“To be poor and be without trees, is to be the most starved human being in the world. To be poor and have trees is to be completely rich in ways that money can never buy.”

― Clarissa Pinkola Estés,

One woman’s decision to stand up and take charge of her life changed the destiny of an entire village. She had in fact been married off as a child, even before she entered her teenage years, at a tender age of twelve. She belongs to the backward caste of ‘Tanti’ (weavers) and as a child had seen how the upper caste members of her village terrified the women from her community. Hailing from a backward community, she was harassed and suppressed. Poverty, hunger and atrocities towards women and children, was what she saw during her childhood. Due to this, she could only study till class IV and was married off at the age of twelve. She delivered a baby at the age of sixteen. She fought life’s odds to become a change agent .But she let none of these factors stop her from growing up into the gutsy woman that she now is.

Meet Jaya Devi, a social activist from Naxal-infested Dharhara Kol region of Munger district, who has received National Youth Award for 2008-09, in the field of Environment Protection & Rainwater Conservation from the Ministry of Youth Affairs, Government of India. “The award would boost my morale to fight against odds.” she said. She recently attended a training programme in South Korea and has also shared her experiences and initiatives for saving water as a natural resource and other green initiatives. Today, Jaya is known to the outside world as the woman who had transformed Dharhara Kol in Bihar’s hinterland from an almost barren land of 5000 hectares to a fertile green belt, in which over 12,000 fruit-bearing saplings and grass have been planted, which will enhance soil-and-moisture conservation in the region This she had achieved with the help of the villagers, whom she mobilized to participate in various community inspired water conservation and tree plantation programmes.

Jaya devi water conservation bihar

Recounting her early life, which was characterized by poverty, hunger and caste oppression, Jaya says her life took a positive turn after her interaction with the Sisters of Notre Dame Health Centre in Jamalpur, a nearby town. She had gone to the center for a health checkup as a 16-year-old, when her second daughter was barely 7 months old.

The Sisters invited her to attend a 12-day training programme in Hazaribagh on creating self-help groups. When she spoke about her desire to attend the programme, nobody encouraged her at home. However she brushed aside the protests in the family and participated in the programme.It proved to be a life changing event for her. Back in the village, she started self-help groups, which began by encouraging the practice of small savings among women.

Dharhara Kol is predominantly inhabited by Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Castes. Dharhara Kol is a hilly, forested and difficult terrain largely without drinking water, irrigation and electricity. Though working with nuns of the Jamalpur-based Notre Dame Health Centre and undertaking various social development activities in the area, Jaya was largely ploughing a lonely furrow till 2001. It was like a tryst with destiny when she came across the Delhi-based Jawaharlal Nehru University scholar Kishore Jaiswal in the autumn of 2001. Fondly called Kishore Daâ by villagers, he is credited to have revolutionized agricultural scenario of the Ang region through agriculture diversification, horticulture and efforts for financial inclusion besides other socio-development activities in the area. If villagers are to be believed, then Jaya has actually done wonders in the area and made a difference to the region, especially through rainwater harvesting and watershed management initiatives. The villagers started by building a tank to store the rainwater. “We decided to work ourselves, each farmer’s family would provide ‘shramdaan’ (free labour) for the construction of the tank,” recalls Jaya.

They reaped the fruits of their labour in the next season. The farmers were elated when there was bumper harvest of two crops, paddy and wheat, due to irrigation from the harvested water. It was a great motivation for them to work even harder and they made a proposal for more water harvesting schemes and submitted it to NABARD. “I was chosen as the President of the Village Watershed Committee,” says Jaya. They completed six watershed projects in due course. Each watershed was able to irrigate 85-95 hectares of farm land. Her passion and zeal made her go from strength to strength in forming Self Help Groups (SHGs). With unwavering enthusiasm, she believes SHGs has helped her serve poorest of the poor, especially women from the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, mainly by freeing them from the money lenders clutches.

Later, the farmers and NABARD struck a deal to work on other projects, where NABARD would bear 84 percent of the project cost and the farmers bore the rest of the cost by giving their free labour. This gave the farmers a sense of ownership of the projects. One of the highlights was the Kareli watershed project where the farmers laid an 800-feet pipeline to bring water from the Kareli hills to the ground. That project gave huge impetus to agricultural growth in a low rainfall area.

Jaya transformed the barren land into a green patch with the help of the villagers. Next came environment conservation, and for this Jaya inspired the villagers to plant wild plants and fruit trees. With success coming one after another, and their incomes growing, the villagers grew in confidence. They became familiar with village land records and identified encroachments on their lands. Once when local government officials visited them and distributed food to the villagers in a rude fashion, Jaya told the officials not to treat them like beggars and advised them to instead spend the money on buying solar lamps for the villages.

“There has to be education for further development,” says Jaya. She had visited South Korea for training in water conservation techniques and green initiatives. In Korea, she was impressed with the quality of education that was being imparted, where one teacher was assigned to five children. The villagers have realized the importance of education and are ensuring that their children are educated. Jaya now plans to introduce the villagers to Yoga and Art of Living courses in the near future.

Naturally, Jaya’s success story travelled from Munger to the adjoining districts. So much so that it caught the fancy of Jamui rural population who imbibed and begun to work on watershed management. Riding on the support wave of villagers and community leaders, Jaya Devi has undertaken various initiatives towards restoration and development of wastelands, plantations, promotion of tree and cattle-based agriculture, pollution control, limiting open grazing, farm bunding and saving trees.

Jaya was specially invited to address Youth on Water Conservation in a National Integration Camp at Etawah, Uttar Pradesh from 17th to 22nd March 2012. This integration camp was organized by Nehru Yuva Kendra under Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports, GoI. In this camp youth from eight states participated. Jaya remains a prominent figure in addressing the issues of water conservation youth workers, rural development and women empowerment etc. not only in Bihar but in other states too.

The fire in Jaya is such that has not deterred her from working even in the Naxal-hit area. Dwelling on her future plans, she says” my  vision is  to make my Ang region a pollution free zone and ensure that all stakeholders work in tandem to equip the area with all basic infrastructures such as schools, hospital, roads, electricity and above all sustainable livelihood opportunities for everyone.” Adding yet another feather to her tireless contributions, the Jamsetji Tata National Virtual Academy honored her with a prestigious fellowship for ˜her invaluable service to the cause of spreading knowledge revolution in rural India.”