Updated: January 2, 2022 8:45:20 am
Women sing aloud as a priest recites mantras. Hindi, Pahari and Sanskrit mix well as traditional songs gell with sacred hymns. Together they produce a musical effect lilting and uplifting. Wafting up is a pleasant smell of incense. There is divinity in the air — and in the field as well.
It is a lush green field at Kuhna, a small village in Kangra district, Himachal Pradesh. People, important and not-so-important, stand in silence in small groups. Among them is an unassuming Dalip Singh, the owner of this field, flitting from one group to another.
It is puja time and it is harvest time: Puja of tulsi and harvest of tulsi.
Singh is happy and seems in the mood to sing — that’s the mood of the moment. He grew tulsi on seven-kanal land in June-July this year and is looking to reap a rich dividend. Pichhale saal tulsi dhang se nahin lagi thi. Khet saaf nahin the. Iss baar achchhe se lagi hai (Last year, tulsi was not sown properly. The fields were not clear. This time it has grown nicely),” says the 66-year-old. Last year, he had earned Rs 1,200 by selling his tulsi panchang (leaves, seeds, flowers, stalks and roots) grown on the land which had been lying vacant for 12-14 years. This time, he hopes to earn more.
Dr Arun Chandan, regional director (north), National Medicinal Plants Board, rises to the occasion. “There is a large-scale cultivation of tulsi here,” says Dr Chandan as he makes a video call to someone during the puja itself. “Are you interested in buying it?”
Impressed with the magnitude of the tulsi crop, Dr Chandan goes on to add, “For the first time in the country, medicinal farming is being done under MGNREGS (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme) at two places in Himachal: one in Kangra district and the other under Behar Jaswan Panchayat in Una district. Earlier, cultivation of aromatic plants was done under MGNREGS in Sundargarh district of Odisha.”
Hope floats as Dr Chandan hangs up.
Post-parshad distribution, the poetical and lyrical jugalbandi of the priest and the women is recreated two hours and two kilometres apart. This time, in Satish Kumar’s field in the same religious setting, in the same small village. He too is preparing to harvest tulsi which he had sown on his three-kanal land in June-July this year. Like Singh, he too is hoping to gain more from tulsi and see more of tulsi.
While Kumar, 57, says, “If I earn well, I’ll grow more tulsi”, his wife Sumanlata, 51, has a reason to feel happy. “Tulsi ka khet dekhkar mann mein khushi hoti hai. Ghar nazdeek hai. Raat mein iss khet se tulsi ki sugandh aati rahati hai (The field of tulsi gladdens the heart. Our house is nearby. This field keeps spreading fragrance of tulsi at night),” she says.
Singh and Kumar are not the only ones who are into tulsi cultivation here. Dhani Ram, 67, of the same village, has grown tulsi on six-kanal land. Anoop Vashist, 61, of nearby Ghallour village, grew tulsi on his 10-kanal land which had been lying barren. Last year, he sowed wheat there but the crop was destroyed by wild animals. “Iss saal maine tulsi lagayi. Kisi junglee jaanwar ne nuksaan nahin pahunchaya (This year I grew tulsi. No wild animal caused any damage),” says Vashist.
Now Vashist wishes to see the area turn into a vast tulsi valley.
Not only tulsi, but there is also an abundance of ashwagandha, sarpagandha, moringa, kalmegh and shatavari here. Experience and expertise agree on the plus points of these plants. “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,” says Dr Chandan.
Dr Sunil Kumar, district nodal officer, State Medicinal Plants Board, explains how these plants took root here: “In August 2019, a total of 19 farmers started medicinal farming in five clusters of seven villages. They got financial aid from the Ayush department for cultivation of tulsi, ashwagandha and sarpagandha.”
But a lot of plants dried up due to damage during transportation, due to delay in transplantation and due to a dearth of care. Then a need was felt for having seeds instead of plants. They wrote to the higher-ups in the Ayush department, requesting for seeds and financial aid to 45 farmers more in seven clusters of 15 villages. The seeds arrived in May 2020, when Covid-19 too had already arrived. Ujjwal Deep, project officer-cum-incharge of RIISM (Research Institute in Indian Systems of Medicine), Joginder Nagar, and Madan Lal Panwar, botanist of the same institute, helped them in getting the seeds and technical support. Out of these seeds, around two lakh saplings were prepared in four nurseries. But the financial aid from the department did not come.
“The saplings were crying for attention. They needed fields and we needed labour to plant them, both of which were not available as Covid curbs were on,” says Dr Kumar.
In this situation, they met the then Kangra Deputy Commissioner Rakesh Kumar Prajapati, who got them in touch with the then Additional Deputy Commissioner Raghav Sharma. “Many people had lost their jobs in the lockdown. To tide over the Covid crisis, I had designed MGNREGA Samgr under which we were sanctioning individual works. When these guys met me, we decided to promote medicinal farming under this scheme,” says Sharma, who is now Una Deputy Commissioner. Once the green signal was given, Pragpur and Dehra blocks came into the picture. It is in these two blocks that medicinal farming was promoted majorly.
Pragpur Block Development Officer Kanwar Singh says, “Under MGNREGA Samgr, a farmer was eligible to get a maximum financial help of Rs 1 lakh — 60% for land development-cum-plantation and 40% for material. Now Samgr part has been dropped, it is just MGNREGA. Still, we are authorised to sanction individual works under it.”
According to the official figures, in Pragpur block, a total of 2,94,959 persondays were generated in financial year 2019-20. The persondays shot up to 7,27,759 in financial year 2020-21 when 423 works related to land development and herbal plants were sanctioned. The total expenditure incurred in financial year 2019-20 was Rs 1,006.46 lakh, whereas it was Rs 1,966.67 lakh in financial year 2020-21.
If there are any questions about profitability of medicinal plantation, Tara Chand Kaundal, ex-BSF man, has all the answers. He has been cultivating maize on four-kanal land at his native village of Dreen.
Usually, his input cost (labour+seeds+tractor charges) for the maize crop has been Rs 4,000. The output cost has been Rs 6,000 — the amount for which he sells his crop. He has been pocketing a net profit of Rs 2,000. In June-July last year, he replaced maize with tulsi. His input cost was: Rs 9,500 — 2,500 plants at the rate of Re 1+labour charges of Rs 7,000. The output cost was a pleasant surprise. He sold 5 kg tulsi seeds for Rs 9,000, 60 kg tulsi leaves for Rs 15,000 and tulsi stalks for Rs 2,500. His total produce was sold for Rs 26,500. Deduct the input cost of Rs 9,500, and he was left with Rs 17,000. The maize earned him Rs 2,000 while tulsi got him Rs 17,000.
Still, he is worried about the marketing part. And that’s a big worry. “Kisan ki fasal bikani chahiye, aur aasani se bikani chahiye (The farmer’s produce should be sold and should be sold easily),” says the 65-year-old, who did not take any help under MGNREGS. This year, he could not cultivate tulsi due to his poor health.
The NRLM niche
Since the pandemic stressed the need for immunity boosters, the farmers thought of bringing their own products of tulsi and giloy into the market. While packaging their products, they took help of the local JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency) HP Crop Diversification Promotion Project centre at Chameti village. These products were displayed at a camp at Bankhandi, Kangra, in September 2020, and they got an encouraging response.
In October-November 2020, the farmers harvested tulsi. They were offered a rate of Rs 90-100 per kg for tulsi leaves during a webinar. They felt dejected but did not give up. When their online search revealed there is a demand for tulsi products, they decided to go in for value addition.
Pragpur BDO Singh played a proactive role in this. Groups were formed under the National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM), and the BDO sanctioned two groups a loan of Rs 3.30 lakh. They purchased a solar drier for Rs 48,820 from Sirmour, a pulveriser for Rs 30,000, a weighing machine for Rs 9,000, and a sealing machine for Rs 4,000. The most important acquisition was a patented multi-purpose processing machine worth Rs 1,12,900, invented by Dharambir Kamboj, a Haryana-based farmer. An innovator par excellence, he has been awarded by former President Pratibha Patil and has been a guest of former President Pranab Mukherjee at Rashtrapati Bhavan for 20 days. He has also acted in Akshay Kumar’s Padman. “Agar meri behenein iss machine se kamai karein, to mere liye khushi ki baat hai (It is a matter of happiness for me if my sisters earn with the help of this machine),” says the 58-year-old.
Chander Shekhar, an Ayush department pharmacist posted at Hamirpur, trained women in making hair oil, pain killer oil and tulsi syrup. “Soon, I’ll tell them how to make chywanprash,” says the 39-year-old who has five-year experience in working with private pharmaceutical companies.
Anju Bala, Sheela Devi and Meena Kumari — all aged 45 and all from Chameti village — are associated with Vishwapujita Gram Sangathan, an aggregate of self-help groups known as the village organisation, so are Nisha Kaushik and Meenakshi — both aged 37 and both from Kuhna village. All of them do medicinal farming at home and make herbal products under the banner of their village organisation. “We have sent our products as far as Jalandhar, Chandigarh, Delhi and Gujarat,” says Nisha. From Kerala, too, they got a buyer, Dr Dileep Kumar, for sarpagandha and shatavari.
Their tulsi products take pride of place: tulsi ark, tulsi leaves, tulsi panchang, tulsi seeds, tulsi soap, tulsi perfume, tulsi cream and tulsi sharbat. They also make amla candy, Ayush kwath and aloe vera juice.
Recently, a custom hiring centre was sanctioned for the Vishwapujita Gram Sangathan. “A total of Rs 4 lakh has been allocated for this centre. With this amount, they have purchased small agricultural equipment. They can use it personally and can earn money by renting it out as well,” says BDO Singh.
Talking about the future roadmap, Kangra Deputy Commissioner Dr Nipun Jindal says they are trying to improve “market linkages” for the farmers. “Their tulsi products are very good. The benefits of these products have been noticed and experienced during this Covid time. We are trying our best to help them out in whatever way we can,” he says.
The cow connect
Dr Ashok Kumar Sharma, former state nodal officer, State Medicinal Plants Board, runs a gaushala at Kutt Kashmir village. It has 50 desi cows. No donations are welcome as he runs it with his pension — and passion. “Organic fertiliser is the basis for medicinal plants. Chemical fertiliser will lead to zero results,” he says.
The gaushala has become oxygen for all the medicinal plants in the villages nearby. It is from here that the farmers have been getting desi fertiliser made with desi cow products. Dr Sharma has also been imparting training to farmers in making organic fertiliser.
Sarpagandha sprang a surprise for Kuldip Singh Chauhan, a resident of Baliana village. He did not go in for transplantaion; he just sowed seeds of sarpagandha and ashwagandha on his 10-kanal land. “It appears shady area is good for sarpagandha. My sarpagandha seeds sprouted under the shade of mango trees while ashwagandha seeds didn’t,” says the 69-year-old.
Dhani Ram, of Kuhna village, has prepared a nursery of tulsi as well. He sold 30,000 plants of tulsi and earned Rs 15,000. He had been growing 10-15 plants of tulsi at home for 10-15 years but started large-scale cultivation of tulsi last year only. “Yeh sara khet jungle bana hua tha. Safai hui MGNREGA ke tahat. Meri gharwali bhi lagi thi. Usko mazdoori mili (This entire field had become a jungle. It was cleared under MGNREGA. My wife too worked as a labourer and got wages),” he says.
“Nursery ka shauk hai. tulsi dobara lagaunga. Sarpagandha aur ashwagandha bhi lagana chahata hoon (I am fond of preparing nursery. I’ll cultivate tulsi again. I want to grow sarpagandha and ashwagandha as well),”says the 67-year-old. “Kisanon ko spray nahin karani chahiye. Urea nahin dalani chahiye. Zameen bardaad ho jati hai (Farmers should not use spray and urea. That destroys land).”
Anoop Vashist, of Ghallour village, has prepared a fertiliser by mixing congress grass with gaumutra and alum. He got it tested at a laboratory. He claims the result showed 19% nitrogen per kg of this substance, whereas one kg urea has 46% nitrogen. “My fertiliser is natural. It has a zero cost and also offers a solution to get rid of the congress grass,” says the 61-year-old.
Dr Sharma, the owner of the gaushala, claims he has replaced keetnaashak (pesticide) with keetniyantrak made with gaumutra, neem and other herbs. His product doesn’t kill pests but scares them away. He has also prepared Madhavamrit with distilled gaumutra, giloy and tulsi. He claims he distributed it to 178 families which did not report any Covid infection after using it.
On the cards is tulsi mala that the Vishwapujita Gram Sangathan plans to make out of tulsi stems.
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