When a Bunch of Women Took over Farmlands in Drought Prone Maharashtra

(Image for representational purposes)

(Image for representational purposes)

Godavari, a farmer, went around her village teaching women farmers to change the nature of farming—to move from cash crops to food crops. With an innovative model of one-acre and 25 crops, she changed the farming game.


Adrija Bose

Maharashtra: It was the worst drought in 40 years. In 2013, 12 districts of Marathwada in Maharashtra were suffering a crisis that took a heavy toll on the lives of the people on the parched lands. Many of the farmers committed suicide unable to repay the loan, and the ones who survived, migrated to the neighbouring states in search of jobs.

This was when Godavari Dange decided to take leadership. Godavari, a farmer, went around her village teaching women farmers to change the nature of farming—to move from cash crops to food crops. With an innovative model of one-acre and 25 crops, she changed the farming game.

Three years later, Godavari has now spread her idea across the country and plans to take it global. Godavari, along with Swayam Shikshan Prayog (SSP), a Pune-based organization that empowers women to take up sustainable farming practices and effectively manage available natural resources to derive benefits such as continuous income, better health, food and water security in the region.

The organization claims to have transformed the lives of 1,45,000 rural women in six states.

“When the drought happened, women were most affected,” said Godavari at an event at the FCC Auditorium in Delhi.

The drought had taken a toll on women’s health—there was no basic nutrition available and the chemical fertilizers that were used in agriculture were showing its pangs. These rural women would often have to travel about 25 kilometres to see a doctor, who would ask them to, “Eat properly”.

“But, there was no food to eat. We were mass producing cotton, and we couldn’t sell them at a price that was less than our cost,” she said. The women living in Ahmednagar, Aurangabad, Jalna, Beed and Osmanbad—the worst affected areas-- became extremely anemic and weak.

Godavari, who was already working in women’s self-help groups (SHGs), started working on issues related to health, nutrition, sanitation and livelihoods by motivating women’s networks. While her work began in her own village Osmanabad, it didn’t take very long to spread across the state.

“Most of the women were left alone. They were either widowed, or their husbands had migrated in search of jobs,” said Godavari.

Godavari, too, didn’t have a male member in her family. She was married at the age of 15. But her husband passed away in an accident when her children were very young. The shock led to depression, and she hardly got out of her bed for an entire year.

But, she realized, it was time to take her own decisions. And, she knew, there were many Godavaris out there.

The women started forming communities and growing food crops, instead of the traditional cash crops. “We needed food at home, and growing it on our own was the best way to get it,” she said. The male members in their family weren’t very happy that the women had changed the farming course and started causing trouble. They wanted to grow cash crops because that would mean immediate money. The men would often ridicule them and said that “farming is difficult and women cannot do it”. This, despite almost 70 percent of the farmers in India happen to be women.

The women were adamant.

Soon, in Maharashtra’s drought prone areas, hundreds of women were growing about 25 crops in each farm land that was just about one acre or two acres.

It started with just hundred women farmers, but soon reached to 4,000. They all wanted the same thing—a change in their lives. “Women are not becharis, they have a lot of strength and they proved it,” said Naseem Shaikh, a member of SSP.

Shaikh, too, had a hard time convincing her family that she didn’t want to get married, but be able get out of the closed doors and help other women improve their lives. “We are not baby producing machines. Women, together, in these villages proved that we were capable of doing what men couldn’t do,” she said.

The one-acre model grew so rapidly that soon the state government also adopted it.

Can this end farmer suicides?

The parched land in Osmanabad and other parts of Marathwada where crops have failed has pushed many over the brink, and while many may have had suicidal thoughts, the women’s group keep each other uplifted.

“We have a network to support each other when we our crops fail and we are distressed. We always get help from each other,” Shaikh said.

They started growing vegetables and pulses and taking most of the produce back home. They would sell the excess produce in the market. For the first time, they had their own money.

Along with their innovative farming, they also found other sources of income—women started their own poultry and dairy business.

Meanwhile, the men who were still producing cash crops were struggling.

“When they realized we were not asking for money or water but were earning better, they started seeking our advice on the crop to be sown and how to avoid spending on chemical fertilizers," said Godavari.

While there’s a long way to go, Godavari feels this is the beginning of a journey for the women farmers in the country, who are not even acknowledged as farmers.

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