Hemlatha overcame the trauma of a childhood accident, moved away from her family, worked hard for a professional education and even took up a corporate career in Bangalore. But she felt she was missing something. She quit her job and began working with rural communities on water issues in Madanpalle area of Andhra Pradesh. She's an expert at conducting simulation games in villages where farmers Learn how their crop choices will impact water availability in the future. This prompts them to take collective action which they otherwise would have resisted. Hemlatha's family may not approve of her choices, but she's an independent spirit and her zest for water consciousness has found her a place where she belongs.
I was born in in Kadapa, Andhra Pradesh . My father worked as a contractor with NTPC and later ran a fertilizer store. We also owned land where we grew paddy and groundnut. I loved working along with our farm laborers and nurtured a small patch which I cultivated. I had an elder sister and two younger brothers. My childhood was uneventful until the day I hurt my right hand with a knife cutter. All fingers in my right hand had to be amputated. The acc i dent was traumatic for my mother and so my father sent me to his sister 's house to a nearby city, to complete my schooling. I felt lonely at my aunfs house. She was nice, but her children would tease me. I missed being with my family and spent most of my time in seclusion.
Post school, I finished my post graduate studies in English and my MBA. Later that year, I picked up a job in Bangalore . I didn't enjoy sitting in an office and changed a few jobs. In 2007, I heard of an organisation that worked with rural communities and decided to join them. Even though my profile didn't include working with people directly, I was happy knowing that I could contribute to improving their lives.
In 2008, I joined the Foundation for Ecological Security to work on an agriculture project. As I interacted with farmers, I began to realize the extent of their water challenges. Water is a farmer's Lifeline. With rainfall becoming erratic and groundwater getting depleted, I kept worrying - what will happen if their borewells dry up? I spoke to my father regularly who expressed similar concerns.
Meetings with farmers would be late in the evenings after they returned from their day 's work in the fields. I didn't mind the late hours or the long distances in congested state transport buses. In the village meetings, farmers talked about how they were digging deep for water and yet were not successful. They would talk about migrating to cities in search of work. A farmer once wept reminiscing a life in the past when water was enough. I was deeply moved by her predicament. Despite having land, she would now have to work for others.
I noticed that even though my project area was in the grip of water shortages for the past decade; farmers were still planting water intensive crops like paddy. In 2014, I got trained to help farmers make right choices for crops with the help of simulation ga mes. Under these games, we created real life situations about crop choices and their impact on water and incomes. The games are highly interactive and soon farmers started treating me as one of their own. With the help of the games, we created awareness about water being a common resource and not any one person's individual right. As farmers made choices of water intensive crops, they understood the impact on ground water and the residual availability for other far mers . We helped them understand how individual behavior and choices can impact the entire community. Farmers took deep interest in the games and came forward to participate with enthusiasm. It was a fulfilling experience to see how tangible results started emerging from the games. 3 villages banned digging borewells . Another three banned growing paddy in rabi crop season . Farmers come to me and tell me that they expect to see me wherever water games are played .
Creating a relationship of trust with farmers has been critical to address my region's water challenges. When I facilitate the games, I become one of the farmers - talking their Language and using Local examples. It helps them connect with me and open up during the sessions. Solving water issues for one farmer or for one village or for a district will have a direct impact on addressing water issues at a Larger Level.
When I was moved away from my family after the accident, I missed them terribly. With the farmers in my project, I feel like I have got a new opportunity - to be with a different family, to be with people, to interreact as much as I want and help them where they need assis tance. In the past 4 years, I have travelled to over 70 villages to conduct the water games, impacting the lives of over 1000 farmers. I feel like I am home.
Testimonial- “ I come from a conservative family. I left a corporate career to do this work knowing that it will come with a fair share of challenges and yet I love what I do. My extended family of farmers and the work I do for them fills up the void in my life and I want to continue doing it."