(Image not of actual village. For representational purposes only.)“You can easily earn an income of Rs. 15,000 for an investment of Rs. 6,000/-.” This was a representative of an NGO working in the area of ‘livelihoods’ talking to the women of Palsunda, a small village in Thane district. The word ‘easily’ was at best an exaggeration. At AskHow, we have analyzed ‘How the income of small farmers in Indian can be increased.’ The farm yields are low and farmers get a very small portion of the final retail price for their crop. ‘Grow more and Get more’ thus, is a simple enough mantra to understand. The devil however, is in details, and made an appearance at Palsunda. Palsunda is a tribal village of around a hundred families in the Mokhada Taluka of Thane district. The area is hilly and that has two implications. First, it is very difficult to store most of the heavy rainfall that pours in the area every monsoon season. Second, it takes a lot of time to reach any of the two nearby major cities of Mumbai and Nashik. All farmers in the village, except one, grow only one crop. This monsoon crop usually allows the farmers to grow enough rice and nachini (finger millet) for their own consumption and leaves a little bit for sale. In the meeting between the women of the village and a few NGOs, the women described their previous attempts at increasing their income. They had tried to raise poultry but all their hens / roosters died in the summers and they could not even figure out what disease had hit them. Their experience of growing green chilies was not much better. They just couldn’t get a good price for their produce and had to throw most of it away. One of the NGO representatives suggested growing the flower Mogra. He said that the flower plant was very hardy and could survive dry conditions. It did not require too much care and also that it commanded a good price in the Dadar market. The nearby village of Amli had done very well with this crop. Further discussions revealed the challenges. Water: The plant can survive in dry conditions but still requires some water and that could be a challenge in the dry season. The hilly terrain and the soil characteristics of the area means that all the rainfall runs off. The denudation of forests around have further reduced the capacity of the soil to retain moisture. This is the reason that no farmer in the village except one, grows a second crop. The NGO representative stated that they could help build small water ponds that would have a plastic lined bottom. The ponds would hold enough water for the plants in the drier months. I later learnt that the village has been selected for government assistance in building such ponds this year. Market access: If the villagers had to reach the Dadar market in time, they would need to leave by the first bus at 6.30. Which meant that the flower pluckers would need to get up early in the morning and pluck the flowers between 3.30 and 5.30 in the morning. It should be remembered that this is not merely an inconvenience – fields are the habitats of snakes and many other dangerous animals. Market price: The market price of Mogra varies through the year and in the past has been high enough to make the crop remunerative. However, there is absolutely no guarantee that the price would continue to be high fifteen months or so down the line when the flowers are ready for plucking. Collectivization: To make it worth the while for the person taking the produce to market every day, enough flowers should be ready for plucking. This means that many farmers would need to take the decision to invest in this initiative. Knowledge transfer: The villagers have never grown Mogra. Imagine that they have invested a significant part of their life savings in growing this crop and mid-way through the season they face a pest infestation. They would need help from people with experience in growing Mogra and such people may live more than fifty kilometers away. Moreover, they may have their own priorities. The village does not have Internet access and anyway the net may not be a great resource for such specific problems. As I sat in for the nearly three-hour meeting, some initial thoughts / conclusions that came to my mind were
- The steps required to improve income in one village, cannot be transplanted without change to another. This is true even of the villages that are close by. Differences in geography, transport link, etc. matter.
- Another reason that makes such a copy paste approach unviable is people. People being asked to invest money, effort and most importantly hope need to be convinced and this is a slow process. The process becomes slower because of the cynicism of the people who have tried and failed in many such previous initiatives.
- The NGO representatives I saw that day were impressive. They knew the details of solutions they were suggesting and were good at communication. In other words, they could talk the talk. But can they walk the walk? It would be presumptuous of me to conclude either way after a day’s visit!