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Local sustainable solution for people, nature and resilient communities

Shashwat is a grassroots initiative that was developed in response to a range of challenges faced by indigenous and tribal communities in the Pune district of Maharashtra state. The initiative works with Mahadeo Koli, Thakar and Katkari tribal peoples displaced, or otherwise negatively affected, by the construction of the Dimbhe dam. In the Year in 2000, Construction of the Dimbhe Reservoir completely submerged 11 tribal villages and resulted in the flooding of cropland. Shashwat has worked to develop alternative, sustainable livelihood activities for those living around the flooded area, including in villages within the dam’s catchment area and those communities negatively affected by demarcation of the Bhimashankar Wildlife Sanctuary in 1985.

The Dimbhe dam’s catchment area includes 38 villages populated almost entirely by people of the Mahadev Koli, Thakar and Katkari scheduled tribes. When construction of the Dimbhe dam flooded 11 of these villages, 1,253 families were forced to leave their homes. A further 13 villages were partially submerged, with their inhabitants losing prime cropland on the banks of the Ghod River. Due to inadequate rehabilitation measures, most of the affected population settled in 19 villages just above the reservoir’s submergence line. Since their resettlement, these communities have been forced to eke out an existence on the steep slopes surrounding the 2,202-hectare reservoir.

The displaced population is largely uneducated and illiterate and the alternative livelihoods available to them were limited. Most of the tribal people attempted to develop new sources of income from fishing along the banks of the reservoir. The artificial lake, however, was comparatively barren, with net aquatic productivity less than half that required for good fishing yields. And while low fish stocks made fishing difficult, poor soil quality on the steep slopes of the reservoir hampered the efforts of the displaced communities to develop agriculture.

Shashwat works with these communities to bring new, sustainable livelihood opportunities to the dam’s catchment area. The organization’s primary focus has been the development of small-scale fishing activities and improving agricultural production on the steep slopes surrounding the reservoir. Another important dimension of Shashwat’s work has been supporting displaced communities to claim rehabilitation and resettlements rights from the government. One aspect of this advocacy includes the facilitation of partnerships between the communities and local government. The aim is to empower displaced indigenous and tribal communities to establish new livelihoods that are based on responsible stewardship of natural resources in the area.

Shashwat has been able to foster a spirit of cooperation and common vision between community members such that the communal enterprises and federations that have been created are deeply rooted in, and are now somewhat indivisible from, community identity. Livelihood diversification activities have been complemented by conservation interventions as well as the provision of much needed healthcare and education programmes. 

Initiative of Shashwat for rehabilitation of tribal people:

Shashwat was officially registered as an organization in 1996 and has operated in its current form since 1999. However, founders of the initiative Mr. Anand Kapoor and Ms. Kusum Karnik have engaged with tribal communities in the area since 1981, working on issues relating to forest protection, community resource access, and economic development.

In 2000, Shashwat mobilized 700 tribal families from 13 villages to lobby the Government of Maharashtra. The objective was to garner support for the community to create and manage new paddy fields on the slopes above the dam reservoir under a rural employment scheme. The lobbying efforts were successful and a pilot project was sanctioned in 2002. The agreement saw the government covering 1/3rd of farmer wages with contributions from Shashwat and the community itself making up the remainder. Coordination of the project was formally entrusted to Shashwat.

Fishing Cooperative.

Later the same year, Shashwat launched fishing cooperative for residents living adjacent to the Dimbhe reservoir. However, the rights of resident communities to fish within the reservoir were not easily secured. When the dam was completed, the fishing lease was initially granted to a local politician in a neighboring district. Shashwat again mobilized the displaced communities to protest, which, with subsequent lobbying, eventually put enough pressure on the government to grant the fishing lease to the community in 2006. The Fishing project was supported by Central Institute of Fisheries Education(CIFE) in Mumbai. A series of interventions was launched in cooperation with the displaced population, including seed stocking of the reservoir to boost fish populations and the provision of needed capital such as fishing boats and nets. The project had an overall focus on building the capacity of resident communities to develop and manage fisheries within the Dimbhe reservoir. CIFE provided technical assistance for management of the reservoir, while Shashwat was given responsibility for community mobilization, including organizational development and strengthening local management capacity.

The non-fishing, monsoon months are challenging for community members dependent on the fishing sector for their livelihood needs. This is particularly true of the landless Katkari tribes. To address this, Shashwat has introduced the practice of ornamental fish rearing as an alternative income stream for local fishers. This new field of work that has been particularly lucrative for local women. Participating women have formed themselves into 32 self-help groups which together constitute a federation. Through the self-help groups, women have received training in the upkeep of ornamental fish, which are reared in cases provided by CIFE. When an initial pilot project proved successful, the National Fisheries Development Board provided a further 16 cages. This activity has provided significant income for tribal women. The women’s groups now also make and sell glass aquariums containing a variety of ornamental fish, while wholesalers often visit the dam site directly with offers to purchase their entire output. Additional support is required, however, before this enterprise activity becomes self-sustaining.

Paddy terracing (Padkai) programme:

One of Shashwat’s endeavours was to initiate dialogue between tribal communities and the Government of Maharashtra. The goal was to leverage financial support for the construction of terraced paddy fields on the steep slopes overlooking the reservoir – slopes which, until that point, had limited the ability of the displaced communities to undertake productive agriculture. This negotiation took years. In 2002, the state government agreed to fund a pilot project under the rubric of the Maharashtra Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. The government agreed to pay one third of community wages, what amounted to approximately INR 2,088 per farmer. Shashwat was entrusted with overall management of the project, contributed an average of INR 1,250 per farmer.

Between 2002 and 2004, 203 farmers participated in the construction of paddy terraces on their lands. The work was carried out using the traditional padkai system - a practice of community mutual aid in which community members work together on a rotating basis to complete work on individual plots of land. Young people from the villages were trained in measurement work – a capacity building bonus  collecting data that was then cross-checked and certified by government department staff. The collective endeavour brought 13 hectares of land into cultivation and provided a temporary source of employment for local farmers. As a result of this project, annual paddy outputs increased from 68 to 98 kilogrammes of rice per family. This substantial increase in grain yield meant that farmers were able to secure their household food supply for 10 to 11 months, rather than six to seven months, as was previously the case.

The paddy terracing pilot project was the first of its kind in Maharashtra. Because of its overwhelming success, the government was compelled in 2010 to implement a full rural employment scheme in the area. Initially sanctioned and funded by the Tribal Development Department, the programme expanded from five villages in 2010 to 20 villages in 2011-2012. In September 2012, the Secretary of the Maharashtra Employment Guarantee Scheme visited the area and met with villagers, Shashwat staff, and researchers from Prayas, a local non-governmental organization. After the visit, the programme was approved for replication in other hilly areas of Maharashtra under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS).

Improving agricultural Productivity:

Each year, when the reservoir level drops and water is released through the dam for downstream irrigation, 400 to 600 hectares of land become available for seasonal planting. To enhance and expand local agricultural options, Shashwat lobbied the government for permission to work with the displaced communities to farm this land and make it productive. The government agreed to lease the land at half the standard land use charge and nearly 180 farmers are now growing crops on about 200 hectares of land. 

An additional obstacle was that, until 2006, local farmers lacked the equipment necessary to irrigate these lands, thereby limiting the types of crops they could grow and their ability to maximize harvest outputs. Again through a combination of lobbying and proposed partnership with the government, Shashwat was able to provide 65 farmers (in 13 farmer groups) with irrigation pipelines and light weight hand-pumps. By 2012, over 200 farmers had been able to access 140 hand-pump and pipeline sets. The land is now being used to grow pearl millet, wheat, fenugreek, vegetables and potatoes, providing food security for three to four months of the year and supplementing other livelihood activities. Out-migration from the villages during this traditionally sparse work season has been substantially reduced.

Other broader efforts have been made to improve local agricultural productivity, including through partnerships with local academic institutions. From 2007-2012, students from the Indian Institute of Technology in Mumbai have undertaken 10-week internships with Shashwat. As one example of the contributions made by the interns, a group of students designed and constructed a two-kilometre irrigation channel to provide water to the village of Patan, an intervention which has seen a doubling of wheat harvests of local farmers.

Shashwat has also supported local farmers to secure land tenure. The organization pushed for a needed update of land ownership documents to reflect the names of current owners and labourers in place of their ancestors. 

Housing Schemes:

In 2008, a Katkari tribal community from the village of Old Ambegaon approached Shashwat for assistance in accessing a government housing scheme. Lacking the land titles required to take advantage of this scheme, the community was initially aided by Shashwat in soliciting donations to purchase 75-square metre plots of land for each householder. Shashwat then supported the villagers through the negotiations involved in gaining approval from the relevant government offices, and the four-year process of convincing officials to allow the community to manufacture the bricks themselves rather than entrusting the task to a contractor. Shashwat was given the go-ahead in August 2012 to begin planning the construction of the villagers’ new houses in collaboration with a local architect. After six rounds of consultations with the community and the architect, the design plans were finalized. Government funds, however, were due to be released in instalments, so Shashwat raised INR 400,000 to cover the initial construction expenses. Construction is due to be completed by mid-2013, and will be facilitated by the arrival of government funds.

Healthcare and Education Program:

Shashwat supports a health clinic – focused on child and maternal health as well as a number of educational initiatives. These include twelve pre-primary school centres, a residential primary school for tribal children who have not yet started formal education (or have dropped out of the school system available in the area), and a children’s hostel to house students who have to travel long distances to get to school. Shashwat fosters the athletic talents of the students at the hostel and school with a view to one day developing it into a sports academy. A plot of land near the Dimbhe dam has already been identified for this purpose and Shashwat is seeking corporate sponsorship to initiate the project, as well as requesting permission from the government to use the abandoned buildings of the dam irrigation colony for educational and fisheries training purposes.

The tribal communities served by Shashwat live in remote areas and lack connectivity to basic social services like education. Shashwat aims to fill this gap, not by creating a parallel education system that risks duplicating government efforts, but by focusing programming and service delivery on areas where none previously existed. For example, Shashwat runs one school for children who have not been able to access or afford formal education, several pre-schools in villages not reached by government programmes, and a residential school for children who have been unable to thrive in the existing school system. Access to education for this segment of the population is significant, as the majority of adult community members are illiterate and were never provided with access to formal education. Shashwat’s educational programming promises to reverse this trend. Many of the children attending Shashwat-run schools are the first generation of their families to receive a formal education. More than 60 children of the Katkari and Koli Mahadev tribes, historically marginalized and acutely poor, are currently being educated at Shashwat-supported schools in the village of Aghane, while 23 have moved on to study at the Shashwat hostel.

As a result of Shashwat’s educational programming, 40 children of the Katkari tribe classified as a “particularly vulnerable tribal group” and among the poorest in India are now studying at the Vandeo Vidya Mandir School in the remote village of Aghane. Of these, 23 have gone on to study at the hostel school in Dhimbe village. Shashwat’s schools also help to promote a spirit of cooperation and social cohesion, as children from various tribes are educated together and learn about one another’s languages and customs.

Empowerment of Women:

Shashwat has ensured that women are fully involved in the activities it supports. As one example, during the process of updating land ownership documents to secure land tenure, the names of more than 500 women were added to land deeds as co-owners alongside their husbands. Although initially only one member of each family was allowed to join the fishing cooperative, this has been expanded to include one woman from each family, making it possible for women to participate alongside their husbands. Women have also assumed leadership roles in governance and decision-making; there are now three women on the fishing cooperative’s board of nine directors. Women have also acted as ambassadors for the community in meetings with government officials.

The ornamental fish initiative developed by Shashwat was spearheaded specifically with the income generation needs of local women in mind. The activity provides a valuable source of income for these women, independent of their husbands. In a good year, women can earn up to INR 1,500 per month through it. The project has also involved a great deal of capacity building and training for local women and resulted in the creation of several more women’s self-help groups.


The common characteristic across Shashwat wide-ranging activities is support to tribal communities to fully realize and exercise their rights. The organization operates with the twin objectives of creating sustainable livelihood opportunities for tribal communities while also conserving the environment and natural resources on which these communities depend. Most notably, Shashwat activities include the development of community-based agriculture and fisheries, support for and documentation of community conservation of local forests, the provision of healthcare and education services, advocacy and lobbying to build constructive partnerships between communities and local government, and community capacity-building and empowerment.

Shashwat is deeply committed to the conservation and rehabilitation of local ecosystems. The environmental interventions outlined above are complemented by a range of sustainable income generating activities, which constitute an important dimension of the overall conservation strategy. There is a need to provide members of resident communities with livelihood options that do not damage the environment, as they might otherwise be forced to resort to unsustainable practices to make ends meet.