Savita Dakle from Maharashtra was a child bride, a class 10 dropout and a farming novice. But she didn’t let that define her or deter her from training millions of other women as independent organic farmers.
Savita Dakle (38) from Phulambari district in Maharashtra’s Aurangabad begins her day at the break of dawn. She describes herself as an ‘accidental farmer’. Having spent her growing up years in Aurangabad, Savita never thought that she would one day end up farming.
“I had no connection to farming whatsoever. My father worked in a company and my mother managed the house,” she says. But despite this background, Savita is responsible for initiating more than 900 women into organic farming – both from her district and from the neighbouring villages.
In 2017, Savita also launched her Facebook community via which she is connected with over 7 lakh members from across the country who help each other with tips and suggestions on the best methods to follow in farming.
Here’s how Savita went from being a farming novice to an expert farmer.
Baptism by fire
In 2000, a 15-year-old Savita started working in a factory as a labourer, where she was paid Rs 900 a month. “That was a lot of money for me at that time,” she says. With that amount, she managed to run her household and educate her brothers too.
While on one hand, she was thrilled with earning the money her parents, she recalls, were not very pleased that their underage daughter was the sole breadwinner for the family. However, Savita says, “At that moment I was so grateful that I could support my brothers, nothing else was on my mind. My first earnings will always be special to me. It made me feel so confident.”
In the two years she worked there, she says her salary went up to Rs 1,500/ month. “Making money made me believe that with hard work I could change our fortunes,” she adds.
But Savita’s parents were still going through a financial crunch and after her father lost his job, there was no option but to get the girls married off in quick succession.
“Soon after I completed my class 10 I was married. It was with difficulty that my father got me married. He had lost his job by then. He had a two-acre land which he had to sell to be able to get us all married. Eventually, even the house we owned was sold off. As a constant, every evening my father and I would sit around and weep at our misfortunes,” she says.
By this time, Savita’s two elder sisters were married. It was on her insistence that her parents moved back to the village. She continued to stay in Aurangabad with her two younger brothers, whom she started to look after.
Recalling her initiation into farming, she says, “I was not more than 17 when I started farming. It was the same year I was married. I remember resenting it, both the marriage and having to work in the fields. I did not sign up for this life,” she says.
A reluctant bride
Savita was married in 2002. “I did not want to get married so soon. It was more out of social pressure that my parents decided on this. At that time, I was keener on getting both my brothers educated. Marriage was the last thing on my mind,” she says.
Even the marriage was conducted under a lot of financial pressure. “I was married into a family of farmers and I knew nothing about farming, having grown up in Aurangabad. I had spent so many days crying. I did not know what my future had in store for me,” she recalls. Soon after the wedding, Savita was expected to work in the field. From a reluctant bride, she became a reluctant farmer.
“I could not even walk properly in the field. I remember slipping and falling so many times on the slush that would get collected in the field,” she says. What kept her going was her determination to make her life a success. She says she did not want to let her father down in any way and so found ways to adapt to the new life. One of the first tasks assigned to her on the farm was to do some weeding work.
“I had no idea about it and I recall the other women laughing at my inabilities. That experience toughened me. While on that day I remember crying a lot, it taught me to become resilient. I slowly learnt the work and even though I was a good student, I chose to work in the field and help my husband and the family,” she adds.
Sunil Dakle (44), Savita’s husband says, “We have now been married for over two decades. Savita is not the same young bride who entered this house. She came from a city, had studied and knew nothing about farming. I know it was a struggle for her in the beginning but she adapted so beautifully.” While it was not all smooth sailing for the couple, they worked together on improving things. He adds, “What I was confident of was Savita’s ability to learn. She was also very confident in learning. She put her misgivings aside and worked very hard.”
There was a time when Savita was only able to pluck about 10 kg of cotton a day and now she can easily pluck up to 80 kg a day. When she started working in the fields, it was for Rs 200/day. From that day to now, Savita says she has undergone a complete transformation. Now there is nothing that she does not know about farming.
A life-altering decision
Like many things in Savita’s life, her association with the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) also happened by accident.
SEWA, an organisation that works exclusively to uplift women, made an entry in Phulambari in 2004. Like many other women in the village, Savita also attended the meeting. “I had to seek permission to attend that meeting. I was working in another field. If I went, my in-laws were worried I would lose one day’s salary. It was only on my husband’s insistence that I got permission to attend that meeting,” she says.
In more ways than one session changed the course of Savita’s future.
“I learnt all about SEWA in that first meeting. We were close to 60 women, some were better educated than I was but no one was willing to volunteer their time for no money,” she adds. Savita went through a round of rigorous interviews and says that when she was chosen for the task, she was confused.
“I wasn’t sure if I should do it either with no money forthcoming. But after three days of discussing the matter with my husband, I called the ladies from SEWA and expressed my desire to join the organisation,” she says.
This infused Savita with a new burst of energy. She started working doubly hard in the fields and ensured that she also gave her 100 per cent to the work that SEWA had entrusted her with. She says, “I started waking up at 5 am to finish all my housework and cooking. Then I would go to the field at 10 am and work there until sunset, when I would come back and make dinner and spend time with my children. It is only after dinner that I left home again to work with the women and help them with organic farming methods.”
It was important for Savita to establish her own identity. She says that earning money and finding a way to support her husband’s income was important for her. “Why should we not shoulder this responsibility? We are very capable and I am glad that I have managed to positively influence over 900 other women,” she says.
With women taking on so many roles and responsibilities in all spheres of life, Savita says that still being stuck indoors and not knowing the way of the world is no excuse that women should hide behind. “We must take ownership and ensure that we are financially independent,” she adds.
It was this desire that pushed Savita to launch her Facebook group, Women in Agriculture in October 2017, which has over 7 lakh members. “On this online community, I teach women about organic farming, tips and tricks of sowing and harvesting different types of crops, pricing them and even some marketing techniques.
In recognition of the work that Savita’s online community has done, in 2018, she was invited to visit the Facebook office in Gurugram and says that was the first time she boarded a plane. “The experience was surreal. I was even presented with a smartphone which I continue to use,” she says with a smile.
Meera Sable, one of the women who was mentored by Savita from Georai Gungi village, says, “Despite being an educated woman, I was just involved in basic farming activities. It was Savita didi who encouraged me to do more. She not only taught me everything about organic farming but also made me a part of her Facebook group from where I learnt so much. From not even being able to cycle, Savita didi encouraged me to purchase a scooty, which today I ride with so much confidence.”
She continues, “Earlier, I was dependent on my husband to take me out for even small errands. Now I am an independent woman. Even for that, I am thankful to her [Savita].”
Today, Savita’s band of women are taking the work forward by initiating more women under their wings.
To follow Savita, click here.
(Edited by Yoshita Rao)