In this interview series we ask questions to people who are making a difference in our society, it can be big, it can be small, it doesn’t matter, what matters is their contribution. It can be anyone from any walk of life and from any country. Please, do send us suggestions of people whom you think we should interview for this series.
Lalan Kumar Sharma is a social activist and has worked extensively in the field of rural development. He is member of the executive body of Ekal Abhiyan and currently lives in Ranchi, India. His work spans the field of education, healthcare, agriculture and civil empowerment among rural and tribal communities.
Following is our conversation with him about his experience and work.
1. Tell us something about yourself?
I was born in a village called Berhana in the district of Aurangabad in Bihar. My father and forefathers were farmers, so farming was quiet familiar to me while growing up. After schooling I joined agriculture University to study B.Sc & M.Sc in forestry. I joined Ranchi University to pursue Ph.d in Botany. In my master’s studies horticulture was a minor and I wanted to study ways to alleviate malnutrition. In 1993 I joined Vikas Bharti to work in area of rural development in villages and tribal areas.
2. Why did you choose to work in rural areas and with Ekal?
I chose to work in rural areas because quite frankly someone has to, today we are seeing drastic changes in village communities, they are becoming unlivable. People are moving to cities in search of jobs, villages are being deserted at an alarming rate. I saw that problem in my own village when I came back after completing studies. When I was working with Vikas Bharti at Bishnupur. I met Mr. Rakesh Popli who overseeing education program of Ekal Vidyalaya in Jharkahnad. He saw potential in me and recommended me to join Ekal. I am currently in Executive body of Ekal and have worked in fields of education, rural development, healthcare, skill development and rural self-reliance all over India.
3. Can you please elaborate on your work in education in rural communities?
Today’s education system only prepares people for jobs rather than enabling them to stand up on their feet. Govt. schools in villages lack general and practical knowledge which further worsen the problem. We try to impart practical hands on training on a variety of things at Ekal. We teach children about art & craft, animal husbandry, agriculture, carpentry and other practical skills that would prepare them to start earning on their own rather than depend on someone for employment. We also include sports, etiquettes and character building in our curriculum so that they become responsible citizens of society. Through programs like tree plantation and river worship we develop a sense of connection with their environment and cultural roots. Because of our efforts the literacy percentage has increased dramatically in rural and tribal communities where we work. 60% of our students and teachers are women and dropout rate in rural schools have come down.
4. What have been key achievements of gramothan (village upliftment) movement so far and what future do you envision for it?
In Gramothan we have achieved several milestones in rural development, about 1.5 lakh families have given up chemical farming and have embraced organic agriculture. Organic farming is much more flexible and less expensive than chemical based farming methods. Even youths from institutions like IIT & IIM are taking up farming after graduation. We also broke the myth that crops like rice, oilseeds, lentils and wheat cannot be grown in organic farming with profit. Farmers from Punjab, Haryana and UP are coming to our farms in Jharkhand to learn these concepts.
Another key achievement in gramothan is of fighting malnutrition. We encouraged rural farmers to explore the concept of nutritional garden where herbs, spices and other nutritional vegetables are grown alongside regular crops. This concept has greatly alleviated problem of Anemia in our communities.
We see great potential in mixed farming and organic agriculture and I believe in future more and more farmers will switch to organic agriculture. We have also achieved significant results in skilling our village communities and many villages have started their own food processing business. We have also promoted adoption of indigenous cows over jersey cows and adoption of indigenous organic seeds instead of genetic ones.
5. Why should a farmer take up organic farming in your opinion? Is it a viable alternative to monocrop agricultural system?
Monocrop farming is a system of double exploitation, first it costs money to purchase seeds and pesticides to grow one single crop. Second since farmer has only one crop to sell, rest of the necessary things such as milk, animal feed, vegetables etc he must purchase. So it costs much more and there is additional factor of losing soil fertility overtime.
Organic farming on the other hand has very low input cost, all the needed materials are easily available, and farmer can produce many crops in one land. It not only has a comparable yield but it also gives all the necessary food items for farmer’s household that he no longer has to purchase from the market.
6. There is a serious concern of healthcare in tribal and rural communities, what have been your experience in addressing these issues?
In our efforts in this field the first and foremost observable change has been in rural sanitation. We spent a lot of time making people aware of the benefits of cleanliness through rallies, health camps, slogan writing and awareness drives. As a results cases of malaria and dengue went down significantly. We also encouraged and educated farmers to grow some medicinal herbs on their lands which also helps in fighting disease while serving nutritional purposes.
We also built compost pit to recycle waste materials and garbage. Soak pits were constructed that not only helps in maintaining ground water levels by absorbing rain water but also it prevents mosquito breeding and other water borne diseases.
We also opened Arogya Centers (centers of health) in rural communities where youth in village can connect with our volunteer doctors in cities through smart phones in diagnosing ailments, identify diseases, symptoms and primary treatment. We have also established women committees who monitor health in their communities and take necessary collaborative actions for women health, coordination with govt health workers, vaccination and sanitation.
7. How does Ekal plan to connect rural communities with urban centers of innovation and information, how do you intend bring these groups in mainstream?
Telemedicine is one that I just mentioned previously, another innovative effort of ours is ‘Computer On Wheels’ where a bus, fitted with laptops about 12 in number and seating capacity of 20-22 and has solar panels on its roof for electricity, goes to tribal and village communities in order to make students living there aware of computers and Information Technology. There is also an LED screen fitted inside bus and there is a BCA educated teacher that accompany these buses to teach children. Some of the places these bus go to does not even have electricity, the bus usually covers 3 villages in a day and overall 9 in a week. We also collaborated with IIT Bombay, to give a certificate of Technical Resource Person for Village for our students. About 14-15 thousand students have benefited from this program and there are higher number of girls than boys in these students.
8. People are flocking towards cities from villages for employment, do you think Ekal and its ideas can reverse this trend?
Yes, I think it can be done but there is lot of work that needs to be done before we start to see the trend towards villages. We have to make village live able and by that I mean we have to start providing amenities as basic as electricity, water, roads, jobs in these communities. Villages these days also needs people who are aware and skilled enough to create a sustainable economy in their communities. For example, we provide training to our students in fields such as fisheries, animal husbandry, poultry, food processing, electrician, cycle repair, electrical & vehicle repair, tailoring etc. so that student can start a small business on his own and he does not have to go to city to find work.
Youth of village must start looking at agriculture as a respectable profession, they would have to learn alternative, profitable ways for farming.
9.What are some of the challenges in your work and what have been learning lessons in this journey?
Initially people laughed at us when we talked about organic farming, making village attractive again for youth and farmers. Making people aware was the biggest obstacle of all. Often big companies have scientists and experts who use their expertise to convince people about chemical farming. They have marketing machinery and lot of resources at their disposal.
Many youth simply do not want to live in villages because of they are attracted to lifestyle in cities. Another challenge is of lack of resources and support. We do not get media coverage too that may showcase our work in social development. From cities also we do not have that many volunteers and supporters. So, these are some of the challenges we face but we have managed to work and achieve success despite these impediments.
10. Your message for our readers?
My message would be that we should learn to live in harmony with nature. We should think about our future and what legacy we will leave for coming generations. We have our roots in village and we should come together and adopt these communities to ensure their development. We should espouse the Indian idea of vasudhav Kutumbakam, the world is one family and strive to achieve meaning of these eternal lines
सर्वे भवन्तु सुखिनः
सर्वे सन्तु निरामयाः ।
सर्वे भद्राणि पश्यन्तु
मा कश्चिद्दुःखभाग्भवेत् ।