Jai Kisan Chachi!
Rajkumari Devi is no astrologer. But with self-acquired expertise in agriculture she has become proficient in assessing the quality of soil in her area and ensuring successful harvests. With three decades of experience, Kisan Chachi or Farmer Aunty as she is called, has learnt all the nuances of good farming practices. Today, this 58-year-old mother of three grown-up children, cycles through the dusty lanes of villages in Bihar’s Muzaffarpur district, giving tips to people on kitchen farming and developing the right agri-based products for business. She has mobilised more than 300 women to form self-help groups (SHGs) and become financially independent.
Rajkumari laughingly explains how she got the nickname Kisan Chachi: “Since most people in the area called me chachi, and I also was a successful kisan, everyone started calling me Kisan Chachi.” Although at first glance she appears to be like any ordinary village woman, the moment Rajkumari starts talking about farming practices, she emerges the true expert that she is. In fact, people from across the block regularly invite her to inspect their land and predict their crop quality. “I am no scientist. But over the years, I have come to know the soil of this area well. I might not be 100 per cent right always, but I do know what can grow in this region,” she says.
But Rajkumari was not born a farm expert. Thirty-five years ago, she was just another timid housewife of an unemployed man in the remote village of Anandpur, in Saraiya block of Muzaffarpur. At that time she had nothing, except one acre of arid land she inherited from her husband’s family. But she had the will to make life better for herself and her family.
So, in the early 1980s, a determined Rajkumari picked up the shovel and sickle to help her husband. He grew tobacco for many years because, like most farmers in this block, that was the only thing he knew. When he was away in nearby towns to sell the leaves, Rajkumari would single-handedly toil on the farm.
That’s how she learnt everything there was to know about her land. As time went by, this hardworking farmer realised that there was much more to agriculture than just growing tobacco. So she embraced change. “Over time, I understood my farmstead so well that I knew what to grow where. So I divided the land into plots and began to grow vegetables and fruits instead of tobacco,” she says.
Initially, people had a hard time accepting her new role. Even the elements were not really on her side — the annual floods would wipe away all the assets she built over the year. But despite the tough times, Rajkumari persevered and perfected the cropping cycle. She grew paddy and wheat in the low-lying fields and rows of banana, mango and papaya trees in the remaining land.
As she got busy transforming her land, fellow villagers — especially women — watched her hard at work. Soon, her neighbours began emulating her and she, in turn, gave everyone her wholehearted support by sharing her expertise freely. She also helped form SHGs in her block.
SHGs at work
Today, inspired village women across Saraiya have got together in groups of 10 and formed around 35 SHGs that are working on integrated farming and agri-business. They get the capital to run their farms from bank loans and government support from the Swarna Jayanti Swayam Rozgar Yojna. A happy Meera Devi, 40, of the Pipra Khusboo SHG, says, “We were simple housewives until Kisan Chachi taught us how to grow vegetables and fruits. We are now self-reliant and can earn up to Rs 3,000 a month.” Manju Devi, a group member, adds, “Life has changed here. Women have started earning. It is true that we were only experts in household chores but now we also sell our home-made products in the market.”
Dharamshila Devi of Poonam Basuchak SHG says, “There was a time when we were totally dependent on the government’s NREGA scheme for work and it’s common knowledge that even on these jobs, there is bias against women. We have now started working on our own, even if we take up NREGA work.”
Today, the fields of Saraiya block are never barren. Renewable crops are rotated between major seasonal crops for better yields and soil recycling. And thanks to the government’s financial support and easily available low-interest bank loans, most SHG members are also expanding their farms to include fish farming, poultry and cow breeding.
Rajkumari has also set up a non-profit organisation that not only picks fresh produce from the SHG-run farms nearby but also employs women to make agriculture-based products. Such has been the impact of Kisan Chachi on farming practices in Muzaffarpur, a district that is just 80 km from Patna, that even Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar visited her when she was conferred the Kisan Shree Award a few years ago. “He had asked me what I wanted. And I said, ‘All I want is that our backward district be less afflicted by the devastating annual floods,'” she recalls.
The welfare of her district and its people is high on her priority. Before she entered farming, the people of Anandpur and 19 other villages in Saraiya and Manikpur panchayats had no idea they could change their cropping patterns. They were happy growing wheat, paddy and tobacco. Now, women from Pipra, Manikpur, Basochak, Saraiya and Karhara panchayats have enthusiastically taken to the ‘Kisan Chachi way of cultivation’. To further her work, this feisty woman took the plunge and contested panchayat elections from the neighbouring Manikpur Gram Panchayat, which is reserved for women. She lost. Rajkumari says ruefully, “I did not win because people here vote on the basis of caste and that matters more than development.” But despite the defeat, Kisan Chachi continues to be a greatly respected figure in these parts. Manju Devi, the present Mukhiya of Manikpur Gram Panchayat, speaks for everybody when she says, “Kisan Chachi has done a lot for all of us. She is a real role model.”