Sense of the House - how social capital can grow money on trees

This article captures the story of a village in Rajasthan during a 6 year drought.

I’m also going to summarise it in english but the lyrical prose in Anupam Mishra’s Hindi is poem like, and is a great long read if you get time. Many hints to how regenerative community led circular economics worked in the past. My eyes could only pick some examples, sure your nuanced eyes would catch many more. To bell the long read reading cat via curiosity, here is a list of bullet points as TLDR:

  1. Pre independence the village had 20 khais - open wells mud walled with ash lining to store food grains as reserves. Until they all were full, the people would not sell outside. Like a mini reserve bank at village scale that could not go bankrupt all at once. Some of these were inside fort like formations for battle resilience, others next to temple to be only opened during the most severe droughts.

  2. Their SoTH journey started with two young men who started by collecting stray cowdung along the cattle walkways and would dump them into fields for manuring. The village after initially “testing” their motivation and resolve joined with 2 people, which became 20 and they desilted a pond.

  3. Many social, technical, political and economic observations around pasture management from the past:

  • 3.a. Contour swales etc would silt too easily given high erosion rates, prevent people’s walking paths and infiltrate water in ways not suitable for grass to grow in their bioregion. So they devised a chowka design which is a series of square shallow water holding earthworks which then drain into local ponds in case of excess rains. The bunds are kept five feet away to prevent breakage and reverse silting via bund.

  • 3.b. The politics of commons management, how the caste angle comes up and local institutions get threatened as a rule. How the work has to be led with a gentle resilience to win over those who oppose, and how it almost always needs a few locals with clean intentions, straight spines and long term resilience.

  • 3.c. Economic transactions linked with pasture land usage which would become community fee to maintain them. 30L/year milk supply back in 2004.

  • 3.d. Hundreds of villages got self inspired because these folks did not wait for experts or funding from outside. Today this number is perhaps over 3000 as per some estimates, and Andrew Millson’s resilient Rajasthan video also covers this work. Not from the article, but learnt that Prince Charles also visited to learn about the work. Their ability to influence state’s policy and people’s policy via replication has been phenomenal .

  • 3.e. Fodder mixes of wheat, jowar, kodo, corn etc stacked as open structures which were fodder banks for the community with a mix of nutrients. The fodder would not see water seepage or degradation through the year because of the design.

  • 3.f. Every family kept livestock but everyone couldn’t take them grazing or specialise in their maintenance so a group of shepherds were assigned to take everyone’s cattle for grazing. They would earn incomes in barter and were celebrated once a year in the festival. The cattleways did not intersect with roadways for people and there was a place where all herders would gather before planning the day and proceeding.

  • 3.g. How controlled grazing can, in certain contexts be better than no grazing. Their observations around livestock stomachs readying the seed for germination, their dung creating seed balls in extremely cost economic ways and bumping up chances of survival via targeted manuring (without drones or million dollar support infra).

  1. A very sophisticated bioregional calendar that balanced optimum growth. Diwali would indicate that fodder grasses had grown to a certain size and ready to be eaten. They made sure the grass seeds matured before letting cattle in. The male oxen were let in first, followed by cows, followed by goats and sheep to eat the stubs.

  2. The crop and field calendar also overlapped with the long range sheep rearing pastoral communities who would visit at the right times to eat the leftovers after crop was harvested and “paid back” in terms of manure, urine. The villagers would “want their field to be eaten” because of the simple yet profound design.

  3. When the urgent or important came up, the village was summoned compulsorily as per practice to repair the bund when the pond broke, to remove prosopis with a rough math of so many bushes per family. Use of shraddha, love and devotion rather than force and penalty to align people towards common goals and management of commons. Naming the ponds, celebrating their birthdays with a plantation activity, tying rakhis to saplings and other small cute activities that became as time compounded them.

  4. How a cent of social capital goes longer than many dollars of financial capital from outside. How work owned by locals becomes a living entity, and gets maintained and improved over time almost as an alive, organic entity that evolves with time.

We would be expanding on this in a series called sense of the house and try to highlight work where local people and led by owning the place. In case you have examples of such work/or organisations - do drop a note here and we would love to learn more & capture comprehensively for the world.

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Seeing a dirty boys hostel, there is often an urge to go clean it.

But we going and cleaning the hostel(or your child’s bedroom) every month would only reduce the habit of cleanliness over time in kids, and in adults. There are complex systems at play and second order outcomes predict that the hostel could become dirtier when the support is withdrawn day after tomorrow.

We observed a growing consensus that we cannot do the village’s work(multiplied by seven lakh villages and a few hundred countries). Not just CSR but even the state govt’s funding becomes very small to be able to own every village’s work on their behalf. The cost of fixing continental level degradation of ecology quickly runs into crores of crores of financial capital, tens of lakhs of volunteers that have to again come from somewhere within the country. Even if fixed magically at the press of a button, unless our collective habits of degradation reverse, we will again be at square-one, a few decades from now.

We also learnt that when outsiders come and do the work via well funded programmes and privileged experts, it becomes a static project that does not evolve with time and problems, and is not well understood by the local community to find local ownership.

On the positive side, we also learnt that we could help the village get back on its feet and there is some exhilarating evidence from these experiments. Each inspired village inspires dozens if not thousands in a permanent way. Rather than us funding them, they can fund forward and also become our retirement getaways as climate changes. This also created a deeper sense of true social capital, liquidity and capacities that go beyond finance.


Lightly triggering, gently supporting, not overfunding, withdrawing at key points, establishing local leadership came across as key recurring principles.

It was a privilege to get 1:1 time with experts from PRADAN, HUM, Vaagdhara, Shiv Ganga, Goonj, Buzz women. We were also delighted to have our social media partners, a think tank (CEEW) and a philanthropy(Roundglass foundation) as observers. Socratus convened the session and PRADAN hosted everyone. Detailed notes from the workshop here -

As next steps, we plan to deep dive into each org in the coming weeks to rigorously document these techniques and do’s and don’ts. There is also consensus towards working groups to:

  1. Productise this as kits that can be taken by non experts into various interest groups (panchayat, women, youth, farmers, entrepreneurs, …) and
  2. To take the narrative wider to govt, philanthropies, networks and CSOs so that linear overspends can be redirected towards nudging the village lightly.