The Kerala State Poverty Eradication Mission that started the Kudumbashree movement in 2000 has been lauded for opening avenues to poor women for economic independence. The movement that focused on innovative projects such as computer education and manufacture of healthcare products, has also opened up farming - hitherto considered a male domain - for some women.
The foray of women into this territory was not received well initially. There were many skeptics and several supporters thought it an unwise decision. But the Apsara Self-Help Group in Odakkali (Ernakulam district) has proved detractors and doubters wrong. The group - a collective of 18 women when it began - has increased its produce over the years, both in quantity and variety, and has purchased the land that it had leased when the project began.
"We thought of various options before deciding on farming,' reveals Valsa Saju, one of the members of the group. "Making pickle and curry powder - normally associated with women's groups - were initially discussed. But we wanted to do something that was easier to market and at the same time of use to us at home."
Then someone suggested farming. It sounded attractive because Odakkali, a predominantly farmers' village, had plenty of paddy fields that were lying unused for years. Agriculture had become unprofitable for the landowners because they found the steep wages for farm workers uneconomical compared to the returns. Secondly, the local market was close by, and the members could sell the paddy there directly. Thirdly, and significantly, it ensured that the members always had some rice that they could use at home.
The group had begun saving six months prior to starting the project. Each person contributed a minimum of Rs.10 (US$1=Rs45) per week. When the project was to begin, as per rules, five per cent of the total cost was to be borne by the beneficiaries, 45 per cent was given by the government and the remaining 50 per cent was covered by a bank loan.
Since farming involves various stages spread over time, the members did not have to borrow all the money at one go, recollects Sobhana Balakrishnan, who assumed the leadership role as she was the area development society secretary then. In two years, they repaid what they had borrowed from the bank and thus earned its trust.
First, the women got in touch with a local landowner who agreed to lease two acres of his land to the enterprising women. They began to grow paddy on the leased land in March 2002. In the process, they learned many new lessons. "We knew that wages had played a crucial role in breaking the backbone of paddy farming in the state. So we decided to do all the related activities ourselves,' Sali Kuriakose says. They were also helped by officials of the state department for agriculture, who gave them expert advice. Tips were given by the panchayat (village council) as well.
Paddy is the hardest crop to grow, says Valsa. "The soil has to be loosened thoroughly and the saplings planted in a particular order. Once cut, the cluster has to be beaten to separate the grain. Pesticide has to be sprayed and the boundaries of each small square of the field that holds the paddy has to be strengthened," she says.
"Men work from 8 am to 1 pm doing these jobs for a daily wage of Rs 150. If we employed them, all that we earned would have gone to pay their wages,' says Sali. So they divided themselves into two groups of nine people each and spent five days on each of these tasks. In addition to this was the readying of the field for the next crop, which requires extensive cleaning and de-weeding. "We would leave home in the morning around 9 after sending the children to school and husbands to their workplaces. And most days we returned only after 5 pm,' she recalls.
"For our first crop, we spent only about Rs 5,000 because we did everything on our own,' says Balakrishnan. Two years after harvesting their first crop, the women collected all the profit they had earned, got a Rs 10,000 grant from the panchayat, took a fresh loan from the bank and bought a small paddy field.
What started on two acres of land has increased to five acres now. The women now have three crops of paddy in a year. Additionally, beans, bitter gourd, yam, plantain, turmeric, tapioca and cucumber are grown here. About 10 to15 per cent of the crop is used by the women themselves for domestic consumption and the rest is sold. And due to the sheer variety of what they produce, very few vegetables need to be bought from the market for consumption. "Sometimes we ourselves take the produce to the market. On other occasions, people come and buy in bulk, part of which is also exported,' says Kuriakose.
The buyers are also happy with what they get. Thomas Chacko, a tapioca buyer attached to the local market, says the women are honest and reliable. "I have found many male farmers to be dishonest. They try to increase the weight of their produce by rubbing them in mud or sprinkling with water. But with this group there is no such problem,' he says.
What have the women achieved in the process? "Our greatest achievement is self-respect," chime the women in unison. "We did not go out alone previously. But now we go to the bank and operate the account on our own, take the produce to the market...,' says Thankamma Madhavan, who is in her late 50s.
Their economic status has improved vastly. "Though we can't boast of huge bank balances, all the members have some savings now. Many of us have bought gadgets like food processors, while some others have bought gold jewellery. Some of us used firewood for cooking; we have now shifted to LPG, thanks to our savings. We have Rs 42,000 in our savings account now,' she adds.
The group now has 16 members, as one member has died and another has moved out of the locality. Fifteen of these women are below the poverty line. The group now wants to branch into other related areas as well. ``We are thinking of buying some cattle,' says Valsa, "so that we can leave them for grazing while going to the fields. Several by-products of our farming, such as hay, can be given to the cattle as fodder. Milk can be sold too,' she concludes.
After tasting success in the field, they certainly are looking at greener pastures.