Suggapahari women were shaken to the core when news of countrywide lockdown reached their remote village in Kathikund block of Jharkhand. People who had some idea of COVID-19, opined in favor of the lockdown. But the women farmers had bigger concerns. How will they earn money now? No money means no food most of the times, as produce from the field is not always enough to feed the entire family. And without food, sustaining for an indefinite period of time is impossible.
Prior to the lockdown, these women adopted every single way to keep hunger at bay. They were earning some extra income by making leaf plates. They would use that money to buy essentials for their families in times of need. Last winter, a few of them also decided to take a risk of trying something new on their farms, and therefore planted watermelon for the first time. Lockdown, might have been the most apt decision to save millions from getting infected by COVID-19, but for Suggapahari farmers it meant a dead stop for their income avenues. Leaf plate making had to be stopped. Despite having good production of watermelon they could not sell the harvest. Market was closed. Relief from the situation was nowhere visible in the near future.
But as they say, if you have a strong will, it doesn't matter how difficult the situation is - You Win. The PRADAN-mentored SHG platform came to their rescue with workable solutions. The farmers were guided to form a Producers Group, consisting of 20 women. Despite zero income for more than two months they pooled in small amounts of money, and created their capital. Planning for the upcoming Kharif season began. After a little deliberation, they arrived at a joint decision of growing bitter gourd. Market insights available, suggested bitter gourd had the required demand in the market and the price is also quite promising, most of the times. There was hardly any time left to be wasted. With a flurry of farm preparation activities, that followed the crop-planning sessions, Suggapahari women began a new chapter on their farm - 'Bitter Gourd'.
Their hard work didn't go in vain. They produced much more than what most of them had anticipated. Thankfully, the markets opened once again and vehicles for marketing the harvest could be procured, without much hassle. So far, the newly formed group has sold bitter gourd in three installments, at Rs. 40 a kilogram and all the 20 women farmers have earned Rs. 6,000 per head!
The lockdown phase taught Suggapahari women farmers several lessons, the hard way. Most of them have stopped relying on cash income as the only resource for getting food. They have decided to grow all the essentials instead. So, most of them have started kitchen gardening in their backyards to ensure the nutrition requirements are met, without having to depend on markets or cash in hand.
Special inputs: Souparno Chatterjee, New Delhi