Strength In The Collective

Strength In The Collective

By Bipasha Majumder

Women at HARC’s Kaleshwar Collection Centre (Image: Bipasha M)

A case story which shows why it’s necessary to develop and strengthen community driven and owned livelihood models for economic security. 

The men-farmers in the village were dressed in jeans, so were the youth who even spoke a smattering of English. But much to my happy surprise, they stated that they wanted to stay in their village and continue farming. Considered the poorer cousin of Kumaon, in the Garhwal region of Uttarakhand, men, and youth involved in farming is almost a rare sight these days. Migration of able-bodied men for better livelihood options has reached an epic proportion where now most villages are populated by only women and elders. With increasing climatic variations and rising population, the traditional livelihood of agriculture and livestock rearing is also becoming economically unviable. In such a scenario, the men and women farmers of the village of Naini in Uttarkashi not only buck the social trend but also prove that agriculture can be viable despite climatic changes.

For the past few decades, the socio-economic situation in Garhwal has continued to be peculiar and messy. Being largely small-holder farmers with segmented land holdings and dependent on the natural weather system for a good yield, the communities here have lived a basic subsistence-based life. With not many opportunities for economic advancements in the hilly region, men started to move out in search of jobs. As climatic variations increased over the years (as per people’s perception, the last 5-6 years have been particularly bad), people are finding it difficult to continue farming. Soil erosion, erratic rainfall, lack of winter precipitation, an increase in pests, acute shortage of water, unseasonal hail etc. have led to a drastic decrease in yield, where farmers have given up farming in their upraon (non-irrigated) land altogether. Large-scale deforestation has led to an increase in human-wildlife conflict with wild boars and monkeys destroying any standing crop.

Uttarakhand has seen lop-sided economic growth with districts in the plains seeing a massive spurt in urbanisation, development and opportunities while access to even technology, healthcare etc. barely available in the hilly regions. All these factors have fuelled migration which has now become cyclic with others leaving as more opportunities open up in cities in the plains. As a result, feminisation of agriculture has increased with women who are left behind mostly managing their limited fields.

Recognising this trend many years ago, Himalayan Action Research Centre (Dehradun) decided to reverse the trend by involving women farmers in making agriculture and agri-allied activities not only profitable and but also sustainable. Using their own research centre, they have developed low-cost, eco-friendly scientific techniques for improved farming like line sowing, seed treatment, pheromone trapping, poly tunnels for nursery making, wire stacking etc. and new varieties of crops and vegetables using tissue culture which can help produce better yield in the changing climatic conditions. HARC has helped farmers of Naini and other villages in Uttarkashi and Chamoli districts diversify into high-value commercial crops including floriculture and horticulture. The crop and livelihood diversification was undertaken on the basis of the the requirement of the people as well as keeping the local bio-diversity in mind. So in Uttarkashi, vegetables like broccoli, cucumber, millets and kidney beans, and flowers like Lilium and Chrysanthemum were introduced while in Chamoli, farmers diversified into wild mangoes, amla, tulsi, garlic etc. At a time when seasons are erratic, diversification has helped farmers grow crops throughout the year. A single harvest of Lilium in Naini village has helped farmers earn as much as Rs.1 lakh from a farmland of only 4-5 nalli. Here farmers continue to farm in both their irrigated and non-irrigated lands.

HARC’s Chamoli value chain model (Source: www.bioone.org)
HARC’s Chamoli value chain model (Source: www.bioone.org)

But what makes the livelihood model of HARC such a roaring success is their community-based, owned and managed value-chain system of SHGs (Self-Help Groups), Co-operatives and Federations which have helped the farmers get the best price in the market and their local micro-enterprise profitable. Groups of women form SHGs who are then trained in farming techniques, production management skills, banking and accessing loans, and provided information on various government schemes. Co-operatives managed entirely by women representatives and having annual strategies, objectives and Board of Directors procure raw materials from the SHGs, process, package and brand the products at the Collection Centre, and supply them to the market. Farmer’s Federations owned by both men and women farmers also help in procuring crops, vegetables and fruits from farmers and selling them directly either to the market or to the local co-operative after grading and sorting. All these community-managed institutions are linked with banks which help women save money, and have easy access to loans for their personal use as well as for their business.

With HARC’s support, villages across Chamoli started with a Malta orange value-chain, a fruit which is available in abundance locally. Due to their huge success, they have now diversified into various products like Bael, Amla fruit juices, pickles, beauty products and varieties of Tulsi teas. Their current annual turnover is approximately Rs.30 lakhs which they plan to scale up to Rs.1 crore this year. One of their top selling products – the highly refreshing Switch On Tulsi Green Tea – is poised for an entry into international markets. In Uttarkashi, a tie-up with Mother Dairy has helped the farmers supply vegetables throughout the year.

The efforts of HARC over the past two decades have resulted in many positives for communities in Garhwal. Agriculture and farm-related activities have become not only economically viable but highly profitable. Farmers (both men and women) have developed a huge interest in agriculture and allied activities. As one farmer in the village of Mulana, Uttarkashi, mentioned that they did not really know or understand farming before HARC taught them the techniques. Like the village of Naini, there is less or nil migration from these villages, farmers are more aware and better organised, and women farmers have not only gained economic empowerment but also improved their confidence, leadership skills and social mobility within their communities.

One key aspect of this model however, is the collective effort and participation, and community ownership without which these local-level micro-enterprises could not have been successful.

Bipasha MajumderBipasha Majumder shifted to the social sector after working in advertising and media for a decade. She loves traveling to the grassroot, talking to the communities, understanding their issues first hand and writing about her experiences. Currently she works as a communication consultant for various NGOs and CSR projects.