From Brick Kilns to Windmills—Building Natural Capital in India’s Rain Shadow

Supriya Singh
A family packs tomatoes grown using drip irrigation to send to vegetable markets in Mumbai and Delhi.

The face of India’s rural malaise can be seen in the Bull’s trench brick kilns that are widespread across the country. An outdated technology invented by a British engineer, they contribute 30 percent of the air pollution in the Kathmandu valley.1 The kilns, many of them illegal, dot the countryside, belching smoke, sucking up coal, creating drudgework for which people are poorly paid, and causing respiratory infections in workers and their children.1

But more than anything, brickmaking drains the environmental wealth of agricultural communities by mining fertile topsoil built up over centuries to feed the construction of skyscrapers in India’s burgeoning cities. The legacy left behind in the villages is large stretches of barren and useless land. To add to these woes, brickmaking consumes large quantities of water, compounding the existing shortage. The kilns represent the story of how the wealth of rural India (the soil nutrients, water, and air) is siphoned off to build the towers of the new urban India.

Urban Growth, Rural Decay

India’s growth bonanza, with rates of 7–9 percent in the last few years, is an urban phenomenon. But according to the 2001 census, over 70 percent of the Indian population still lives in villages, which have been forgotten—the “India of darkness.” Those especially vulnerable are villages lying in the shadow of the rain. Their situation is evidenced by the plague of farmer suicides that has been sweeping the state of Maharashtra, driven by repeated crop failures, the inability to meet the rising cost of cultivation, and indebtedness.

However, a few villages in Maharashtra, in the district of Ahmednagar, have managed to escape this fate through community-led development of the village’s natural resource base. The village of Hiware Bazar is an example of how one community took control of its resources and was able to transform environmental investments into economic growth and community development. It is a model for other communities struggling with crop failures and dropping groundwater levels. One day in January 2009, we were among the almost 200 visitors to Hiware Bazar. We were there with the European project Civil Society Engagement with Ecological Economics (CEECEC), aiming to identify the keys of Hiware Bazar’s success so it could be replicated across the region and the country.

The road to Hiware Bazar, some four hours by bus from Pune, passes through the expanse of Maharashtra, an arid land seldom touched by prosperity. Rain-fed agriculture is the mainstay of the economy, but the hills are bare and dry. Droughts occur as often as three out of every five years. Farmers rely mainly on groundwater, and water levels are declining.

Hiware Bazar receives some 400 mm of rain a year, but all of it falls in about 100 hours. Prior to the water conservation work, there was little in the village but denuded hills, with only stumps for goats to graze on, and a local kiln. Once known for its mighty Hind Kesari wrestlers, by the 1970s Hiware Bazar was plagued by infighting and factionalism, and farmers were forced to abandon their crops. Villagers made a living by running liquor dens, and many migrated to the shantytowns surrounding Pune and Mumbai. Hiware Bazar was a punishment post for civil servants and teachers.

The Transformation: Reclaiming and Enriching the Commons

Many say the turning point came in 1989, when Popotrao Pawar, who had left Hiware Bazar at a young age to complete his studies and make it as a cricketer, decided to come back after completing his master’s degree in business. He convinced young villagers to join him in his efforts to turn around the fortunes of the village. He also ran for and was elected to the office of sarpanch, the head of the Gram Panchayat (elected village council).

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Supriya Singh
Villagers line up at the milk collection center in Hiware.

Pawar’s first steps involved repairing communal buildings, such as the temple and the school. Next, he consulted the villagers to gauge their concerns. The main issues highlighted were poor availability of water for drinking and irrigation, and the low productivity of agriculture. Pawar slowly began to gain the trust of the villagers and create a sense of community among them; then he turned his attention to watershed management.

Pawar formed a local NGO so that the villagers would be able to administer the funds they received themselves, based on five-year plans decided by the local Gram Sabha, which comprises all registered voters. Hiware Bazar was one of the first villages to benefit from the Adarsh Gram Yojana, “The Ideal Village Scheme,” implemented in 1992. The program, with village self-sufficiency through watershed development at its core, was first introduced by social reformer Anna Hazare in the village of Ralegan Siddhi, in the same district as Hiware. It is based primarily on the panchasutri, or five principles: Nasbandi (vasectomy), Nasabandi (prohibition of liquor), Charaibandi (no open grazing), Kurhadbandi (no tree felling), and Shramdan (voluntary labor).

Hazare’s philosophy, which was adopted in Hiware, focused on the development of a shared community feeling and drew its inspiration from Gandhian philosophy and ideology. The ideology is based on concepts such as indigeneity, democracy, self-sufficiency, equality, and rejection of consumerism, as well as spiritual elements.2 It borrows heavily from the Gandhian idea of swadeshi (home economy) and his idea of village republics based on mutual aid. Unfortunately, it was the Ambedkar-Nehruvian vision of industrialization that prevailed in India, and the importance of villages and rural development has only recently been given more attention.

Guaranteed Employment

The next program the community implemented was Maharashtra’s state employment guarantee scheme (EGS). The scheme, which has now been expanded to the national level through the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), ensures each rural person 100 days of paid manual labor per year to work on watershed development or road building. This program focuses specifically on water harvesting. The idea is to create jobs for people locally so as to reduce distress migration and provide for their long-term future.

Hiware used EGS funds to undertake massive plantation and forest regeneration activities. The panchayat (council) built 40,000 contour trenches around the hills to conserve rainwater and recharge groundwater. Residents practiced contour bunding on 1,023 acres of land, stopping runoff and saving farms from silting, and built around 660 water harvesting structures of various types to capture rainwater. The funds were supplemented with donations of voluntary labor.

Our tour of the village took us up to a lookout to witness the ridge-to-valley approach adopted for the three micro-watersheds in the village. Watershed management worked in Hiware because the village plan was a well thought out, integrated ecological plan. It first treated the forests, the catchments for the village wells. Then it addressed water conservation, and soil conservation followed this. Using an innovative system of water auditing, changes in crop patterns were also collectively determined according to the water budget available year to year. Charts of the village’s water audit are posted on the walls, showing how the number of acres of land under irrigation has gone from 297 in 1999 to 642 in 2006. The lushness stretching for kilometers around us was in contrast to the desert-like scene in the “before” photos on display.

Today, the number of wells is 217, up from 97. Courtesy of the watershed works, grass production went up from 100 metric tons in 2000 to 6,000 metric tons in 2004. According to a household survey conducted in 1995, 168 families out of 180 were below the poverty line (BPL); the number of BPL families had shrunk to 53 in the survey conducted in 1998. There are now only three BPL families in Hiware Bazar out of 216. The state government spent a total of about 4,200,000 rupees (about $90,000) on EGS in the village. Treating 2,471 acres of land, the per-acre cost of treatment was about 17,000 rupees ($370). But in terms of raising village residents’ incomes, the cost benefits were phenomenal.

Hiware Today: Brick Kilns to Windmills

At 6:00 in the morning, the dairy opens and the villagers begin to trickle into the community dairy cooperative, where their milk is weighed and tested for fat content. Most of the villagers arrive by bicycle, although lately some have acquired motorbikes. The increase in biomass has encouraged many villagers to turn to animal husbandry. The cattle stock has been improved through crossbreeding and artificial insemination. This, combined with the increased grass production, has resulted in increased milk production—from a mere 150 liters per day during the mid-1990s to 2,200 liters per day presently. The cattle are stall-fed and the dung is collected and used for biogas generation.

Today, out of 217 households, only 12 are landless—and 54 are millionaires. According to the official panchayat records, 40 families who had migrated out to the cities in the ’70s and ’80s returned to the village between 1992 and 2002. Farmers in Hiware now often grow three crops a year. Agriculture has been diversified and cash crops include cut flowers, onions, and green beans as well as drip-irrigated tomatoes and vegetables. Literacy has increased from 30 to 95 percent, and, beginning in elementary school, children are educated about water conservation.

With the biomass and water issues resolved, Hiware has now turned to the energy question; manure is being used for biogas, windmills are dotting the hills, and Pawar has plans to install solar energy street lamps.

Solutions: Keys to Hiware’s Success

The Center for Science and Environment (CSE), a CEECEC partner, is studying Hiware as an example of a successful watershed management program that can be replicated elsewhere. Some of the points highlighted include:

Emphasis on equity. Watershed development can often lead to conflict. Not all people in a village benefit in the same way. For example, since water rights in India are based on land ownership, the landed benefit more from watershed development. Conversely, the ban on tree cutting and free grazing prejudices those without access to alternative sources of fodder and fuel wood. Despite these difficulties, in Hiware, efforts were made to achieve equality within the program. The ridge-to-valley approach of the watershed program involved treating the whole catchment area, from the top of the ridge to the base of the valley. A new blast drilling technique is currently being implemented to increase water percolation in one of the three micro-watersheds. This method joins the groundwater from these separate sources so that availability is equal throughout the village.

Mitigation measures were also undertaken to ensure greater equity. The fee for the right to one head-load of grass daily, which usually amounted to 100 rupees ($2.15) a year, was waived for the landless. Other watershed improvement and poverty reduction measures included subsidies for houses, private toilets, the establishment of self-help groups, and improved health and education facilities. Meanwhile, salaries and employment opportunities have increased for the landless.3

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Supriya Singh
This was the first water tank constructed in Hiware. It is now used mainly for percolation purposes and as a source of water for cattle.

However, it should be kept in mind that some elements of structural inequity were never questioned: groundwater belongs to anyone who owns the piece of land from which the water is drawn. Finally, part of the success in minimizing conflict in Hiware was due to the homogeneity of the population and its interests. The village is largely upper-caste Marathas, and landholding is also relatively egalitarian.

Leadership and democracy. Another major key to success in Hiware was the quality of leadership and the emphasis on a participatory approach. An NGO was formed to implement the program because the need for internal leadership and management was recognized.

Every adult member of the village is automatically a member of the Gram Sabha. The Gram Sabha convenes once every month and may be asked to convene whenever required. Its proceedings are transparent. According to Habib, a resident of Hiware Bazar, “The essence of the experiment in watershed development comes from the strong Gram Sabha. It is here that decisions for the village are made. The greatest environmental planners are the village residents themselves, and the institution of Gram Sabha empowers them to plan for themselves.”

When conflicts arose, Pawar made an effort to resolve them through discussion and negotiation. In this way, Sangameswaran2 notes, Hiware has moved from a system of “patronage to one of brokerage.”

Coordination among actors: government and community. Success in resource management requires the coordination of actors at different scales. Control by the panchayat in Hiware made EGS a community-owned program despite being a statewide government scheme.

This highlights the importance of decentralization in community natural resource management. The village has to make a development plan; the district has to make a perspective plan; the projects have to be cleared by the Gram Sabha and implemented by the panchayat. According to Pawar, “The development process needs both state and society to work together. However, the society should always be in the driver’s seat and work responsibly.”

Unfortunately, in many of the NREGA projects being implemented, the government has not empowered the panchayats sufficiently to enable village-level planning. Other NREGA projects that we saw—in Orissa, for example—suffer from management issues. Communities are disorganized and the money is siphoned off by shady middlemen, who under-pay laborers and achieve inefficient results.

Maintaining sustainability. Hiware’s planning took a long-term perspective, allowing for environmental investments and the maintenance of natural capital. The first step was the regeneration of the water table. Yet many community-based natural resource management projects ultimately fail because they stop there. Mechanisms must be put in place to ensure the maintenance of environmental capital. In Hiware, this was done through added rules, such as bans on borewells for irrigation and on water-intensive crops.

CSE is studying why the implementation of EGS schemes in many places does not lead to sustainable employment. It has found that the nature of truly sustainable work based on building ecological assets is poorly understood. For example, large portions of EGS funds are spent on capital-intensive activities, such as building roads and government houses, rather than on labor-intensive activities. The result is that employment is generated but quickly becomes unproductive, leaving people unemployed again or grossly underemployed. As CSE writes, “A road remains what it was—a collection of holes in the ground—because it has not been built to last. It has been built to be washed away, each season, so that employment can be guaranteed.”

Long-term sustainability is not guaranteed, even in an “ideal village” like Hiware. Menon et al.4 noted that even in Hiware, groundwater could be threatened in years to come by over-extraction of the water table in neighboring villages.

Conclusions: Toward a GDP of the Poor

Development as livelihood enhancement. As wealth increases in Hiware, the visitor to this village can observe changes in the lifestyles of the inhabitants. All families now have pukka (brick and stone) houses and functional toilets. Besides rising literacy and better health, there are also changes in consumption patterns. While most farmers carry their milk to the dairy by bicycle, a few now come by motorcycle. The first cars have entered the village and will soon be followed by more.

This slow, but steady, transformation of the metabolism of this small village is representative of a change that will soon encompass large parts of rural India. How will India’s ecological base handle this socioecological transition? What kind of development and growth can we envision for a country with a population of over a billion and dwindling resources?

India’s economic growth will be fueled primarily by local environmental resources. India will not have the luxury that Western economies had to import food from colonies for its population. Because India’s people rely so immediately on their environment, CSE’s argument for a new definition of growth, one that emphasizes the concept of “Gross Nature Product” or the “GDP of the poor” in addition to standard economic indicators, is integral to a new approach to development.
This argument is based on the fact that when a dam is built or forest clearance leads to a loss of access to resources for poor people, they are forced to buy the things they depend on in the market. GDP goes up, but the well-being of the population suffers. By the same token, one can make environmental investments, as Hiware has done, and the economic and ecological returns can be boundless.

Author Note

To see the CEECEC case study on Hiware5 and a short film, Hiware Bazar Millionaires, visit the CEECEC website at