Empowering Jharkhand’s female farmers

The Mahila Kisan Shashaktikaran Pariyojna (MKSP), a sub-component of the Government of India’s National Rural Livelihoods Mission, began in Jharkhand in 2014. Under the management of the Jharkhand State Livelihood Promotion Society (JSLPS), in a consortium partnership approach the Society for Promotion of Wastelands Development (SPWD) and Asian Institute for Sustainable Development (AISD) are implementing the project in 21 villages of Bero block, Ranchi district and in 13 of Thethaitanger block, Simdega district’s villages.

 

saraswati

In picture: Saraswati Devi (centre) harvests potato with her friend (left) and daughter (right)

MKSP is novel in that it’s propagating a model of agricultural development that can be described as integrated sustainable farming, which reconnects the inputs and outputs of various farm activities to complement one another. In doing so, farmers’ income and resilience to the uncertainties of climate change is increasing, their health and well-being is improving, and their reliance on an external input market increasingly controlled by an unscrupulous private sector is declining.

In late January 2018 Saraswati Devi and her family were busy in one of their fields harvesting potatoes. This was no ordinary harvest. Having incurred no extra labour or input costs, Saraswati estimated that the yield from the 5 decimal plot of land would be about 2.75 quintals, which translates to an approximate 37 percent increase as compared to previous years. The family consumes about 2 quintals in a year, which means they’ll be able to sell the surplus.

MKSP began in 2014 with a series of trainings on improved production practices for paddy, finger millet, and wheat. These packages of practices (PoPs) include three stages, namely, seed treatment, system of crop intensification (sribidi), and use of homemade bio-inputs rather than chemical inputs purchased from the bazaar. What’s special about these POPs is that they increase yields, reduce input costs and drudgery, and are environmentally friendly and thus sustainable, especially in a context of uncertain climate change.

Saraswati’s household, like many households in agriculturally productive Bero block, are not short of land, food, or income. Her father-in-law owned 18 acres of land and had bought a further 5 acres. As one of four brothers, her husband thus inherited a share of almost 6 acres. They produce a wide range of crops in all three seasons, including sufficient acreage of paddy to allow them to eat homegrown traditional and wholesome rice – cherailuki, karaini, and gorha dhan varieties – throughout the year. They also cultivate finger millet (maduwa), pigeon pea (rahar), black gram (urad), and string bean (bodi) eaten as pulses along with purchased lentil (masoor). They grow a little mustard for oil, but purchase much of their annual requirement. Throughout the year they grow local vegetable varieties, like the small pea sahib simbi, loha, pumpkin (khora), cucumber (khira), seem, the tuber peski, ginger (adrak) and turmeric (haldi). They keep 4 cows, 2 of which give about 4 kg milk per day, of which 2 kg is consumed at home and 2 kg taken to Bero for sale. Furthermore, they’ve educated their children: one son is undertaking his B.Sc., another has completed his B.Com., while the younger son and daughter are both studying I.Com.

The family’s life has been comfortable and relatively prosperous, yet their health and the health of their farmland were being affected by their earlier way of practicing agriculture. Bero block is well known to be a major part of the vegetable belt that supplies vegetables to Ranchi and to other towns and cities in the region – from Simdega to as far away as Bokaro and Kolkata. It has the oldest history of input intensive agriculture in Jharkhand, which dates back some 30-40 years. As such, most of the farmers are engaging in a form of agriculture that is not only unsustainable in terms of the degradation of soil health, but that also involves risky and dangerous use of chemical pesticides leaving the farmers exposed to the chemicals while spraying and to the residues of pesticides on the foods they consume.

The first training that Saraswati and the women in her self help group received in 2014 was of seed treatment and SRI (the system of rice intensification), known locally as sribidi. Paddy being the staple in the region, it was naturally the starter intervention. The MKSP has had a few set-backs in the 4 years since its inception – most notably in the form of unpredictable rains. In the first year, the kharif of 2014, the farmers had sown paddy, as usual, on both lowland (donr) and upland (tanr). The rains failed, and the paddy on the upland died. Yet while other farmers’ paddy in the lowland turned yellow and died, Saraswati’s paddy crop retained a healthy green colour and after harvesting and processing, she said, the rice tasted sweet. For this reason, from 2015 onwards they have only practiced sribidi in lowland paddy where water is assured.

Under MKSP the female farmers also received training on SMI (system of millet intensification), and on how to prepare maduwa dishes, like duska, mithai, mulpua, and nimki. “Some years back,” Saraswati recalled, “people stopped eating maduwa. But we received training. Since then we eat maduwa dishes more often. Sometimes we work until 8 pm so are more than happy to eat it!” Saraswati had made maduwa roti the night before. She said that, “Earlier people didn’t know that maduwa had protein. It reduces sugar levels. Now its market rate has increased from 20-22 rupees to 30 rupees per kilo. It takes less work to grow, and fetches a greater price!” Prior to MKSP, the organisation Dhan Foundation had worked in her village to raise awareness on maduwa. No local seed was available so the NGO “gave us 2 kilo of seed, and we returned 4 kilo,” Saraswati recalled.

The MKSP is innovative in that farmers are being taught to make a wide variety of bio-inputs to be used throughout the crop cycle. Sarawati said of her paddy production, “earlier we used urea, DAP and chemical pesticides, but now for 4 years we’ve not used. Instead we use ketchua khad, gobar and amrit pani”. Beejamrit, prepared from a mixture of cow dung, cow urine, lime, cow milk, soil and water left overnight to ferment, is sprinkled over the seeds, after which they are dried and sown. Liquid composts include jeevamrit and matka khad. Matka khad, which helps in the growth of crops, is produced with cow dung, cow urine and jaggery mixed in an earthen pot and kept sealed for 10 days, before it is mixed with water to be applied to crops at intervals of 10 days. Jeevamrit is for application to crops, at an interval of 15 days. It’s prepared from cow or buffalo dung and urine, jaggery, the flour of waste pulses, soil and water in a large drum covered with a gunny bag and ready for use, mixed with water, in 3 days.

The female farmers have been taught to make pesticides too, such as neemastra and brahmastra. Brahmastra is considered a panacea for all kinds of pests and diseases of crops. It is prepared by mixing neem oil, tobacco dissolved in water, asafoetida, and cow urine, and garlic, ginger and chilli pastes, and leaving them undisturbed for 6 hours. This mixture is then added to a mixture of water and soap powder, to be used after 15 and 40 days of sowing. Neemastra by contrast, comprising neem leaves, cow dung and urine, is to be used according to pest intensity or after flowering to prevent pest infestation.

Having reduced use of pesticides and completely eliminated the use of urea and DAP, Saraswati feels they’ve saved money and the family’s health has improved. Her husband Tapeshwar added, “We were suffering from several illnesses that hadn’t occurred in the past, like stomach gas and coughs, but after switching to organic production these no longer occur”. He went on, “the soil used to be tight but now it’s better and stays moist throughout the day”. He said that 10-12 years ago, due to the use of urea and DAP, their land was turning to wasteland and production was declining. Through use of vermicomposting and other bio-inputs, the quality and quantity of crops like pea and potato have started improving again. “Grown organically, the taste of the food is better”, he added with a smile.

The MKSP exclusively provides training to women, which has caused a degree of resistance to the proposed changes from some but not all of the female farmers’ husbands. Saraswati’s husband is more than happy with the project. He said, “It’s good that women are being trained and getting aware. Now the women are more secure as farmers. In fact, women are getting ahead in farming! My wife teaches me what she learns.” He feels the people in his village are becoming more aware about the concept of organic farming, “50 percent are by now aware. Some 150 women have been training through their SHGs under MKSP. Not everyone has started applying their new knowledge, but seeing the success of others they’re planning to.”

The case of Saraswati Devi shows the positive impact the central government’s Mahila Kisan Shashaktikaran Pariyojna is having on the lives of farmers.

Authors: Joe Hill, Mukund Kujur, Nishant and Madhaw

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