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Villagers who saw opportunity in adversity

Aug 05, 2008

Villagers in west India responded to repeated crop failures by switching over to dairy farming for survival. Showing the way forward, Girata village in Vidarbha region is today on the verge of a milk revolution.

Girata, Washim: Seated on a charpai near his house, Shravan Rathod smirks at the swing in Vidarbha’s fortunes – the spiralling suicides followed by the loan waiver largesse.

“We survived on whatever the jungle offered us during the 1972 drought. If we didn’t die then, what would make us commit suicide now?” the 59-year-old former sarpanch said.

Snubbing death

Rathod is a village elder from the hard-working Banjara tribe, the dominant community in Girata hamlet in Manrool-Peer tehsil of Washim, about 250 km from Nagpur, who have beaten agricultural vagaries with a virtual milk revolution on the lines of the Amul story.

Like Rathod, the proud Banjara village snubbed death, and then the government sops that followed as quick-fix solutions for the agrarian crisis that gripped Vidarbha in the last two years.

A year later, Girata is not only on the verge of a milk revolution, it even plans to thumb its nose at the government by donating a day’s wages to the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund this Independence Day to show what a proud, resilient village can do without government crutches.

Collective effort

Back in July 2006 when the Prime Minister visited Vidarbha, Rathod was the only farmer in the village with two buffaloes.

With cotton stuck in an impasse triggered by errant rainfall, repeated crop failures, low market prices for the produce, and high interest debts from moneylenders, the village farmers got together and collectively turned towards setting up a dairy industry for survival.

Today, the village has more than 250 buffaloes, a daily production of 350 litres of milk, and earns more profits than cotton farming would fetch.

Girata’s story of transformation started when Prakash Rathod, a college lecturer at Washim, 40 km away, visited western Maharashtra and studied how farmers’ collectives had paved the way for tackling agrarian uncertainties.

“We decided we should jointly do something for ourselves than wait for the government to pull us out of the quagmire. We decided to form the first self help group of 20 farmers to start milk production,” says Prakash, the first graduate from the village who recently won a Nabard award for promoting animal husbandry.

Buffaloe bank

In May 2007, the Sevalal Maharaj Farmers’ SHG collected Rs 100 each from 20 farmers for six months, and approached the local State Bank of India branch for a loan to buy buffaloes. The bank’s branch manager, Shekhar Natarajan, encouraged the farmers, and sanctioned a loan of Rs 1 lakh.

Each farmer bought two buffaloes, which started giving milk in the next 15 days. The village started generating an income on the investment immediately, and began regular repayments of Rs 1,100 per month from each farmer.

“Six months later, we approached the bank again for a Rs 50,000 loan to buy more buffaloes and build cattle sheds. Each farmer bought two more buffaloes, and we had 80 buffaloes in a short span. Today, the village has more than 250 animals, and we intend to increase it to 3,000 in the next one year by forming a larger collective,” says Shravan Rathod, whose efforts to improve the village economy received support from bank officials, and the collector.

Girata’s remarkable story is significant as no non-government organisation visited the village, and the innovations by the farmers were entirely their own. Initially, the Girata farmers sold the milk to hotels and at the Washim market, but could not fetch a price higher than for Rs 8 per litre.

“We then decided to go for direct retail and set up our own milk centre at Washim market with help from the district collector. We transport the milk in 25-litre cans in an auto twice a day. The milk now fetches a price of Rs 18 per litre,” says Rathod, who now wants to go for a refrigerated milk mobile van.

Plans ahead

Prakash Rathod, a lecturer at Savitribai Phule College at Washim, met top agricultural development officials who suggested that Girata should initiate a cluster of 13 villages to pool in the milk production and supply the produce across Washim district under a human resource development ministry scheme. This offers a 75% grant, with beneficiaries contributing the remaining 25 per cent of the capital.

“Each of the villages will have a self help group of 20 farmers, and the work will be supervised by village committees. The only condition is that no one should sell the buffaloes. Veterinary doctors would visit every month to check the health of buffaloes,” says the teacher.

The next step the village wants to take is to create a milk surplus, and then go for manufacturing by-products like paneer, khoya used in sweets. They also want to replicate the milk model with foodgrain, and go for direct retail of farm produce at Washim market.

Like most of Vidarbha, the village produces cotton, soyabean, tur, jowar among other crops. With milk generating an assured cash income, the farmers are not unduly alarmed about the deficient rainfall this year.

Inspired by the success, the village now has 12 other self-help groups, including Tuljabhavani of below poverty line villagers.

“We have 14 members, and annual savings of Rs 60,000. We will soon get a bank loan to buy two buffaloes each,” says Kishore Sitaram Rathod, a member of the group.

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