Transferring Grassroots Experiences into New Development Theories and Concepts

Chapter 3: Understanding Communities: Culture, Structure, and Economics

Inter-personal relationships can mean the success or failure of any endeavour. Development practitioners, therefore, must first understand the communities, culture, structure, and economics of their targeted population if they hope to improve their chances of success. This portion of the workshop aimed to facilitate the development of awareness regarding the needs and desires of different communities, the intricate relationships which occur within community structures, the traditional practices present in a region, and the pre-existing knowledge and skill-base in a given community that might influence a livelihood intervention strategy.

There were three presentations on understanding communities. Micro Human Development Index: mHDI at the Village Panchayat Level1 raises the question, “Can population, generally speaking, be an accurate measure of human resources available for development?” and looks at the development of a more comprehensive set of human development indicators. The second presentation, Irular Community2, presents the development experience of the Irular tribes and is based on firsthand observations. This presentation raises a commonplace question for development practitioners: What is the relationship between development and cultural preservation? From the Reductionist Approach to a Holistic Approach: Learning from Grassroots Experiences3 shares two case studies showcasing SEVA’s learning from experiences at the grassroots level. In these studies SEVA considers biodiversity and indigenous practices as part of the cultural composition of a community and considers its role in helping preserve the local traditions.

Micro Human Development Index: mHDI at the Village Panchayat Level

The Village Panchayat (VP)—the most basic grassroots level legitimate government institution in India—provides an arena for nurturing direct democracy and promoting local community. The Village Panchayat is comprised of elected representatives and Gram Sabha members. In Tamil Nadu, the average population covered by a VP is 4,000; the number of elected representatives at the VP level in India is about 3.2 million. This presentation looks at adapting a human development index to create a “micro” human development index that would be useful for making development decisions at the VP level.

Human Development (HD) is a process connected to people’s choices related to leading a long healthy life, acquiring knowledge, and accessing resources needed for a decent standard of living. The Human Development Index (HDI) is a tool used to scale and compare the level of human development in a particular geographical region. HDI is an evolving multidimensional interdisciplinary action-oriented index which, at a macro level, is used primarily for policy advocacy. However, often, economics alone is considered for government organized development projects. A micro human development index (mHDI) at the Village Panchayat level would help scale down development to a context specific level and help analysts compare both historical and contemporary indices relating to development.

An mHDI should be based on the income perspective, the basic needs perspective, and the capabilities perspective of a given community. Presently, the indicators used for measuring mHDI are education, health, and better living style. Experience illustrates that these indicators are insufficient. A more comprehensive indicator set would include demographics, education level, health, income and poverty, food security, infrastructure ratio, political participation, personal values, moral systems4, and local people’s institutions.


While the benefits of mHDI measures are apparent, it is important that the indicators and sub indicators need to be more concretely defined. For example, what are the relevant aspects of indicators such as health or education that may have an impact on a development intervention? Since an mHDI would be measuring considerably more data per area than a standard HDI, it is also imperative that the data collection chain is reliable. Critical observation would be necessary for measuring indicators such as personal values and moral systems—again stressing on the need for reliable data collection; however, creating a “standardized” set of measures for this indicator will be difficult.

An mHDI would naturally include both qualitative and quantitative data, and it is conceivable that even an indicator such as the overall “happiness” of people could be included in the index. Poverty mapping and resource mapping should be done concurrently to create a comprehensive view of the potential of a particular area. Information such as an area’s connectivity to well laid roads, for example, can serve as an indicator of means of sustenance since this indicator impacts people’s access to services like hospitals and schools. Social characteristics should also be included in the index. This includes information such as the percentage of scheduled castes/scheduled tribes to the total population, the area’s sex ratio, cases of chronic illnesses, the types and frequencies of disabilities in the population, the number of female-headed households, and the age at which children go unsupported.

Not all of the data necessary for an mHDI must be original data. A variety of sources can be used to help provide a more comprehensive picture while also reducing the cost of acquiring data. For example, some of the data may already be available from the Government National Census while other data may be collected using “rapid surveys” at the block level. These “rapid surveys” can be seen as small up-to-date censuses of selected villages and will more likely be easier to conduct than individual surveys.

Irular Community

The Irular are a semi-nomadic group who inhabit the slopes and foothills of the Tiruvallur-Sheravarai Hill tract. Members of this group walk between 30 and 40 kilometres every day to collect food. They have retained many traditional practices and possess a wide range of knowledge on herbs and their medicinal uses.

Most of the original land for the Irulars has now been occupied by government in the name of agricultural development. Recently, the area has been changing from a tribal community into a commercial one, especially for the Irular communities near the tourist centre of Mahabalipuram. Because of these changes, Irulars have lost hold of their natural resources.

These changes have led to societal changes for the Irular people. Women who once enjoyed equal status in the community now find their standing degraded. The impact of mainstream society on marriages has lead to ostentatious spending; many in the Irular community now need to borrow from moneylenders for such occasions and fall into debt traps. While the Irular traditionally only celebrated “Masi Magam,” due to outside influences, they now celebrate many other festivals, again raising expenses for them. Economically induced social hierarchy—earlier absent in their societal structure—is gradually becoming a common feature of Irular communities. The availability of housing loans has led to many Irular moving into reinforced concrete houses instead of their traditional eco-friendly dwellings. Because of the changes in economic demands, many Irulars have had to change their occupations. While they were once semi-nomadic gathers, subsisting on rats and grains collected, many are now employed as construction workers or as bonded labourers in rice mills and brick kilns. In general, one can say that the wealth of indigenous Irular knowledge is gradually being eroded.

While the plights of Irular tribal groups are many, there are other perspectives that should be considered. The literacy rate among Irular children has increased from 15% to 70%, and the mid-day meal scheme has been a great incentive to help with that. There are a few societies working directly with the Irular community that also add benefits. For example, the Venom Centre near Mahabalipuram has made the collection of snake venom an economically viable venture. There are presently 850 licensed snake catchers who sell snakes to the centre and have learned the fumigation process.

The experience of the Irular community is not an isolated one. As development practitioners, it is important to understand that there are several perspectives that can be taken with regard to what “development” means. For example, the Irular are now at crossroads: on the one hand, they are pressured to safeguard their cultural identity; on the other hand, many inputs are compelling them to conform to the mainstream society.


An analysis of change on an indigenous community is always interesting and will always generate considerable debate. For example, while this presentation of the concerns Irular communities certainly raises questions such as the impact of modernization on culture, it should also be noted that the perspective is that of a development practitioner, not that of the Irular community itself. What do the Irrular think about these changes to their lives? Are all the changes perceived as negatives? How do they perceive the increase in literacy in their children affecting their cultural growth or development? Is “mainstreaming” or “isolation” better for the community as a whole? It is also important to consider the general community perception of other tried development interventions. For example, the idea of reservations (sanctuaries for tribal groups) is largely a Western concept that is overall unacceptable in the Indian context.

There are no easy answers to these questions; however, there are ways to better understand the predicament. For a better understanding of community perceptions, practitioners should gain experience establishing contact with the community and meticulously documenting their observations. The process of quantifying the data collection and the methodology of reporting should be strengthened and carefully documented for future researchers.

In many ways, it is futile to talk of conserving a traditional way of life in our rapidly changing world. Change is inevitable; however, conserving traditional knowledge and implementing development opportunities need to be considered simultaneously. For the development practitioner, this implies that if the younger generations are not interested or motivated in acquiring traditional knowledge, some of this responsibility should be undertaken by external agencies to—at the very least—preserve some of these traditions via careful documentation.

From the Reductionist Approach to a Holistic Approach: Learning from Grassroots Experiences

Can NGOs and other development organizations promote economically sustainable livelihoods while simultaneously promoting the development of indigenous or experimental practices? What are the learning opportunities for these development organizations in attempting such interventions? This presentation looks at two case studies showcasing SEVA’s experience learning from such grassroots level experiences.

Herbal pesticides

Chellamuthu is a 36 year old agricultural labourer who developed chronic health problems like vomiting and headaches after spraying chemical pesticides daily for over a decade in fields of onion, turmeric, sugarcane, and jasmine. This work led to his eventual hospitalization which, in turn, proved to be his proverbial cloud with a silver lining. His physician suggested that he shift to the preparation and spraying of herbal pesticides and Panchagavya. He directed Chellamuthu to avail the advice of “Nature Trust” an NGO in Pudukottai. This NGO promoted the use of organic practices among farmers. The NGO suggested that Chellamuthu use an herbal pesticide consisting of Nochi (Vitex Negunda), Peenari Changu (Cleodendrum inerme), Chothukathalai (Aloe vera) and neem seeds in equal proportion; the ingredients are ground into a paste, diluted to the desired consistency, and then sprayed on the crops.

Because farming is their livelihood, most farmers were unwilling to experiment with this pesticide suggested by the NGO to Chellamuthu. He resorted to surreptitiously spraying a patch of his uncle’s turmeric crop; this patch was later found to be healthy and free of pests. Noting his uncle’s satisfaction with the test patch, Chellamuthu revealed his handiwork. His uncle allowed Chellamuthu to spray the herbal pesticide on three acres of his crop. Since then, there have been no doubts for this rural entrepreneur who has now acquired a rotary extractor machine for grinding the pesticide and a TVS-50 to transport his product for spraying.

Chellamuthu has also developed an herbal formula to prevent the Euriophyid mite which causes coconut kernels to shrink. Farmers who have used this herbal treatment—consisting of 1 kg each of custard apple leaves, turmeric rhizome, peenari change, chothukathalai, nochi, neem seeds, and caltropis sp—are no longer incurring losses on their crop. The ingredients are ground into paste and 5 litres of juice is extracted; 15 litres of water is added to this extract. Two litres per palm is administered to the crown of the palm after every harvest of coconut.

This has become a family business for Chellamuthu. He, his wife, and their two young school going daughters, are involved in preparing these two herbal pesticides and panchagavya. Through experience and experimenting he has learnt that use of calotropis sp prevents yellowing of leaves and helps retain the healthy green of the plants.

Chellamuthu now earns around Rs. 12,000 per month between October and December, and around Rs. 3,000 month at other times. During the peak coconut spraying season, his earnings approach Rs. 500 per day. Chellamuthu’s herbal treatment has received wide publicity throughout Tamil Nadu and neighbouring states and has even been featured on TV. Additionally, he is now the honorary secretary of the Innovators Association of Tamil Nadu, promoted by SEVA and has received an award of Rs. 25,000 from the National Innovation Foundation, with support from Honey Bee Network, for his pioneering work with herbal crop treatments.

What sets this scenario aside as a unique one is that despite his earning potential and publicity, Chellamuthu is remarkably selfless about his service. He shares his knowledge and experience on herbal treatment freely with other farmers. Chellamuthu attends seminars and workshops organized by NGOs and other agencies and shares information to promote the dissemination of this form of treatment.

SEVA has played several different roles in helping promote Chellamuthu’s work. SEVA facilitated the testing of this herbal treatment at the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University (TNAU), Coimbatore; Chellamuthu’s product is now sold with a “TNAU tested” label. SEVA has also trained an SHG on the preparation of the herbal pesticide; the pesticide has since been launched as a commercial product. SEVA also lends support in packing and labelling the product and are in discussion with Chellamuthu to devise a way to share income or provide royalty payments to Chellamuthu for his transferring knowledge to the SHG.

Conservation of indigenous cattle breeds

The Malaimadu is an indigenous cattle breed reared by Konar, Thevar, Naicher, and Moopar communities in the Madurai, Theni, Virudhunagar, Dindigul, and Karur districts of Tamil Nadu. This breed, earlier known as Pullikulam or Jallikattu Madukal, is said to have originated at the Pullikulam village near Paramaduki in Tamil Nadu. It has been in existence for seven generations and has gradually evolved and adapted to hill and forest grazing.

Malaimadu cattle typically have short, straight horns and a short and trim body. They have a small dewlap, upward pointing ears, a thin, short tail, and beautiful protruding eyes. The cattle are hardy and disease resistant, have a good sense of smell that helps them escape wild animal attacks, and are able to climb great heights on hills. The Malaimadu are also characterized by their very low milk yield (1-1.5 liters). These animals usually breed around November or December, giving birth around September or October. During the rainy crop season, the Malaimadu are taken to the hills for grazing; after harvesting, from January to July, they graze in the fields and plains.

There are several benefits of rearing Malaimadu. Its dung is highly valued as fertilizer and male calves used for ploughing, as draught bullocks, or for jallikattu racing bring in good income for their owners; aged, unproductive cattle are sold for slaughter. Being a hardy, disease-resistant breed also adds to their value, as does the Malaimadu’s ability to withstand both hot and cold climates, and its ability to graze on either hilly tracts or on plains. The Malaimadu is often bred with other cows producing high-yielding crossbreed cows.

Malaimadu breeders face several problems. Until 1994, the breeders were given permit chits—renewable annually—for grazing rights. However, since the Tamil Nadu Afforestation Program (TAP) commenced, this practice has been stopped. The forest department does not even provide the herdsmen with the “rights of passage” through planted areas to reach upper hill areas where the Malaimadu can graze without affecting TAP. In fact, many lower level forest department employees actually harass the herdsmen. The Forest Committee has also supported the creation of mutton stalls in the area; stall owners force the herders to sell their Malaimadu and sheep to them. Water scarcity, funds, and the lack of trained veterinary doctors also pose problems to Malaimadu breeders.

SEVA has taken several steps to encourage the conservation of the Malaimadu breed. They have supported the formation of four Kedai Sangams (herdsmen associations) by the Malaimadu Cattle Breeders Association in four villages in the Watrap Block—Kansapuram, W. Puddupatti, Koomapatti, and Sethunarayanapuram. In all, there are 72 members rearing Malaimadu cattle and indigenous sheep. SEVA is also working to record the Malaimadu breed’s characteristics and consequently to obtain official recognition of the breed. Steps have also been taken to persuade the Forest Department to reissue grazing rights to Malaimadu herdsmen.

Through organizing these herdsmen, SEVA also feels they will be making an impact on community conservation. Through officially organizing the herdsmen, SEWA is also able to facilitate other development opportunities. Groups are encouraged to maintain savings accounts in banks and rotate their savings. Herdsmen’s groups meet monthly to discuss various issues. Information about cross breeding has been promoted; for example, the cross breeding of Tharbarkar cattle with Malaimadu cattle increases the milk yield to 8 litres. Herdsmen are also given training on herbal treatment of animals and on the preparation of herbal pesticides and panchagavya as other income generating activities.

SEVA believes that issuing identity cards to the herdsmen group members can help protect these herdsmen from harassment from forest guards. They also feel that a forest committee should be established that includes herdsmen in the meetings to inform and consult them on afforestation procedures. Water scarcity can be dealt with by the de-silting of existing water bodies or by creating new ponds to provide drinking water sources for the cattle.

Efforts towards the conservation of the Malaimadu breed should be undertaken quickly as the breed faces the possibility of extinction soon. Beyond the extinction of the breed, however, SEVA also points out that Malaimadu herding and breeding is congenial to animal biodiversity, it contributes to sustainable farming in the region, and it provides livelihood opportunities for local communities.


These example cases of SEVA’s experiences at the grassroots level raise several significant questions. First, what are the strategies that need to be developed to disseminate indigenous knowledge and techniques? Second, how can farmers, NGOs, or other groups interface with the government to gain recognition of their needs and practices? Third, what can be learned from a cost-benefit analysis of herbal pesticides, and what steps—for example patenting herbal formulae or scientifically testing traditional knowledge—should be taken in the long run to protect and support the interests of the developers? Fourth, how does one resolve the development contradiction present in the case of preserving the Malaimadu breed? After all, the Forest Department is interested in the conservation of the forests, which partly explains their stance against allowing herdsmen the rights of passage.

What can be learned from SEVA’s experience is an understanding of their approach. Internally, indigenous technology was used; however, external parties were needed to introduce the technology to a wider audience. This can be extended as a triangular approach which forges the convergence of the community’s efforts with scientific rigor and institutional support; in turn, this allows communities to utilize traditional technologies to enhance the local economy.

  1. Presented by Mr. Janakiraman N., DHAN Foundation [back]
  2. Presented by Mr. Vijaya Kumar, DHAN Foundation [back]
  3. Presented by Nirmala R., SEVA [back]
  4. When considering personal values and moral systems, some examples of data that could be measured include the manner in which issues are solved, crime reports, suicide rates, human rights violations in hospitals and schools, and unequal opportunities for the voiceless and weak. [back]

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