Thursday, 7 June 2012

The story of Basanti's fish pond

The beginning
The pond at Basanti's place (first of the 5 homes I stayed in, in Munsiyari) was already half dug up when Ola and I came in to the picture. We started digging bit by bit and soon Basanti’s sons joined in and the pond grew to a decent size of approximately 6m by 4m.

To put plastic or not?
The soil at the base of the pond is very permeable and there was no chance of water being let in before making it suitable for a pond. I was totally against putting plastic and wanted to try other alternatives such as creating a thick layer of compacted soil, gleying using dung and other organic matter or using a layer of natural clay such as Sodium Bentonite. After a quick breakfast discussion with a soil expert who was in Munsiyari by chance, it was decided to go ahead with layering the pond with plastic as we did not want to run the risk of the fish dying. The soil expert gave a few practical tips and suggested that the plastic needs be fully protected from direct sunlight to avoid UV rays from decomposing the plastic. 

15th May 2012 - One lovely day and a dozen strong women
My assessment of the work of layering with organic matter and plastic was about 2 to 3 days of dedicated hard-work and there was little chance that I could take out so much time in all the other things that I had to finish. Malika told me that there was no way I could return home unless the pond was done!! She suggested a shramdaan from Maati women and there we were, about a dozen strong women from ages 12 to 50 shoveling mud, carrying cow dung and even cutting stones. Lunch break coincided with a bout of rain and we got a chance to catch up over a hearty lunch that included Rajma and Aloo Mutter from Basanti's garden.
Though ideas came from everyone, Rajda (Basanti’s husband) took the lead and sweated it out even though he was quite weak from fever. By 6 pm, the pond was done and I had seen a live example of the community happily participating in a project that did not have anything to do with them directly. Later in the day, Rajda created a water inlet and the pond was full by the next morning. On the 20th, the kids dived into the pond at Malika’s place to get fish for their own pond.

Within a few days of the pond getting completed, the place came alive with the pond attracting damsel flies and dragon flies, apart from tourists. There is something about water and fish that attracts people - I remember my friend and I standing by the pool at the Infosys campus and spending many quiet minutes leisurely watching the fish.
The last time I called to check, Basanti had added more fish into her pond, this time from the Gori Ganga river in the valley.

Now for all the boring details:

Final size of pond (approx): 6m * 4m,  2 ½ feet deep
Plastic sheet (used to build temporary roofs): 2 thick sheets of 6m by 7m, total cost Rs. 1500.

Steps we followed
1      Dig dig dig
2.     Create a slope for layering the plastic
3.     Clear stones and smoothing the surface by tapping with hands and legs
4.     Layer the pond floor with organic matter (leaves, cow-dung, hay)
5.     Cover with plastic with a good 2 feet of plastic sheet coming over the bank of the pond and a large overlap between the 2 sheets
6.     Secure the sheet by placing heavy stones on the edge
7.     Cover sheet with soil, leaves, hay, dung – a thick enough layer to support an ecosystem.
8.     Place few big stones and wood to create spaces for fish to build their homes and play
9.     Beautify the edge by planting local plants
10.   Put in the fish

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Small is beautiful indeed

A few months ago, a friend recommended the book 'Small is Beautiful' by E.F. Schumacher. This book lives up to its name as it is a small book of 250 pages and it suited me fine as I am generally a lazy and slow reader.

Though the book was written more than 30 years ago, the ideas are still relevant. I would say they are more relevant now than ever. It links human behaviour and economics and puts people at the forefront of development. Though progress and development are meant for people, most of the huge development programs that we generally know of somehow miss the human aspect. A classic example is the surge of many unnecessary flyovers in Bangalore, most of which have no provision for people to cross the road. Also, I haven't come across anyone who is happy to be working in such projects either.

The author talks about the use of simple 'Intermediate technology' which is not only less expensive, but also easy to train and control. I could see this in action as I saw a few people make a stone path in Sarmoli village in Munsiyari. The people cut stones that are locally available and laid them out using their hands and simple tools. They seemed satisfied with their work and happily posed for photographs. The other important thing is the ease of taking in feedback and suggestions from locals, on the go. In this case, the local who was accompanying me told them that the stone path is better than the cement one since the stone path provides a better grip especially when there is snow. Whether the suggestion will be implemented or not is secondary, but the ease of providing feedback is nothing compared to the complexity and bureaucracy involved in the massive projects in cities.

I had the same feeling when I visited a couple of micro hydro power projects and water mills which are built almost entirely from locally available materials. Unfortunately, some of these have begun to shutdown as huge hydro power projects are making their way into these serene places and their impact is already visible through many landslides in the area.

Which brings me to the concept of Buddhist Economics which has simplicity and non-violence as its base. The author makes a reference to 'The Middle way' by saying "It is not wealth that stands in the way of liberation but the attachment to wealth; not the enjoyment of pleasurable things but the craving for them." Which translates to achievement of maximum well-being with the minimum of consumption, i.e., small means leading to extraordinarily satisfactory results. A demonstration of this principle could be seen in the little village of Paton (Munsiyari, Pithoragarh, Uttarakhand) which I was fortunate enough to visit (thanks to Malika for forcing me to go on the trip and Ram for guiding us). The village is off-grid, yet, as Ram noted and I couldn't agree more, people have light, can charge their mobiles and watch their favourite TV serials - all powered by solar energy!