Gond women take charge of water and farming in their village

Bhuvneshwari, Shivkanti, Meera, Semvati

  • Women of the Gond tribe, in the farming-dependent Muqaddam Tola village in Madhya Pradesh, are collectively learning agricultural techniques and setting up a solar irrigation system to overcome the challenges of water scarcity in the dry region.
  • Majority of the youth in Muqaddam Tola has migrated out to study or work and most of the people left behind are women. Madhya Pradesh is among the top four states in India where people migrate to other states in search of work.
  • Improvements in agriculture and self-reliance in farming has helped the women generate an income and the access to more crops has also improved their nutrition.

Located in Amarpur block of district Dindori in Madhya Pradesh, Lalpur village is widely divided into two hamlets, Banwasi Tola and Muqaddam Tola. While Banwasi Tola depends on poultry as a livelihood, Muqaddam Tola is entirely dependent on farming. Residents of both villages represent Gond tribes. Gonds are widely found in and around Madhya Pradesh state in central India, representing a population of around 12 million people.

“We’re done with the ropa (a local term for plantation of paddy seedlings) and are now preparing to begin with mango saplings,” Bhagwati Bai told Mongabay-India. Fifty-two-year-old Bhagwati is a resident of Muqaddam Tola. The village has dry climate and rocky soil. For a long time, the residents would cultivate paddy, maize, wheat and pulses. Bhagwati has been cultivating these crops for over four years now. This is for the first time that she has planted mangoes and has high expectations. “It used to be a luxury for us to buy and eat mangoes but now we might also be able to sell and earn from it,” she said.

Madhya Pradesh is among the top four states in terms of its people migrating to other states in search of work, besides Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand. Majority of the youth in Muqaddam Tola too has migrated out to study and/or work. Those who have stayed, depend upon agriculture to make ends meet. Many of them are women. By forming collectives, the Gond women such as Bhagwati Bai, are learning new agricultural techniques and working towards overcoming water scarcity. Living in a drought prone area with dry climate and limited water resources, these new modes of plantation have helped the women gain an income and maintain sustainable living. Crop rotation was one of the new techniques of farming that Bhagwati’s self-help group (SHG) has learnt. She has been part of the women’s (SHG) since its formation and also actively took part in installation of a solar lift irrigation system for growing fruits and vegetables in her village.

“Our self-help group has existed since 2005 and we gradually realised that water scarcity was our biggest problem. Not only did it restrict us from growing what we wished to, but also badly affected the quality of what was already grown in our farms. So, after a lot of discussions and mentorship, we got the solar pump installed in our village. This was in 2018-19,” Bhagwati tells Mongabay-India.

Bhagwati Bai of the Gond tribe. By forming collectives, the Gond women such as Bhagwati, are learning new agricultural techniques and working towards overcoming water scarcity. Photo by Jigyasa Mishra.

“It was a challenge for us initially because women taking leadership was not common in our houses and the entire village. It took us quite a while to convince our families to give us a chance. We began saving every penny and contributed the same to the SHG. When we explained our plan and how it was going to benefit the entire village, we gained some trust and confidence,” she added.

As per the information collected in Agriculture Census 2015-16, about 11.72% of the total operated area in the country was operated by female operational holders (farmers/person responsible for operating land holding). In Madhya Pradesh, there are 1.18 million female farmers (operational holders) as compared to 8.80 million male farmers (operational holders). Further, in the state, the percentage of female farmers enrolled under the central government’s crop insurance scheme, Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana, during 2020-21 is 12.6, while the percentage of female farmers under Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi, a minimum income support scheme, is 21.3.

According to a Gender Analysis Report conducted in Madhya Pradesh, 100% of the women sampled in the survey, said that they engage in one or the other agricultural activity but only a small percentage of them were involved in decision making.

Better income and nutrition for women

Ramli Bai, also a woman farmer from Muqaddam Tola, around 490 km away from the state capital, Bhopal, and her husband, cultivate maize, pulses and tomatoes and sell a part of the produce to the local market.

She tells Mongabay-India that she had never thought of growing mangoes in her farm. It always was just maize and sometimes pulses. “But this season, I am looking forward to growing mangoes, green chilli, tomatoes and cauliflower, along with maize. We are expecting to sell it in the near future and our children would be able to eat mangoes which we were almost unable to afford and buy for them,” Ramli shares in excitement.

Ramli, who is also part of the women’s self-help group, explains that the SHG collectively decides which member would take care of the keys to open and close the pump at decided times. That member gets changed on a monthly basis. “The dam is around 250 metres from our village. We have set the pump, right next to that. All of this confidence didn’t come easy. We were moving continuously towards the dream we were now aiming for. To have a water supply of our own and monitoring how it would be utilised was going to be a big task. Eventually, on seeing how dedicated we were, our families started supporting us. We finally brought change in the village in the form of water supply,” added Bhagwati.

Ramli Bai, also a woman farmer from Muqaddam Tola, and her husband, cultivate maize, pulses and tomatoes and sell a part of the produce to the local market. Photo by Jigyasa Mishra.

The training and skill-building of women to improve agricultural practices which in turn provided livelihood support in the village was done by Pradan Foundation, supported by Ikea Foundation. The project started in 2018-19.

Prashant Sharma, team coordinator, Amarpur, Pradan says, “The community worked as a team for the overall development (of the village). They, in fact, dug the entire trench manually, in which the suction pipeline was set to such water from the river. Pradan, with help from the funding organisation, supported them financially. For the Solar Lift Irrigation system, the community contribution was around Rs. 380,000 while rest was taken care of by the funding organisation (Aditya Birla Corporation Limited). The training included intercropping, setting up a solar lift irrigation system, horticulture model (fruit plants and vegetables beside traditional cropping. Now, the SHG generates money by selling bio-fertilisers and some vegetables and fruits.”

Ramli tells Mongabay-India, “Initially, all of us (women) were very hesitant to start any new initiatives. We had not done anything alike in our lives, prior to this. But gradually, we adopted practices like the System of Rice Intensification (SRI), vegetable cultivation, and mango cultivation that led to an increase in food security and brought us cash income. With this initial success, we women were confident to do intensive farming on our respective lands. That was when our family didn’t question us, and were rather thankful to us. At least, our husbands were.”

The organisation also trained the women in setting up a solar lift irrigation system. “All of us have worked really hard to get the solar lift irrigation (SLI) system installed in our village. We were extremely happy when we got the water from the solar pump because that is when, for the first time, we saw this much clean water in our village. But the pandemic restricted our sales. Moreover, it made us realise that we could now consume the vegetables we would otherwise not. Buying green vegetables is a luxury for us. But when it grows on your own farm, why won’t you?” Ramli giggles.

Consumption of wheat breads and lentils as meals is socially common in Madhya Pradesh. Another common social practice is that women eat after the rest of the family has finished their meal. Ramli shares how she would eat just dal (lentils) and roti (wheat bread) for lunch and dinner. Sometimes, she would consume pej or corn juice, traditionally consumed in the region. “But ever since I have started growing vegetables, I have started cooking and consuming them as well,” she says.

The National Family Health Survey (NFHS)–4 conducted by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare in 2015-16 states that 22.9% women (15-49 years of age) are underweight (BMI less than 18.5 kg/m2). Madhya Pradesh, at with 28.4%, is among the five states having the highest percentage of malnutrition among women.

Read more: Women revive talaabs for water security in Bundelkhand

Banner image: The women of Muqqadam Tola set up a solar lift irrigation system in their water scarce village. Photo by Jigyasa Mishra.

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