S. Maurya, P. R. Kumar, R. S. Pan, A. K. Singh, Bikash Das and B. P. Bhatt
This is a story of transformation of a tribal community from life of distress to life of prosperity – a journey from destitution to economic empowerment. With knowledge as power and collective action as their strength, these tribal women have paved their own way towards prosperity and empowerment.
The tribal communities belonging to eight villages in remote and dense forests in Jama and Dumka blocks of Dumka district, depended on crop cultivation and income generating activities for their livelihoods. Paddy cultivation in rainfed lowlands served as a source of rice for food and substrate for making Hanria– a locally brewed rice wine. Pulses like green gram, black gram, cowpea, red gram, horse gram and certain hardy oilseeds like sesamum, niger and rapeseed were grown as natural companion crops in paddy and vegetable crops. The traditional mixed cropping system ensured nutritional security to the households. Income was earned from selling vegetables, collecting and selling mahua flowers and lac collected from forests. Making plates from Tendu, Palash and Mahua leaves and selling them was their main economic activity.
Local communities grew only local traditional varieties of paddy and certain non-descript variety of cucurbitous vegetables like ash gourd, pumpkin, sponge gourd, ridge gourd etc. The area being untouched by any extension agency, local communities have been following age-old practices for crop cultivaiton. In 2009-10, National Agricultural Innovation Project (NAIP) initiated a programme to improve the livelihoods of the local tribal communities through agriculture interventions.
Farmers were first approached through gramsabha. It was observed that farmers had no experience in growing vegetable nurseries. They grew local varieties by direct planting on hills. By doing so, it restricted them to main season and the plants suffered from excessive rains, dry spells, frosts in winter etc. They were also not aware about off-season crops and off-season nursery. Hence, for the purpose of training, one community nursery was grown in each village. Nearly all farmers in their respective villages participated in the training programme as well as nursery raising activity. The setting up of community nursery served as their first training in collective agricultural undertaking. In addition to learning to lay and maintain a large common nursery, they also benefitted by using the seedlings for planting crops in their respective fields. By learning new methods, farmers were able to go for off season vegetable growing.
After paddy, communities also learnt to grow seedlings of tomato, brinjal, chillies and cucurbits in plastic trays in open as well as in polytunnel in the off-season. They sold the plants to growers in adjoining areas. This was their first commercial venture. Albeit small, it was an encouraging experience. An escalated income motivated communities to be ready and enthusiastic for further ventures.
Villagers were well aware about edible mushrooms growing wildly in forests. They used to collect it for home consumption and sell in nearby weekly market (Guhiajori, Dumka, BadaPalani and Karela markets) at Rs 80 to 100 per kg. However, the idea of cultivating mushrooms was new to them. With NAIP support, they eagerly learnt the skill of growing mushroom and gave it a maiden trial in their houses. The first batch itself found an easy market at their block town markets, i.e., Dumka, Guhiajori and Jamtara. Mushrooms were sold at Rs 120-140 a kg. From the first experience, they exuded enthusiasm and expressed willingness to scale up.
Consequently, about 700-800 farm women belonging to 10 villages were trained on mushroom cultivation. Day long trainings were carried out in each village. After the training, in the same year (2009-10) about 100-200 women started cultivating mushrooms. After one season only 50 women continued, as most of the farmers who were landless or with marginal holdings, could not afford the inputs needed and had to drop out. These households normally migrated after the rice season in search of wage labour. Around 20-25 families were convinced to stay back and necessary inputs for taking up mushroom farming was provided from the project.
In the beginning, women took up production individually in their homes and also marketed individually. After 1-2 production cycles, they continued to grow individually, but marketed collectively pooling their produce.
Moving towards collective initiative
From 2011 onwards they decided to combine their resources in order to produce mushrooms on a commercial scale. It was felt that expenditure could be minimized by collectivisation, for e.g., expenditure on preparing mushroom substrates obtaining spawn, on maintenance of substrate preparation yards and carrying mushroom to markets and arranging for final sale. Operational costs could be reduced by collectivizing the equipment and labour. In this case, instead of all farmers needing to make a growth chamber, one common chamber was sufficient for use by all the members of the group. Similarly, all of them did not need to maintain a store and bag filling yard, a common facility could be maintained for collective use. This saved space, capital and labour.
By organizing themselves into small (4-5 members) and large groups (16-20 members), often more than one in each village, the communities took up collective production and marketing. The first self help group was formed with the support of NAIP. Later many SHGs were formed to take up collective activities. Each individual was responsible for different activities -substrate preparation using locally available paddy straw; production and marketing. Training was provided on group management too.
NAIP programme supported their endeavor with regular supply of inputs like Spawn, Formaldehyde and Carbendazim(for sterilization of substrates), Master trays, plastic ropes, Polypropylene (PP) bags (for making of mushroom bags). Calcium carbonate was supplied when required. Since the activities were being under taken in thatched and mud houses, they were provided with Polyethylene (PE) sheet for covering the roof.
The average production of a group of 5 members is 40 kg of oyster and milky mushroom. Every partnering household consumed around 20-25% of the produce, while the rest was sold. An account of home consumption by every member was recorded in a note book and was deducted from their monthly dividends. The average annual household consumption of mushroom rose from 16 kg to 36 kg. Earlier, the communities were consuming mushrooms by collecting from the forests, restricted to monsoon season. But now, they are able to consume cultivated varieties, over a longer period of time.
By selling individually, farmers could reach only local markets, where the prices ranged between Rs 100 to 120 per kg. Also, by selling individually, certain expenditures like containers, transportation, imputed value of family labour added up, making it expensive. By pooling the produce and arranging to send it to a larger market, i.e., district markets of Dumka, Jamtara, Sahebganj, they could get better price of Rs 140-160 per kg and could reduce cost on logistics by about 80%. In 2010-11, the groups earned Rs. 1,40,000/- from selling mushroom.
The returns on mushroom sale are deposited in bank accounts of self help groups and used as revolving fund. They also lend some amount as need based loans to the members. Presently, the group procures 100 spawn packets, sufficient for preparing 300 cases per month. With market prices steadily increasing, the group is able to receive good returns. On an average, the group earns an income of Rs. 30,000/- per month.
Growing into a sustainable enterprise
Mushroom production as an enterprise has enhanced household nutritional security, provided gainful employment with income and arrested migration. With collective production and marketing, the tribal communities could experience multiple benefits, making it a win-win proposition for all.
NAIP played a pivotal role of inspiring these women farmers by exposure visits, demonstration programmes, hands-on trainings, providing backstopping support when they faced problems. After the closure of National Agriculture Innovation Project in 2011, the capacity building, hand holding and backstopping continued till 2014-2015. Some need based input support continued up to 2016-2017. Presently, the production is totally self dependent.
Besides earning good returns, the group members also transformed their working environment. They consolidated their infrastructure, renovated their substrate packing shade and storage facilities in the mushroom growing chambers. From the money earned from sale of mushroom, the SHGs have bought chaff-cutters to cut paddy straw. Today, they have ten chaff cutters in ten villages.
From being individual growers growing mushroom in their house and selling it in the local haat, these communities have grown into formal self help groups. Improved dwellings with concrete terraces and television in some homes are just a few examples of their increasing prosperity.
P. R. Kumar
Principal Scientist (Plant Breeding)
ICAR-Research Complex for Eastern Region, Research Centre
PO: Rajaulatu Plandu, Ranchi – 834010