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In India, this group helps turn wasteland into greener pastures

Most rural Indian parents dream of an education and job in the city for their children, rather than a life spent farming. But with a growing migration to cities, there is concern India might not be able to produce enough food to feed its people. Special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro reports on one group’s effort to restore rural land and communities, in part one of a two-part look.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now the first of a two-part series looking at the world's soon-to-be most populous country and the challenges of food production.

    With a growing migration to cities, there is concern India might not be able to produce enough food to feed its people.

    Special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro reports on one group's effort to restore rural land and communities.

    It's part of his series Agents for Change.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    On a hot afternoon on the farm, M. Parthibaraj says nothing quenches your thirst more than fresh coconut water.

    This 26-year-old was on a path most rural Indian parents dream for their children, an education and an I.T. job in the city, far more lucrative than most farming in India.

    First class.

    But despite earning a master's degree, Parthibaraj came back to his family farm in rural Tamil Nadu about six months ago. The office cubicle life in information technology became unbearable, he says.

  • M. Parthibaraj (through translator):

    I worked six days a week, 9:00 a.m. to 11:00. There was a lot of pressure, very little respect.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    "I had a six-pack," he says, but the sedentary job and poor diet turned it into a-

  • M. Parthibaraj:

    Family pack.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    By coming back home, he's an outlier in a country that's seen robust economic growth, but almost all of it in urban areas.

    India will soon become the world's most populous nation, but you wouldn't know that walking in the rural areas, which have been emptying out over the past few decades in a rapid urbanization. And even though this country's population overall is young, average age just 29, the average age of an Indian farmer today is 50.

  • Jagannathan Srinivasan:

    I think, even without climate change, India faces a great challenge because of the increasing population and the limited land available for agriculture.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    Jagannathan Srinivasan is a climate scientist at the Indian institute of Science in the booming high-tech capital, Bangalore.

  • Jagannathan Srinivasan:

    All of us have seen in the last 50 years in Bangalore large amount of agricultural land becoming apartments. Yes, that is a serious concern.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    Indian cities continue to spread into the countryside, with high-rise apartments for the growing new middle class.

    But the majority of urban migration is into urban slums by subsistence farmers unable to make a living on land degraded by years of neglect and misuse, the overuse of chemical fertilizers and pesticides and deforestation that causes erosion.

  • Jagdeesh Rao:

    About 50 years, no public investment went into restoring these landscapes. That is a serious, serious harm or neglect.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    Jagdeesh Rao started a group called the Foundation for Ecological Security, which has worked to fix that neglect. He brought me to an area about two hours outside Bangalore that had languished for years, says farmer T.V. Srinivasa.

  • T.V. Srinivasa (through translator):

    There was no water in the tanks. There was no water for livestock, no fodder in the commons lands. We'd work here in the rainy season, but when it didn't rain or in drought, we had to go to Bangalore. We went to the city for at least six months of the year.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    Rao's group, supported by corporate, foundation and some government grants, began organizing farm communities. Groups of neighboring villages negotiated with government authorities to replant public forestlands felled for timber and commons areas, land not titled to anyone, but technically in government control.

    Across rural India, Rao says millions of acres of these commons lands have been classified as wasteland and neglected. Rao's organization arranged to use a government employment program intended to relieve rural suffering to restore infrastructure, mostly to clear canals and ponds that had long dried up, as silt from deforested land flowed down.

    If we would have come here five, 10 years ago, what would this landscape look like?

  • Jagdeesh Rao:

    There wouldn't have been any water here. Those trees that you see there would have been stunted, small saplings because there's no effective governance. There's fodder still, which five or seven years ago, there wouldn't have been anything.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    With reforestation, now, when it rains, water flows from the hills, instead of sand or silt. The result is holding ponds that actually hold water year-round.

    That serves livestock and also replenishes surrounding soil, Rao says, producing brush or vegetation that can feed larger animal herds in the commons land. Water left over is distributed and shared by consensus.

    The foundation also brings communities together in exercises to plan ahead, how much water is available and can it cover the crops individual farmers want to plant. If not, they must reach harder decisions, plant less thirsty crops or just plant less.

  • Jagdeesh Rao:

    But the crux is in actually bringing people together, so they manage the land together, so that they develop their own rules, regulations, responsibilities, punishments, rewards. You just have to rely on the nature's potential to heal itself. The second thing you need to rely on is the power of people to collaborate.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    So far, Rao's foundation has worked in some 13,000 villages across India, affecting about eight million people. He says, in time, government officials, who may have been wary at first, have come to see the group as an ally, one that helps them deliver results.

    There are concerns about equity, whether larger growers will take more than a fair share, but these farmers say they're not worried.

  • T.V. Srinivasa (through translator):

    The village has hired an irrigator whose job is to make sure that the water is distributed fairly across all the farms. He is paid by all the farmers.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    And they say having water year-round has slowed migration to cities and in some cases prompted the reverse for literally greener pastures here, a chance to go beyond subsistence farming; 28-year-old Venkat Narayana has a college degree, but says he didn't need it to do the math.

  • Venkat Narayana (through translator):

    In the city, I could probably make around 20,000 rupees a month, but here I make about 50,000 to 60,000 working with animals. I work two hours in the morning and two hours in the evening. I'm in my village near my family, and I'm free.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    With an income of about $800 a month, many times the rural Indian average, he and his newlywed bride, Bhagalakshmi, say they can live happily ever after, tending a growing herd of 11 Holsteins that produce about 50 liters of milk each day.

    Meanwhile, Parthibaraj, the software engineer who decided not to join the urban middle class, nonetheless hopes to cash in on one of its growing demands, organic food. He's raising fish in this pond and will soon plant Rice, beans, lentils, and some vegetables.

  • M. Parthibaraj (through translator):

    We have eggs, vegetables for our own use, so we don't need to buy those. I have also sold a goat recently and some fish. It will take some time for the business to develop and grow.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    The income isn't yet what he was making in the city software engineering field, but it's a shot at a lifestyle he's wanted since he was a kid, he says, running around on the family farm, pursuing the goats, and now that abdominal six-pack.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," this is Fred de Sam Lazaro in rural Tamil Nadu, India.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And Fred's reporting is a partnership with the Under-Told Stories Project at University of St. Thomas in Minnesota.

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