Saturday, February 16, 2008

Seeds of change

They are no longer just known as wives or daughters of farmers. They no longer restrict themselves to small jobs on the field. Today, more and more women in Punjab are boldly running farm operations to reap rich returns, reports Sanjeev Singh Bariana

Agriculturists Amarjeet Kaur and her husband were felicitated by the CM, Parkash Singh Badal, last year.
Agriculturists Amarjeet Kaur and her husband were felicitated by the CM, Parkash Singh Badal, last year.

For long, women have been the ‘unseen partners’ in agriculture in Punjab. Their role has been confined to that of daughters or farmwives. However, with changing times, women are stepping out of stereotypical roles and openly taking charge of farmlands in the state. In the state which ushered in the Green Revolution during the 1960s, women are now managing farms, deciding cropping patterns, exploring marketing avenues and setting new and innovative trends in the business of food technology.

The increasing list of awards bagged by women is a pointer to the changing agricultural scenario in the state. A random survey by the Tribune team in different parts of Punjab revealed how more and more women are coming forward to handle farm-related agricultural activity. Sangeeta Deol, who has received the best agriculturist award, says: "The increasing number of women in this field is the result of the changing socio-economic scenario. Men need the help of their spouses in the fields because of increased work pressures and shortage of trained manpower. Due to decreasing land holdings, men are allowing their wives to take care of the agricultural land, while they look for alternate job avenues."

"Smaller holdings have led to higher investments on growing crops with state-of-the-art technology and superior fertilisers and insecticides. There is acute shortage of trained manpower and a number of women have effectively filled the vacancy of managers, asserts Mohinder Singh, another progressive farmer and a state awardee.

Quality her buzzword

Among the women who have earned a name and reputation as an enterprising agriculturist is Sangeeta Deol from Dhanal village in Jalandhar district. In her fifties, this state awardee is one of the pioneers in the bee-keeping industry in the state. The polio- stricken lady did not just overcome her physical disability but also set aside societal pressures that discourage women from heading agricultural work. Today, Sangeeta is the chairperson of the governing body of the Agriculture Technology Management Agency (ATMA) and president of the Bee Keepers Association, Jalandhar.

The story of this former vice-chairperson of the Kisan Club of Punjab Agricultural University (PAU) reads like that of a heroine who faced numerous hardships before coming up trumps. Sangeeta says she did her graduation as a private student because "students used to tease me and call me a lame duck". In 1972, without any background training, she took up poultry farming. She sold her gold bangles to raise the money. "More than three years after I began the poultry business, one day sepoys from Jalandhar Cantonment bought my birds. Since they had not made the payment, I went to collect the money a couple of days later. There I saw the innocent birds being butchered. That was the day I quit poultry farming," she says.

Sangeeta’s husband had quit the Army and was working as an automobile mechanic, while she tried her hand at farming. She even rode a tractor for many years.

She did a course in mushroom farming at PAU. "During the early 1980s, there was very little public awareness about mushrooms as a food item. I took the 8.45 pm train to Delhi every day and reached the market at 5 am the following day. I finished my work as soon as possible and caught a train back. Back home, I had to take care of my children, cook food and prepare for the next day’s market. I did this for three months a year for four-odd years till there was greater awareness about the taste and benefits of mushrooms in Punjab."

In 1984, Sangeeta took up bee-keeping as a commercial venture. I started with 10 boxes and by 1990 I had 3,500 boxes. The work for honey production has decreased now because of falling quality of pollen extracted from the flora," she said.

This member of the Punjab Bee Keepers Board is among the country’s first entrants in honey production. Buyers are always at her farm or placing orders on the telephone. She was honoured by the Punjab Government as a leading farmer in 1988 and by the Bee Keepers Federation in 1999.

Sangeeta says the government needs to give more concessions to women attempting innovations in agriculture. "Bee-keeping and mushroom cultivation should be treated as part of agriculture by the government in its policies and necessary changes need to be made in securing loans. Employment is one of the biggest problems faced by the youth of the state. Training courses in vocational subjects should be organised at the block level. Not only I but a number of other women in the state have secured a good future for their families with innovative farming practices. The government needs to do more to make people aware about the avenues available, particularly those related to organic farming."

Every year Sangeeta invites more than a dozen enthusiasts from different parts of the state for lessons in innovative farming. "Marketing is never a problem. Give people quality and buyers will reach your doorstep," she declares.

Taste of success

Gurdev Kaur readies her speciality (saag) for sale in PAU, Ludhiana.
Gurdev Kaur readies her speciality (saag) for sale in PAU, Ludhiana. — Photo by Sayeed Ahmed

Gurdev Kaur comes to PAU on Wednesdays and Fridays every week. She gets along the flavour of the season — sarson ka saag. The food item can be purchased, both in cooked or raw form. She is usually out of her stock by afternoon.

Things changed for Gurdev when she visited PAU in 1995 and became a member of the Kisan Club.

She is currently based in Alyali Khurd village near Ludhiana, where she has a plot which is just little over an acre. She also has a dairy farm with as many as three dozen milch cattle.

"My husband was a government official so he could not take up any private business. I attended PAU classes and got interested in honey production. A life is a beautiful gift from the Almighty and I thought I should try to give it some purpose. I started locally and now our team carries boxes to as far as Rajasthan to get our honey yield during the flowering season. I have a few relatives in Rajasthan who helped me expand my network."

Gurdev Kaur has formed a women’s cooperative and is also engaged in pickles and jaggery products. "Marketing has never been a problem because in food items there is no greater publicity than word of mouth."

The tractor trail

Gurmit Kaur has been plying the tractor for the past 20 years in Mana Talwandi, Jalandhar.
Gurmit Kaur has been plying the tractor for the past 20 years in Mana Talwandi, Jalandhar.

Many an eyebrow is raised at Gurmit Kaur, in her sixties, riding a tractor in Mana Talwandi village of Jalandhar district. As she takes on the tough machine and rambles on uneven terrains, she challenges mindsets that associate rough work on the field only with men. Known as thaanedaarni, Gurmit Kaur is a familiar face manning a tractor on the streets and fields of the village from the past more than 20 years.

"It all started one fine morning, more than 20 years ago, when my nephew came to our house and suggested that we ply a tractor on our 15 acre farmland for better yield. My husband was a little sceptical about manning "the ghost of a machine" as he called it. He did drive for a couple of weeks but was scared of it."

"My husband then suggested that we give it out on rent. I however didn’t want to waste either our machine or money on employing anyone else. After a few days, my nephew took me for driving lessons. By the evening, I drove home the tractor myself. That was just the beginning because after that I even started accepting requests from other farms who wanted my services to plough their fields."

"In the beginning, I would see villagers looking at me curiously whenever I drove on the village roads. I was however always clear in my mind what I wanted to do and never bothered about any comments. Soon, the odd glances of villagers turned into respectful nods."

This mother of three daughters (all married abroad) is a member of the village panchayat and the mahila mandal. She also works for the Verka Milk Society. "The government should take up examples of success stories to the common man. I am not the only woman in the state managing fields on a tractor. The achievers need to be made known among the general public through different media, including newspapers and television. Except for odd visits by students of PAU, I have not received any government support."

"I have gone abroad on several occasions but my workplace and desire to command the machine that nurtures the plants for country’s food always pulls me back. I have also started a dairy project with dozen cows. I am supported by my son and my husband and we try not to engage the services of any outsider. It is only a matter of taking the first step to reach any destination," she adds.

Harvesting profit

Mohinder Kaur of Jagatpur (Nawanshahr) with her mushroom produce.
Mohinder Kaur of Jagatpur (Nawanshahr) with her mushroom produce.

Winning awards in agriculture-related activities has become a routine for the 70-year-old Mohinder Kaur Dosanjh, who returns with them from different kisan melas every year. Bound to the fragrance of the land, Mohinder Kaur took to active work on fields at her farm in Jagatpur village in Nawanshahr district soon after her wedding.

She admits, "The unconditional support by Sardarji (husband) in all my activities has been the biggest guiding force in my life." Her husband Mohinder Singh is a progressive farmer and an established writer.

It all began in 1965 when she went to attend her first class at PAU. "I came back and formed the Istri Sabha involving a number of women. During numerous interactions, we explored different avenues to keep ourselves busy and make an earning. Making pickles and murabbas was the first exercise which bore fruitful results."

Mohinder Kaur says: "I learnt about rice beans from PAU, a few years ago. The produce did not find any big buyers in Punjab. We then discovered that the yield had a big market in Himachal Pradesh. Many other similar innovations were tried — one of them being broccoli."

This agriculturist confesses, "Interestingly, we never had to struggle for a market for our produce. Our mushrooms, pickles, haldi and certain other items have direct buyers, thanks to the publicity by word of mouth by our network of friends. My workers even go around villages with our vegetables. The buyers get their purchase at a price lower than the market rates. This way, we also get a better price."

Mohinder Kaur also takes up social issues. She has been part of campaigns against female foeticide, drug addiction and alcoholism. "My family had everything that was sufficient for a normal life. Social issues like dowry, female foeticide and drug addiction had always troubled me. We formed small groups where small discussions and public opinion gave me greater strength for community action."

The lady with a firm resolve adds, "I may not be able to usher in a revolution, but if my endeavour at social reforming can change even one person, it would be worth the entire exercise. A number of success stories over the past several years goad me to get closer to those in need of help."

Fruit of labour

Last year when the name of Karnail Singh, a leading cotton grower from Alliana village in Fazilka district, was announced at a state-level prize distribution function for leading farmers, he requested that his wife too be called on stage to share the award. His request was accepted and Amarjeet Kaur came on stage to take the prize from Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal.

Besides helping with the production, Amarjeet specialises in the selection and storage of seeds. She belonged to a farming family before she got married. After a few days of her marriage, she expressed her desire to work in the fields.

Amarjeet actively participated in planning the cultivation and marketability of the crop. She has formed help groups for women in the area and is also associated with the PAU centre coming up in the village. "Determination, dedication and prayers best help a human being," she declares.