Chakla, an agricultural village in Deganga administrative block of North 24 Parganas district, West Bengal, has all the characteristics of a typical Indian village. Unemployment, poverty, illiteracy and lack of basic health facilities are the major problems that the villagers face. This village is about 25 km from Barasat, the district headquarters, and 45 km from the state capital Kolkata.
Though agriculture is the main source of livelihood, hunger stalks them. With the villagers following traditional agricultural methods and seeds the yields are low. “We never waste a single grain of rice or a piece of veggie as we still struggle to have full meals on a daily basis. Seasonal crops decide our food,” said Reva, a 64-year-old vegetable vendor.
Climate-induced extreme weather events and lack of storage facility till the harvest is taken to the market add to the farmers’ woes, affecting their everyday life. “We get our daughters married at a very young age to ease our burden and we send our sons to work so we can feed the family. Schools are only a place for mid-day meal to our kids,” said a lady selling puja items near Chakla temple.
According to Census 2011, out of the total village population of 2269, 48% are women. Though the women were disgruntled due to lack of livelihood and basic education and healthcare facilities, things began to change when they formed self-help groups (SHGs) and started plant nurseries with the help of development organizations.
Money lenders’ exploitation
“Things started to change, after bandhu directed us to start SHGs,” Pinky Partho, member of an SHG in Chakla told VillageSquare.in. The person the women refer to as bandhu – which means friend in Bengali – is Abdul Nasar, founder of Zero Foundation, an NGO working on rural development.
The women were simpletons steeped in ignorance, as their life revolved around their hut. “If an egg costs five rupees, you should give ten five-rupee coins to them to purchase 10 eggs. Otherwise their calculation wouldn’t tally. Local money lenders exploit this ignorance and grab huge amounts as interest,” said Nasar.
Given their limited knowledge, the villagers kept paying interest and never managed to repay their loan. “The small income women made from selling milk or egg go straight to the pockets of moneylenders. Torn and worn huts, ill-health, poverty and illiterate kids are their assets,” said Nasar.
“We Bengali women normally never go out for work. Maintaining home, taking care of the elders and children, and cooking are our duties,” said Pinky Partho. “So starting or joining an SHG was not easy. We hesitated to move out of home. We couldn’t dream of doing anything beyond household activities.”
Slowly the women in Chakla understood that they stood to benefit through SHGs. Some started raising cattle, some formed stitching units. “We decided to start plant nurseries,” said Partho. “Now, after seven years, when we turn back and see the journey, we are proud of our work and the positive changes it has brought in our life.”
Of the SHGs initiated with 10-20 women members, six decided to start plant nurseries. The low investment needed to start nurseries, low risk factors and assured early income were the reasons the women decided to start nurseries.
“Plant nurseries were a common sight in these parts of Bengal as this Ganga-Brahmaputra delta region has fertile soil,” Abdul Nasar told VillageSquare.in. “These low-lying plain lands are rich with river-borne sediments as they carry large amount of minerals and nutrients suitable for agriculture.”
The foundation provided the women with high quality seeds and made the loan process easier. The SHG could avail loans up to Rs one lakh. “While we repay interest of around Rs 4,000 to the bank it was Rs 30,000 to 60,000 to lenders yearly,” said Gopa Nag, a member of the SHG.
The women took 5 to 10 cents of land on lease and prepared it, and bought small plant bags. “We purchased soil. It costs Rs 500 to 1000 including transportation. Land owners never allow us to use the soil to fill bags as they don’t want to lose the upper soil,” said Nag. “There are plenty of ponds in our area which are frequently deepened by taking out the soil. Like farmers and other nurseries, we also purchase the soil.”
“We usually grow fruit plants, as they are in high demand. Varieties of apple berries, guava, musambi, lemon and mango samplings are the main saplings we raise,” Nag told VillageSquare.in. “We produce cole vegetable saplings also.”
In earlier days, expensive plants and expert labor from Bangladesh ruled the plant nursery market. A dragon fruit sapling cost Rs 400 to 500 earlier. Now nurseries sell them for Rs 5 to 10, which works to the women’s advantage. The women raise saplings according to the orders they receive. Big nurseries also purchase saplings from the SHGs’ nurseries.
The main advantage of plant nurseries is it costs low investment and can earn income within a short period. There are problems, too. Amphan cyclone in May last year hit the total geography badly. Everything including huts, crops, cattle, trees, etc. were destroyed. Fertile soil was washed away.
“Somehow, we managed to save our plants from the cyclone,” Samapti, a member of the SHG, told VillageSquare.in. “We managed to sell them for a better price in the market once the initial chaos after the cyclone ended.”
The foundation taught the women to read and write. The women learnt basic math. They usually work in the nurseries after finishing their domestic chores. They share the duties of nurturing plants, purchase of seed and soil, sale of plants and maintaining accounts. It enables all members to run a unit efficiently.
They have handled their finances and repayments smoothly since they started nurseries seven years ago. They sell saplings to big nurseries within West Bengal as well as to other states like Maharashtra, Kerala, Gujarat and UP. Some members of the SHG are skilled in the art of budding and this mastery helps the groups to develop new varieties of plants.
Muslima Beebi (48) joined the SHG three years ago. “The nursery has helped me in many ways. It has enabled me to feed my family with three meals a day,” she told VillageSquare.in. “I could repair my thatched roof, I bought goats and a cow. Managed my daughter’s marriage.”
Many members have similar stories of success – from sleeping under a leak-free roof, three meals a day for children, furniture, cot for aged parents to buying cattle. “We realized how our little earnings went straight to money lenders those days,” said Beebi. “Now we even have bank accounts. And we know how to handle money transactions.”
Chithra Ajith is a journalist based in Kozkikode, Kerala. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Views are personal.