There are some who believe in going with the flow and there are others who take the road less travelled. To mark the International Women’s Day, BISWAJEET BANERJEE brings you one such story of a rebel who brushed aside toughest of circumstances to eke out a living
It was October. Economic activities have started. The hum of the machines in factories is back all across the country. There was a sense of hope. Amid this euphoria many migrant labourers in a nondescript village of Nibi, in the rugged Banda district in Bundelkhand, decided not to go back to factories in Vapi in Gujarat. They were working in a cloth factory before lockdown was announced and had returned home during lockdown. Phula Devi, one of them, decided to stay back in her village. The agony and humiliation which she and her family faced during lockdown was fresh in her memory.
She communicated her decision to the women of the group who had returned with her to the village. “My resolve was to stay back and try to earn my living in my own village. I was not ready to face the humiliation yet again of being treated as an outsider. There was a fear that if anything ‘bad’ happens it will push the family to the brink of starvation yet again,” she told this reporter in her village compound which was surrounded by other women, men and small children.
She had no idea what she would do. She was a landless farmer. Majority of the villagers who had shifted to Vaapi with her were landless too and were forced to move out of the village to eke out their earning because of the deprivation they faced in the village.
The Covid pandemic and the subsequent lockdown announced to arrest the spread of Coronavirus pushed them to the same crossroads of deprivation. The factory was closed in March. Devi along with around two dozen village-mates including relatives, who were working as labourers, preferred to stay put with a hope that the situation will improve and they will find work in the city.
The situation deteriorated with every passing day. The owner of the factory refused to help them. He even did not pay Rs 8000 as a salary which was due saying he does not have money. They were then forced to dig deep into their savings. When the Gujarat Government announced relief, they were treated as outsiders and were deprived of the Government benefits. Once they exhausted their savings they were left with no option but to return to their village.
It was last week of June. With no money in their pockets they decided to walk down over 1300 km distance on foot from Vaapi to Banda. They were a group of 19 people including five children. For a day and a half they walked braving scorching sun. They tried to hitch a ride but the truck drivers asked exorbitant fare of Rs 3,000 per person. They preferred to walk. They survived on the food and water which some NGOs provided them en route.
They reached Nashik where they got a train that brought them to Jhansi and from there they came to Banda.
“It was a second life for us. We fought hunger, frustration and exhaustion to reach our village so that we can live again. And when people started talking about going back after the situation improved, old images started flashing in my mind and I decided not to leave the village again,” Devi tells you.
Her friend Kusuma too agreed to stay back. But the big question staring at their face was what will they do in the village as there are not enough employment opportunities there. The construction work in the village and adjoining Attarra block was limited. The work under Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) was not easily available. The villagers complained that the Pradhan of the Gram Sabha, who is from upper caste, ignored the residents of the Nibi village because majority of them were from the dalit community.
The social barriers which are well defined by caste, proved an impediment in Devi’s entrepreneurial dream. The majority of the farmers were landless and belonged to marginalised communities. The village is dominated by upper caste, followed by backward and intermediary caste people. They have the ownership of the majority of the land. The dalits, who like Hindu caste hierarchy, are at the bottom of the resources available in the village.
The gram sabha record shows that the village has around 400 households that share 1500 hectare of agricultural land between them. The ownership of land is very skewed. The record says that 15 per cent of the population (which is around 60 households) owns around 60 per cent (around 900 hectares) of land. These are all upper caste people.
There are 140 households of the Backward Community who own almost 600 hectare of land. The rest of the households are dalits and they are landless.
Interestingly, Jai Kumar Chaturvedi owns around 100 hectare of land in that village which they give to the landless farmers of the village on sharecropping. In rural India share cropping is a common practice where a landless villager takes the land for tillage for a year on an agreed term and after harvest both can share the crop. In UP the process in local parlance is called ‘Batohi’.
Devi decided to go for farming. “Initially, surviving was not an issue. We got a free ration from the Yogi Government and once got Rs 1,000 too. Then the local NGO Vidya Dham Samiti provided us help as and when required and so we decided to take this risk,” she tells you.
As they did not have land she decided to take one on batohi. “It was a risk worth taking. I know the area is water scarce but this is also a fact that during good monsoon we can have bumper crops here,” she explains.
She met Raman Chaturvedi, son of Jai Kumar Chaturvedi and asked for a piece of land where they can do farming. “He looked at us with disbelief because previously we were not in talking terms. ‘Hamara jhagda ho gaya tha’ (we had quarreled),” she tells you sheepishly.
Chaturvedi was perplexed when he saw a group of women come one fine morning and ask land for sharecropping. “I was a bit surprised because it is generally men who come to us to discuss the terms and conditions of share cropping. But when I was told these women who are pravasi mazdoor want to stay back in the village, we decided to give a small portion of land to them,” he tells you.
Raman agreed to give six bigha of land on a 50-50 sharing basis, thus meaning that he will share the cost of agriculture input and will take 50 per cent of the grain produced.
The word spread in the village like fire that Devi was planning farming. Other women like Vimla, Koiri, Murri and Kusuma too joined her. Devi went around the village advising women of the migrant families, who were planning to go back to Vaapi, to stay back. “We had faith in Phula. We had seen the worst in Vaapi and were ready to give new resolve shown by Phula a try,” Murri Devi tells you.
Rajani nods her head in affirmation. “I and my husband had made up our minds to go back and work in a factory. We postponed our visit for a few days to see how things shape up in the village. It is three months since then and have decided to stay back,” she tells you with a smile.
The initial skepticism turned to self belief when villagers saw Devi and Kusuma working in fields. Devi sowed wheat and vegetables while Kusuma opted for vegetables. In between the words spread about the death of Ram Dayal, a villager from Nibi, in Vaapi and how the contractor forced his wife and son to work in the factory to repay a loan Dayal had taken from him.
Slowly the courtyard of Devi’s house became the meeting point for the villagers. Women used to come and sit with Phula discussing the nitty-gritty of farming. This all started with whisper but soon the women became vocal and the resolve to stay back started gathering momentum.
“I am illiterate. I don’t know anything about farming. Initially, I was a labourer and then when I was shifted to Vaapi my work was to sift soiled cloth pieces from fresh ones. So, my knowledge about farming was almost zero,” she says.
Her relative Raju came to her rescue. He provided all the basic information like which seed and fertilizer to use and when. Fortunately, the rains were normal and it came as a big relief.
The heads started turning when Kusuma had a good harvest of vegetables like cabbage, potato, cauliflower and other seasonal vegetables. She opened a small makeshift shop inside her house and sold vegetables. “I earn anything between Rs 125 and Rs 150 per day. Some days, I even earned close to Rs 250,” Kusuma tells you with a smile.
Kusuma, with her husband, Shiv Avtaar, have even repaired a defunct well near the field which they had taken for batohi. “Irrigation is not a big issue now for us as we get water from the well which has been neglected for many decades,” Avtaar says.
More and more women are now ready to take farming. “Phula motivated us. Kusuma showed us the way and now we have dropped the idea of going back to the factory,” Koili says. Many in the group nodded in unison as a mark of confirmation of what Koili said.
The women of this non-descript village have become entrepreneurial. When they realized individually they do not have enough money, they joined hands to do farming. Four friends — Phula, Bimla, Koili and Murri — have entered into their own contract farming where they will share the agricultural input as well as the profit.
All of them have chipped in with Rs 3,000 each and the money collected is used for irrigation, seeds and fertilizers. They have grown varieties of vegetables, onion and wheat. “We will give half of the crop to the land owner and share the rest among ourselves. This will be enough for us,” Bimla tells you.
The words have spread around that women in Nibi village have brought a revolution. Around 20 families, all pravasi mazdoor, have not gone back despite a call from thekedar (contractor). Even people in a village Bhujyari purwan, around 20 kms from Nibi, narrate how some have brought a social change in the village. “We have heard that some women in nearby villages have opted for farming rather than going back to work in factories. People are talking about the revolution brewing in the villages of Attara,” Vinod Singh, a resident of Bhujyari Purwan said.
Singh, in his early 20s, is also a land owner and gives their land on sharecropping. “Now in villages too women are coming forward and taking decisions themselves,” he says in a sarcastic tone.
“Generally, at this time of the year padlocks could be seen at doors and a deadly silence drapes the Nibi village. This year it is different. The sounds of laughter, cries and chatter emanates from all the houses because the villagers have stayed back. Thanks to the women, life is back in the villages,” Raja Bhaiya of Vidya Dham samiti, an NGO that works in the region, says.
Lending a hand
The decision women took to stay back in the village after unlock was not easy. They needed support from the Government and the local society at every step. The local NGO Vidya Dham Samiti came to their rescue.
“We were there just as a support group. The Vidya Dham Samiti (VDS) extended all possible help including the technical know-how and sometimes we helped these women with money. But the credit goes to these women who showed a resolve to fight back adversities and turned the crisis into an opportunity,” Raja Bhaiya of VDS tells you.
The Samiti works with the marginalised section of the society in Banda and adjoining regions.
Raja Bhaiya tells you that he has seen the plight of migrant workers during lockdown. They came back to villages empty stomach and practically had nothing with them. “Condition of Phula and her relatives was no different. Our Samiti helped them initially and later supported them when they decided to stay back despite getting calls from the factory,” he says.
Regular meetings are held between Samiti members and villagers. “I saw the seeds of women empowerment sowing in the adverse condition of Covid pandemic. These women were coming out of the shadow of their husbands. We allowed these women to spread their wings and now the result is for everyone to see,” Raja Bhaiya tells you.
Fighting water woes
The decision to opt for farming was not easy for the women. The primary reason being the region is water scarce. So, when Kusuma opted to grow vegetables the first thought that came to her mind was from where to get water for irrigation.
This time her caste came to her rescue. Being a dalit her house was at the corner of the village. There was a well at one corner of the field which was lying defunct for many years. The well was built by upper caste people of the village but they stopped using it after they installed pumps in their houses.
“This well was in very bad shape. One day sitting at the base of the well my husband and I discussed if we can install a pump then withdrawing water from the well would be easy. This way we will be able to solve the irrigation problem too,” Kusuma tells you.
Initially, the husband-wife duo had used a bucket to pull water and then irrigated the vegetable with a mug. This was a tedious and time consuming job.
Shiv Avtaar, husband of Kusuma, had a little bit of knowledge of machines as he had helped electricians in the factory in Vapi. They took a little loan from a private moneylender and installed a pump.
“The water problem is solved to a large extent. After success in the vegetable business I am looking for diversification. My husband is looking for avenues in fisheries and poultry,” she tells you.