TILL ABOUT a decade ago, Nalbari district, 80 km from Guwahati, was the home of leaders and hundreds of cadres of the outlawed United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA). Today, many of the young men here have rejected the gun and picked up the plough.
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The change started around six years ago when six friends got together, convinced 42 families in their village to lease them small parcels of land and decided that agriculture was the way forward.
“We tried looking for government jobs but realised that we had to pay bribes. Private companies don’t pay much, anyway. That’s when we decided to set up Sankardev Joibik Krishi Paam in 2011,” says Bipul Haloi, 42, one of those six and a former temporary teacher who lost his job.
“We cleared about 40 bighas of land in 2012 and began to cultivate potatoes, cabbages and pumpkin. We worked hard and at the end of the year, earned about Rs 3 lakh,” says Bipul.
Now, their land base has increased to 300 bighas, with help from the Mariadanga Namghar Samiti, the local prayer hall committee; they have 25 labourers working for them; and, they cultivate pumpkin, gourd, cucumber, beans, cabbage, cauliflower, brinjal, tomato, potato, banana, guavas, mangoes, lemon and litchi.
“In 2016, just the pumpkins that we grew on 150 bighas fetched us over Rs 17 lakh, and gourds about Rs 1.4 lakh,” says Phanindra Haloi, 36.
Phanindra, who has completed Class XII, quit a temporary job at a private firm in Guwahati to take up farming. Other members of the group have similar stories: Bubul Haloi, 37, worked for three years in a bookstore in Guwahati; Narayan Haloi, 40, was a mason; Gokul Haloi, 30; worked as a newspaper hawker in Nalbari town; and Kailash Haloi, 32, was employed on a casual basis at a nursing home.
Last month, the government horticulture department provided them 1,000 saplings of strawberry, and a supermarket in Guwahati had promised to buy the entire produce.
“What is most important is that everything we grow is 100 per cent organic. The floods that occur here often have deposited a thick layer of alluvium, and the land we took up had been unused for years, making it fertile. We don’t use chemical fertilisers, either. We buy cowdung from the villagers, and the agriculture department has set up a compost unit,” says Narayan.
“We do not have any problem selling our produce, too. Wholesale agents come from Guwahati, Shillong and Aizawl to take our vegetables. In 2016, three truckloads of pumpkins, weighing about 45 tonnes, were exported to Bangladesh. We plan to set up a marketing team or promote local youth to take to marketing so that the benefits remain within our district,” says Bipul, adding that they also provide additional income to at least 30 households who supply cowdung.
Nalbari has a high unemployment rate, with the latest Assam Human Development Report putting it at 9.4% against the state average of 8.1. And, many of these unemployed youth are high school drop-outs. “This group of six has become a kind of role model. Now, at least half-a-dozen such groups have come up along the Pagladiya river in Nalbari in the last two years. These farmers are educated, have access to information and are hard-working,” says Bangshidhar Kalita, programme officer for organic farming in the Assam agriculture department.