Cucumbers are the ‘New Transformers’
Story & Photos: Sourav Maity

Abha Rani Mahato, the President of Sri Krishna Upasangha (women’s SHG federation) retorted, “if we want to lead a dignified life, if we want to protect our dreams and wishes, we have to protest against all forms of domestic violence”.

Tears rolled down Sulata’s cheeks. Her federation mates hugged and comforted her. Just a day before, Sulata had asked for Rs 500/- from her husband to pay for the pending tuition fees for her daughter, a class seven student. Her husband went off to the market to sell a certain portion of their harvested paddy to get the required money. While returning home he met with a couple of friends and decided to treat them with country-liquor. At the stroke of midnight, when her tipsy husband finally came home, Sulata found only Rs.200/- in his pocket. Being a marginal farmer, Sulata had no other avenue to fulfil the requirement. She shamed him for not thinking about their children. Her husband responded by slapping and kicking her in front of their children, and went off to sleep as if nothing had happened at all! Nothing could change her situation – no local administrative help was there to address these incidents of domestic violence.

Sulata said “enough is enough, I will do vegetable cultivation on my own this Kharif. I need to earn more so that I can support my children. But alone I cannot do much, I need help from all of you. Can we all meet here next week, same time same place”.

A series of meetings followed. This group, led by a handful of marginal women farmers of Saluka village in Binpur-1 block of West Bengal, took up an uphill task of convincing rest of the members from all the 12 SHGs of their Upasangha, for vegetable cultivation. Their determination was rock-solid, they were on the mission to make a difference.

PRADAN got associated with this Upasangha in 2013. Paddy, through System of Root Intensification (SRI) was the only crop that farmers of the federation wanted to grow.

“SRI is good for us. Neither we have the land, nor the knowledge, nor the money to grow vegetables and experiment with our lives” would be their common response.

It was only during the summer of 2017 when Sulata along with her federation mates started meeting each and every SHG as well as non-SHG women members, to convince and plan for vegetable cultivation.

“Are we any different from the rest of you? Do we possess acres of lowland? Do we have lakhs in our accounts? If we dare to take up the challenge, why can’t you? We know we may fail, but what if we win? Together?” was Sulata’s and Abha’s question to each one of them.

Their discussions with PRADAN professionals helped them appreciate the importance of collective- led vegetable farming. Without united strength they were not destined to win over threats of elephants damaging their crops or prevent their crops from getting stolen. Attracting market agents to their village or mobilising government support for agriculture inputs – essential for successful vegetable farming seemed impossible as well, without unity.

Amidst the women’s apprehensions and their husbands’ suspicions, the federation members got their first triumph.

“We can grow cucumber in the uplands and medium uplands” – 130 women members decided in one of the meetings.

In reality, cucumber can survive high rainfall and water logging conditions in monsoon if proper drainage system can be ensured. As a first step, they undertook some orientation of cucumber cultivation. They thought of using locally available vermi-compost as fertilizer and Neemastra, Kalsi Katha & Brahmastra as pesticides. Afterall, these can reduce their input costs and ensure healthier crops!

The group started a Micro Production Arrangement (MPA). Each one of them decided to make trellis on 0.2 acres of lands, on an average. Several MPA members who were landless took small lands on lease to set-up their own trellis. For three months the husbands saw their wives transform into sentinels, banishing every insect which tried to feed on their crops! Finally, the cucumbers sprouted. Each one of them started earning in thousands. Sulata could manage a whopping Rs. 20,000 within just two weeks! The women were on a cropping spree – on one hand they were plucking their cucumbers and on the other they started planting flat-beans on their trellis. Within another couple of months’ time Sulata harvested her flat-beans to add another Rs.10,000 to her kitty. Any guess – how much she had to spend for growing these vegetables? Only Rs. 350! A few of the MPA farmers could manage Rs. 50,000 too! Obviously, their plot sizes were larger than that of Sulata’s.

Apart from immediate cash returns, the other formidable victory for the farmers was minimizing groundwater extraction. It was difficult when paddy was the only crop they cultivated. The saved groundwater is now being used as life-saving irrigation for vegetables. The orientation on National Water Policy, an initiative by PRADAN and Hindustan Unilever Foundation helped generate awareness about importance of saving water. Any kind of water wastage is being stopped by these Upsangha members and they are also recording the water levels in wells at different times of the year to understand the recharge and discharge rates. This was made possible by the Participatory Ground Water Management (PGWM) principles that PRADAN introduced in the Saluka with support from BRLF (Bharat Rural Livelihoods Foundation).

Sulata has paid back all the remaining dues at her daughter’s tutorial. Since the past four Kharifs, the need for begging money from her husband did not arise.

And, there has been another bigger change that can be attributed to the Upasangh’s success.

“These women have showed outstanding achievement and courage to bring the necessary changes in the society by impacting agriculture. I will not withstand any form of abuse to these women and will act over all the registered complaints with stringency”, Inspector in Charge (IC) of Ramgarh Fari (Gram Panchayat).