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When farming works

More than 30,000 mostly tribal families in Jharkhand have been lifted out of poverty by the Lakhpati Kisan programme through a layering of livelihood opportunities. By Labonita Ghosh

Magdalina Nag isn’t a risk taker. But, back in 2016, this resident of Digri panchayat in the Khunti district of Jharkhand decided to take a chance with tomatoes. She planted some saplings in a small patch next to her family’s paddy field — much against the wishes of her in-laws — riding on the promise of a bumper crop.

The gamble paid off. “The first year, I earned 15,000 from selling my tomatoes,” says the 54-year-old Ms Nag. The yield has improved with every passing harvest and, today, the Nags have an assured income of 70,000 a year just from tomatoes. They grow it all year round, unlike earlier when tomatoes cultivated in the rainy season would inevitably be swarmed by pests.

“Earlier, our regular income from paddy cultivation couldn’t even feed my family through the year,” adds Ms Nag. “My husband had to work as a carpenter in Khunti just to keep us afloat. Tomatoes have given us a new lease of life.”

Over the years, Ms Nag has been able to send her four children to a private school and then to college. Her youngest is doing a nursing course in Visakhapatnam. “We had to pay 600,000 for the course and the money came from my vegetable patch,” says Ms Nag, whose husband has left his carpentry gig to take up farming again.

With an annual minimum income of over 120,000, the Nag family’s worth has jumped enough to make them, on a yearly basis, lakhpati kisans (loosely translated as 100,000 income per farmer). The Nags are part of Lakhpati Kisan Smart Villages (LKSV), a comprehensive livelihoods-centred programme launched by the Tata Trusts in 2015 in the states of Odisha, Jharkhand, Gujarat and Maharashtra.

The programme’s goal is to get at least 120,000 into the hands of each participating household every year through farming and related activities. LKSV has a range of schemes and principles to realise the objective, all of them aligned to agriculture and allied activities in rural ecosystems. The households are mainly from tribal regions and the building blocks are women’s self-help groups (SHGs).

In Jharkhand the programme is implemented by Collectives for Integrated Livelihood Initiatives (CInI), an associate organisation of the Trusts. The state was fertile ground for seeding the programme. Tribal-dominated Jharkhand scores poorly on poverty indices. As many as 19 of its 26 districts show up on the central government’s ‘aspirational districts’ list. That means districts with low numbers in five key development spheres: health and nutrition; education; agriculture and water resources; financial inclusion and skill development; and infrastructure.

Farming framework

Originally a five-year initiative that would run till 2020, the hugely successful LKSV effort has been extended till 2025. Today, more than 11,000 — of the 30,000-plus households in the programme — have become lakhpatis in six districts of Jharkhand. This has been achieved by educating farmers — mostly women since the programme is led by SHGs — about scientific methods of cultivation, fertilisers and pesticides, and more efficient methods of irrigation in a largely water-starved state.

Farmers who have cultivated paddy for generations were persuaded to grow vegetables alongside, and adopt animal husbandry as a means to increase their incomes. Another livelihood option introduced in Jharkhand relates to non-timber forest produce, specifically lac cultivation. For all of this CInI provides the inputs and the knowhow: saplings, piglets, chickens or fish fingerlings for rearing; the training required to manage brood lac, etc.

“We have been growing paddy since the time of my great-grandfather,” says Pandeya Hassa, a 35-year-old from Janumpiri village in Khunti. “When I told my family that I wanted to try a new, hybrid variety of rice and grow vegetables as well, they balked at the idea. They said the rice would not taste good and would go bad faster than usual. But I went ahead anyway.”

Mr Hassa constructed his own solar-powered borewell to save on water (and expenses) and planted 5,000 saplings of cauliflower. “It’s spread over about 3 acres but it’s generating a lot of income for us,” he says. “I’m now earning 350,000 a year from these experiments.” Mr Hassa is planning to invest 20,000 as his contribution to build a net house (similar to a greenhouse) for capsicum and some other greens. His family, naturally enough, has come around.

Of the 33,729 households covered under the programme in Jharkhand, 38% have become irreversible lakhpatis. This means even if they see a dip, their overall annual income will still be higher than the baseline of 120,000. Since the programme was implemented, the average annual income of households under LKSV has increased from 43,432 in 2015-16 to 75,773 in 2020-21.

One of the objectives of the programme is to ensure year-round incomes for tribal families through a layering of livelihood opportunities over and above traditional farming. About 65% of the households in the initiative work with at least two livelihood prototypes, farming and animal husbandry, for instance, or paddy and lac cultivation.

It wasn’t easy convincing the locals that they needed to tweak their traditional agricultural patterns. CInI leaned on women SHGs to spread the word and they proved to be the best ambassadors. “When you need deep community outreach, the first thing that comes to mind in the rural development sector is SHGs,” says Sirshendu Paul, regional manager with the Tata Trusts and team lead for Jharkhand. “We wanted a platform to implement our programme and we knew the best option would be the women-led SHGs.” 

Working in sync

In fact, a few years after the LKSV initiative was launched in Jharkhand, the central government came out with a ‘lakhpati SHG’ programme. “The philosophy for both is the same,” adds Mr Paul. “We are working with the SHGs to target each woman farmer’s household; the government’s programme is doing the same.”

LKSV is being taken forward and facilitated by all-women farmer producer companies (FPCs) or farmer producer organisations (FPOs). These are registered enterprises with small and marginal farmers as shareholders, and a board of directors which takes decisions, manages finances and engages in advocacy. From educating farmers on how they can diversify their income to providing inputs and market linkages, they play a critical role in the programme.

Fish cultivation that helped Satyendra Singh Mahato (right) of Nano village in Hazaribagh district pull his family out of poverty, has enabled him to diversify and start growing seasonal crops such as tomato, brinjal, chilli and cabbage

While CInI was focused on livelihoods in the beginning, it is now looking at areas such as education, water and sanitation, healthcare, clean energy and even sports. Many initiatives in these spaces are being channelled through FPCs. The thinking is that it’s not enough to pull farmers out of poverty; their quality of life must also improve.

Persuading farmer families to have permanent toilets in their houses, or pressing the government to provide every home with running water under its Jal Jeevan Mission is very much a part of CInI’s mandate.

Farmer-turned-entrepreneur Barnabas Nag grows a variety of fruit and vegetable saplings in his polyhouse nursery

Seed capital for a cause

Barnabas Nag’s family lived off their paddy farm in Murhu in Jharkhand’s Khunti district. Despite their hand-to-mouth existence, Mr Nag thought nothing of it; most of his neighbours were in the same boat. The rice mainly fed their families and any surplus was sold in the market.

But Mr Nag soon started wanting more — a better income and a better life. He began to cultivate lac in 2009 and, a few years later, even won an award for it. “I convinced a lot of farmers in my village to try it out too, and they got good results,” says Mr Nag. Then came a time when the market was flooded with lac and lac products and prices crashed. Mr Nag realised he needed to find something new.

He remembered seeing a ‘polyhouse nursery’ on a trip to Ranchi (an hour away from Khunti), and decided to give this a shot. A polyhouse is similar to a greenhouse, with plastic sheets covering a warehouse-like space and a green net that helps regulate temperature. Seeds are grown here in ‘soil-less’ conditions. That is, they are planted in nutrient-rich cocopeat, a combination of coir, cork and coconut husk.

“When I was growing seedlings in soil, about 40% of them would die in the nursery itself,” says Mr Nag. “Some would perish at the time of transplantation; some would not survive the harvest. With cocopeat I have a 90% survival rate for saplings.”

The Nag family is growing a variety of fruits and vegetables in their polyhouse, including cauliflower, cabbage, tomato, chilli, capsicum, cucumber, several kinds of gourd, watermelon, even strawberries. “I grow whatever saplings are in demand,” says Mr Nag.

The selling does not happen directly. The local farmer producer company (FPC) works as the go-between that connects Mr Nag to potential buyers, saving him the headache and financial uncertainty of trying to seek them out himself. The FPC draws up a list of what each farmer within a designated area plans to grow and places the orders with Mr Nag.

When the saplings are ready, Mr Nag reaches them to individual farmers, but they don’t pay him right away. He receives the money from the FPC, which retains a miniscule margin and gives him the rest. Since the FPC operates in more than 40 villages, that’s a substantial amount of business for Mr Nag.

Last year, he sold 1.25 million saplings and earned 250,000. The FPC also provides Mr Nag with, at a subsidised rate, cocopeat, seeds and other raw materials he may require.

Mr Nag’s output and his income have increased tremendously in recent years. This polyhouse entrepreneur is a lakhpati kisan many times over, pulling in as much as 600,000 from his nursery business and another 200,000 from paddy and vegetable cultivation.

“Mr Nag is one of the top farmer-entrepreneurs in this region,” says Garima Kumari, regional coordinator and state livelihood anchor with Collectives for Integrated Livelihood Initiatives (CInI), the associate organisation of the Trusts that implements the Lakhpati Kisan programme. “He took a big risk with his polyhouse business, having to make an investment of 150,000, combining community contribution and credit from his own pocket, to set up. For a farmer with limited means, that’s a lot of money.”

Lakhpati Kisan has given birth to a new category of farmer-entrepreneurs like Mr Nag, who is planning to expand his polyhouse business by adding a third nursery to his existing two. “In 2016, a year before I started, no farmer wanted to buy pre-grown saplings; they preferred seeds,” he says. “But now they have realised that saplings save them a lot of time and effort. That’s great news for me.”

Strengthening grassroots institutions like FPCs will make them sustainable and eliminate the need for outside help. “We are doing household-level interventions, but if we withdraw from a place at a certain point in time, we need to set the systems, process and institutionalise for irreversibility and replicability,” says Mr Paul. “We need to create a system around productivity enhancement and community institutions so that if we are not able to provide support for a longer term, then that bandwidth is there for the community to draw upon.”

CInI, for its part, has set its mind on new goals. “Our work on the ground shows that almost 70% households are on the path to becoming lakhpatis. But while 30% have achieved this irreversibly, about 40% still have fluctuating incomes,” says Mr Paul. That means in particular years their annual income drops below the 120,000 threshold. “We want to make sure all households achieve irreversible lakhpati status, and we are planning to bring more people into this journey of layered livelihoods.”

Another goal is for at least 17 subdistricts in Central India to become empowered enough to act as drivers for growth in their particular regions. There’s also the intent to connect grassroots institutions like FPCs to bigger and different kinds of service providers — a fertiliser, credit or insurance company, for example. “The system needs to be reinforced so that it can run on its own in the future,” says Mr Paul.

The communities in the programme are soaking in the present and their new-found financial well-being. Sushma Tuti of Saparum village in Digri panchayat says she feels proud to have become a lakhpati kisan. “Despite having no formal education, we are successful farmers thanks to the training imparted by CInI,” she adds. “We knew nothing beyond growing paddy and finger millet. Today we are financially independent and can contribute to the household income. And now our husbands ask us for money, not the other way around.”