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Cultivating a future for Assam’s farmers

Far from the bustling streets and jam packed roads of the city, Reeeta Devi is busy irrigating her farm, forested with green pulses, collard green, and cucumbers in India’s northeastern state of Assam. 

Only two years ago, Devi was eking out a living by woking from dawn to dusk as a maid in peoples’ homes, earning a meager 1,500 Indian rupees or US $20 a month.   

Finding her husband, a daily wage laborer, struggling each day to make ends meet to support his family, Devi felt she needed to find a way to contribute more. However, even as the husband-wife duo toiled for months, they couldn’t provide a good life for their three little children — two girls aged six and seven and a 4-year-old boy.

“It was a burden to save money so we could provide our children a good education at some private school where kids speak English. It was our dream to see our children get a modern education. But with the sordid conditions we were in, it was impossible to realize that long cherished dream,” Devi said.

Devi and her husband had, however, forgotten that they had ancestral land, fertile for cultivation, measuring half an acre, in the backyard of their dilapidated dwelling. About five years prior, the family had abandoned farming, finding it both too cumbersome and costly.

“We used to earn nothing out of the land. The draughts, unseasonal rains, and climate change wrecked havoc, leaving us and scores of farmers in our area with no option but to abandon farming and work as daily wage laborers,” said Yogesh Das, Devi’s husband. 

Help, however, came when Caritas India held an awareness campaign in Das’s area, informing scores of residents in this far-flung remote hamlet how their incomes could rise if they adopted organic and alternate farming methods in their fields. 

At first, many farmers like Das were reluctant to tread the new path. However, when given one-on-one counseling by the Caritas members, they glimpsed the potential of pulling profits from the seemingly barren lands.

With the requisite training, Singh was empowered to cultivate organic pulses from his land. His wife Devi joined in.

But Devi had one question for the Caritas team: when all was said and done, where would she sell her produce? The Caritas team assured them that the urban market would provide them a steady monthly income.

Caritas India, a social arm of the Catholic Church, has been working with farmers in India’s northeastern state of Assam, showing them how organic and alternate farming methods can boost their incomes. (Photo provided)

Das’s farm is now overflowing with not only pulses, but cucumbers, collard greens and many other vegetables — all grown organically.

“Apart from giving us the market, Caritas trained us to adopt more modern methods so that we could save ourselves from the dreadful menace of climate change. We have been given enough training that we now can encourage other people who have abandoned farming to come back to the profession of their ancestors,” Devi said. 

As for Das, his monthly income has surged from a few hundreds bucks to 35,000 Indian Rupees.

“More than a year has passed since we adopted organic farming methods and the changes have been quite evident. We now are planning to send our kids to an English school and buy them neatly-stitched uniforms and colorful school bags,” said Das.

Farmers in India have borne the brunt of climate change for the past decade, with cultivation of various crops witnessing a serious dip. The share of the farm sector in India’s GDP declined from 29 percent in 1990 to about 17 percent in 2016, although it remains a major source of employment. 

According to Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) data, 85 percent of operational land holdings span less than two hectares and account for 45 percent of the total cropped area. 

Only five percent of farmers work on land spanning more than four hectares, according to the Agricultural Census, 2016. Productivity lags other Asian economies such as China, Vietnam, and Thailand, and average yields in India are low compared to other global producers. Wheat and rice yields are nearly three times lower than world yields, while those for mango, banana, onion, and potatoes are two to seven times lower than the highest yields achieved globally, according to the OECD.

Anjan Beg, a spokesman for Caritas India, said the organization has been facilitating agricultural regeneration measures in 15 districts of seven northeastern states covering 200 villages since 2018. Some 77 percent of 200 village communities have identified traditional good farming systems which can improve cultivation. Meanwhile, 135 of those villages have opted to adopt those good farming practices. 

Caritas India, a social arm of the Catholic Church, has been working with farmers in India’s northeastern state of Assam, showing them how organic and alternate farming methods can reap good fortunes. (photo provided)

Anjan said 5,280 out of 12,093 targeted families are practicing the traditional farming systems which are appropriate in their local context. 

Allen Francis, a poultry farmer, said he was working as a salesman in an electronic showroom until he attending the Caritas workshops. After a month of training, he was encouraged to make the career switch, which allowed him to return home to his family.

“At present I earn a few thousand bucks more than my showroom job and I am more content because I am with my family in my own village earning a decent livelihood,” said Francis. 

In his neighborhood lives Roy Mathew, who grows forest-based medicinal plants, which play a vital role in traditional, preventive, and curative health practices. 

“We had known long before that the forests in India’s northeast are filled with scores of medicinal plants which are in high demand on the herbal treatment market. Caritas showed me how to grow these plants on my land. I now deal directly with the firms who desperately need them for making herbal medicines,” said Mathew.

Beg said there has been synergy between those taking up the growing of such plants and practitioners of traditional medicine in local communities. 

“Genuine practitioners, once motivated, have come forward to share their knowledge, and this is beneficial to those who come to learn and apply their newfound knowledge,” said Beg.

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