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Becoming agents of change

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Becoming agents of change

Friday, 24 May 2019 | Swapna Majumdar

With more and more women taking up unconventional modules, they are making farming more productive and commercially viable

Harshada Zanje always yearned for a house of her own. But with her husband being the lone bread-winner in a household of nine members, she knew it would be difficult to move out of the two-room mud house in which they all lived. The small paddy field in their Vadan Zanje village in Pune district of Maharashtra was their only source of income and production was not enough to yield profits. But she didn’t give up on her dreams. One day, she saw a photo of a house in a nearby shop and liked it so much that she bought it. She kept the photo near her bedside, hoping against hope that one day she would have a similar house. When a chance meeting with voluntary organisations working in the area led her to plant marigolds, little did Zanje know that she was sowing the seeds of her dream. Early this year, two years after she began growing marigolds, Zanje moved into a pucca five-room house of her dreams.

In an area where farm incomes are dependent on the vagaries of climate, Zanje has shown that problems like water scarcity and undulating terrain can be overcome with hard work and some handholding and guidance. So good has been her yield that Zanje is now able to employ labour at the time the flowers need to be picked. It is no wonder that many other farmers, both women and men, have followed her example and begun growing marigolds. “They have all begun to dream like me. If I could do it, they, too, can increase their incomes and fulfil their hopes and wishes,” says Harshada.

But much of this would not have been possible had she not met members of CybageAsha, the Pune-based charitable trust and philanthropic arm of Cybage. The organisation, which was working to improve infrastructure in a few villages in Velhe cluster where Zanje lives, realised that in addition to the existing work, more needed to be done to address rural distress and that economic development and income security of the farming community could be accelerated through improved sources of livelihoods. “We also realised that one shoe would not fit all. It was important to tailor these livelihoods according to their needs while ensuring that empowerment of women remained an integral part of our intervention by giving equal economic opportunities,” says Ritu Nathani, head, CybageAsha.

So in 2017, CybageAsha, in collaboration with BAIF Institute for Sustainable Livelihoods and Development, conducted a study of the geographical conditions in 11 villages in Bhor and Velhe cluster in Pune district. An assessment of the climatic and soil conditions revealed that rainfall was unevenly distributed because of the angle of slope of the hilly topography in Velhe. This in turn affected the moisture content of the soil and rate of erosion. Since Velhe’s high degree of topographical slope had led to high soil erosion, growing marigolds was found to be an ideal option to counter this as it can be grown in a wide range of soils. It was also found that although marigolds were being grown here, it was not yielding enough benefits. Therefore, they decided to introduce the Kolkata variety of marigold instead of the Kapri variety traditionally grown here. Being far superior to the Kapri variety, the new variety would not only promote climate-resilient farming and help in natural resource management but boost incomes as well, revealed Pankaj Katte of BAIF.  

When these benefits and the need to switch to a more productive variety were discussed in village meetings with farmers as a way to improve incomes during lean times, Zanje was among the first to volunteer to a trial plot in her field. She understood that in comparison to the Kolkata variety, the Kapri marigolds not only had lower productivity but were less attractive and, therefore, had less market value. Zanje’s decision to take the risk of planting the new variety, despite initial opposition from her family, paid off when the first harvest of this trial plot showed that the size of the flower was five times bigger and its productivity was four times more. This led Zanje to plant marigolds in her entire field and her first harvest yielded 150 kg and a profit of Rs 15,000.

Interestingly, 60-year-old Hirabai, the mother-in-law of Zanje’s sister-in-law, who worked alongside Zanje during harvesting, has also been inspired by her success. Having learnt from Zanje that she could adopt a new technique to overcome water scarcity and the uneven topography in her village, Hirabai has taken to wadi or tree farming. This form of farming helps convert unproductive waste lands into productive mango and jamun-growing plots. Although CybageAsha and BAIF don’t work in her village, Hirabai has planted mango trees in her barren patch after hearing about wadi farming from Zanje. Clearly, women like Zanje are the cornerstone of the intervention. Not only has she fulfilled her dream but is helping others to do so. “Our aim is to help farmers, especially women, transform their lives. As partners in sustainable development, together we are bringing change,” says Nathani.

(The writer is a senior journalist)

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