“Ask not what the country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”
– John F Kennedy.
Kennedy probably didn’t realise that 40 years later a small Indian village called Poi in Maharashtra would take on the challenge.
At the beginning of the century, 825 people from 180 households in Poi decided not to wait for the state to help them overcome an underemployment crisis they were facing.
Farming was the primary occupation in the village. Poi’s farmers were busy only during the monsoon season, but post the harvest, and there was nothing much workwise. Men would wander the streets, while women resorted to household chores. The situation was especially dire during the winter months.
The pattern was worrying, so one of the villagers, Harishchandra Sambre, who worked at the Maharashtra Forest Department chanced upon a solution to facilitate work during winter.
“In other parts of Maharashtra, I saw farmers working on more than one crop a year. This not only brought in extra income but also kept people busy throughout the year,’’ recalls a now-retired Harishchandra.
Poi is located in the Sahyadri mountain range, situated a few kilometres away from a perennial but small river Barvi. Even though small, the river has never dried up.
“This is the Konkan region. There is plenty of water in our rivers, and heavy monsoon rains replenish them sufficiently. We decided to exploit this advantage by bringing water to our village during the winters,” explains Gurunath Sambre, the only postgraduate and B.ED degree holder in the village.
His education and the support of his uncle, Harishchandra, villagers easily trusted the decision. Everybody backed the idea of laying a two-kilometre pipeline connecting the river to the Poi.
“Every able-bodied man from the village joined hands to dig a long trench; a three-inch-wide pipe passing through thick forest and stony land was laid down. We worked for 30 days to get this task done,’’ said Narayan Guthere, a farmer.
Sunil Sambre, who runs the only farm input and equipment shop supplying says, “Today you will find a car, a jeep or a bike in every house. In the last decade, our village has prospered due to the money earned in lakhs by harvesting two crops in a year.’’
But the pipeline plan would not come to life without money. They decided to collect Rs 2,000 from each farmer which gave them a corpus of Rs 50,000 in the year 2000.
Gurunath, who resigned from the job of a teacher to work as a full-time farmer said that the collected fund wasn’t enough for their plan.
Besides the pipeline, they also needed to install a motor pump on the river bank to pull up the water and construct a small pump house.
They asked villagers for more money. At that time every farmer couldn’t contribute. So they decided that those who couldn’t pay at that particular juncture could pay in instalments.
“We are lucky that the villagers had complete faith in us!’’ recalls Sunil, the younger brother.
Villagers also spoke about what vegetables should be grown and how, so that the entire community benefits from it.
They decided on growing vegetables as it takes a short time, four months, to harvest and after that, the land can be ready for the monsoon to grow their traditional crop of rice.
It was also decided that the entire village would grow only one species. And it would be completely organic. Only one variety would be sown, harvested, transported and marketed at the same time so that the product could be carried in bulk to the nearby wholesale market in Kalyan (20 km away), thereby cutting down the cost of individual transportation.
They hit upon the idea of growing Lady’s finger (Bhindi). For 17 years the village has been successfully doing so.
Initially, the farmers struggled to get the best crop. It took a couple of years, but after that, there was no looking back!
Today’s Poi’s Bhindi as it’s known in the markets of Maharashtra gets a premium price. In the wholesale market, when ordinary bhindi gets Rs 30 per kg, Poi’s bhindi is sure to fetch at least Rs 35 per kg. The extra five rupees when translated into several tons of bhindi add into a lot of money. With this a farmer in Poi makes a minimum of Rs 1.5-Rs 2 lakh per acre in a season of bhindi!
Most of the farmers have a minimum of 5 acres. This is beside the money they get from their paddy fields. The power tariff and maintenance amount needed for the water transportation is charged per acre. The water distribution too is done systematically by allotting a particular day and hours to each farmer as bhindi doesn’t need daily watering.
“In the market, you can easily distinguish our superior quality of bhindi,’’ says a proud Sunita Sambre, the teacher at the beautifully maintained Balwadi of about 30 students, talking about the achievements of her husband Gurunath and other villagers.
With extra money coming in the village, women too came out of the household chores. They formed a Mahila Mahasangh Gath which has about 150 members of young and old women. They contribute Rs 100 per month and have started a business deal with the men of the village.
“We have bought a power tiller and rice harvester by a grant from the Zilla Parishad. We rent it to farmers at Rs 400 an hour. We have a driver whom we pay on an hourly basis. The profit made from these ventures is used when someone needs money urgently in the village. We also give education loans, health loans etc.,’’ explained Sunita Bhutare, the treasurer of the Gath.
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It’s nice to see women wearing nine-yard Kasota saris, talking in the Poi dialect of Marathi, discussing business, money and education. They all meet at least once a month to discuss family-related matters and take decisions to solve each other’s’ problems. Every child goes to the village school up to 7th class. After that, they go to a high school in the neighbouring village and then to one of the many colleges in the close by township of Kalyan.
Prosperity and education have brought in awareness. There is no daru ka adda (liquor joint) anywhere near the village. Villagers follow strict prohibition. Its’ WiFi connected and Gurunath who doubles up as manager of a small outlet of Bank of Maharashtra, with more than 1000 accounts and a daily transaction of more than a lakh rupees, works on Net-connected PC.
Next on the agenda of the villagers is to convert the nearby couple hundreds of hectares of virgin forest into an ecotourism forest. They have been looking after the woods for years saving it from poachers, teak wood thieves and other vandals. For the ecotourism venture, they would be taking help from the Adivasis and tribals living in and around the forest which would help them earn a decent a livelihood. They have approached the Government of Maharashtra and are hoping for a positive outcome.
Nearly 60 years after Kennedy, villagers of Poi can proudly declare `Yes, we have done something for our country!”