Rasheeda Bhagat

Why Leelaben matters so much

RASHEEDA BHAGAT | Updated on January 22, 2018

Finding a voice Leelaben being heard. RASHEEDA BHAGAT

A tribal woman shows farmers how to transform their lives by adopting efficient and environmentally friendly practices

“I don’t know your name, Collector Sahib, but you are very welcome in our village,” says Leelaben Karsanbhai, 30. Like a seasoned speaker, she is addressing a meeting of 100-odd villagers and all the bada sahib who have descended on the tribal village of Katarvad, 130 km east of Vadodara, Gujarat, in the tribal belt bordering Madhya Pradesh.

District Collector Jenu Devan, officials from the Shroff Foundation Trust active in Chhota Udepur district, and their partners, watch in awe as Leelaben goes on to explain the transformation that has come about in this village in the last few years. With a command area of 167 ha, this village with a population of around 800, once suffered from its total dependency on the monsoon. Thanks to a law that prohibits the sale of their land to non-tribals, all 212 families in the village own land, most of them small fields measuring one to four acres. During the monsoon months of June to September they would earlier harvest a single crop of paddy, maize, cotton or other millets. But with simple interventions from the NGO such as levelling of their undulating land, building of check dams, gully plugs (strategic placement of large stones to trap the available rain water), water harvesting and community wells, the villagers now enjoy two or even three harvests. They also grow vegetables for their own use, selling the surplus in the market.

Building self-confidence

It’s fascinating to listen to Leelaben. She has now become more than a farmer, helping her husband, Karsanbhai, to increase their family income threefold. Her eight-year-old daughter goes to school, the son is only two, and she swears they will both get equal opportunities in education. She herself has passed Class 10 and is now the primary social worker and trainer in the farm school — the Trust runs 72 in this region — and effortlessly speaks of “SRI” (systematic rice intensification), vermi composting and bio fertilisers such as “Amrut pani and Brahmastra”!

Later, she shows how through “SRI, paddy yield can improve significantly. It’s a scientific way to get more produce with fewer seeds and less water. The villagers meet at this farm school; I train both men and women in these scientific farming methods, explain to them the advantages of locally produced natural fertilisers like Amrut pani and Brahmastra, they go home and follow these methods.”

She rounds off her address with sound advice for the village women. Her diction, tone and body language are that of a seasoned activist when she says, “When given the freedom, training and opportunity to participate in developmental and economic activity of the village, we women can effectively prove that we are capable of improving the lives and livelihoods of everybody. But often we are suppressed and relegated to the background with menial jobs.”

Bright rural landscape

As she winds up her speech with a clarion call to the women to unite to change their own and their families’ future, Devan who is in attendance to dedicate the latest initiatives such as two check dams, community wells and cattle sheds to the village, reveals the dilemma he faces. Often, at State-level meetings when they are asked to get rural women to speak at events presided over by the chief minister, “we have a big problem as the women are very nervous and unable to speak. But the next time I will know exactly where to look for such a woman,” he says with a smile.

Leelaben returns to her role of Samaj Shilpi (social worker) to explain how natural and locally made fertilisers will not only give them better quality produce — “Madam, you should have seen the fresh green leaves of the watermelons we produced this year” — but also reduce the number of times the crop is irrigated from six to three times. “I train villagers on how the use of natural fertilisers improves the moisture content of the soil and improves its quality,” she says.

And I return home reassured that with a little bit of handholding and adequate opportunities, women can bring about a sea change in the Indian rural landscape and their own lives. Much more than doles or subsidies, they need training, opportunities and assurance that they can and will be made stakeholders in important decisions concerning their lives and livelihoods.

Published on November 09, 2015

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