Tackling the agricultural crisis in Maharashtra’s Vidarbha region is the objective driving the Sukhi Baliraja initiative
Water — or the lack of it, rather — used to be uppermost in the minds of Jodmoha’s residents. A village in the Yavatmal district of Maharashtra, Jodmoha is home to about 3,500 people and was, till about a year back, another victim of what is euphemistically referred to as farm distress. It’s different now.
The erratic rains persist but Jodmoha is better equipped these days to cope with the inevitable troubles that dog farmers in many parts of India. The key reason for the improved tidings is the Sukhi Baliraja Initiative (SBI), a Tata Trusts-supported programme that has reached some 25,000 households in 320 villages across nine districts in the Vidarbha region.
Sukhi Baliraja, which loosely translates as ‘happy farmer’, has been operational for more than 10 years in Vidarbha and the principal ingredients in the intervention are the promotion of sustainable agriculture, soil and water conservation, the marketing of farm produce, enabling small-scale poultry and dairy enterprises, and providing psychological counselling and care for farmers.
The water component of the programme has been Jodmoha’s salvation and it shows. “Our water bodies had run dry over the last decade,” says Shankar Dhanpule, a 65-year-old farmer who grows cotton, soya bean and pigeon peas. “The groundwater level has gone up now and we are confident shortages will not recur.”
Streams were deepened and widened as the village went about shedding its water-stressed tag through the programme, which comes under the Maharashtra government’s ‘jalyukt shivar abhiyan’, an ambitious attempt that seeks to rid the state of drought.
Vidarbha is desperate for the help rendered by such interventions. Thousands of farmers in the region have been driven to suicide by a combination of crop failure, water scarcity and high-interest loans. Farm distress is an everyday reality and addressing it begins with finding the means to improve farm productivity and, through that, household incomes. SBI has been engineered to do precisely that.
The initiative was launched in 2008 as a collaborative effort aligned to the state government’s Convergence of Agricultural Interventions in Maharashtra (CAIM) programme, which has reached out to households in Yavatmal, Amravati, Washim, Akola, Wardha and Buldhana.
The Tata Trusts put SBI in direct implementation mode in 2015, believing the shift would enhance scale and effectiveness. Water has been a priority issue and, within that matrix, irrigation has got primary attention. Groundwater recharging and the building of water-harvesting structures such as farm ponds, circular recharge pits and small dams have improved yields, increased the area under cultivation and reduced waterlogging.
With experience and expertise in implementing large water projects in the geography, SBI joined hands with the Government of Maharashtra and secured support from the Tata Consultancy Services Foundation to begin two huge projects in soil and water conservation. One was the rejuvenation of the former Malgujari tanks in five districts of Nagpur division in Vidarbha. The other was the revitalisation of the 42-km-long Kasalganga stream in Solapur district in Maharashtra. The response was good and the communities were mobilised into water user groups.
“Malgujari tanks were common in Vidarbha about 300 years ago,” says Bhakti Dhawle, a programme officer with the Tata Trusts. “However, they fell into disuse and farmers could not access water.”
Another significant part of the engagement pertains to spreading knowledge about good farming practices. SBI partners local NGOs and the Dr Panjabrao Deshmukh Krishi Vidyapeeth, the agricultural university in Akola, to train farmers in soil testing, seed treatment, summer ploughing, integrated nutrient management, vermicomposting, etc.
The training is paying dividends. For instance, under the integrated pest management module cotton farmers have been weaned away from heavy pesticide usage, which increases the cost of production and leads to soil damage, without any justifiable benefits. “We raised awareness about the dangers of excessive use of pesticides and the farmers were open to change,” says Manoj Bande, who heads the agriculture unit at SBI.
Farmers now employ best practices in seed treatment, they are encouraged to grow a variety of crops, and they bank on traditional low-cost techniques to control pests and reduce expenditure on pesticides. More than 20,000 farmers have benefitted and the idea is to reach 500,000 more of them in about two years through digital platforms such as mKrishi.
Creating local farmer producer companies is another feather in the SBI cap. This makes eminent sense, given that it has always been a challenge for India’s farmers to earn more from their fields. SBI has established market linkages and processing units to boost farmer incomes.
The marketing bit on SBI’s menu of solutions has also been a boon, especially in the selling of cotton, a perennial stumbling block for farmers in Vidarbha. “We have identified big cotton buyers and we try and convince farmers to sell their produce directly to them,” says Rahul Dabhane, who heads the Trusts’ operations in Vidarbha. “This helps farmers save on transportation costs and get better rates.”
SBI has set up an agriculture marketing entity to find assured markets and enable collective bargaining. Tata Chemicals and Rallis are buyers and the programme has got farmers to tie up with these two companies directly to sell pigeon peas and brown lentils. Similar agreements have been signed with other companies, including Dabur and Haldiram, and there is an avenue to sell through online platforms.
Soyabean has been another success story for SBI. A lot of soyabean grows in the Vidarbha region but farmers find it difficult to get seeds. The government provides these to only a third of farmers; the rest have to buy it from the open market at high cost. Three years ago SBI launched a project on 100 acres of land to generate soyabean seeds. Heavy demand has led to the acreage being raised, first to 500 and then to 3,000.
Soyabean seeds pulled in good revenues, but there was uncertainty about whether local processing plants would be able to handle the load. The Trusts approached the state government and won approval for a `15-million project to set up processing plants. The project has 80% funding from the government, 10% from the Trusts and 10% from farmers.
Agriculture aside, SBI has laid the ground for households to take up alternate livelihood opportunities such as poultry and dairy farming to provide a buffer against crop failure. A pilot poultry project that kicked off in eight villages in 2018 in the tribal area of Dharni in Amravati district has led to the Maharashtra government asking the Trusts to implement it on a larger scale.
This resulted in the upscaling of the poultry project, which now covers about 880 families in Amravati and Yavatmal. Women have been provided poultry sheds, 500 birds each to rear and appropriate training. They have also been organised into producer companies to fetch the best prices for their produce. These households are now able to earn about `25,000-30,000 every year being a participating beneficiary. The poultry model has been extended to Chandrapur district, where 2,000 tribal women are beneficiaries, and on the cards is a women-only poultry venture in Gadchiroli.
Similar in many ways to the poultry business is dairy development, another comprehensive livelihood intervention that has been a winner. Quality cattle feed, procured through a partnership with the International Livestock Research Institute, and mechanisms for sale of milk have been put in place in 30 villages in Yavatmal.
The project involves bringing together women to sell milk to the National Dairy Development Board under an assured buy-back agreement. A milk producer company, with about 200 women, has been formed and a milk chilling centre has been established. The aim is to reach a capacity of 3,500 litres of milk a day in two years.
The counselling and care component in SBI may not fetch money in the manner that poultry and dairy does, but there is no underestimating its worth in a region where farmers taking their lives is no longer news. Aiding in this fight are community-based microfinance initiatives set up under the project in 300 villages.
These community-based organisations have been strengthened and financial literacy initiatives launched to tackle the problems of farmers. The interventions have helped farmers access the various financial services available in rural areas.
All said and with everything that has be done, SBI has brightened the agricultural landscape of Vidarbha, bringing light where once there was little but gloom. The best part: this light is not going to die out.
Small fish can bring in big bucks and the open-source fisheries project in Vidarbha, launched in 2018, is proving how. Small scale fisheries, to provide an alternative source of income when cash crops fail, are among the schemes being promoted in the region as part of the Sukhi Baliraja Initiative (SBI).
The Tata Trusts are implementing open source fisheries projects in three states — Andhra Pradesh and Jharkhand are the other two — and their potential to deliver extra money in the hands of farmers is proven. In Maharashtra, the project has three focus areas: knowledge creation and dissemination, ecosystem development and market linkage.
The Tata Trusts have supported more than 1,000 farmers in Yavatmal district to produce fingerlings (fish that are 60-90 days old). These fingerlings are sold to the government under a direct cash transfer scheme. This year, the plan is to train a thousand more farmers.