January 15, 2006

Inspiration for the day

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Mary Vettamattom, Timbuktu Collective, Ananthpur, Andhra Pradesh

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In 1978, after completing her post graduation, Mary Vettamattom visited her brother, who was involved in NGO activity at Ananthpur, Andhra Pradesh.  Once there, her resolve to be a social worker found firmer footing as she made the land her adopted home and together with another romantic from Bengal, built a Collective to lead its members from penury to self-sufficiency.

Bablu, the Bengali she met in 1982, later became her husband.  Though he had started his quest from a Marxian point of view, a reading of Fukuoka’s One Straw Revolution convinced him to start his quest from terra firma.

It was indeed hard ground that Bablu and Mary purchased to begin their tryst with soil.  The 32-acre plot in CK Palli, which they bought for Rs.32000, was a degraded land capable of breaking any farmer’s back.  As their plants wilted one by one, and the handpump couldn’t give them the precious water, they began to look for causes and solutions.

Overgrazing, firewood collection and fires had denuded the neighbouring hills and prevented percolation of rainwater.  They talked to villagers and evolved a common approach to restrict grazing.  Within one year the hills had covered themselves with green and the villagers began to trust the couple.

The Timbuktu Collective was registered in 1991 with the first aim of regenerating the hills.  They created a seed bank of draught-resistant trees and practiced soil conservation measures like contour bunds and check dams.  Slowly the idea spread to other villages and today, the Collective has helped regeneration of 10000 acres of denuded hills in the area.

In 1994, the Collective started a residential school.  U.Subburaju, son of a labourer from Tirupathi, who had done his M.Tech and Ph.D from IIT, Mumbai joined them to give thrust to the educational aspects.  Skill-based learning has seen the children earn while they learn and fund their further studies after class 10.  The Collective now runs 3 schools.

As part of women’s empowerment, Mary started a small thrift scheme with 30 women pooling together Rs.10 per month and giving loans from the collection.  The idea soon spread like prairie fire and a federation of thrift societies with 7500 members and turnover of Rs.2 crore has been in operation.

Though remote geographically, Timbuktu beckons like possible model of sustainable development.

Courtesy: N. Bhanuraj (text), Bhanu Prakash Chandra (photo), The Week, December 18, 2005
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