If you Google the name Rajshekhar Patil, the first prompt of the search engine states ‘Rajshekhar Patil bamboo’. What follows is a range of articles on bamboo farming mentioning him. The same search on YouTube takes you to his channel, which has about 1,000 videos on his farming technique, and over 7.6k subscribers.
At the age of 50, Rajshekhar from Nipani village of Osmanabad district is earning in crores from bamboo farming. He has won around 40 awards for his achievements in the field and has been hailed by the Central and state governments. But the story of this man, who hails from the drought-prone state of Maharashtra, did not always read the same.
Around 23 years ago, Rajshekhar, the son of a farmer, was indebted to the sum of Rs 10 lakh and termed as a failure by the villagers and even people close to him. It took him years of toiling and working with a meagre income to hone his skills enough to transform his life into what it is today.
In 1992, Rajshekhar completed his graduation in agriculture and faced a debt of loans that his father had accumulated over the years. “My father suffered from paralysis, and the debts kept piling up during my years of education. I thought it was difficult to repay the debts only through farming,” he says.
He adds that the name of the village, Nipani, means ‘without water’. “Resources like water and electricity were always an issue here. With no intentions of pursuing farming, I started preparing for the civil service and other competitive government examinations. But I failed in all,” Rajshekhar tells The Better India, adding that he faced criticism and was disrespected among his folks in the village for the same.
An initial life of struggle
During his struggling years, the farmer learned about social crusader Anna Hazare from Ralegan Siddhi, about 350 km away from his village. “I knew that the person who reformed his village made it tanker-free and implemented the best practices of water conservation. Having no hope elsewhere, I decided to work with him. Anna agreed to pay me Rs 2,000 a month for all the rural development work,” he says.
Rajshekhar says he continued working on various water conservation projects, village development works and implementing other initiatives until 1999, with an increased pay of Rs 6,000. “I was 27 years old when my family demanded me to return, get married and accept familial responsibilities. I started working on my 16-acre family farm growing vegetables and fruits,” he adds.
He started by farming on a one-acre patch of the total land, and slowly increased the cultivated area to grow mango, chikoo, gooseberry, jamun and other fruits. The arrangement earned him between Rs 5,000 to Rs 10,000 daily. He realised growing fruits was a more feasible alternative as compared to vegetables, and that enabled him to avoid hectic trips to the vegetable market, labour costs, and delays in cash payments from vendors.
Around 2002, he learned that a person in the village was throwing away his 40,000 bamboo saplings. “A farmer tried to start a business by selling bamboo saplings, but since there were no buyers, he wanted to free his 2.5-acre land for cultivation. He agreed to give them away at zero cost. With no specific intention in mind, I agreed to take and plant the saplings around the farm. I thought it would serve as a natural protective wall for the fruit trees growing between them,” he says.
For the plantation, Rajshekhar even dug a 10-km trench to serve for irrigation.
The eureka moment
In 2005, Rajshekhar found customers who bought the now fully grown bamboo plants, earning him Rs 20 lakh a year. “It was an enlightening moment for me. I realised the crop fetches good money in the market. Soon, I started travelling to different parts of the country to identify varieties of bamboo and planted them in my farm,” Rajshekhar says, adding that some varieties survived the weather, while others were lost.
He then created nurseries for the 50-odd bamboo varieties that survived and started earning money out of it. Since then, Rajshekhar has three lakh bamboo root stems and one crore saplings.
The government’s push to promote bamboo further boosted his income. The change in government policies in 2017 declassified bamboo as a tree and categorised it as grass. The Central government in November 2017 amended the Indian Forest Act of 1927, and made bamboo legal to grow, cut and sell without requiring permissions.
“More customers across India have approached me since, seeking guidance on growing bamboo and how to earn from it. Bamboo is useful for making paper, incense sticks, toothpicks, charcoal, ethanol, methanol, plywood, ice-cream candy sticks, furniture and much more. Classifying bamboo as grass made the business more lucrative, and the demand for it has skyrocketed,” Rajshekhar says.
He adds that the business earns him Rs 1 crore a year. “I spend about Rs 40 lakh in paying the cost to 100 labourers, who work on the now 54-acre land, which has since extended from 16 acres over the years,” he adds.
‘Anyone can grow bamboo’
Rajshekhar says that growing bamboo is easy and requires no maintenance. “It can grow wherever the grass grows. It requires less water. The saplings should have a gap of about three to four meters between them. Other vegetables can also be grown in the space between,” he says. He has worked as an advisor in the National Bamboo Mission and guided various farmers across India in growing the plant.
The experience and skill earned him success, fame and respect among his peers and family. Beyond transforming his life, Rajshekhar contributed to making the lives of people better. Implementing his learnings from Anna Hazare, this village resident undertook water conservation efforts to make his village drought-free.
“There are 13 other villages in the surrounding areas, including Padoli, Vadgaon, Fasegaon, Naygaon, and Ranjani, where water conservation efforts helped them become less reliant and also free of water tankers. There is abundant water in all the villages, all thanks to the youth who wanted to improve their conditions in their areas and contributed to the Shramdaan,” he laughs.
Speaking about his success, Rajshekhar says, “Initially, people in the village thought I was crazy when I decided to grow bamboo plants that were discarded by someone else. Today, the same people call me a genius.”
Edited by Divya Sethu