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A cup full of beans

The Araku growth model is helping tribals chart their own destiny. It may not have taken India by storm yet, but other nations are taking note of it, writes Lalita Panicker.

india Updated: Oct 23, 2012 22:39 IST
Lalita Panicker

When a revered leader dies, the faithful tend to recount again and again stories of his brilliance, his erudition, his political acumen, his austerity, his other-worldliness. In time, these memories become gilded, the attributes of the departed taking on golden tones. In Andhra Pradesh, little is left to the imagination on this front. It has been three years since chief minister YS Rajashekhara Reddy died in a helicopter crash. As you travel from Visakhapatnam to Araku valley, a journey of about three hours if you are lucky, you will see statues of the former leader all along the way. In true Indian tradition, they bear little resemblance to Reddy but where they do stand out is in that they are painted gold.

Reddy, a modest soul by all accounts, is shown in poses worthy of Mikhail Baryshinkov, arm extended, feet poised almost as he were about to execute a complicated arabesque. I was rattling along to witness the planting of the two millionth tree in the lands cultivated by tribal people in the Maoist-infested Paderu area. The ebullient rural development minister Jairam Ramesh, I was given to understand, would be planting the actual sapling. I had gone last year to see the millionth tree being planted, a signal feat in an area which had nothing much to recommend for itself agriculturally till a few years ago. Today, thanks to the efforts of the Global Livelihood Fund, Naandi Foundation and Mahindra and Mahindra, the area is teeming with coffee bushes and various fruit trees, all of which are marketed with the proceeds going back to the tribals.

The coffee story is a remarkable one, the beans from here finding takers among the connoisseurs of the West, not to mention in Indian cities. From the sidewalks of Paris to the chic salons of Vienna, Araku's coffee is making a splash these days. In fact, 125 livelihood experts from 23 countries had come to the area recently to see if they could replicate this model. Among the delegates were those from Hermes, Danone and Credit Agricole to name a few.

I recall meeting last time a gentleman called Prakash who serves as the interpreter of speeches on these occasions. I have rarely seen such zeal and passion in a translator. As he set off on his colourful task, I could not help but feel that the world of development had gained at great cost to the world of theatre. The Royal Shakespeare Company would have snapped him up and had even the great Sir John Gielgud been around, Paderu's Prakash could have given him a run for his money.

The minister was unusually subdued, no pithy one-liners barring an admonishment to Prakash about his liberties with interpretation. As his speech wore on, there were enthusiastic applause from the tribals. But when he suddenly changed course and spoke of defeating the Maoists through development, through politics and so on, there was deafening silence.

What is different about this area, one of relative poverty even today, is that having realised their potential, the tribals are no longer supplicants. They seem to understand that they are the masters of their fate. In rural areas it is usual to see people rushing to the visiting minister and local bureaucrats with their requests. I saw no such thing in Paderu, the tribals being polite but clearly not about to seek favours.

The Paderu success story may not have taken India by storm, but then such feel-good stories are always buried under the avalanche of inanities and charges and counter-charges unleashed over the most inconsequential issues by our political class. But someone has taken note of it and that person is leading South African politician, Jay Naidoo. He has sought the help of Naandi to replicate the Paderu experiment in his country. The other country which wants this sort of grassroots development is Mozambique. These are wonderful opportunities for India to project its soft power, its civil society initiatives. The driving force behind this initiative is Naandi's CEO, the effervescent Manoj Kumar. Taking pride in the fact that the farmers' income in this area has gone up by five times from 2000, he says, "I share the adivasis' dream of creating a new model of development that can combine agriculture, nutrition and access to global markets without erosion of the culture and identity of the adivasis. Hopefully, one day Araku will become a verb for doing transformational work with small farmers."

Paderu's wholly organic efforts are likely to serve as a blueprint in many other countries which are increasingly conscious of environmental concerns. The regeneration of the area has provided iron lungs around the tribal belts. Will all this wean people away from Maoism? I would say it will, if it is complemented by political initiatives. An occasional visit by a minister or two will not do the trick. Nor will telling the tribals what model of development they should follow.

The tribals of this area are far too used to taking their own decisions and they are not likely to have someone else tell them how to conduct their lives. The Naandi model is to empower them, to encourage them to chart their own course by providing them the economic means to do so and the food security to lead a healthy life. With the infrastructure push that the prime minister has initiated, and better connectivity, soon taking to the forests with guns could lose its charm and revolutionary romance. Indeed, the sense of deprivation and desire for revenge is likely to ebb once they are economically empowered through their own efforts, not from government doles that comes attached with 'development'.

On the less than smooth road as the evening gathered, I noticed that between the YSR statues were ones of an equally revered and clearly not forgotten chief minister, the equal opportunities cross-dresser NT Rama Rao. As YSR glowed in the twilight, I passed an autorickshaw which contained a medium sized cow and two passengers. I marvelled at the ingenuity of having got so many bovine and human limbs into so small a space. But that really is the India story, using ingenuity to make even a little go a very long way.