By Bipin Bihari
Meena Munda (name changed), a 28-year-old woman from a village in Lohardaga district of Jharkhand, shares her story as she prepares her field for sowing. With gleaming eyes, she tells us that, “it is for the first time our family has started cultivating in winter and summer seasons and is no longer at the mercy of erratic monsoons to meet subsistence needs.”
For the first time, Meena’s family is planning to cultivate in the Zaid (summer) season. Up until now, her family of five, akin to most other small/marginal holder cultivator households in rural Jharkhand had been practising rain-fed subsistence farming and cropping only in the Kharif (monsoon) season. This changed when she, along with other Self-Help Group (SHG) members in her village, opted to become members of a Producer Group (PG) in July 2019 under the Jharkhand Opportunities for Harnessing Rural Growth (JOHAR) project. As members of this collective, they gained access to collectively procured inputs, credit from the PG, knowledge inputs and access to irrigation from a scheme installed in their village under the project. In addition, they were also provided access to improved market linkages for the sale of produce beyond the village markets.
Traditionally, rural cultivator households in Jharkhand cultivate staple crops in a mono cropping situation such as paddy, and ragi. The produce is primarily used for self-consumption while the surplus is often bartered at the local markets for other essential commodities since a proper market information is not available.
Limited availability of irrigation prevents cropping more than once a year and the production of high-value agricultural (HVA) crops. Research conducted by JOHAR in 2018 indicates that among targeted cultivator households cropping intensity is low at 110%, suggesting high potential for gains in income by improving access to irrigation. Other impediments include low availability and inadequate access to credit, poor market linkages for inputs and the final outputs, and a skilling gap, along with an absence of systems that will enable farmers to be climate resilient.
Not surprisingly, studies show that the average annual per capita income in rural households is equal to Rs. 10,567 implying a per capita per day income of Rs. 29 only. Accordingly, the JOHAR project is designed with the central objective of providing support to targeted rural producer households to enhance and diversify their incomes from agriculture and allied sources.
The support provided to Meena for High-Value Agriculture (HVA) production and development of irrigation systems is, in fact, one of the four key production systems promoted by the project, others being livestock development, fisheries development and collection or processing of non-timber-forest-produce. The project builds upon the foundation of community-based institutions established under the National Rural Livelihoods Mission (NRLM) and further mobilises women from producer households to form PGs. Using this collectivisation model, it provides input, market, finance and knowledge interventions to push them up the value chain. Currently, the interventions under JOHAR are delivered through mobilising and collectivising 150,400 households across 68 identified blocks in 17 districts into PGs, delivered through the ongoing platform of 3,300 producer groups and 19 registered Farmer Producer Companies intended to support households. This will keep on increasing. In the context of HVA cultivation, these interventions have enabled farmers to undertake multiple season cropping and increase their land use.
Stories like that of Meena Munda and many others across the state demonstrate the potential of this model in doubling farmer income and reducing rural agrarian distress.
While it continues to be grossly underestimated, the collectivisation model also may hold the key to addressing social issues. India is uniquely suited for community-based intervention delivery given its high population density. Second, the government’s NRLM provides a wide network of community institutions at various stages of maturity that could be leveraged for projects such as this. Add to this, the low and fragmented production, coupled with poor market linkages and inefficiencies in low per capita income states such as Jharkhand that provide immense scope for the success of community-based models.
In conclusion, the JOHAR project provides evidence that this model holds promise for improving rural livelihoods. This provides us with valuable lessons about scaling up production with appropriate and best available technologies, collectivisation models in agriculture in other states or emulating it in other spheres of social development. However, any way forward would require implementing organisations including the state governments to adopt a bottom-up approach with higher investments in developing and strengthening institutional capacities at the village level. For instance, in the case of JOHAR, the Jharkhand State Livelihood Promotion Society empowers the project staff from District Project Officers to Block Project Officers to intensively participate in the process. Adequate institutional and infrastructural support along with the political and administrative will is, therefore, a pre-requisite to the success of any such project.
(Bipin Bihari is Project Director, JOHAR, Department of Rural Development, Govt of Jharkhand. The views expressed are the personal opinion of the author.)