Farmers return to cash in on Raigad
No longer enamoured by 12-hour work schedules in big cities, farmers from villages across Maharashtra's Raigad district are coming back home to harvest bumper crops instead. Educated in the city but skilled in farming as well, these men have now realised there's more to these lands than just paddy. Bubbling with new ideas and innovative farming techniques, they have made Raigad the new capital of exotic vegetables and cash crops, finds Moeena Halim
Twenty-eight year-old Chandrakant Pawar, charming, outspoken and eloquent, could very well pass off for an executive finding his way up the corporate ladder. The enterprising young man, however, is one of many farmers who have returned to their respective villages in the Raigad after spending several years in Mumbai, to till the land and reap benefits.
When I meet Pawar at Mudra, a village 20 kilometres from Mangaon in Raigad, he is dressed to the nines and talks with an air of confidence. He also has the wonderful ability to laugh at himself. So when we ask about his education, he admits blithely that pursuing agricultural studies had merely been a way of passing time. “I wanted to go the city and earn lots of money. I never knew one day I would be using my academic knowledge,” he chuckles.
“But look how useful it is turning out to be now,” adds the Mandatana-resident, who was honoured with the Krushi Bhushan Award by the Raigad Zilla Parishad for using innovative agriculture technologies on July 1, celebrated as Agriculture Day across the state.
All roads lead home
Until about two years ago, Pawar and his friend Nilesh Mowle, like most other villagers their age, were expected to earn their bread in the city and send a certain amount home at the beginning of every month. But while Pawar, who took on a job as a swimming coach in Mumbai, shacked up in a tiny rented room in a far suburb, his seven-hectare ancestral property was paid little attention to.
“My father was old and could no longer take care of the land by himself,” Pawar explains. With not enough time to go back to the village, nor any particular love for the land, many of his fellow young villagers had already started selling their farms to rich city businessmen. “I felt they were taking a shortcut,” he asserts. Refusing to give up his land, Pawar decided it was time to go back home. “Mowle and I had studied agriculture together. We were both fed up of our meagre salaries and hand-to-mouth existence in the city and decided to make good use of our education instead,” reveals Pawar.
The crop revolution
On his return, Pawar was offered help from Raigad-based NGO, the Swades Foundation. With advisory support from the NGO’s experts, he has been growing 12 to 14 cash crops each year on the land his father had always used to cultivate just paddy, that gave just about enough rice to feed the family. “I grow turmeric, watermelon, spinach, chillies, banana, lemon grass, pumpkin, brinjal,” he rattles off, naming only a few. “I enjoy experimenting with different vegetables. When one crop’s cycle gets over, I immediately begin to sow another,” adds Pawar. From his Rs 6,000 per month income in the city, Pawar has now graduated to making Rs 1.5 lakh a year.
The art of second cropping
As we drive along the winding roads from one Raigad village to another, I notice the countless paddy fields that seem todefine these Ghats with their lush green patches across muddy plots of land. It is clear that Pawar’s father isn’t the onlyone to favour the cultivation of rice without a thought for other vegetables or fruits.
“Growing rice has been a tradition in the Konkan region. The high levels of rainfall make it extremely convenient for the crop to grow well. Seeds are sown before the rain begins, around the end of May. For the next four months or so, until the crop needs to be harvested in November-December, the rice demands continuous attention -- the grass needs to be cut regularly and so on. But during the rest of the year, most farmers do nothing. They don’t have to worry about earning -- their children usually send money from the cities. So they are content with growing enough rice for the family to eat all year round. If they do manage to grow surplus amounts and sell the rice, it gets them not more than Rs 15,000 to Rs 20,000 annually,” explains Tushar Inamdar, District Head Social Work, Swades Foundation.
Inamdar, who has been working in the region for over a decade, has had a hard time convincing the farmers to introduce a second crop to their farm. “There are times when heavy rains choke off the rice plants’ air supply, ruining the year’s crop. In such a situation it is crucial that they have a fall-back option of a second crop. Several different pulses, fruits such as watermelon or flowers such as the marigold are good options as a second crop for rice fields. Second cropping can potentially increase their income by three times,” says Inamdar. Apart from enlightening the farmers about what to grow and when to grow it, the social worker and the rest of the Swades team have introduced the farmers to innovative, sustainable agricultural techniques such as drip irrigation and grafting.
Power to the farmer
While second cropping might involve too much for farmers all set to retire, the returnees, or “reverse migrants”, seem keen to take on the challenge and the extra labour it involves. Manohar Dumal, a resident of Mudra, is a prime example. After spending about a decade in Mumbai, he returned to his village in 2008. His last job at a factory in the city meant he had to make the 27-kilometre commute between Dahisar (where he stayed) to Vasai everyday. “I visited my nine-acre plot twice a year, during monsoon and during harvest time in December,” recalls Dumal. “But after I attended my first Swades monthly meeting, where we discuss agricultural techniques and issues, and talk about savings, I realised that returning to my rural roots and taking care of my farm was my best bet.”
Dumal now mainly cultivates watermelon, brinjal and turmeric (something that the villages in Raigad have really taken to growing). “I still earn about the same amount as I did in the city, but this way I get to stay with my family, ensure sufficientsavings, and work for the betterment of my village,” says Dumal, who also works part-time as a police officer. “Whenever they need my assistance, they call me for help.” Several other villagers in Mudra have taken a cue from Dumal and have found their way back home. However, across the 29 homes in the village about 30 people continue to work in Mumbai.
One step at a time
According to Mahesh Tatkare, also a ‘reverse migrant’, it isn’t feasible for all the farmers to return to the village. “Not just yet,” he says, when I meet him at his village Rajivali, set atop a picturesque Ghat. “Twenty-three young villagers from my village are keen to return to farming. But the truth is that the village is just not equipped for the cultivation of so many farms. Water for irrigation is currently our prime concern,” says Tatkare, an active member of five village committees and secretary of the Water Management Committee.
The 39-year-old farmer, who returned to the village about five years ago, was busy tilling his two-and-a-half acre farm when we interrupted him. “My wife and I, with some help from my parents, manage all the labour ourselves. We do not need to hire anyone,” says Tatkare, who is currently cultivating oats, rice, and coconuts and will grow brinjals, cucumbers, bitter melon (karela), gourd, and okra in the near future. “The power tiller helps me achieve in a mere hour what I would normally do in a day with a couple of bullocks,” he adds pointing to the device he bought last year with financial aid from Swades.
While the metric pass, who worked as a fabricator, saw the return to his roots as an opportunity and a challenge, his wife wasn’t always as keen with the proposition. “My wife was panicking about what she’d do in the village after having spent so many years in the city. But now, she’s the happiest,” smiles Tatkare, inviting us to his home for a cup of tea.
We can’t take him up on his offer, the city beckons us back. But my reluctance to leave the breathtaking greenery of the Sahyadris for the dreary concrete jungle makes me wonder how difficult it must be for the villagers each time they had to leave home to work in the city. Perhaps, as Tatkare reveals, sufficient access to the right resources is incentive enough for them to make the journey back home a permanent one.