The Women’s Centre at Nadukuppam is officially open!

Lucy, our new volunteer, from Bristol, England

Our volunteer Lucy Garrett reports on the long-awaited official opening of the Common Facilities Centre, the new hub for rural women’s enterprise in Nadukuppam.

Monday 24th April was a special day: the inauguration of the Common Facilities Centre (CFC), owned by a federation of village women in Nadukuppam. The Federation is a group of enterprises creating a range of products – herbal medicines and foods, nursery plants, spirulina products, herbal veterinary care – and with the help of the Tamil Nadu Government, Pitchandikulam and the QSA, they now own a piece of land and a building from which to run their productions, and manage all their work. The CFC is adjacent to the new forest – a 35 acre forest garden planted ten years ago, a thriving forest pharmacy that provides important raw materials for all the enterprises. What makes the space special is that the women now feel a real sense of ownership; it is up to them how they will use the building and surrounding land.

A group of us travelled out on Sunday afternoon to help with preparations for the event. When we arrived in the afternoon there was a sense of excitement in the air. We found the women’s groups sat together around a huge pile of flowers their fingers moving deftly in meditation as they thread the flowers onto strings ready for tomorrows Pooja. I spent a good 20 minutes sat with them trying to learn how they knotted the flowers but to no avail; my fingers refused to perfect the weave. Joss Brooks explained the change that he has witnessed in the past 6 months to year; previously the different groups didn’t talk much among themselves, now they do, a movement towards sharing resources, and illustrated by the collective action we witnessed in the preparations for the inauguration.

Stringing flowers for the pooja
Stringing flowers for the pooja

We filled the bus with chairs, furniture and information boards and took them over to the CFC building for unloading. The enterprise groups arrived and swept over the entire building, scrubbing away every last bit of dirt and washing the floors and shelves. Collectively we moved over the surrounding land, painstakingly removing all the large stones and raking all the leaves into neat piles.

Some local men arrived on a bullock cart carrying two banana plants bearing heavy loads of fruit. These were strung up on either side of the house porch as a symbol of prosperity and strong community. As it was explained to me, banana trees grow more banana trees so if you have many it is a good sign of healthy long lived community that will foster and grow more over time.

A beautiful shade awning arrived alongside fairy lights which were strung along the roof of the building. Preparations were nearly complete! I climbed to the roof to take in the sun setting behind the palms and rice fields. Below me I watched two ladies stuffing an oversized pair of trousers and shirt with hay. It is customary for this ‘scarecrow’ to be ignited at midnight and then carried around the full perimeter of the building whilst on fire. This ritual is to keep out bad spirits, and most importantly must be completely by a very drunk individual – the drunkenness prevents the bad spirits from entering them!

The CFC is a place where new initiatives can be incubated and the central operations hub where existing enterprises are managed. For example, for medicinal products and herbal foods, plants are collected in fields and hedgerows in the adjacent forest, and brought to the site. Once at the site they are processed; pummelled, steamed, bleached, ground, powdered and bottled until they are ready to sell at local markets by the group.

Belongings and furniture should not be moved into a house until after the opening Pooja had taken place so the building echoed as you moved around it and the enterprise products were not yet in the building. Final Pooja decorations also had to be completed after the midnight ceremony, so we were all in for a sleepless night, especially the women’s enterprise groups that spent the whole night preparing a delicious South Indian feast for breakfast.

We assembled bleary eyed for the Pooja at 6am. A beautiful mandala had been created in front of the house and flowers hung from the door. The air was thick with the smell of jasmine attached to neatly plaited hair. With no particular sense of urgency things began to happen; the priest arrived alongside more and more villagers, the women in immaculate saris and the men in white dhoti.

A complex array of fruit, incense, flowers and ritual objects were arranged in front of the priest as people piled into the house to watch the Pooja. A female cow and her calf arrived outside the house, their faces painted and strings of yellow feathers hanging from their necks. Cows are considered a symbol of prosperity. After the front and rear of each cow was blessed with a handful of flower petals the cows were both tugged up the front step and into the house. The mother was clearly more accustomed to this than the calf.

The Pooja continued until a fire was lit inside the house and smoke began to fill every crevasse of the building. I have no idea how so many people could stand to stay in the smoke for so long, but the priest assured us that it was good for our lungs.

The Pooja was finished with the final traditional act; the boiling of a pan of milk inside the house. If the milk boils over then it is a good omen that will bring prosperity. We crowded around to watch the milk boil over the wood fire together. As soon as it had boiled it was time to tuck into a delicious South Indian breakfast.

Now the Pooja has been completed, the CFC is fully ready for the groups, who will begin by moving all their stock and equipment into the building. The next chapter will be the planting of the garden; thousands of medicinal plants will be grown in this area, mostly sourced from the plant nursery enterprise, and ready to grow when the rains come.

Let’s green Tamil Nadu with nurseries

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Date: 31st Oct 2016
Location: Chinnarampatti panchayat, Tirupathur block, Vellore district, Tamil Nadu

Background

How can good ecology practices be the root of social and economic development? This is a key question for all of us in Auroville, and we at Pitchandikulam Forest are happy to be part of an initiative in an exciting project to manifest one such idea at a large scale.

Tamil Nadu, a state with 60m people, separates out the complex business of local  government into five levels: habitat, villages, panchayats, blocks, districts and at the state level. One panchayat consists of a few villages (as low as 2), one block is 15 or so panchayats, one district has 10-15 blocks, and the state overall has 32 districts.

The state government implements programmes through several departments with as many as 52 schemes and policies  in rural economic development and ecology, for example:

  1. the 100 Days programme, which guarantees local women a hundred days paid work a year
  2. the Green Villages programme, which supports tree-planting on the local level

Both are promising, but in practice can face the following challenges:

  1. 100 days work a year at a minimum wage is not enough for a sustainable livelihood  (although it is worth noting that this scheme is not meant to provide permanent livelihood support and only supplements income during the non-agricultural period of the year, hence the 100 days)
  2. Local villages often do not have access to good seedlings and the traditional knowledge about what to plant and how to ensure that the plants thrive has been lost in the ‘modern’ ways of life

In September, as part of our needs-based training for social enterprises, we were asked to help out in Chinnarampatti, a panchayat at the foot of the Jawadhu Hills in the Eastern Ghats, in northern Tamil Nadu.

The Chinnarampatti Nursery

Twenty ladies created a small nursery in their village with their own local knowledge and understanding.

The panchayat secretary, Mr Madesh, initiated this nursery scheme through the 100 Days programme, which pays a salary to local women for 100 days a year, and is administered by the Department of Rural Development in the Tamil Nadu state government. He was looking for help from Auroville: technical training in running a nursery for the women’s groups.

The local women came to Auroville, stayed for three days in September, and received technical training through the Sustainable Livelihood Institute, sponsored by the State Government. Pitchandikulam Forest provide training in seed collection, plant identification, germination techniques, nursery maintenance, compost making and how to plant properly. We used our young forest and education centre at Nadukuppam as a host location for training with the team of experts from Pitchandikulam (Aramugham, Kesavan, Bubesh, Joss, Lourdes). They also did a planning exercise in resource mapping for the village, to see how the future of the nursery fits in with the village’s economic and social development.

After the training, they requested a follow up visit by Pitchandikulam Forest to assess their progress and help them carry out and fine tune their plan.

We were pleased to see that the women’s cooperative have successfully germinated 40,000 seedlings there – it is well-maintained and managed. Afterwards, we visited the village, including the lakes and ponds, sacred groves, poramboke lands with the local elected leader, village elder, and local officials. Each panchayat falls within a block, and local government assigns a block development officer (BDO) to each block and panchayat engineers (PE) to give technical support. The BDO and PE came to the site to meet and discuss how to develop the nursery further. They promised to assist with funding for a proper toilet/bathroom and sheltered restroom for the nursery.

The Big idea

Tamil Nadu currently has  a scheme to develop nurseries at every Panchayat in the State (details here).

Together with local government leaders, we will work to make the nursery in Chinnarampatti into a model that can be extended and replicated across the 400+ blocks in Tamil Nadu. In exchange for local government supporting the salaries and capital costs of the nursery, all the villages throughout the block receives seedlings and training for free.

Within this programme, a nursery will:

  • provide a real sustainable livelihood for the women’s groups who runs it, beyond the 100 Days programme
  • upskill the women by enabling them not only to run a nursery, but also to train other women’s groups as to how to run nurseries across the State
  • lie at the heart of local policy, bringing together economic development, water management, agriculture, environment, health, education, livelihood as part of a local masterplan
  • show local government officials how ecology can play a key role in effective, joined-up policy making
  • supply plants and seedlings to the group of panchayats that it represents for their Greening Villages scheme
  • ensure that the villages in the panchayat get the right plants for the bio-region, and are educated by the nursery staff in their planting and maintenance

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Next Steps

The panchayat president has requested our help in creating a coherent masterplan for the panchayat’s development. He has already cleared out all the encroachments on local tanks and ponds, and there is a real opportunity to green this area. Their immediate need is that their groundwater is 900 ft down, so bore wells are very expensive. Most of their water goes directly into rivers and flows away: their long term strategy is that they would like bunds or dams, to strengthen lakes and ponds in order to hold more water to support development.

Pitchandikulam Forest team will conduct a survey to establish detailed information about this area for the watershed masterplan. Together with the Sustainable Livelihoods Institute, and other experts from Auroville, we will help local government to create a masterplan that includes economic development, water management, agriculture, environment, health, education.

Women’s Enterprises from Nadukuppam village go to Delhi!

Parvathy talking to Smt Maneka Gandhi, the Minister of Women and Child Development
Parvathy talking to Smt Maneka Gandhi, the Minister of Women and Child Development

Our intrepid herbal medicine expert Parvathy is back from the Women of India Festival 2016 in Dilli Haat, INA, New Delhi: a ten day exhibition from the 14th – 23rd October organised by the Ministry of Women and Children to showcase women’s organic products across India. An invite-only exhibition, out of a total of 260 stalls, ours was the only one invited from Tamil Nadu. Here are Parvathy’s notes from her great Delhi adventure:

“It was a wonderful and challenging experience. I went there to showcase herbal medicine and cosmetics (Amirtha Herbals), herbal food and organic millets (Meera Herbal Foods) and spirulina (Surya Spirulina), all of which are produced by our women’s cooperative in Nadukuppam, set up by SEDAB in conjunction with the SLI. With seven big bags of produce, worth over 75,000 rupees, Selvi from Ameertha Herbals and I took the train – for two nights and a day. Unfortunately,  on the first day Selvi had to go back to Tamil Nadu, so I was left to negotiate the capital by myself. It was my first time in Delhi, and I don’t speak Hindi, so it was a real adventure!

More than two hundred thousand people visited the exhibition centre, and our stall was a real success, with over ten thousand people visiting over the ten days. Initially, I was surprised at how little people knew about traditional medicine – in Delhi, people only know about allopathy. They didn’t know names of plants and flowers, so I took pictures to show them. It took time for people to understand how our traditional medicines are different from allopathic medicines, and to educate them, I laid out samples of all the products on our stall and offered siddha consultations to our customers, talking to them about body constitution and how to take food and eat healthily, lose weight, relieve joint problems and so on. Gradually, word of mouth spread, and many customers came back several times, each time buying more products.

Among the many new friends and customers we met at the exhibition, two were very important in our success. First was the Minister of Women and Children’s Development, Smt. Menaka Gandhi: she spent ten minutes talking to me at the stall and enquiring about herbal treatments, bought some organic millets, and showed a real interest in our women’s products from Tamil Nadu.

The second was the Director of the Women and Children’s Development Department, Dr. George: he came to me with complaints about digestion, and after I gave him one remedy to try that night, he came back the next day with ten colleagues and told them all to buy it!

Parvathy receiving her commendation on stage
Parvathy receiving her commendation on stage

More than fifty businesses were interested in our products, including retailers, exporters and wholesalers. One lady who runs a vegan cafe in Delhi even asked us for recipes for her cafe – so now we want to compile a herbal recipe book.

The best surprise was at the end of the exhibition –  our stall was awarded 4th place out of a total of 260 stalls, and I was asked to give a speech on stage in front of all the other participants.

Overall, we made many new friends and business opportunities, and one customer even took me for a tour around Delhi! We have been invited for another exhibition in Ahmedabad from 24th to 26th December, and we’re all very excited to see what happens next. ”