In 2007, when the Karnataka state government offered a voluntary relocation package to the 60 families of the Jenu Kuruba tribe, they all signed up and moved from Nagarahole National Park to start a new life in Sollepura colony in HD Kote.
As part of the scheme, the government provided each of these families with a resettlement package of Rs 1 lakh which included Rs 1,000 in cash, a house and three acres of land in the new colony to help them earn decent livelihoods from farming.
One among the people who shifted was Daasi, a widow. Just two months before the move, her husband sadly passed away unexpectedly, leaving the responsibility of their ten children on her.
While she was content that her children had a roof on their heads and a land that would help her put food on their plates, there was a huge problem preventing her from doing so.
Daasi had no inkling about how to farm.
None of the tribal families had any idea about farming as they’d spent their entire lives in the forest and fended for themselves by selling minor produce they could salvage from the forest and working as manual labourers in locations like Kodagu as well in Kerala.
The next seven years were arduous, as everything Daasi and other community members did, failed. Not only was the land dry, but there were also no irrigation facilities provided to the farmers; neither could they afford it.
Undeterred, the resolute forest-dwellers tried their luck with ragi, only to have wild elephants destro the entire crop. Next was cotton, which depends heavily on the rains, but they had no other option. Sadly, this didn’t yield much. But thanks to the free rations and finding work as farmhands; these families somehow managed to survive.
But things were soon going to look up for Daasi when a few contractors from Kerala came to Sollepura looking for farmlands on lease to cultivate ginger. While they wanted the land for a year, they offered the landholders power supply, borewells, motor and pipes in exchange and Daasi, like others, agreed.
This move transformed the dry farms into more cultivable lands and made the soil water-retentive. But, the lack of necessary farming skills persisted, because of which Daasi and other farmers in Sollepura continued to suffer.
Fortunately, a golden opportunity would knock on their doors when the Bengaluru-based non-profit organisation, Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) stepped in 2014 to rescue these farmers.
From providing seeds and teaching the basics of organic farming to taking them to various agricultural and organic fairs as well as workshops, these folks, quite literally, adopted the 60 families in Sollepura.
However, over the next few years, it was Daasi who emerged the most successful from this intervention. So much so that Vijay Karnataka, a prominent regional daily, christened her ‘Super Farmer’ last year.
So how did this happen?
Speaking to The Better India (TBI), is Govindappa, the WCS-appointed field officer in Sollepura, whose undivided attention and commitment toward each of the 60 families have helped them lead better lives.
One of the most important teachings that we gave all the farmers was to pursue mixed-cropping across their three-acre plots instead of concentrating just on a single crop. The idea was to make the land self-sustainable, where the intermingling of crops would boost growth while maintaining the nutrient balance in the soil, says Govindappa.
For example, they advised Daasi to dedicate one part of her plot to grow jowar, while the rest of the land would be distributed between crops like pepper, tomatoes, brinjal and beans.
“That way, even if one crop fails, they could still earn an income by selling the others,” he adds.
Providing farming expertise wasn’t the only initiative WCS spearheaded. They provided these families with seeds, organic fertilisers and pesticides as well as the necessary farming equipment like sprinklers and irrigation pipelines. WCS mobilised these provisions in collaboration with the agriculture department and Samaja Kalyana Ilake (Social Welfare Department). Each family was also provided with goats to pursue livestock rearing, in partnership with GKVK.
“These farmers had to pay only 10 per cent of the cost, with the remaining being covered through government subsidy. None of these folks had any idea about the government schemes or provisions to which they were entitled. We stepped in to facilitate all the paperwork on their behalf and ended up becoming the bridge between the government and the community,” Govindappa explains.
The 60 families today have all the necessary identity proofs like Aadhaar and Caste certificate, and even have bank accounts. Also, among them are beneficiaries of government schemes like for widow pension, Manasvini scheme who are receiving benefits, thanks to WCS’s intervention.
Coming back to Daasi, the woman is one among the model farmers in her community today, superseding even seasoned farmers.
She is, perhaps, the only one amongst Jenukurubas, who hasn’t taken any loan. Every bit of investment came from her pocket, making Daasi stand tall in a region where poor and desperate farmers often suffer crop failures leading to extremely grave scenarios for them.
These were some of the aspects that led Daasi being recognised by Vijay Karnataka as Super Famer, in addition to factors like growing 100 per cent organic produce, practising mixed cropping as well as earning high returns. WCS had registered Daasi’s name and shared her pictures with the publication that had honoured 13 other farmers along with Daasi from across Mysore and Chamarajanaagar districts.
In her sixties now, Daasi is quite happy to share how life changed for good when WCS stepped in their colony.
“Almost a decade ago, when we were living deep in the forest, I knew nothing about farming. After the death of my husband, I’d struggled quite a bit to take care of all my kids. Govindappa Sir has helped me a lot in reaching where we have today. Thanks to him, I got the opportunity to attend many farming workshops organised in cities like Bengaluru and Mysuru, where I learnt a lot. It was I who told my kids that if we take up farming, our lives would be better and it did turn out better,” shares the jovial super farmer.
Like Govindappa mentioned, Daasi exclusively grows vegetables like tomatoes, pepper, brinjal, beans and bitter gourd in an acre of land, while the remaining is utilised for jowar cultivation. Of her ten kids, six of them help her out in the field.
Just by selling her crops, she’s able to earn an annual income of about Rs 4 lakhs. Buyers come to buy her produce from Mysuru, Gundlupet and even Kerala. Even here, WCS played a crucial role to ensure that all the farmers get a fair price for their organic produce.
Govindappa adds that to ensure pests don’t attack the crops, he gets the farmers to spray neem oil, which is a natural pest repellent, on their fields every week.
Besides farming, Daasi also rears goats and sheep, does vermiculture and is also a beekeeper.
A rather proud Govindappa shares that from having absolutely no knowledge of farming, Daasi today has a sprawling garden in front of her humble home. “I’d call her the best farmer in the community, even better than most of the experienced ones here. Despite hailing from a tribal community, she has managed to acquire all these skills and do well for herself,” he concludes.
Daasi’s story is truly inspiring, especially when one understands where she has come from and the numerous difficulties she had to face to provide for her family. She hopes to continue farming for as long as she can, and we wish the prosperity in her life be as constant as her indomitable spirit.
All photo courtesy: Govindappa, WCS.
(With inputs from Rajath Sharma)
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)