More than three-fourths of the rural population depend on agriculture, which is largely rainfed. Farmers often face challenges like irregular monsoon, non-availability of quality inputs; lack of resources and poor market linkages. These issues, if systematically addressed, could help farmers improve their livelihoods, breaking the cycle of poverty.
Bhanpura, a small village of Agar district in Madhya Pradesh has a population of 414, predominantly belonging to Gurjar and Sondhiya communities. Owing to degradation of natural resources, these communities who are traditionally herders and agriculturists, have been forced to depend on wage labour for their livelihoods. Lack of alternative employment opportunities has forced a few of them to resort to theft and brewing illicit liquor.
Bhanpura witnessed a large-scale deforestation in the postindependence period. In the absence of appropriate land management, there has been a wide spread erosion of top soil, thus reducing the fertility and productivity of the landscape. The productivity of the 259 hectares of land is severely affected making agriculture a non-viable and not so preferred occupation.
Frequent droughts have reduced the production to such low levels that the farmland can hardly support the food requirement of the families. To sustain life in these adverse conditions, communities have mortgaged their animals, land and jewellery.
In this backdrop, Bhanpura, with the support of Foundation for Ecological Security (FES), formed their first people’s collective, known as Tree Growers Cooperative Society, in 2008, to work on natural resource management. During the two years of engagement, they focused on the construction of water harvesting structures and treatment of upper reaches. This resulted in improved water availability and improved biomass on the village commons.
Reliance Foundation (RF) through its RF-BIJ programme started working in Bhanpura village in the year 2010. RF in the initial period of engagement in Bhanpura, focused on building relationship with the community, understanding their needs and helping them understand the approach of RF. This was essential for grounding the initiative of sustainable development. However, the eagerness of community towards physical implementation on ground posed a great challenge for the team. Another challenge was the overall preference of the farmers for indiscriminate usage of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, which were against the principles of engagement of RF-BIJ. However, this challenge provided an opportunity to the team to demonstrate the sustainable farming model.
Series of meetings were organized to deliberate on this issue. As a consequence, all the households in the village decided to form a Village Farmer Association (VFA), adopt sustainable agriculture values, and convert them into practice. They collectively made their village development plans focusing on the themes of strengthening household and institutional capacities; securing water availability; reclaiming farm productivity; conserving soil and water and improved access to inputs and markets.
Working towards inclusive development, VFA accommodated the concerns and prioritized their activities based on the needs of women, poor and landless. Initiatives like dairy for the landless, skill -training for youth, vegetable garden for women, were planned and implemented. People started diversifying their livelihoods, managing the risks associated with them. Activities such as construction of water harvesting structures, farm land development including land levelling, bunding, application of farm yard manure and tank silt were undertaken by VFA on a large scale.
Theme specific capacity building exercises were planned for each member to build their confidence in negotiating their spaces within the community. The initiative built capacities of people in managing institutions, agricultural practices, building leadership etc. Capacity building efforts while strengthening their core competencies also gave members an opportunity to interact with other stakeholders.
The initiative has helped in ensuring a secure future for the communities while addressing social, economic and ecological issues. The inclusive planning process brought the heterogeneous community together around the common agenda of social and economic development. VFA, thus became a vibrant people’s forum for realizing the dream of becoming self-reliant village. People, who would never sit together, were now planning and deciding together in fortnightly meetings. The association functioned as a single entity and started negotiating for its space with the government and the Panchayat.
Economic well being
MaganBai (58) is a widow in Bhanpura village, trying to make a living out of 5 bighas(1.5 Ha) of waste land. The family once owned 25 bighas (6.25), sold off by her alcoholic husband. Further adding to her drudgery, the piece of land owned by her stands mortgaged with the moneylender. Instead of combatting the situation, her sons Nain Singh and Radhe Singh also turned alcoholics.MaganBai never gave up but continued to cultivate one bigha (0.25 ha) while leasing out 4 bighas (1 Ha) as pastureland. Her sons started working as wage labourers but spent most of their earning on alcohol. She could only produce 2 quintals of soybean, 5 kg of black gram and 5 kg of green gram with her individual efforts.
When RF-BIJ started working in Bhanpura in 2010, motivated by her fellow villagers, Magan Bai joined the Jagruk Kisan Samiti (VFA), in 2012-13. The VFA members helped her draw detailed analysis of her farmland followed by a systematic action plan. Activities such as land clearing, levelling, bunding, deep ploughing, and construction of a shallow well, creating irrigation support including pipelines were planned and implemented in her farm with an investment of Rs.57,250.
Efforts on her farm land, complimented with the land development and water harvesting works done in the village, helped Magan Bai to cultivate two crops on the same piece of land. Harvest in Kharif on 5 bighas (1.25ha) amounted to 700 kg soybean, 15 kg black gram and 15 kg green gram. Around 600 kg wheat and 600 kg gram were produced in Rabi season. She also offered excess water to other farmers and earned 300 kg of gram in kind and Rs.1500 in cash. After saving some for her consumption needs, she could sell the produce for a sum of Rs.58,500. She cleared her debts and could get the land released from mortgage.
A confident Magan Bai now plans to add vegetable cultivation to her livelihood portfolio. She plans to leverage the availability of water, thanks to the shallow well. She also plans to manage more land and develop an orchard. MaganBai says, “Maine kabhi nahi sochath aki ab apne jeevan mein apni kheti is prakar se kar paoongi par swayam ki himmat aur Reliance ke sahyog ne sab kuch badaldiya” (I never thought that I could ever farm this way but my will power and support from Reliance has changed everything).
Restoration of natural resources of water, land and vegetation on farmland as well as commons has contributed towards stabilizing the village ecosystem. Each farmland, treated as a microwatershed, aimed at in-situ conservation of soil and water, resulting in improved productivity of land.
The community has constructed water harvesting structures resulting in revival of water drainage system. This has helped farming with adequate supply of irrigation water while increasing the ground water recharge. The fields are enriched with organic manure that has helped in improving soil fertility and soil texture. The biogas plants reduced the dependence on firewood and kerosene while maintaining the environmental quality.
The economic prosperity brought by the livelihood interventions has deepened a sense of belongingness and developed ownership in VFA. This was not possible without collectives that gave them the strength to cope with internal and external risks and shocks. Representative and actively participating leadership ensured that the voices of all, especially of the most marginalized are heard.
While focusing on few major areas of development like land, water and forest, the initiative guided the community towards self-reliance so that they can have control over their lives.
The initiative also addresses issues of social inclusion emphasized on identifying the vulnerable segment namely women, unemployed youth, landless and backward castes. These groups irrespective of their economic status and marginality are enrolled as members of the association.
The association offered them a space to plan, express their opinions and negotiate for their own development needs. As a result women are able to negotiate their needs by sharing equal spaces with men in the association.
Equal representation of all caste and class groups ensured representation of various issues. Sondhiya community, earlier tagged as thieves, started to deliberate and diversify their livelihood options to agriculture and animal husbandry. Increased self-esteem and confidence of the members has inspired people to participate in all the processes leading to economic and social independence. Youth who had lost track of living a dignified life, are now taking up social issues like liquor consumption/trade and working on eradicating such evils.
A village development fund was revived and strengthened. Each member of VFA contributes to the fund and the members of VFA voluntarily decide the contribution amount.
Presently, the size of the fund is Rs. 6,39,900 contributed by the community from their incremental income. The fund is being used to raise the equity of a producer company organized in Agar, to help farmers have better access to the markets.
Since its inception, RF-BIJ has touched the lives of around 50000 farmers across 11 Indian states. This is just one case of the many cases from the lives of the marginal farmers in the rainfed regions of India. The initiative of RF-BIJ is helping the marginalised farmers to make a dignified living out of farming.
Farming in due course of time, will not only meet the aspirational goals of the farming citizens, but will also serve to benefit rural life and livelihoods. This could go a long way in attracting innovation, investment and energies in farming, reversing the tide of migration from villages to cities. Slowly but surely, the dream of rural transformation is taking shape.
Sanjay Joshie and Joystu Dutta
Programme Leader – Institution Building
Joystu Dutta Assistant Project Manager, Advocacy
I floor, Project Office, RCP, Ghansoli, Navi Mumbai- 400701