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These women literally weather the storms

Mehru Jaffer, December 14, 2013, WFS 18:59 IST

GREEN HANDS

Until six months back Subhawati's 'koirad' (vegetable garden) was a waste land
The women of Chikani village in Uttar Pradesh have mastered the art of staying untouched by floods, having learnt the novel and natural agricultural methods, finds-out Mehru Jaffer

Vidyawati, Koali Devi and Subhawati Devi, from Chikani village in Gorakhpur district of eastern Uttar Pradesh, are no ordinary women. They are local heroines, having saved their families from veritable starvation. These female farmers do not legally own the land they so lovingly till, yet it is they who are responsible for having converted tiny holdings into lush gardens that yield abundantly all the year round.

Fate of crops

“Koirads” used to be an integral part of village life in these parts during the pre-Independence era. Unfortunately, these small, lush patches of land disappeared as agriculture became mechanised and the sowing of mono cash crops became the norm. Although the agricultural land is fertile, it is prone to both floods and drought.

Helping hand

Fortunately for the rural folk in select villages of Gorakhpur things started to take a turn for the better three years ago. This change was triggered by an initiative of the Gorakhpur Environmental Action Group (GEAG), an NGO. Reveals KK Singh, Project Coordinator, GEAG, “We identified 16 villages, which were vulnerable to the vagaries of weather and where small farmers were struggling. We reintroduced some resilient agricultural practices that could enable them to get back into the game.”

Women power

When Singh had first visited Chikani to share their plan with the local people, “women like Vidyawati hesitated to talk to us, only mumbling something from behind their gunghat”. However, once the confidence of the villagers was boosted, especially after they helped women to set up self help groups and gain better control of their finances, Singh saw the emergence of a vibrant community eager to improve its fate despite the natural and manmade challenges. Today, they have risen to this challenge and how.
Healthy way
Until six months back Subhawati’s ‘koirad’ was waste land; now she has a rich crop of pumpkin and papaya growing on it. There’s also lemongrass, tulsi, and neem in her precious kitchen garden that is encircled by marigold bushes, which keep the insects away from the herbs, fruits and vegetables without using toxic pesticides. Her pesticide-free produce also helps keep healthy the cows and buffalos she now owns.

Weathering the storms

Climate change is a challenge that requires culturally rooted and sustainable development. Incidentally, Vidyawati has gone through such a training provided by the GEAG, which has enabled her to do better in life. Born in a nearby village, she had come to Chikani about two decades ago after marriage, and would have continued to live in deprivation like everyone else in her neighbourhood had it not been for GEAG’s intervention. It was then that she found out that her ancestors were familiar with more than 100 different varieties of grain. She saw millet for the first time when she learnt about mixed farming during her classes at the Farmers Field School run by the NGO.

Well above floods

Ramrati has become a role model for many. An industrious farmer, Ramrati has converted her ‘koirad’ into a virtual paradise of bio-diversity despite the frequent floods that hit the region. She has been able to do this after GEAG scientists introduced her to the concept of multi-layered cropping called machan, or scaffolding.

This technique facilitates small farmers in managing space to their advantage without destroying the quality of land and their yield. Ramrati has dug a pond on her land where she farms mangur, an exotic variety of fish that thrives in water-logged areas, and earns nearly Rs 200 per kilo from selling it.

Above the pond she has a bamboo bridge topped with a shed full of chicken surrounded by a lush growth of fruit and greens that are planted so high that the floods cannot touch them.
Women of thunder

Times are tough for agricultural communities across the region, with both life and land having become more vulnerable due to erratic weather patterns. But the resilient women like Vidyawati, Subhawati and Ramrati have proven that given the right boost and the desire to overcome even the toughest ordeal, communities can learn to adapt to climate change and turn their lives around.

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