By Pravin Mitkar:
During my stay in Odisha, I got a deep insight into the ways of tribal farmers in the region. Since their villages are situated deep in the interiors of the forest and the markets are far away, conditions are rife for ‘middlemen’ to procure produce at throwaway prices, and then resell it for a substantial profit. The tribal people I encountered are generally polite, and negotiation is not their strong point. From what I could tell, despite their best efforts, the farmers are unable to derive maximum returns for themselves. Yet, I felt there was great potential to change all this.
I was here on a 13-month SBI Youth for India fellowship and was assigned to Gram Vikas, an NGO that empowers rural communities. As part of my project, I began working closely with 500 wadi (meaning ‘small orchard’ in Gujarati) farmers in the Jagannath Prasad block. These farmers were cultivating produce under NABARD’s Wadi scheme, a tree-based farming system used for tribal development. A typical wadi is an acre of land where mango and cashew are grown, with inter-cropping of brinjals and lentils.
The volumes of produce across the wadis were huge. The solution lay in uniting farmers under the umbrella of a ‘farmer producer company’, a legal institution where members must be the persons actually engaged in the activity (in this case farming). It would enable them to have more ‘bargaining power’ while the sheer volumes of their produce would bring the market to them, not vice versa.
Convincing farmers and winning their trust was the first step. So, I began visiting all interior villages under the wadi scheme. This was not easy due to poor road connectivity, lack of electricity supply and mobile network.
We conducted several general body meetings with farmers and democratically elected 10 board members. Training was also a key focus. The board members underwent training by NABARD on how to manage an FPO (Farmers Producers Organisation), and some were also sent to ‘Yuva Mitra’ in Nashik to understand the latest farming techniques. We also established a collaboration with SVA (Sahabhagya Vikas Abhiyaan) for technical guidance to the farmers. Additionally, the Horticulture department of Jagannath Prasad block provided training on good horticulture practices. Collection of membership fees of INR 100 and completion of registration formalities was also started. Since we learnt that most farmers had ID proofs but no Pan Cards, we also got the Pan Card formalities done.
After consultation with all the village representatives, the company was finally named Prakruti Bandhu Farmers Producers Company (Prakruti Bandhu means ‘nature’s friend’ in Odiya). A CEO was appointed and the company was registered.
And now, for the upcoming harvest season, the company will create direct market linkage with retail channels. Once the channels are built and profit starts coming in, the company can plan for value addition of their produce, especially setting up of their own cashew processing plant.
Since the wadi scheme has been in the region for only the past three years, most farmers had a limited knowledge of farming. Due to lack of motivation and skill sets the wadi land was not being utilised efficiently. But once the FPC set-up kicked off and regular meetings were conducted, a sense of ownership could be observed among the farmers. They were now more zealous about the nature of their produce and visited and observed the good practices followed by some of the successful farmers. A sense of unity was also beginning to prevail amongst the farmers who were earlier cheated individually by middlemen using forged scales. The introduction of electronic scales changed this. The cashew which they were selling at INR 80-100 per kg could now be sold at a much higher negotiated price.
India is home to various tribes, each with a unique form of living that needs to be understood individually and from their perspective. And this cannot be done without spending quality time at the grass roots level. For instance, I found the connection to nature, of the tribal people I lived with, really intriguing. I also found them to be superior to the supposedly ‘civilised’ lot when it comes to solving basic problems, including social ones.
They have herbal remedies for cuts and burns and snake bites. They are physically strong and agile, and their simple diet and challenging lifestyle moulds them into powerful beings. For any wedding in the Kondha tribe, the whole village contributes in some way to make it successful, and their ‘Pushpak’ festival during winters is where young men and women meet to select their partners. Gender equality among tribals is also very prominent. For instance, if after marriage, a girl is unhappy with her husband she is free to leave and marry someone else.
Another realisation I had, is that money is not the only motivating factor for them. So, even if a person decides to give back to society, a sustainable solution that works in accordance with the need of the beneficiary is better than sporadic acts of charity. This is because more than money, it is the transfer of the knowledge and skills that really matters in the long term.