GIFT travelled to the town of Mhaswad — seven hours drive outside the Indian metropolis of Mumbai — in late February 2019. When we got there, we were faced with a sight both our participants and our team had never seen before: a sea of canopies, each covering one or two cattle.
This was the Mann Deshi Foundation’s cattle camp, which was an emergency measure implemented in response to a major drought. Farmers who were unable to take care of their livestock due to the lack of available water could bring them to the camp and have them taken care of for the duration of the crisis.
Droughts are devastating to smaller and poorer farmers, who cannot cultivate their land without access to water. Without a source of income, they often find replacement work in urban areas until good weather returns. In addition, the lack of water and fodder means households cannot look after their livestock: one of the few assets these farmers can have.
We often think of emergencies like droughts as short-term shocks to the system. Markets and social structures break down, and so the only options are short-term aid and assistance to keep people going until the crisis is over.
This short-term aid is necessary and important. But crises of this kind do not come out of nowhere: they have roots in longer-term issues. In the case of Mhaswad, the reason why the current drought has hit the community so hard is because it comes after decades of water overuse. After a few years of poor rainfall, it has become impossible for all but those households with the deepest wells to sustain themselves.
It’s not just the region’s water that has been overused. The region’s vegetation has been cut down for fuel, which has consequences for biodiversity and soil quality as the area’s forests are turned into grasslands.
GIFT’s 2019 India Global Leaders Programme worked with Mann Deshi to create a new Farmer Producer Company. These farmer-owned companies provide income stability to smallholder farmers through higher produce prices and company dividends. The output developed by participants created many innovative ideas, including applying data collected from agricultural markets, farmer reports and weather stations to create a model of the local agricultural economy.
But seeing the drought in Mhaswad encouraged our participants to include ecological restoration measures as an integral part of the Company’s business model. After all, increasing yields and boosting prices would mean little for the community’s long-term viability if it ran out of water within five years.
Thus, the Mann Deshi Kisan Producer Company would require its member farmers to plan ten trees per month, on either their own land or on land provided by the company. Farmers would be responsible for planting and maintenance, with funding sourced from Indian corporate CSR funds. Trees would be indigenous to the region, chosen with input from local academic institutions.
The Company would also set a strict water management regime for its members. Access to groundwater — whether on public or private land — would be monitored and controlled. The goal would not just be to maintain water tables, but actually restore them. The proliferation of cheap phones amongst the Indian population could help ensure that water usage across households is properly monitored and tracked.
If these initiatives are successful, they would be useful as proof of the community’s ability to set and achieve social targets. This would be valuable information to some organisations, such as government bodies, end-consumers and, perhaps most critically, financial institutions. If the Company and the community can organise in pursuit of social and environmental targets, they could also organise in order to promptly repay their loans. A proven track record of achieving something difficult sends a signal that the community is a safer investment.
Thus, with this model, environmental restoration not only becomes a good thing in and of itself, but also a mechanism to overcome the issues with lack of information and risk management when it comes to rural lending.