With temperatures rising, weather patterns changing and climate-related disasters becoming more frequent, food security has become a major challenge across the world, and especially in India. As key players in the country’s agriculture sector (approximately 43% of the farm labour force), rural women are at the centre of this challenge.
According to a FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) report, if women are given equal access to resources as men, agricultural yield could increase by 2-4% in developing countries, enough to feed at least 100 million more undernourished people!
One such inspiring woman was Sangeeta Deol of Punjab. Affectionately known as the ‘Honey Bee Queen’ of Punjab, Sangeeta was polio-stricken as a child, but she didn’t let the affliction stop her from pioneering a diversified farming revolution in the state.
After a sterling farming career (that won her many awards, including ‘Farmer of India’ and ‘Mind of Steel’), the 66-year-old Sangeeta passed away earlier this week. Here is a tribute to the hardworking lady who made a positive difference in Punjab’s farming communities while inspiring others in the process.
Hailing from the Dhanal Kalan village of Punjab’s Jalandhar district, Sangeeta was just four-years-old when she was diagnosed with polio, a highly contagious viral disease that left her with a permanently crippled foot. Despite the difficulties caused by the disability, her parents (who were marginal farmers) ensured that Sangeet received a good education that would stand her in good stead throughout her life.
After her wedding to Inderpal Singh Deol (a former Army soldier who worked as an automobile mechanic), Sangeeta decided to try her hand at farming to contribute to the family’s meagre income. In the 1960s, she set up a small poultry farm and was perhaps the first woman in the state to drive a tractor in her fields.
At that time, the family owned less than 5 acres of land and practised subsistence farming. After much research, Sangeeta decided to grow mushrooms to supplement the farm income. With no savings to back the venture, she sold her gold jewellery to raise money for the same. Next, she took a course in mushroom farming at Punjab Agricultural University (PAU) before starting the cultivation of mushrooms on her farm.
In the early 1980s, there was very little public awareness about mushrooms as a food item and consequently, very less demand in the locals market of Jalandhar. Realising this, Sangeeta began visiting several hotels and clubs to give demonstrations on making snacks from mushrooms.
Sangeeta also started taking her mushrooms to the larger markets of Delhi, Every two days, she would catch the 8.45 pm train to Delhi with 150 kg of mushroom stock to reach the market by 5 am the next day. After haggling with the vendors and quickly finishing the sale, she would catch a train back to Jalandhar. On returning home, she would cook food for the family, take care of her two children and prepare for her next trip to the market.
Sangeeta adhered to this taxing schedule for four-five years until there was a greater awareness and demand for mushrooms in Punjab. In 1984, the enterprising farmer decided to diversify into commercial bee keeping. She started with ten boxes, and by 1990, the number of boxes had increased to 3000. At one point in time, she was producing over 200 quintals of honey per annum, all of which she marketed herself!
One of India’s first large-scale bee farmers and honey producers, Sangeeta was honoured by the Punjab Government in 1988 and by the Bee Keepers Federation in 1999. She also introduced a honey extracting machine for small bee keepers that was much appreciated by PAU scientists.
Having ensured a stable income for her family, Sangeeta decided to help others like her. She started training underprivileged women, unemployed youth, retired Army officers and marginal farmers in bee-keeping. Many of these took up commercial bee keeping after attending her course and are earning well today.
In the 2000s, as honey production decreased due to falling quality of pollen, Sangeeta successfully diversified into dairy farming and vermicompost production. Realising that innovative mixed farming could be a solution to rising farmer suicides in Punjab, she began inviting farmers from different parts of the state for lessons in alternative and sustainable farming.
Sangeeta also served as the chairperson of the Agriculture Technology Management Agency (ATMA) and president of the Bee Keepers Association, Jalandhar. She used these platforms to encouraged women farmers in Punjab to educate themselves, participate in family decision-making and not be afraid of trying out innovative techniques.
Gritty and determined, Sangeeta Deol was one of the brightest flames in Punjab’s farming community. She didn’t just overcome her physical disability but also demolished several social stereotypes that discouraged women from taking the lead in agricultural work.