By Parvinder Singh:
Puneeta wears many hats today. She is a beekeeper, a processor of organically produced edible oil and the local advisor on methods and advantages of organic farming. This change is remarkable, not just because Puneeta is something of an entrepreneur but also a woman with a disability who is inspiring many around her.
As a girl with disability, Puneeta grew up hearing insults from her neighbours on how she will always be a ‘burden’ and never be ‘useful’ in a village where agriculture is the only source of income. At age five, she was affected by Poliomyelitis virus, which led to neuromuscular paralysis in her lower limbs. Hence, she cannot use her legs and uses her hands to drag herself to move.
She lives in the Deurawa village of Maharajganj district in Uttar Pradesh, not only one of the largest, most populous states in India, but one with a history of a high number of polio cases. As a result, there is a large number of young people with physical disabilities in the region.
Sitting on the ground under a broken shed, which had its roof damaged by a recent storm, Puneeta’s eyes shine, almost challenging the glaring sunlight of the harsh north Indian summer.
“I am now going to school at this age (25 years) and am not embarrassed about being one of the oldest ninth standard students. I feel education is important for becoming independent,” shares Puneeta who had to drop out of school and stop her studies, at the age of 13.
Her new found confidence is the result of a journey that started in 2012 through CBM-supported, disability-inclusive, agro-enterprises for an organic farming project. Since then Puneeta has seen many changes in her life, ranging from a dependable cash income through assets that create economic value (like beekeeping for honey and an oil extraction machine) to being respected in the community because of the knowledge she has on organic farming.
Seven white boxes hide a swarm of activity under the shade of four towering trees. Puneeta is eager to explain what these are. “They are honey bee boxes and mine are full of them even in this heat. They stay here because I never miss providing water mixed with sugar and jaggery,” she explains and adds emphatically.
Moving on a customised wheelchair-styled tricycle around the boxes, she points out that she is one of the few people in the village who extracts honey and sells it at a premium price. Though the ground is uneven, the access to the opening has been modified for her to reach the boxes, which generate about 84 litres of honey in a year.
They are sold for Rs. 400 per litre, yielding about Rs. 33,600 annually. She, not only received the boxes and necessary training to start beekeeping or apiculture, but also information on how bees benefit farming, particularly vegetable production.
In addition to this, she has also been supported by a machine that is used for extracting oil from mustard and sunflower seeds, grown locally. With the machine being available, she offers its paid services for farmers in the village. She also purchases seeds to extract oil and sells it as an organic product in the local market. This, too, provides her with a steady income through a value addition asset.
Puneeta’s machine is put to work extracting about a litre of mustard oil, which she offers to sell to us. She comes across as a focused entrepreneur constantly looking to optimise the benefits of assets she has been supported with.
Puneeta, though married, has limited interaction with her husband and does not like to discuss it. But she is quick to add that, “I am independent and have a bank account. I am respected for the knowledge I have on organic agriculture from all the training that is taking place under the project.”
Puneeta has not only grabbed new opportunities through the livelihood project but has also become a strong voice in her family. “I have an identity of my own. This was not the case earlier, when I was seen as a burden. People with disabilities are often left behind as family members see them as a financial burden. Being able to make a living, close to home and within the village, has allowed me to change my life. Now, I am an example for other women with disabilities,” says Puneeta with great conviction.
People with disabilities are among the poorest in the world and India has a large number of people with disabilities living in poverty. Lack of access to livelihood, and an independent life that flows from it, is one of the biggest barriers to leading a life of dignity for people with disabilities. In this bleak scenario, Puneeta’s story finds a resonance with the phrase ‘agents of their own destiny‘ used by the Supreme Court, in its recent judgement on representation of people with disabilities in job promotions. As most people with disabilities still draw their livelihood and employment from the unorganised rural sectors, there is a need to address the barriers in the production process and bridging the gap in skills.
With its disability-inclusive farming initiative, CBM and its partners have created a model that has both disabled and non-disabled rural community members, working together to create farmer groups that grow and sell organic produce, with a control over the production process and finances to thrive within the existing set-up. Over 11,000 farmers in five states, including 5000 people with disabilities like Puneeta, are a part of this project. With marketable skills, assets and loans, people with disabilities are demonstrating that core farming sector can become a source of empowerment.