Revolutionising Lives Through Sustainable Organic Farming

Gandhora, Osmanabad district, Maharashtra

Context

The Marathwada region of Maharashtra is not just strapped for resources but also highly prone to drought. The eight districts of Maharashtra that fall in the Marathwada region are among the 100 poorest districts of India. Lack of rain, unpredictable weather conditions and little to no conservation methods in place to manage water resources have added to the hardships of the communities living here.

For the inhabitants of Gandhora in the Osmanabad District of Maharashtra, water scarcity had become a way of life in the last five years. Climate change, coupled with a systemic neglect of traditional water conservation practices, had resulted in perennial drought. For the pre-dominantly agrarian community of Gandhora, it became difficult to eke out a single kharif crop. As a result, there was critical lack of fodder for the livestock as well.

The shift from food crops like sorghum and millet to water-intensive sugarcane and other cash crops that took place in Gandhora began over ten years ago. Lured by the high returns yielded by cultivating sugarcane, the farmers traded in their food crops. What they did not realize was that a hectare of sugarcane consumes 70,000 liters of water per day, which is equivalent to the daily requirement of 3,000 people. The sugar factories that fueled the need for sugarcane in the region, apart from using up water resources, also contributed to severe water pollution. The result was a drastic drop in the water table across Osmanabad district by over an average of six meters over the last five years.

As a result, Gandhora’s villagers began to face acute drinking water shortages. There was also little water left to irrigate their crops or for their livestock. About 90% of the community was forced by the acute water scarcity to abandon cash crop cultivation, which drastically impacted their incomes and quality of life. The dehydrated land, stripped off its nutrients and polluted by the excessive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, had also hardened to the point of being useless for cultivation. Livestock perished to hunger and disease. The government intervention to improve the plight of these unlucky farmers was scattered and temporary. The aid focus was largely on drought relief measures like supplying drinking water at sporadic intervals and setting up an animal shelter. There was no attempt made to initiate policy-level changes or look at long-term solutions towards building community resilience.

The Community Disaster Resilience Journey

Nine SHGs were already active in Gandhora but their focus had been largely on small savings and providing loans to its members. The Women’s Federation and SSP spearheaded the formation of Krishi Mahila Mandal (KMM) in 2010 with 25 members. They mobilized women and conducted vulnerability mapping trainings within 20 villages to identify the key issues with respect to agriculture, livelihoods, environment and livestock. The trainers returned to work with the community in partnership with the PRIs and helped the women to take the Sarpanch, Gram Panchayat, ward members and village elders into confidence. Together, they mapped vulnerable areas and village resources.

 “Our Gram Panchayat was not supportive in the beginning due to lack of confidence in our skills and leadership. However, when we started identifying issues through various activities and met government officials many times in a group and demanded more information, training, support schemes to sustain our activities, the Gram Panchayat started recognizing us. After doing mapping, we realized what is the problem in our village and how could we address it.” — Anita Kulkarni

Building Partnerships

SSP facilitated the partnership of women’s groups with a Krishi Vigyan Kendra (KVK) in neighbouring Tuljapur, block and district agricultural offices and Parbani University. KVK trained 50 women’s groups in six villages on a myriad of activities ranging from organic seed processing, land preparation, soil testing, production of organic compost, pest control and selection and timing for seed sowing to marketing their products. In another training conducted by KVK, twenty-five women farmers from ten villages were taught about internal mulching, the use of water and the selection of seeds according to the land quality. In all, more than 150 women were trained in soil testing, 20 in organic composting, 100 in local seed preparation and more than 100 women were given exposure to inter-crop/mixed crop cultivation.

The KMM also partnered with NABARD and ATMA (Agriculture Technology Management Authority) on organic farming-related initiatives. This association led to creative initiatives like information melas for farmers and facilitation of group exposure visits.

It was difficult in the beginning to convince our family and community about these agriculture practices. Our husbands were focused on cash crops even though there was no water. There was no trust or self-confidence within the community. Women hardly ventured out and we did not know how to take decisions. All these years our community leaders and husbands were making all the decisions and plans.”

Efforts were taken to recharge water bodies in partnership with the Gram Panchayat and a three km-long water pipeline was created. Around 110 wells were constructed in this manner and recharged under the MNREGA scheme. Soil extracted from four ponds not only helped in deepening the water source but was also used to enrich more than 750 acres of farming land.

Women also turned their collective attention towards the health and sanitation issues faced by the community. They accessed the MNREGA scheme in collaboration with the Panchayat and built as many as 215 toilets. They also ensured that there were regular visits by doctors to the local Primary Health Centre. These measures, along with the consumption of nutritious organic food, improved the overall health of the community, bringing down hospital visits and expenditure on health.

Impact of Community Disaster Resilience Initiatives

The Women’s Federation took charge of verifying community proposals and identified those members with the highest potential to sustain and replicate these initiatives in other areas. SSP lent its support via the Innovation Fund, which amounted to a substantial INR 1 lakh to translate their ideas into action. The women had complete control over their funds and their key focus was low-input based agriculture, multiple cropping with water efficient varieties and the preparation of seeds to reduce the overall cost of production. Subsequently, thirty women, of which four were landless and had leased land for cultivation, began organic vegetable cultivation in selected areas of their land.

Initially, women cultivated water-efficient crops like Toor, Urid, Soya and Moong on small, halfacre plots of their family land. However, they soon began expanding their area of cultivation to two acres. Those who were landless leased land in their names from big farmers and initiated collective farming. They also adopted mixed cropping, which increased the yield for both crops. There was enough for both their own consumption and retail in the local market. Thus, the women managed to raise their incomes significantly by about 25%. The women also managed to secure drip irrigation sprinklers and other equipment for subsidized rates from the government. This further improved water management and minimized consumption.

The training in local seed production from KVK inspired around 100 households to begin germinating their own seeds over 200 acres of land. This resulted in huge savings as seed prices had gone up as much as three times in the preceding few years. Optimum utilization of water, organic and collective farming and methods adopted to enrich the barren lands also bore fruit within a couple of years. The cost of cultivation per acre decreased from INR 10,000 to INR 7000. Additional training on sales and marketing strategies gave the women farmers greater confidence to take their products to the local markets.

We were using chemicals earlier and it damaged our soil and environment. We came to know about the bad practice of using chemicals and fertilizers after joining Krishi Mahila Mandal and received training. We are now converting agriculture waste to bio-compost.” – Anita Kulkarni

In the last three years (2011-2012), as many as 12 learning exchanges occurred across Maharashtra, Bihar, and Tamil Nadu, in which over 300 women participated to transfer best practice stories. Fifty women leaders from four states took part in a conference in Bihar that proved to be a big morale booster. The woman leaders were also instrumental in sharing their learnings in 40 villages across Osmanabad and Nanded in Maharashtra.

To address water scarcity and lack of quality food, conversion of cash crops to food crop was a big change in our life. We have convinced our husbands and community by doing it and showing good results in organic farming. Now our family also converted from cash crops to food crops and sugarcane remains only on 10% of land.”

The most significant outcome of these initiatives has been the growth of self-esteem and confidence among women members. They began believing in their abilities to make a difference to their own lives and their community’s all-around development. Today, women are at the core of various village development committees and proactively take the lead in meetings and Gram Sabhas to monitor the local health, education and water agendas of the village.

For any issues in the village, now the Gram Panchayat approaches us for our ideas and suggestions.” Damyanti Bosale

Future Plans: The women’s group looks forward to greater access to technology, growing collective farming and replicating similar initiatives in the state. The next actions on their wish list are starting a dal mill and setting up a company to sell their produce directly to the market. They also hope to develop more community leaders with expertise in building community resilience.

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