I woke up earlier than usual because I had an exciting day ahead of me. After the mundane morning routine, my day was ready to take a different route. At 7 a.m I started my car for a two and half-hour drive towards the Mandla. Quite different from Jabalpur, the city I was visiting my relatives. The morning drive was pleasant. The sounds of birds and breezes, scattered and forlorn, added music to the journey. A few miles down, I could see the Narmada river curving along with its muddy banks. A few monkeys jumped overhead on the trees that arched the roadways. A sign that the urban lifestyle was retiring to a more benign setting.
After a couple of kilometres, vast stretches of paddy fields became the sight. Mandla had arrived. I made it to the ASA (Action for Social Advancement) office, where the team was eagerly waiting. I met Yogendra, a tall chap with a humble demeanour. He acquainted me with other members and the proceedings of the field visit.
The vibrant team of ASA in Mandla.
Field visit, what a simple term isn’t it? Well, it has much more to it than one can imagine. Between the two words lies an experience. An experience that can add tenor and layers to the psyche. A window to a distinct lifestyle that can put one into perspective. Mine for sure was unravelling.
After a brief chat with the team, we left for the Mandla Tribal Farmer producers organization, 30 km into the village. On the way, we were joined by Surendra, a farmer and one of the early adopters of change. Along with his usual farming, he is also carrying out office work for ASA and working as Agriculture Entrepreneur to make other villagers benefit through modern interventions. He also manages the distribution of fertilizers, pesticides, seeds, and other essentials required by the farmers in the community. It is people like him who assure the timely availability of resources which is crucial at sowing and harvesting periods. Many times failed crops have taken the lives of farmers with them.
We also visited Kamalji, an aged farmer whose techniques were quite modern. His rice field displayed an array of shoots streamlined in a disciplined manner, akin to that of a military parade. He took the time and effort to practice row farming. In this style, unlike “chitka” (seeds are thrown randomly), sowing is done in a planned manner. It allows the shoots to grow properly and generate a higher yield. It also helps the farmer to regulate the amount of fertilizers and pesticides required.
It requires more dedication and work hours on the field. Something that Kamalji is willing to put.
We then met another farmer who had two acres of land in a distant part of the village. But in a small piece of land adjoining his house, he grew vegetables for household consumption. ASA had helped him dig a shallow borewell, he invested 4-5k more to create a pond for a fishery. A farmer has to try all available means to earn a livelihood because uncertainty looms day in and day out.
Rang De Social Investment has enabled farmers with customized credit required for their immediate needs. Often in times of emergency, farmers take loans agreeing to exorbitant interest rates. Our Social Investments give them the space to breathe. A problem shared is a problem halved.
After visiting a couple of farmers we met the board of directors at the FPC. They are mostly the village elders who participate without any incentive in running the FPC. These are the concerned village elders who have been working for the good of farmers. A bunch of elderly people who the commoners trust the most and often obeyed the solutions they offer.
The FPO also had a godown for storage and seed sorting machinery which helps generate additional employment for villagers during the harvest season. The FPO has 2,500 farmers attached to it and it is something to look out for when all the people gather around the FPC area. It is no short of a big fair where all the farmers come over to listen to how the FPC has done over the last year, the profits made and development plans ahead. Annual meetings are held during harvest season enabling farmers to come under a framework and stand up for themselves. After a brief chat at the FPO over the socio-economic standpoint of the village, we headed to meet a young farmer. Om Prakash farmed three acres of land (equivalent to three full-length football fields). He grew tomatoes, chilli, and some fruits in a very distinctive style.
He is the face of modern farmers in India. He had set up drip irrigation systems, bamboo frameworks to support vegetable plants, proper mulching to preserve the quality of soil, and many more interventions. He has invested 2-3 lakhs for the season and hopes to generate a decent income. Vegetable farming comes with high risks and rewards as vegetable crops have to be monitored continuously for weeds, insects, pest attacks, etc. At the end of harvest, there is a fair chance of the market going up or down, which is not the case with traditional crops of rice or wheat which have MSP( Minimum Support Price). But apart from being exceptional at farming, a distant dream ruffled his feathers. A desire to span his wings. Every day he sits beneath the banyan tree and prepares for an examination while keeping an eye on the field. His plume grounded, for now. His flight was shackled by responsibilities. But it won't be long until he flies high. After meeting this extraordinary bunch of people, it was time for a 50kms cruise. Well not actually a cruise, more like a bumpy and curvy ride. Towards Mehadwani, a rocky and remote abode for a tribal community on the hilltop. Farming here is difficult, water doesn't hold and upland makes it even more difficult. Animal husbandry is what sets the wheels in motion here.
Our Impact partner ASA just doesn't harrumph at challenges instead they face it head-on. With multiple interventions like lift irrigation, Doha structures, etc green patches of fields were visible across the mountain range all due to their persistent efforts.
We met Akhilesh who was managing the lift irrigation system. He shared with us the intricacies of setting up an irrigation system. He took us down the valley, to show the pump that drew water from the Narmada river and long pipes that carried the elixir of life. It was dark, eyes were groping for the sight of familiar things. A handful of fireflies twinkled as if guiding the way. The day was coming to an end, and I took a moment for the view to sink in. Fireflies and the dawning sky.
Akhilesh was adamant to let us go and would budge until we had tea with him. Though it was quite late in the day for us to head back to Mandla, we were completely taken away by his warmth and hospitality and headed towards his home nearby. I must admit that it was one of the best teas I had in a while, which was in the ambience of a clear view of the starry sky above us. We sat for a while to hear the village stories and then made our way back to Mandla.
The field trip which I thought would have been a stroll in the field was much more than that and left me humbled and grateful for the experiences I have gathered during the day. I would equally owe it to the enthusiastic ASA team who have made arrangements for the trip and went the extra mile to help me visit multiple places. The next morning, I left for my home reminiscing about the events that unfolded, waiting to share it with the Rang De team. The subtle rewards of being a social investor. The experience stays fresh and shall be revisited.