thick vegetation, hunched below spreading branches and snaking creepers, we kept feeling – this was the place we had waited four years and dozens of scouting trips to find!

While the trees we saw around were yet small, in most parts they were dense. Just a few decades ago, this land had been a full-grown forest with many giant trees whose girths took two pairs of outstretched arms to encircle. A few of their weathered stumps are still around to remind us of their former glory, savagely mowed down by deforestation. (After the first wave of logging – for timber – the tenacious re-growth of the forest was periodically cut down in diminishing cycles of 10 to 4 years, first for making charcoal, and later for selling as firewood.)

We were initially looking to buy about 10-15 acres for organic farming, mainly of fruit and vegetables. This was to be divided among 3-4 of us. But with more ‘like-minded’ people joining, I began dreaming of an ‘alternative community’ of sorts gradually evolving – a community that aspired to meet its varied needs in harmony with nature and fellow humans.

We tentatively named our venture ‘Vision Acres’. Five years later, we adopted a local name, ‘Van Vadi,’ which means forest settlement or forest-farm. The broad agreed aim was to “live close to the land in an ethical and sustainable manner – to benefit ourselves, the land, and perhaps the local people as well”. Progressive self-reliance in basics, like food, was an important, explicit goal.

The first guiding principle of our common ‘charter’ was earth-care. We agreed that at least half the land should remain under tree cover; agro-chemicals be prohibited; water usage conservative; extensive mono-cultures shunned, and biodiversity aided through integration of various edible and locally useful species, particularly indigenous varieties, suited to existing conditions.

Our second guiding principle was “fair dealings with people and respect for local culture”. Simple lifestyles and social discretion were mentioned in this context.

The third guideline posited: “quality of life, and local self-reliance should have priority over considerations of monetary profit”.

 Eventually, we bought 64 contiguous acres – mainly from two large, Maratha landowners – with the pooled contributions of 24 of us. Ten percent of this was to be held in common, and the balance 90% demarcated into individual plots. The common land was for access paths, and for shared facilities like a well, common house, nursery, etc; and for any common projects that may be taken up in the future. [But as of now, the entire land is still un-demarcated and held in common, with the understanding that demarcated plots may be handed over to individual members when they so desire and are willing to take the responsibility.]

In the years that passed, there were more occasions to feel lost! Our sporadic progress followed its own sweet, or sometimes tortuous, pace. Gradually, we managed to complete our official boundary survey, do a botanical survey of our main tree and shrub species, and a partial, internal survey of the land’s topography and prominent features. We built our common house and found five local adivasis to work and live full-time on the land.

Adivasis: Farming, Forest & Biodiversity in Use

While we were mainly thinking of planting fruits and vegetables, it was the adivasis who showed us that we could also grow on our undulating land  – the gentler slopes – a variety of local millets like nacchni (ragi), varie, kangu; oilseeds like sesame, And rice too – in low-lying, relatively flat, run-off beds at the mouth of minor streams, which required only a little more levelling and careful bunding to retain the rainwater needed by the rice plants.

We learnt from our adivasi workers that we have a number of potential small clearances for farming, presently under a predominance of shrubs like the uksi and the thorny karvanda. These could be cut and pushed back to form a dry, protective hedge to keep stray cattle out. Over the years, several such farming clearances, totalling almost 4 acres, were thus carved out.

We listed – with local, tribal help – over 115 naturally occurring and traditionally useful species, growing on our land. Of these, 80% figure in the compendium, ‘The Useful Plants of India’, with more detailed information available in ‘The Wealth of India’ – a multi-volume encylopaedia of natural inheritance. [We have compiled a thick box-file ‘The Botanical Wealth of Van Vadi’ – not half complete – which already has several hundred pages of printed (and hand-written) information on the plant species growing on our land, including their documented/ known uses.]

We discovered that we have over 35 ‘wild’ (uncultivated) food species that – in tribal knowledge – yield some edible part or parts (leaf, fruit, flower, stem, root), usually at a certain time of the year. Of these species, we identified the botanical names of almost 30 plants, and verified their use as food from ‘The Wealth of India’ and ‘Food from Forests’.

 [If the above information is surprising, as it was to us, ‘The Gaia Atlas of Planet Management’ informs: “Of the estimated 80,000 edible plants (on this earth), only about 150 have been cultivated on a large scale, and less than 20 provide (now) 90 percent of our food.” However, even among our own tribals, more rooted to the land than most, the practice of consuming uncultivated forest foods is significantly declining – for several reasons.]

Food apart, we learnt that the land has more than 45 plant species documented to be of medicinal use; and at least 20 timber species, including four rated as ‘first grade timbers’. And then there are plants that yield natural dyes, soaps, oils (edible and non-edible), gums and resins, botanical pesticides, leaf plates, etc. (A number of species have multiple uses.)

 The above is in addition to the more commonly sourced fodder, fuel, fibre, dry hedge (karavanda) cuttings, … not to mention rocks for building, seeds and seedlings for propagation, and the profusion of rich fertility resources like earthworm castings, arrested run-off topsoil (sedimented silt), leaf litter mulch, green manure, etc. to enhance the productivity of cultivated clearances. Moreover, the entire forested land functions like an enormous sponge to soak and store huge quantities of increasingly precious fresh water, while all the dense vegetative growth serves as a ‘sink’ for absorbing carbon dioxide, recycling it back into lung invigorating, pure oxygen.

Presently, if one follows a flock of birds flying eastward from Matheran to Bhimashankar, ours is perhaps the biggest and richest forest patch between the two. In ‘hard numbers’, the land has – at a rough, conservative estimate – more than forty thousand trees, excluding tall shrubs and tree-climbing vines.  Of these, at least half are over twenty feet tall, including a quarter that are about twenty-five, or even thirty feet in height.

In summer, most of the trees (largely deciduous) are bereft of their green mantle. Several species, however, regain their leaves before the end of May – well before the rains arrive! A month earlier, the fresh, tender leaves on the Mahua trees are red, but soon metamorphose into a lush green. New, bright leaves sparkle too on all the young, and not-so-young, Palash trees. And then the land also has several evergreen species like jambul, karavanda, mango – fruiting abundantly ere the monsoon sets in.

 The rich natural inheritance of the region sustained the adivasis for generations beyond count. Today, if there are any people left on this earth who can teach our floundering ‘millennium generation’ the fine art and science of co-existing in harmony with the forest, it is these tribals. Or rather, just a few among them now, who still retain the knowledge, the skills, and the native cultural perspective.


Barely six decades ago, our land was known as the ‘Leopard’s Run’. Peacocks dwelt here, and so did deer. Deforestation robbed the leopard of its habitat, and cut off the ‘corridors’ through which it roamed from one forest area to another. The peacocks and deer disappeared more through hunting, but degraded habitat as well. The few wild animals that can still be spotted occasionally are: the baool (wild cat), the raan-dukkar (or wild boar), the bhekar (fox), the mongoose, and the hare.

The land, however, is still very rich in the smaller, soil and vegetation-dwelling creatures. There are several kinds of earthworms, ants, snakes, crabs, etc. There is also a bewildering variety of spiders, colourful butterflies, dragonflies, … and fireflies, bees, and birds (of various hues) that heighten the enchanting ambience of the place.


On a part of our boundary, we constructed a 650 ft long, 2.5 ft high, stone and mud wall, and dug a parallel 1.5 ft deep trench along its outer edge. Though a very effective and lasting protection barrier, this was laborious and time-consuming. And so, on the remaining part of our long, jagged boundary, we opted to put up a dry, kathi hedge, using mainly cuttings of the thorny, semi-coppicible karavanda shrub (Carissa carandas) that grows abundantly on the land.

Over the years, we also planted a live hedge (on the inner side of our dry hedge), with mainly 5 species: (i) Kalak (thorny) bamboo, good for construction poles; (ii) Nirgudi (Vitex negundo), a valuable medicinal plant, also known locally as Vanai; (iii) Sabri, a thorny cactus;  (iv) Chandrajyoti (Jatropha curcas, or ‘physic nut’), also known as ratanjyot; and (v) Sagargota (Caesalpinia crista, or ‘fever nut’), a thorny creeper. Some Karvanda shrubs too have rooted – by themselves, probably from the uncollected, edible berry droppings of hedge reinforcements.

Of the above ‘live hedge’ species, we’ve had best results with Chandrajyoti, that has established really well. A full-grown plant yields – for each metre of live hedge – a kilo of seeds each year. These seeds are so rich in oil, that they were traditionally threaded on a thin stick and lit as a ‘mobile torch’. Before kerosene became widely available, chandrajyoti oil was commonly used for lighting diyas or wick lamps, that provided good illumination, burning without soot. The Jatropha oil is used too for manufacturing soaps, candles, varnishes. The plant is reported to have several medicinal uses, while the leaves yield a natural dye. Today, the large-scale planting of Jatropha is mainly being promoted as a diesel substitute, “fuel of the future”, and is threatening to take over even the fields where food crops have been traditionally cultivated.

For long boundaries, this combination of dry hedge, and multi-functional live hedge seems the most affordable, replicable and therefore widely relevant strategy of land/forest protection. Of course, two of our workers have been almost full time on the job of patrolling the land, reinforcing the dry kathi hedge, and – in the monsoon – planting the live hedge. But despite this, effective protection of a sprawling area like ours is extremely difficult without good relations and the goodwill of neighbouring villagers.

Rainwater Harvesting and Water Security

In an average year, the rainfall on our land exceeds 200 cms, or 8 ft! With such a generous supply, any water scarcity (for reasonable needs) is a failing of people, not nature.

Our dense (and now tall) tree cover has contributed enormously to ground water recharge. All the porous soil below such thick vegetation – well buffered and root-bound against erosion – is like a massive sponge, efficiently harvesting rainwater by soaking and percolating it to underlying aquifers. Here, it is stored on sheet-rock  ‘shelves’, enabling withdrawal through open wells or bore-wells. This is significantly benefiting all the nearby villages and lands downstream of us, whose water security has greatly improved.

When a bore-well on our land was first contemplated almost 8 years ago, several in our group expressed their reservations. However, we decided to go for one, while opting for a hand-pump to avoid wastage. This, we felt, would ensure that the annual withdrawal of ground water never exceeds annual recharge. (Our group was aware that high wastage, through the proliferation of motorized bores, was a primary cause of dropping water tables.)

The hand-pumped bore-well proved adequate for our domestic needs, but not for irrigation. Manually pumping the water, filling a drum loaded on a bullock-cart, and then transporting it to water distant plantings scattered over a large area, was too laborious. Moreover, by mid-summer, the water level would fall below the depth of our hand-pumped bore tube, leaving us bone dry. (Being on higher ground, we were vulnerable to the high withdrawal of groundwater by the many motorized bore-wells in the villages and farms downstream of us.) Many of the saplings we planted, just withered and died. This state of affairs continued for several years!

Around 2000-2001, two small, rock and earth check dams were built, one just a little downstream of our hand-pump. The idea was to check rain run-off, and thereby enhance percolation into the aquifer feeding our bore-well. This helped, and the pump yielded a few weeks longer than in earlier years, despite increased withdrawal for the protective irrigation of introduced saplings. But before mid-May, the bore dried again.

Finally, in 2001-2002, embarrassed by the remonstration of the veteran natural farmer, Bhaskar Save – who visited at our request – we dug a large, open well near the edge of our main (seasonal) stream. This was excavated at the site of an old, fully silted water-hole that the adivasis sometimes drew from a decade ago, even in summer.

The open well served us well, filling to the brim within a week of the monsoon, and yielding considerable water for 11 months. (Neighbouring adivasis too drew from it – for their drinking and cooking needs – when their own open well dried.) But by mid May, 2003, our open well also ran dry.
The following year, 2004, was much better, and the open well did not dry. But forewarned by the previous year’s experience, we had already started excavating a ‘rock pool’ reservoir and building a small check dam (with the extracted material) on the rocky outcrop a little upstream of our well. This was not only to store a large, additional amount of rain (stream flow) as a surface water-body for our irrigation needs, but also to enhance the recharge of our well, which we hoped would become perennial as a result.

In September 2004, Bhaskar Save visited us again to help us develop one or two intensive orchard plots, and to guide us in our other farming efforts. His advise was plain. If we aimed to evolve a self-reliant community, and feed it sustainably, we needed to further increase our water harvesting efforts, and also lay a pipeline for more efficient irrigation of distant plots and saplings. For the former, he recommended that we should gradually increase the depth of our rock pool reservoir every year, and undertake similar work on other parts of the stream, or on other monsoon streams flowing through our land.
The pipeline for water delivery (up to a tank near our house) was laid the same year (2004), but additional work on water harvesting was delayed beyond Holi. In April 2005, we started deepening our stream-bed rock pool, and used the excavated rocks to widen and strengthen the check dam downstream of it.

Before the monsoon arrived this year, our open well again dried up. This was likely due to high extraction from surrounding (or downstream) motorised  borewells that plumbed a depth much below the bottom of our open well. These trials notwithstanding, we do seem on a sound path of achieving water security for ourselves fairly soon. By January 2006, we’ll resume deepening our rock pool, and perhaps undertake a similar, low-cost project elsewhere on our land

 We also have a number of smaller rock ’n earth structures – bunds and gully plugs – dotting our land. These are dwarf ‘walls’, barely two feet tall, and less than 10-15 feet long. Like the bigger walls of check dams, the bunds and gully plugs too arrest rainwater runoff (and eroded soil), thereby enhancing sub-soil percolation. But more efficient than all these earthworks in recharging ground water is the porous, living soil under our increasingly dense forest.

Our Farming Experiences

Sunlight & Fertility: While inadequate exposure to sunlight is a limiting factor in growing food crops on terrain that is overgrown with vegetation, the proximity of forested area affords a number of advantages as well. In particular, we have a generous abundance of biomass (leaf litter mulch), rich silt (from the bottom of seasonal water bodies), and vermicastings to serve as excellent organic fertiliser and soil conditioner – obtained free from our own land, without the need of any other external inputs for growing our field crops, vegetables and fruit trees. At most, we add some dung manure, and occasionally sprinkle our indigenous ‘Panchgavya’ solution.

Vegetables: Over the years, we have tried growing many different vegetables, particularly indigenous varieties, whose seeds we save from our previous year’s crop. We have harvested a good amount of bhendi (okra), bottle-gourd, cucumber, shirali (ridged-gourd), ghosali (sponge gourd), kohla (ash gourd), karela (bitter gourd), vangi (brinjal), pumpkin, tomato, musk melon, abai (jackbean), gavar (cluster beans), chaoli  (cowpea), radish and several leafy greens.

In the past, we grew vegetables only (or mainly) in the monsoon. But in 2004, we inter-planted a number of irrigated winter vegetables too -- in our new orchard plot near our open well, where watering is easier.

Rice: Initially, we experimented with planting seven different indigenous varieties of rice from our Konkan region, obtained from Dr. Richharia’s ‘Seed Memorial’ at ADS, Kashele. Subsequently, we stuck to mainly three kinds - one, the tall, indigenous Nawabi Kolam (a delicious 5 month variety), whose seeds we got from Bhaskarbhai Save. The second, Jheeni (also tall and indigenous), and the third – Ratna, a dwarf variety released by the Dept. of Agriculture, which became the most common choice of farmers in our area, including our own adivasi workers, most of whom had started adding urea in their paddy fields.

In 2005, however, we planted only Jheeni, but still had to remind our adivasi workers that the inter-planting distance between 2 seedlings of this tall variety should be at least 18 inches. Unfortunately, they have got too used to the dwarf Ratna, which is about half the normal height of Jheeni, and transplanted at barely 8-9 inch gaps. With such a short gap in transplanting tall native varieties like Nawabi Kolam or Jheeni, we found in the past that the rice plants overshot their normal height, and consequently ‘lodged’ (or bent over) under their own weight. This was particularly pronounced in our extremely fertile, low-lying (stream-bed) rice fields, renewed each year with fresh run-off silt (topsoil) from the floor of the surrounding (higher) forest areas.

Despite the high fertility of our rice fields, the shade cast on the rice plants by the surrounding, proximate tall trees has been a limiting factor affecting yield. (Bhaskarbhai recommended harvesting a whole line of trees along the rice zone perimeter for our own use.) And then, the absence of the scent of human presence during much of the wet (and busy) growing season has also emboldened forest creatures  -- wild boar, hare, etc – to partake in our crop. (The rice fields are quite a distance from our two houses.)

Native Millets in Traditional Poly-culture: In our region, the local millets, grown on well-drained uplands, are mainly cultivated by adivasis living in hilly terrain, for their self-consumption.

The most popular is nagli (nacchni/ragi) or Finger Millet. It is highly nourishing, easily digestible, and makes delicious bhakris! (thin, flat breads) At Van Vadi, we have two kinds of nagli. One, the common red variety, and the other called ‘bhoori’ (or fair) nagli, which is rarer.

Vari (Common Millet or Proso Millet) is much favoured by the local elders, who consume it on days of upvaas (a religious semi-fast on a controlled diet.) Kangu, or Fox-tail Millet, is yet a third kind, which makes a delectable kheer, cooked with milk and jaggery. We grow all three of them.

Mixed cropping is the common practice for growing millets. On our land, we usually inter-crop these with black (and/or white) sesame and various vegetables, particularly gavar and chauli, both leguminous species that ‘fix’ atmospheric nitrogen in the soil and thus ‘stimulate’ the growth of the other crops.

Zendu (or marigold), planted on the plot edges, inhibits the reproduction of insect pests.

Nagli is apparently one crop that is least affected by the vagaries of the monsoon, including deficient or excessive rain. After ‘transplanting’ the nagli seedlings (by just laying them flat on a ploughed field!) even one good shower is often enough for them to establish their roots. Within two weeks, the young nagli plants stand erect on their own!

Sowing early, however, is critical. If this is delayed, and the monsoon intensifies rapidly before the tender seedlings have set root, they are prone to get washed away by heavy showers, or rot on site. We lost over half our current 2005 crop of millets for this reason. Many adivasis too were similarly affected.

Tree Plantings: A number of trees have been planted by us in the vicinity of our old house, and in the distant clearance near our newer bamboo house. These include Mango, Sitaphal, Jambul, Drumstick, Cashew, Neembara (mainly gavti), Coconut, Banana, Papaya, Guava and lesser numbers of Jackfruit, Chickoo, Pomegranate, Ramphal, Awala, Lime, Bamboo, Tamarind, Karanj, … Also a few Peepal, Banyan, Champa, etc. Recently, a new orchard plot was laid near our open well. 

Earlier, our plantings were more scattered. Their survival rate was poor, because of difficulty in watering during peak summer, but also due to browsing by stray, intruding village cattle. However, some saplings are fine, though growing slowly because of the shade cast by surrounding forest trees.  The species that can survive with less (or zero) irrigation are jambul, drumstick, bamboo, mango (planted from seed), sitaphal, cashew,… But these yet need protection from cattle while tender. Some years ago, we had also planted a few hundred forest species, many of which were medicinal. Forest zones that were already very dense, were left undisturbed to grow as sacred groves of wilderness and natural diversity.

It is relevant to add that while our adivasi workers are pretty good with their traditional crops like millets and rice, they lack the experience of nurturing fruit/nut trees to fruition. This is perhaps because in the past they have usually had an abundance of fruit/food trees growing naturally in adjacent areas and forests, without any assistance of man. In particular, a very common error that even seasoned farmers often make is to water a young, growing fruit tree near its trunk, instead of watering near the outer lateral reach of its spreading root system (about as far as the overhead canopy). The latter encourages the roots to spread and become self-reliant more quickly by accessing a much greater volume of soil space for moisture and nutrient needs. Similarly, mulching is more needed near the outer lateral reach of the ‘root crown zone’, where irrigation is provided.

Relations with Local Villagers

When we bought the land, we continued to ‘let’ the adivasis and other villagers visit and collect ‘minor forest produce’. (For several years, there was no choice, as there was no visible boundary!) Our only request/rule was that they should not log entire trees, or disturb the saplings planted by us. We also ‘prohibited’ hunting on the land, and explained to villagers that such a practice is virtually wiping out entire species, which they can also see. Thus, in years of serious famine, when cultivated food crops are scarce to come by, they may have little left in the forest as well.

On the whole, we have been fortunate to have the co-operation of our neighbouring villagers, without which not even half our trees would have remained standing. But with the putting up of our protective boundary hedge, the free movement of the locals into or through the land has been restricted. Though they can still enter through any of 3 gates (without padlocks), their cattle can no longer wander and graze at will.

While most of the adivasis remain friendly and understanding, we have been contemplating how best to strike a fair balance between forest protection and the access of local villagers to reasonable needs. A possible solution to this classical dilemma between narrow self-interest and a more inclusive vision is to allow controlled access to the local villagers under a mutually beneficial arrangement. For in the long run, without local support, our energies would fritter away in policing the area, and we might as well forget any dreams of an alternative, self-reliant, peaceful community evolving on the land. 

A number of villagers are beginning to see the critical relevance of our efforts at protecting the forest, and supplementing with additional, useful tree species/crops. Most other ‘forest areas’ are steadily disappearing. Traditional rice farming too is now fraught with risks because of erratic rainfall – too much or too little falling at the wrong time. Their ‘educated’ children are unable to find jobs, and unwilling/unable to wield the plough. A litany of woes has begun to surface.

Part of the answer to local economic problems perhaps lies in integrating horticulture with forest protection, and supplementing with decentralized village industries. Of course, this is the old ‘Gandhian prescription’. But then, our basic human needs are also age-old.

As Bhaskarbhai pointed out during his last visit in 2004, “The land I see here is excellent, and ideally suited for horticulture. If you protect the planted areas (from cattle), and put in place a conservative irrigation delivery system, there are lots of fruit species and other horticultural crops you can successfully grow. 

“By simultaneously inter-planting in the same area, short lifespan, medium lifespan and long lifespan species, so as to rapidly cover the entire land with vegetation, you can multiply the benefit of the irrigation provided, minimize evaporation losses, and also start obtaining yield from the very first year – from the short lifespan species like vegetables. Eleven months from planting, the papayas and bananas should start fruiting, and continue to yield for a few years. By then, other medium lifespan species (like custard apple) would be fruiting well. A little later, your long lifespan trees like mango would also begin to yield.”
‘Community Learning Alliance’ and Long-term Vision

In October this year, Van Vadi will be hosting a 6 day ‘skill-share’ Van Utsav (or Forest Festival) around the theme, ‘Sharing Creativity, Celebrating Community’. This, we hope, will attract a number of ‘like-minded’ sensitive souls to give a fillip to our effort at building an alternative community. As an immediate goal though, we plan to start an ongoing ‘Community Learning Alliance’ that includes both adivasi youngsters, as well as city folk. What actually unfolds, remains to be seen…  

Post-script: About 60 people, including a number of kids and 3 grandparents participated in the Van-utsav. Most stayed the full 6 days – without electricity or piped water, and had a great time! The ‘forest festival’ concept caught on, and was hosted in 2006 by Sadhana Forest, Auroville. In 2007, it will hopefully return to Van Vadi.

While Van Vadi still does not have any resident community on the land, apart from our 5 adivasi workers, we are hopeful that it will happen when the time is ripe. Meanwhile, the paving of the road going past our land has improved vehicular accessibility. Electricity is expected to reach in a year or two, though not all are happy about that!

 [Note: Van Vadi is about 1.5 km from village Vaara (Vare), Taluka Karjat (closer to Neral), District Raigarh, Maharashtra.]


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