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Strengthening sustainable livelihoods of small farmers

One of the most important questions in the development debate is whether economic viability of small and marginal farmers can be strengthened in sustainable ways. This question is all the more important in a country like India where small-scale farming is the most common source of livelihood. BHARAT DOGRA describes the experiences of some remarkable farming households

Those who want to spread big business-led farm development have been trying to discourage small farmers and small farmer-based farm development, arguing that small farming is not economically viable. On the other hand, those who are committed to equality-based sustainable farm development emphasise that the real challenge is to find ways and means of increasing sustainable net income for small farmers by reducing costs while protecting land and water resources. If these efforts also contribute to climate change mitigation and adaptation, then it becomes a truly win-win situation.

In this context let me describe the experiences of some remarkable farming households I came across recently in Tikamgarh District of Madhya Pradesh and elsewhere. They have all benefitted from the guidance of SRIJAN – Self-Reliant Initiatives through Joint Action – a voluntary body, and other institutions with similar goals.

Making the most of smallholdings

Balchand Aharwal from Lidhaura Tal Village has just two acres of land but he uses it with such creativity that he is able to earn a net income (minus expenses) of around Rs 180,000  a year (on average Rs 15,000 per month), apart from providing highly nutritious  food to his family year-round (his entire produce is organic). This does not include the income he occasionally earns as a trainer in organic farming. He also received a model natural farmer award some time back which carried a prize money of Rs 32,000. From his earnings he has been able to fund the higher education of his two sons, one doing Mathematics Honours and the other a nursing course.

Lakhpati Kishan and another person pose by the side of their produce.

Balchand grows a wide variety of crops. He has a multi-layered garden and orchards of guava, pomegranate and other fruits. As he does not use chemical fertilisers or pesticides or a tube well, his expenses are minimal. He has only a traditional well and has learnt to optimally use the meagre water it provides. He prepares organic soil nutrients and pest repellents on his farm not only for his own use but also to supply other farmers, making it another source of income.

Phulabai and her husband Sarman from Digaura Village own only one acre of land but they cultivate it as a multi-layer garden and orchard. They potentially earn Rs 10,000 (after expenses). Apart from improving their own nutrition, they have been able to invest in a tube well along with the extended family, clear previous debts and even monetarily help their son in Bhopal when he was without a job for a while.

What is remarkable about these families is their joy in their creative work. In Lakhaipur Village in Tikamgarh District I met a farmer who was once a habitual drinker which affected his work. After he took up organic farming in a multi-layered garden, villagers say he has given up liquor, remains absorbed in his work from dawn to dusk and has created a beautiful and highly productive garden.


Community involvement in water conservation

People of Markhera Village had been facing increasing difficulties due to water shortage. The water table and water levels in wells were declining. Women here bear most water-related responsibilities, and they had to fetch water from distant places, causing many to suffer health issues.

The situation in this village of Tikamgarh district was better when the government had constructed check dams on the Chandokha nullah (canal) which flows near the village. However, with the passage of time, there was wear and tear on the not-so-good construction. Now its capacity for quenching the villagers’ thirst has almost gone, as rainwater flows away and can’t be conserved for use in dry months.

Mangal Singh, a social activist, told the villagers that SRIJAN had a programme for digging saucer-shaped depressions in water courses or seasonal nullahs so that some of the rain water would remain in them for longer and come in useful during the dry season. And the villagers agreed to give it a try.

As the work started, the villagers were able to use the silt that was removed from the water bodies to construct bunds in their fields. And soon, the benefits of the troughs, called dohas, started becoming visible. The demand for dohas increased and even farmers in neighbouring villages were benefitted.

While this work was being carried out, the activists developed a close relationship with the community and together they reached an understanding that to get better benefits, the broken structures such as check dam gates also needed to be repaired. Here again, the initial results were encouraging. Increased water availability at the cost of just Rs 20,000 at one repair site generated demand for repairing other structures. Once the work was completed, the water scene of the village changed from one of acute scarcity to abundance.

As this writer was told by several villagers in early January, many more farmers are now able to irrigate their farms properly, and crop yield has increased for several of them by about 50 per cent. Some are able to raise an additional crop as well. The water level in wells and hand-pumps has risen so that drinking water is obtained more easily, freeing up women from the drudgery of travelling long distances to fetch water. There is even enough water for creating a beautiful forest, not far from the water course and the main repair work site, which in turn will contribute to water conservation.

As young farmer Monu Yadav says, the benefits have been many-sided and far reaching. One of the less obvious but important gains relates to increased cooperation for tasks of common benefit. As the benefits of dohas will be lost after a few years if these are not cleaned and maintained properly, farmer groups have been formed to take collective responsibility for this.

Such water conservation work can be very cost-effective. The whole process costs only around Rs 4 lakh and the benefits are being enjoyed by several villages. SRIJAN has dug nearly 460 dohas in five districts. In Gulenda Village of neighbouring Niwari District, horticulture has benefited from improved irrigation facilities, aside from routine crops.

Another benefit of such small-scale water conservation works is community involvement in planning and implementation and access to their tremendous knowledge of local conditions. As a result, such water conservation schemes are invariably more creative and successful than big, costly, centralised ones. These and other small-scale schemes demonstrate the need for more attention in official policy to such schemes.


Eco-friendly farming gains ground

While research has strengthened the case for natural farming, a practical factor which has hindered its spread in India is that farmers for one reason or another find it difficult to take up production of organic manures and pest-repellents for self-use, even though all the raw materials are available.

In the most commonly used natural farming practices in India, organic soil nutrients (solid and liquid) are made by mixing cow dung and cow urine with jaggery and gram flour which is then stored for a certain number of days, while organic pest repellents are generally concentrated sprays made from leaves of certain plants. One way of overcoming this is for some farmers within the village to assume the role of ‘natural farming entrepreneurs’ by taking up production of more organic nutrients and pest-repellents than they require, and supplying them to other needy farmers for a price.

A pleasant sight in the Tikamgarh orchard.

Such an initiative undertaken in Tikamgarh District is fast spreading to other districts of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. This effort, involving SRIJAN and the Bundelkhand Initiative for Water, Agriculture and Livelihoods (BIWAL), has led to the setting up of Bio-Resource Centres with the help of natural farming entrepreneurs (better known as Prakriti Shiksha Kendra) in several villages.

Balchand Aharwal of Lidhaura Tal is one such natural farmer entrepreneur. His cow shed is constructed in such a way that the urine of the animals flows into a tank. He has farming tools like power tillers and sprayers which he hires out on a daily basis. The organic nutrients he makes for sale are displayed along with a price list. A quick calculation reveals that even accounting for the fact that more organic nutrients may be required per acre compared to chemical fertilizers, the costs are only about one-third that of chemical fertilisers. Organic pest-repellents are far cheaper than chemical pesticides. Yet, the farmer-entrepreneur is able to enjoy a reasonable return on investment.

Although this is a new enterprise for him, Balchand has sold Rs 60,000 worth of these organic soil nutrients and organic pest-repellents already. If the government subsidises these organic nutrients to the same or greater extent than chemical fertilisers, both farmers and farmer- entrepreneurs can benefit significantly. 

Balchand also stores traditional seeds of diverse plant varieties collected from in and around the village. He conducts training programmes in natural farming too. Apart from such initiatives, his land is bursting with food grains, legumes, vegetables and fruit trees, all grown the organic way.

Women farmers often take the lead in such initiatives as they find these to be a means of reducing costs and increasing self-reliance.

These efforts are being strengthened at the level of farmer-producer organizations as well as by articulate rural women like Varsha Patel, the CEO of the Ken-Betwa, a farmer producer organisation. She says “Awareness of health-related and other benefits of natural farming are increasing and, hence, there is increased acceptability of natural farming among women. The fact that here the entire effort, including of self-help groups, is largely led by women, makes it all the more relevant as a significant force of social change.

A senior activist also noted that the large number of abandoned cattle in Bundelkhand Region could be harnessed for producing soil-nutrients, whether by an individual farmer or an organisation, simultaneously undertaking to care for the animals. Such efforts also contribute in important ways to climate change adaptation and mitigation, apart from helping to reducing the economic crisis and the debt burden of farmers.


Reaping the fruit of organic gardens

When I visited their one-acre farm, Phulabai was harvesting guavas and beans which Sarman would later take to the nearby market. The couple looked pleased with their abundant yield. As these are organically grown, health-conscious customers sometimes come in person to buy their produce. Once the pomegranate harvest starts coming in in another year or so, we will be even better off, says Phulabai with a glowing smile.

Phulabai and Sarman make their own organic manure and pest repellents on farm. Legumes are inter-cropped with guavas during the initial stage. In the multi-layer garden, creeper crops, root crops, green leafy vegetables and papaya trees are planted in such a way that one plant can be supportive and helpful for another one. On the economic side, the diversity of farm produce means that instead of there being just one or two harvesting seasons, some produce or the other is being harvested all the time for sale and the family’s consumption.

Earlier they were like any other subsistence small-farmer household, struggling for sheer survival, but it was a SRIJAN programme on social organisation for improving livelihoods that tapped their hidden creativity. Today, many visitors come to admire and learn from the highly creative use they have made of their one acre of land. “Earlier we had to take loans to survive, now we can lend money to others if need arises,” says Phulabai proudly.

Orchards and gardens are generally associated with bigger and more prosperous farmers. However, in several villages of the Bundelkhand Region of Central India, farmers from weaker sections with  smallholdings of between  one and three acres, are cultivating gardens and orchards on a part of their small holdings. SRIJAN and its various partner organisations are responsible for this initiative, supported by farmers’ producer organisations and rural women’s self-help groups. A lot of thought has gone into working out the details of multi-layer gardens in terms of local conditions and the constraints of small farmers.

In this pursuit, strengths of small and marginal farmers have been identified, such as their ability to bring personalised care for their gardens and orchards, plants and trees, and their creativity in ensuring reduced costs, increased yield, and year-round income generation. They keep experimenting and improvising on the basis of local factors, apart from the guidance they receive from SRIJAN.

The nutritional benefits of this initiative, specially multi-layer gardens, are particularly important in the hamlets of weaker sections in the Bundelkhand Region where fruit consumption, and to a lesser extent even vegetable consumption, has been very low in recent times. Meanwhile, Phulabai and Sarman have expanded what was a small hut into a more robust and comfortable structure and look forward to spending time close to their orchard and garden.

There are many such small farmer households many of them women-led, who are being guided by SRIJAN in Tikamgarh, the Gorakhpur Environment Action Group in Eastern Utter Pradesh, Sahbhagi Vikash Abhiyan in western Odisha, Yuva in Vidarbh, and other organisations elsewhere.


Small farmers recognise almost all plants in every nook and corner of their fields and are conscious of their needs. Their method of producing healthy food involves nil or minimal greenhouse gas emissions. On the other hand, it results in substantial contribution to absorption of such gases by improving soil and by growing trees. The way forward is to harness this knowledge to benefit both the community of small farmers and the country at large.

While big business interests frequently talk about the non-viability of small farmers, in reality small farmers can earn enough in ecologically protective ways if allowed to work freely and without disturbance. If the government shifts its subsidies, currently given for ecologically destructive farming, to these farmers then their economic condition will improve further. Another option is for Government to give organic farmers a lump sum every year in recognition of their contribution to environment protection and production of healthy food, increasing it at the time of droughts and floods, disruptive weather and disasters.