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Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Farming a miracle

In Himachal Pradesh’s Una district, medicinal farming gets a big push with innovative use of MGNREGS

Written by Rajesh Chander Sharma | Una |
December 6, 2021 6:27:28 am
In a field under Behar Jaswan Panchayat. A total of 21 farmers grow medicinal plants in this area. (Express Photo)

“Listen, remember to bring Chamatkar when you come home.”

Ram Singh gives these instructions to the caller and disconnects the phone. Then, with a twinkle in his eye, he starts thinking about his potentially plentiful potato crop for which he needs this Chamatkar, a chemical fertiliser.

Little does the 59-year-old know chamatkar (miracle) has already reached his home. It can be seen, felt and smelt right where he is standing on his six-kanal land at Girgir village under Behar Jaswan Panchayat in Una district, Himachal Pradesh.

This barren patch of land, close to the fields of his potatoes, was levelled and made fit for cultivation in June this year. Now Ashwagandha and Moringa plants are growing here. He didn’t spend a single penny on the levelling of the land, labour charges, procurement of seeds and plantation. Everything has been taken care of under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) as an initiative by the district administration to promote medicinal farming.

Therein lies the uniqueness. “Medicinal farming is being done under MGNREGS at two places in Himachal: one under Behar Jaswan Panchayat in Una district and the other in Kangra district. This is happening for the first time in the country. Earlier, cultivation of aromatic plants was done under MGNREGS in Sundargarh district of Odisha,” says Dr Arun Chandan, regional director (north), National Medicinal Plants Board.

There is more to Singh’s story of miracle. While wild animals damaged his Moringa plants twice or thrice, they did not destroy Ashwagandha plants at all. All the plants are chemical-free as he used kenchua khaad, a desi fertiliser. Less irrigation and less hard work — this is another benefit. He irrigates his potatoes after five days and the medicinal plants after 15 days if it is hot, or once a month if the weather is fine. He admits he did not have to bother much about other tending work required for the plants.

If it is a win-win situation for Singh, why isn’t he so excited? Because he is doing medicinal farming for the first time and is worried about the outcome. “NREGA labour lagi thi. Maine aur meri gharwali ne bhi kaam kiya. Paise nahin lage aur kaam bhi ho gaya. Par aage pata nahin kya hoga (NREGA labour was employed. My wife and I worked too. I didn’t spend money and my task has been accomplished as well. But I don’t know what will happen in future),” says Singh.

There are 20 other farmers who share Singh’s concerns. They too are doing medicinal farming. One of them is Yashbir Sahota, who is growing Ashwagandha and Moringa plants near his house. This two-kanal land used to be barren and is adjacent to the graveyard meant for children. He planted the saplings in June-end and watered them only till the rainy season started. After the rains, the plants have been on their own. “Hamare yahan paani ki samasya hai. Maine paudhon ko paani barsat ke baad nahin diya. Phir bhi yeh achchhe se lag gaye hain (We have water problem here. I didn’t give water to the plants after the rainy season. Despite this, they have attained a good growth),” says the 28-year-old.

Surender Paul, a resident of Behar Bithal village under Behar Jaswan Panchayat, went a step further. He not only watered the saplings soon after planting them but also kept on giving them water between spells of showers in the rainy season till they took root. After that, he did not irrigate them at all. These plants are growing on four kanals which used to be “my waste land”.

Dr Chandan brings in more clarity: “The soil here has more content of sand; it’s sandy loam. Water availability is a perennial problem. In such a situation, medicinal plants are a good option because they can bloom even in rainfed conditions. Moreover, they can survive the menace of monkeys and wild animals.”

Paul, who is a panch as well, proudly shows a lush green Moringa tree that was planted on his land by Deputy Commissioner Raghav Sharma, and talks about the time when these tiny trees were just saplings and innovative ideas were just seeds. “I was told by the district administration to convince a couple of farmers to do medicinal farming. I prepared a total of 18 farmers but 17 of them withdrew at the last moment. Then I spoke to another set of farmers who agreed and came forward for medicinal farming. Later, a few of those who had withdrawn earlier came back too,” says the 45-year-old.

Dr Amit Sharma, Additional Deputy Commissioner, recalls the initial phase. “We held workshops, spoke to farmers individually and convinced them to go in for diversification of crops. We also organised their interaction with experts and their visit to a nursery. The Covid period did its bit to highlight the importance of medicinal plants. That is how this whole thing took off. Now even I am experimenting with a few plants at my Dharamshala home,” he says.

What is going on in a cluster of villages here has a Kangra connection. “Earlier, I was posted as Additional Deputy Commissioner in Kangra. I got a proposal on medicinal farming and I got involved with that project. When I was transferred to Una, I thought of doing something similar here,” says DC Sharma.

When everything fell into place, the 21 farmers started with inter-cropping of Ashwagandha and Moringa. Sanjeev Thakur, deputy director-cum-project officer, District Rural Development Agency, says they were distributed a total of 77,400 saplings — 62,950 of Ashwagandha and 14,450 of Moringa — under the Sanjeevani project of the district administration running at two villages of Behar Jaswan Panchayat. Each farmer was entitled to an aid of Rs 1 lakh — 60% for labour and 40% for material — under MGNREGS. The amount varied from farmer to farmer depending on the size of the land chosen for cultivation. A total expenditure of Rs 14,33,365 has been incurred so far.

“Usually, focus under MGNREGS is to generate wage employment. But our effort has been to generate future source of income,” says Thakur.

Thakur has more interesting statistics to share: Due to this project, Behar Jaswan Panchayat has generated 104 per cent more persondays than last year. DC Sharma has comparative figures ready: “There is an AYUSH scheme which gives subsidy on medicinal plantation but it is for only six notified plants in Una district, whereas we cover plantation material, land development cost, wages to farmers, and all medicinal plants under MGNREGS.”

Unlike Singh, Sharma is not worried about the outcome. Rather, he is hopeful. “We have made a buyback arrangement for the farmers. We won’t leave them in the lurch. Next financial year too, they can avail themselves of the same benefits according to their eligibility,” says DC Sharma.

According to Thakur, they are moving into the direction of value addition and will do “handholding of the farmer”. “We will bring them under National Rural Livelihood Mission and provide them more financial benefits,” he says.

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