Kakoli Satra, Malti Das and Anima Samata had shared the same dream for many years - to be able to cultivate their own food so that they can escape the clutches of poverty and hunger one day. But the back-breaking hardships they faced in their remote village of Machgeria in West Bengal had never let them think beyond their immediate responsibilities of managing a large family and making ends meet. Kakoli, 39, supports four children, Malti provides for three daughters, while Anima, 33, has a 15-year-old daughter. So, dreaming big or hoping for a radical change in these circumstances was not even a remote possibility. Not until the Machgeria women's group - of which the three are a part - decided to turn this impossible vision into a reality.
It was at the behest of their husbands that 15 village housewives got together in January last year and formed a self-help group. They bonded well, had a common dream and decided to get cracking. Their first step was to register themselves as a cooperative society - the Machgeria Debkul Sammita – which they did in a month’s time. Next, they identified a one-acre piece of land in the village that had been left fallow - the owners were not using it for cultivation. In order to acquire it on lease for one year they needed money. So they approached the panchayat (village council) for a loan of Rs 17,000 under the Jibika Prashikshan Sahayak scheme, which is part of the state government's Strengthening of Rural Decentralisation (SRD) programme. "It was a great support, or else we would not have been in a position to lease out the land. We had no capital at that time," recalls Namita Maity, a member of the group. The state department for panchayati raj and rural development has partnered with the DFID (Department for International Development, UK) and formulated the SRD programme that is promoting the Jibika Sahayak prashikshan scheme for the economic development of the rural population.
With the land in hand, the next question was this: What should they cultivate? Having worked as daily wage farm labourers - even if it was only to help their husbands - the women were not strangers to tilling and ploughing. Yet, they could not choose paddy cultivation because that required more physical labour. So they decided to grow vegetables primarily, with fruits such as papaya and guava sown on the ridges so that the soil keeps healthy. "We thought vegetables were easier and with vegetable prices only rising by the day, the demand would always grow," explains Kalpana Chakraborty, who is part of the enterprising team.
The first time they concentrated on seasonal produce like potato, cauliflower, cabbage and brinjal, so that the crop would be ready for harvest quickly. This enabled them to begin the cultivation cycle once again.
But the idea was to have an integrated farm - that would include dairy, poultry and fish - and, therefore, their next task was cut out for them. They hired their husbands to dig a pond on the land. "We hired them as labour because we didn't know the technique of digging a pond. Besides being our source of assured and adequate water supply, the pond is also where we breed fish," says Kakoli. It takes six weeks for the fish to mature to its full size, and these are subsequently sold off in the local market. Says Anima, "We resist taking the smaller fish for our own consumption. We are 15 of us and know it will be difficult to distribute the fish equally. So we wait for them to become bigger and then sell them off for a good price in the market."
In fact, it was the money earned from the sale of fish that enabled the group to take their next step: Buy a cow. "We started with one and now we have six. The milk from four cows is sold to the nearby milk farms at Rs 13 a kilo," explains a proud Malti. The women have bought Jersey cows from the local village 'haat' (market) because they breed faster and can yield close to five to six litres of milk a day. The cows have newly constructed sheds and there is enough fodder generated from the farm to feed them.
Today, the Machgeria Debkul Sammita cooperative society’s farm is only six months old but the women already have an impressive list of achievements. And because they have been successful in establishing themselves as a profitable cooperative agriculture enterprise, the village 'panchayat' has decided to support the farm under the SRD programme. Says Prahlad Chandra Sasmat, the Pradhan (Head) of Sarberia Gram Panchayat, "It is a great project in terms of economic development for the entire village. And imagine, those working on this farm were once full-time housewives."
Certainly not ones to disappoint their supporters, the women are already expanding the farm rapidly. Besides cows, now chicken, duck, tortoise and goats are being reared here. Keeping in mind the farm's self sustaining goal, the women recycle cow dung and other wastes generated along with vermi-compost to make fertiliser that is utilised in the garden. It takes about three months before a batch is ready for use. While the vegetables are sold in the market, the goats are sold for mutton. "Since we sell the vegetables and poultry to middle men in the village market we know that we are paid less than the market price. But they come and collect the produce directly from our homes so it is okay for now," says Kakoli. Of course, next season they are planning to sow paddy as the land is just perfect for it.
To run an expanding farm, besides taking care of the home, family and children, is no mean feat. But the women have established a system that works best for them. They work in shifts and have even made proper duty rosters. Two women work in the fields every two hours. And two are selected to dutifully guard the farm at night to ensure that the cattle don't accidentally stray into the garden and that nothing is stolen.
"To me, this seems to be a worthwhile way to support a family that, just a few months ago, was entirely dependent on the uncertain daily wages of the man of the house. Now seeing our food grow in front of our own eyes has given me the confidence of survival," says Anima.
In a village where the average annual income of a household does not exceed Rs 35,000, these women have really done well. Reveals Kalpana Panja, "We are expecting a yearly yield amounting to Rs 20,000 for each of us after paying all our liabilities."
Not in their wildest dreams would Kakoli, Malti, Anima and their friends have ever imagined this kind of economic stability. Their success has also taken the local administration by surprise. "We were not sure of the potential of the project until we saw the sincerity of these women. Now we are finding opportunities of employment generation and economic sustainability in other remote villages too," says Ashish Kumar Pundit, the state coordinator of the SRD programme.
At a time when the Industry versus Agriculture debate is raging, this small initiative heralded by village women has created a new enthusiasm for agriculture in the region. "The demand for food will never die down, so why not try to produce food for our own families and for others too?" asks Kakoli.
By arrangement with WFS