Returning to Life with a Future

March 2019
Featured on Rice Today Magazine

Located in the midst of a natural reserve forest on the outskirts of Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu, the people of the tribal farming community of Sadivayal were left to fend for themselves as rapid economic development has been thrusting India’s urbanisation forward. For generations these men and women have survived from agriculture, but in recent years farming has become unprofitable. Due to the ever-increasing burdens of seed crops, fertilisers, and pesticides, they had been making losses over many years. This forced these needful families into the scrupulous hands of illicit money lenders, who thrived on their despair, and a banking system that shuts out the poor without collateral.

Amrita SeRVe stands for Self-Reliant Village. It is a rural development project that belongs to the Mata Amritanandamayi Math, following the guidance of spiritual and humanitarian leader Sri Mata Amritanandamayi Devi. With headquarters in the Amritapuri ashram in Kerala, the programme operates in some of the most impoverished villages in 21 states across India with the goal of restoring their original vibrancy and prosperity. Hearing of the farmers’ plight in Sadivayal, Amrita SeRVe came to the village in early 2016, where it found a job- and penniless community.

By that time the fields, for which the families did not even have land deeds, had been abandoned for three years, alcoholism was widespread, and the pressure of debt and hopelessness frequently translated into arguments and fights. The villagers had lost their sense of direction and lived under conditions of extreme poverty. After understanding the miserable situation of farmers, a plan was drawn up to revive the community’s agriculture from ground up. The first step, was the formation of a farmers’ group – the very first Amrita Vyavasayam Kulu, comprising 20 of the most deprived farming families.

Collectively the group owns 35 acres of fertile farmland, relying entirely on rain for irrigation. The members themselves defined their responsibilities and formulated guidelines for internal management. With guidance from Amrita SeRVe, they started with activities like selection of seed variety, soil testing, seed testing, crop planning, water budgeting and water conservation measures. Every step was discussed by the group to find solutions.

Among the first priorities was securing a reliable water source to guarantee sufficient irrigation for the water intensive cultivation of rice. It was decided to reinstate a natural canal from a water source on top of a mountain that is 2.5 kilometres away. This endeavour would also provide labour jobs for people in the village. Also, applications for land deeds and a joint group bank account were submitted to become eligible for agricultural government schemes.

Subsidies were availed for renting a tractor used for tillage and obtaining new seeds. Since chemical agriculture has proven to drive these marginal farmers into losses, it became clear that organic farming is their only future. Training sessions on the preparation of natural fertilisers and pesticides, such as Jivamritam, as well as seed treatment using an ancient recipe called Bijamritam, were provided by Amrita SeRVe. The farmers in turn contributed with maximum participation and the faith that through this new venture the livelihood of their entire village could be restored and a brighter future would await them.

We took a chance and tried something different. The result was selling a new crop for double the price of anything we had grown before. Not only that, but the seeds we planted gave us a double yield.

–late Mr. Rajan, founding member of Amrita Vyavasayam Kulu.

On the 20th of June 2016, the farmers planted nearly 600 kilograms of organic Bhavani rice on their joint land. In accordance with their customs, a ritual of worship was performed by the fields, to imbibe blessings from Devi, their patron deity. “At first we were unsure and more than a little tensed,” tells Kaliswami, a member of the farmers’ group. “But once we started to see the first rice sprouts spring from the ground, we knew success was on its way.”

After sowing of the new crop, more investments were needed to provide for the security of their fields. In the past, wild animals, including monkeys, wild pigs, and elephants, have caused serious damage. Over the coming years this threat would prove to be one of their ongoing challenges. That year, a shelter was erected from which the fields could be overseen. Two farmers would be on the lookout day and night for any wild intruders during critical periods.

After the first harvest in January 2017, it became clear that all their hard efforts had come to fruition. Reducing the costs of fertilisers and pesticides by converting to entirely organic practices, availing government schemes, and securing irrigation with the hand-dug canal, the farmers’ initial costs had been dramatically reduced. This coming together of initiatives from the government, farmers, and NGOs is known as the convergence method. Thanks to this approach, the Sadivayal farmers harvested their first profitable crop in five years. They saw a phenomenal increase in net income – from a loss of Rs. 23,600 in earlier years to a profit of Rs. 27,000 per acre using natural farming methods.

Another attributor to this wealth was the adoption of post-harvest techniques, such as cutting, cleaning, and sorting. This not only increased the market value of their rice, but also allowed for the sale of valuable organic rice paddy that is always in high demand. Key to selling their goods is marketing, which isolated villagers commonly struggle with. With the help of Amrita SeRVe, bulk buyers were identified directly at the big markets, removing middlemen. As a result, with the earnings from just one successful season, the farmers were able repay all their debts to moneylenders and return to a hopeful life with recovered confidence and self-respect.

This great success has attracted the attention of several government officials who visited the farmers, promising to support similar initiatives with more subsidies. Plans for a long trench surrounding the fields were also sanctioned by the local forest department to protect from wild elephant intrusions in the future. At the same time, surrounding villages also expressed their interest in learning the Sadivayal farmers’ methods and wished to convert to natural methods of farming, as well. Within two years 150 acres of fallow land in five nearby villages were converted to rice fields for the adoption of a similar approach.

We are committed to continuing with organic farming. It won’t be easy. We know there are challenges. The soil needs to be revived after decades of chemical use, and that will take a couple of years. But we have to continue this practice to heal the soil.

–– Kaliswami, member of Amrita Vyavasayam Kulu.

For the following season, the farmers decided to expand their operation to 40 acres by reclaiming barren land. This month, January 2019, they have harvested their third fully organic crop. Over the course of three fruitful years, life in the village has changed dramatically – this time for good! Alcoholism and fighting have reduced drastically. Banks have opened their doors to the farmers who are no longer exploited due to ignorance. Along with their confidence and improved relationships with the local forestry department, most people in the village got second jobs to earn additional income in the forest or nearby lands.

The farmers of Sadivayal have turned their fate around thanks to the inspiration, organisation, and perseverance of Amrita SeRVe, whose agricultural programme manager Sreeni K.R. has been leading this transformation. Now the village has become a role model in the region, and the farmers are in a position to give training to interested farmers in nearby districts. With government projects underway, such as the construction of a check dam and warehouses, as well as initiated efforts for organic certification, the air is energised with hope for a once again prosperous agricultural sector, building on the inclusive methods of a long-standing tradition of natural farming.

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