Not so long ago, at the age of 19, Shermald left the only school in his village to trade his aspirations with the responsibility of financially supporting his father. Now, at the age of 22, Shermald is not just supporting his family but also scripting an ecological transformation of his village.
Just about 50 kms from the ‘Scotland of the East’ and the enchanting tourist destination– Shillong, lies a perfect mélange of rocky terrains, streams, magical springs and verdant valley - Umdohbyrthih Village.
Almost 40 percent of the village is Below the Poverty Line and most of the people rely on agriculture for their livelihood. There is only one school in the village; the nearest dispensary is 17kms away and the nearest post office about a kilometer away.
Shermald has faint but happy memories of spending time in green forest covers, eating fruits from the trees and spending quality time with friends swimming in the nearby streams.
“With time, not just the forest and the green pastures of my childhood diminished but most of my friends either transitioned into farming for livelihood, government employees or migrated for daily wage work”, said Shermald.
The village can boast of being relatively young with more than half of the population between the age group of 14-55 years. After losing his mother at an early age, when Shermald finished his class 10, he felt torn between the need to support his father and choosing a career. Farming tomatoes, rice, carrots and potatoes was not much of a choice but a necessity.
Story of transformation
“It was in late 2019 when Pynwanbor Sylliang, our village headman came to me and asked if I can spend 3-4 hours daily to help the village and its people conserve the natural resources and prevent the loss of green pastures,” he added.
Shermald saw an opportunity in reviving the lost and the once forlorn desire of bringing back the village of his childhood and also making a career out of it.
Umdohbyrthih runs on a traditional form of governance with a village head. There is a Village Employment Council (VEC) that oversees a number of development projects, including the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme.
The VEC also runs the Meghalaya Community Led Landscape Management Programme with the help of its foot soldiers – Village Community Facilitators and Shermald is one of them.
The Meghalaya Community Led Landscape Management Project is a unique project of the State of Meghalaya, that seeks to leverage on the strength of the community to develop a sustainable Natural Resource Management system that will lead to the restoration of degraded landscape of the state, build climate resilience and generate opportunities for livelihoods.
“We have 3 VCFs - Environment Manager, Monitoring and Evaluation Manager and Social Manager; being acutely aware of my sensitivity to forests and my family tradition of farming, our village headman thought I could make a good Environment Manager”, said Shermald.
The unique design of the programme ensures that the foot soldiers have timely support from both technical and non-technical experts who connect virtually to address any queries and resolve them.
“I never owned or used a mobile in my life, and now I realize that a small handset can be of such great consequence for the entire community,” said Shermald.
Shermald’s father bought him his first mobile on one condition that he will continue to support him with farming – a trade that he was happy to make.
“We have training every month. I still remember my first training, outside my village, I met 20 VCFs like myself; it felt like I was part of a movement and that the government saw great value in my skills. And, every time we have a doubt, we are guided over our mobile phone, at the touch of a button”, said Shermald.
“Now the group is becoming bigger and bigger and I meet new people in every training, who have now started looking at me as a mentor, '' grinned Shermald.
“It is not a very hard job, because it is my village, my people. It is very simple, I make a plan, go to every household, tell them how to preserve the natural resources, collect ideas from the community people, make a Community Natural Resource Management Plan and submit it to the project staff”, asserted Shermald.
To ensure a two-way communication channel the programme team set up a ‘Green Meghalaya’ task force, with block-level officers, to swiftly address all the needs and aspirations.
“We get trained on a monthly basis and get all our questions and problems clarified. We now have started afforestation along with community people, geo tagging the important interventions and I have personally started to make people aware of the different species of green covers we need to revive and conserve”, added Shermald.
One such transformation happened late last year, when Shermald became instrumental in empowering and mobilizing his village community to build the first check dam of the village to irrigate the lush paddy fields. Shermald and his team of community people attended a series of training sessions to clarify their doubts on how to increase the discharge for springs. He even got access to resources like videos and guides on his phone, which helped his community to build the dam.
In 2019, when Shermald left school and came at the crossroads of his career, perhaps, he never imagined that one day he would be able to influence his community to reform the landscape using a mobile phone. But now he mentors others in neighbouring villages too.
They use CLART (composite land assessment and restoration tool) which helps them to decide on recharge structures best suited for their village that are scientifically valid. Instead of dictated by a few powerful people on what structures to build, technology empowers the community with knowledge and decision-making power.
24 year old Lahunshisha Nongrum, and an honours graduate in Khasi language, never felt equal amongst her peers and male colleagues inspite of growing up in a matrilineal society, until she became a VCF. Now, she is stirring her own revolution by participating in decisions that impact the livelihoods of her community with her knowledge.
There are many such stories of community-led changes that are becoming like a ‘social-contagion’, echoing through the Khasi, Jaintia, and the Garo hills of Meghalaya.
The reimagined capacity building in CLLMP programme has enabled the state to understand and respond to the needs of the community.
Under the programme, a cadre of1200 community facilitators have been trained and CLLMP is looking to expand to 20,000 for future programs. The trained VCFs will be evaluated and certified by the Agricultural Skills Council of India (ASCI) to create a pathway for employment for rural youth across departments and beyond the programme. It also helps the state to employ local talent.
With data comes transparency and accountability. Data from digital tools have shown them how to implement what was only a vague plan. It has inspired an ambitious picture of success and given them a clarity of purpose on how to manage their natural resources. We are able to see a strengthened and transformed state team. Young officers from the CLLMP and Soil and Water Conservation department are now leading the thinking and execution with confidence.