Listening to rural and tribal communities and understanding how Covid-19 is affecting their protection and management of common land is imperative to the land’s survival. Seva Mandir hosted a webinar entitled "Covid-19 and Commons". Seva Mandir’s Chief Executive, Ronak Shah, and General Secretary, Shailendra Tiwari, were in attendance, joined by 60 community leaders and frontline workers from Seva Mandir. The discussion focused on the current challenges in rural communities regarding common land during the Covid-19 lockdown and the role of Village Institutions in facing and dealing with crisis situations.
More than 70% of the land in Udaipur district is under state ownership and they provide families with food, fuel, and fodder for livestock. Known as ‘common lands’, these include village pastures, sacred groves, and village forests and are largely located on the upper ridges of hills.
A large majority of the families that Seva Mandir works with are from tribal communities, and more than 80% of them rely on subsistence agriculture to survive. Private land is on an average less than one hectare, and the fodder produced on this land is not enough to meet the requirements for livestock, an important source of family income, thus highlighting the importance of well managed common land. Strong and diverse common land leads to more efficient and productive farming.
Covid-19 has affected all aspects of life in Seva Mandir’s area of operation. Reports from the ground indicate a sudden rise in conflict related to common land. Reverse migration has created insecurity amongst the rural and tribal population and some people are seeing the lockdown as an opportunity to encroach on common land. It is therefore essential to understand the new challenges being faced on the common land and by these communities so that there can be a working strategy towards the resolution of emerging conflicts.
The vibrant discussion brought forward many stories of encroachment and the methods individuals and groups take to claim common land for their own; damaging boundary walls, burning forestland and constructing temporary structures were observed across all regions. Although the mobility of the community has been restricted due to the lockdown, village leaders have been vigilant and committed to monitoring and protecting their common land.
Village leaders also shared that reverse migration has resulted in a large number of young people returning to the villages. Interestingly, young people have voiced their commitment to protecting and restoring the common land and wherever possible, taking up agriculture as a livelihood. Ramesh, Upsarpanch in Ummedpura village said "The pandemic has taught us the importance of the common land more than ever. The role of young people is to proactively work in protecting it and to hand over a better future for the coming generations"
Senior federation leader Jawan Singh from Badgaon Tehsil said "Our commitment towards managing the common land has resulted in the creation of livelihood opportunities for the most vulnerable. Women are able to sell produce collected from the forest and use dry wood from these resources because of years of hard work."
Ronak Shah, Chief Executive of Seva Madir stated "It is inspiring and reassuring to learn how the communities are battling against the global pandemic without compromising on managing their common assets. We are learning deeper about self-reliance through these community actions".
Connecting digitally using video-conferencing software with community leaders was a first for most of the participants. The need for innovative forms of communication and encouragement was shared and celebrated by the participants, especially during these challenging times, where face-to-face contact is nearly impossible.
Seva Mandir is working closely and supporting over 300 rural and tribal communities in the region to aid the reclamation of their common lands, to remove encroachers and regenerate the local biodiversity. This issue is a matter of priority for the organisation, which has been working for more than three decades on this using a community-based approach.
Through the hard work and efforts of the local people, over 15,000 hectares of land have been reclaimed, benefiting communities greatly. Seva Mandir, working alongside the Village Institutions, has planted more than 120 million trees on these lands that are sequestering 300,000 tonnes of CO2 annually. This huge achievement is also providing families with the produce they need to support themselves.
Seva Mandir is an award-winning and highly renowned NGO founded by Dr. Mohan Singh Metha in 1968. Operating in southern Rajasthan, Seva Mandir works with rural and tribal communities to ensure that they have the tools, knowledge and ability to improve their lives. We are experts in delivering long-term and sustainable social transformation for all, regardless of religion, caste, age or gender.