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Birbhum’s tribal women show the way

Organised into a collective, 30-odd women farmers in a remote tribal hamlet in West Bengal have not only gained necessary skills on agriculture, but have also learned leadership qualities. Gradually, these women are discovering themselves as decision makers not only in their respective families, but also in their villages.

Women tending the plants on the collective farm

Sounds of explosions at nearby stone quarries occasionally puncture an otherwise calm hilly landscape. The sun is slowly setting down and hot, dry winds still making you feel uneasy. But for a group of tribal women, it was the routine time to tend their vegetable garden they have grown collectively.

“The vegetable plants need to be watered every day as the land is very dry. It was actually a barren land that had never been cultivated before,” says Maklu Hembram, 55, a member of the Women’s Collective in Tetulbandhi, a remote tribal hamlet in West Bengal’s Birbhum district.

“These plants need little extra care. They need to be staked. Otherwise, the stems will break and cause the fruits to touch the ground and rot before ripening,” she adds while removing grime off a tiny plant, full of tomatoes, grown using organic methods.

Churamani, another member of the collective, pitches in and says, “We started farming on this land in 2013 and so far we have been able to grow a variety of vegetables. We are very happy because our hard work has paid us well. We have been able to sell our crop in the market after meeting our own family needs.”

The 12-member collective was set up as part of Action Aid India’s intervention in the area, where the majority of the population are from the Santhal community, an indigenous tribal group, that falls at the lowest rung of the socio-economic hierarchy. Typically, they are landless agricultural labourers. But they often don’t get much work as the area is drought prone and farming relies greatly on the monsoon rains. Even those who own land, cannot cultivate, as those are very small in size and require heavy input cost. These challenges often force these people to work in dangerous working conditions in stone quarries and crusher units that have mushroomed over the years.

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), if women had the same access to the resources as men have, they could increase agricultural yields by 20-30%, which would be enough to lift about 150 million people out of hunger across the world.

Genesis of collective farming

During consultations with the villagers, Action Aid India and its local partner Sural Centre for Services in Rural Area (CSRA) found that “collective farming” could help restore their deteriorating livelihood situation to some extent. The locals also realized that their unused individual small patches of land can actually come to use if they combine those into one big collective resource and start cultivating.

“It was not very difficult to convince the community that collective farming can give them something from their unused and barren land. We also motivated them to take up organic farming and facilitated women to take lead in this,” says Bratin Biswas, Manager of CSRA.

Twelve women came forward and set up a collective in the village. Like in Tetulbandhi, two more women collectives were formed in different villages through similar community consultations. After the collectives were formed, CSRA and Action Aid organized training programmes for the groups on participatory planning, decision making, crop choice and preparing organic manure and other bio inputs.

At the beginning of the initiative, the groups spent about Rs 16,000 as input cost that included purchase of seeds and a pump set to water the field. Using traditional tools and organic manure, they cultivated the land for the first time. As part of their contribution, the male members of the families ploughed and cross ploughed the land several times. Then, several types of vegetable seeds were sown.

They began with growing  seasonal vegetables and leafy vegetables. By the end of the year, the group headed by Maklu, was able to earn about Rs 25,000 by selling their produce besides meeting their family food needs – which was the primary focus of the collectives. The following year, they added few more vegetables along with paddy. And the results were even better. Their income increased to almost Rs.50,000 which they equally distributed among the members.  Similar results were seen in other collectives as well. This year, the groups believe that both their yield and income would double than that of the previous year.

“For us, it was like a new beginning. We never thought of having our own farmland and working for ourselves.  The day when we first saw the plants bearing fruits, we could not control our emotions. It was really a memorable day for all of us,” Maklu recalls.

“I feel so proud of myself that for the first time, I am engaged in a work which is in my own control. We all did hard work and took care of the crops. Now, our children are getting nutritious food as they get to eat a variety of vegetables daily,” adds Churamani.

The most important outcome of this intervention was developing a pool of 30-odd women farmers in the region. With continuous support and guidance from the project team, the collectives have not only gained necessary skills on agriculture, they also learned leadership qualities. Gradually, these women have discovered themselves as decision makers not only in their respective families, but also in their villages.

Men help women in growing vegetables on collective farm

Future action

Following the success of their experiment, the organization is now aiming at expanding this initiative to their other operational areas. Setting up of seed banks, digging trenches around the field for rain water harvesting and protecting crops from wild animals are among some of the new initiatives being taken up recently.

According to a recent survey, more than 14,854 hectares of area in Birbhum is under various categories of wasteland. These lands are mostly lying unutilized, and CSRA wants to make those unused and barren land productive by promoting collective and sustainable farming. “We are also thinking of making this farming practice a family-based approach, which could help address the migration problem of the region,” adds Bratin.

“Women contribute significantly to agricultural production of our country, but they are not formally recognized as farmers. We want this perception to go,” says P. Raghu, who heads the Land and Livelihood Knowledge Hub of Action Aid India. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), if women had the same access to the resources as men have, they could increase agricultural yields by 20-30%, which would be enough to lift about 150 million people out of hunger across the world.

 

Saroj Kumar Pattnaik
Communications Manager
Action Aid India
R-7, Hauz Khas Enclave, New Delhi – 110016
E-mail: sarojskp1@gmail.com
saroj.pattnaik@actionaid.org