Veering towards veggies to tide over Covid-19

Small-scale women farmers in Jamtara district of Jharkhand started growing veggies on a large-scale across all three seasons after getting seeds free of cost, writes DEEPANWITA GITA NIYOGI

Nishpati Soren, a resident of Jamtara district in Jharkhand, is a small-scale farmer. Jamtara is one of the six districts of the Santhal Pargana division in the state. Like many farmers in the district, Soren owns just 1.5 acres of land on which she traditionally used to cultivate paddy during the Kharif season aided by monsoon. But things changed drastically due to the Covid-19 pandemic. As markets shut down in view of the lockdown, families like that of Soren failed to purchase nutritious vegetables for daily consumption.

At that time, the Jharkhand Tribal Development Society (JTDS) came to the rescue. A Jharkhand government organisation, the primary objective of JTDS is to ensure tribal development in the state. It collaborated with local non-profit, Badlao Foundation, to distribute vegetable seeds as well as that of important Rabi crops like wheat and mustard sown in winter. This benefitted many farmers in Santhal Pargana, an extremely backward region.

“Many of us started growing vegetables in summer and winter seasons for household consumption. A few women farmers also tried to sell their excess produce by carrying it in baskets or by cycling to nearby places. But they failed to make good profit. However, it is true that many of us were able to feed our families during the difficult period,” Soren said.

Apart from being a farmer, Soren is also a member of the local Mahila Sabha or woman’s group. According to her, some 450 families across 35 villages received seeds. “Many of us saved a little amount of money to buy necessary kitchen items like soap and oil.”

Overcoming challenges

Asha Rathor, who has been working with Badlao Foundation in Jamtara since 1995, informed that marginal farmers overcame many challenges during the Covid-19 crisis. As many families suffered economic hardship during the pandemic period, women cultivated vegetables to supplement family income and ensure home consumption.

Rathore agreed that JTDS provided the much needed support in small-scale agriculture. In Jharkhand, the focus is usually on Kharif season crops. “Women used to grow a few vegetables during the monsoon along with paddy, but during the pandemic they targeted all the three seasons and grew pumpkin, bitter gourd, cucumber and even watermelon. Some women with no land got pig and chicken sheds.”

Namita Kisku, who owns two acres of land, said selling the vegetables in the market proved to be difficult. “Before the pandemic, many of us grew vegetables on a small scale for use only at home. But after we received seeds, many of us cultivated on a large-scale.”

Apart from intensifying vegetable cultivation, women leaders belonging to Mahila Sabhas also spread awareness on social distancing, the use of masks and proper hand washing. Even when women went to fetch water, they maintained distance. Soren added that women found it hard to fetch water from village tubewells. It took them a longer time than usual as they had to maintain social distancing.

Empowering women

Apart from agriculture, across five panchayats of Jamtara, women’s empowerment is being championed through the establishment of women’s groups since 2017. As part of this, members deposit money and save for emergency uses.

Shweta Kumari from Jamtara is a member of one such group. “There are 126 such groups and some 1,500 members are associated with them. Apart from seed distribution, kitchen gardens were also encouraged during the pandemic to fulfill the nutritional need of communities, and especially that of women. Kitchen gardens can help beneficiaries grow vegetables in their backyards. About 250 women were chosen for this,” Kumari added.