For more than six months a year,vast swathes of land in the rain-dependent rice belts of Jharkhand remained barren,forcing farmers to migrate to other cities in search of livelihoods.
The trend has reversed at least in one place,in the Maoist-infested Bishunpur block in Gumla district where papaya trees dot every farmers fields now with the help of a 28-year-old community initiative started by a social worker and farmer.
Apart from papayas,farmers in this block are growing guava,litchi,ginger,turmeric and ayurvedic plants through the year.
Till 1983,the farmers here used to worry about a recurring calamity drought.
Then Ashok Bhagat set up an NGO called Vikas Bharti whose objective was to introduce new crops that could be sown through the year and thus stem migration. Under the NGO,he himself planted various trees,mostly papayas,in soil soaked in rainwater. He also set up a school for physically challenged children.
At the same time,Bhagat tried to convince villagers to pool resources labour and a few acres of land for diversification into horticulture and fruits. It took him several years.
It was around 2003 that some of us agreed to act upon his initiative. The soil soaked in rainwater was used to cultivate cash crops like ginger,turmeric and ayurvedic medicinal plants, says Jiten Oraon,a farmer. The crops grew well that year.
Over the years,the initiative has come to cover more than 5,000 farmers.
Bhagat,a recipient of the prestigious Indira Priyadarshini Vriksha Mitra (IPVM) in 1992,then took it to the next level. I set up a nursery to prepare saplings and planted them in the fields. After a bumper yield,I set up a centre to train these farmers into growing crops other than paddy. They were taught to grow high-yield seeds of various crops.
The IPVM awards,presented by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests,are conferred on individuals and institutions in recognition of their innovative contribution in the fields of afforestation and wasteland development by involving people.
We plan to promote horticulture in other districts such as Ranchi,Hazaribagh and Dumka districts with the backing of the National Horticulture Mission (NHM) and Jharkhand State Horticulture Mission (JSHM), says Bhagat.
We have benefited by following his (Bhagats) advice, say couple Jitan and Nanki Oraon,who together make a profit of Rs 20,000 to Rs 25,000 by selling papayas every year.
Abbas Ansari,a resident of Chitridadu village near Bishunpur,grows papaya round the year on his four acres of land. Papaya fetches quick returns. The plant has a life span of three years; its first fruits bloom within three months, he says.
Moreover,it does not require labour or irrigation. The plant grows on its own in rainwater-soaked soil.
A similar project involving cultivation of guava,litchi,mango and custard apple was recommended by the ICAR (Indian Council of Agricultural Research) and NHM in 2005. But it never took off among the tribals. Around 8 years ago,I started an integrated scheme on my farm with three main objectives: demonstrate the plants yield; grow seeds and raise saplings in our nursery; and train the farmers to grow them in the barren land. The result is there for all to see, says Bhagat.
Last year,the block produced 5,000 to 6,000 boxes of papaya,most of which were sold directly from their farms to the markets in towns. This year,too,the farmers are looking forward to a healthy yield.
Though most of them,including Bhagat,are content with the immediate cash flow that the sale of this fruit fetches them in the local markets of Bishunpur,Gumla,Ranchi,Jamshedpur in Jharkhand and Raipur in Chhattisgarh where papaya from far-flung states of Andhra Pradesh,Kerala and Maharashtra are also sold,marketing is the main hitch.
The ripe papaya,with a shelf life of a week and so,needs to be sold off quickly.
In the absence of a railway network,transportation and a fruit market,the farmers,including Bhagat,are compelled to sell the fruit to middlemen. The middlemen often pay us less than half the price of what they fetch in towns and cities.
The farmers could have benefited immensely had the government set up a fruit bazaar where we could have transported and sold our products directly,says Bhagat.
Bhagat and a delegation of farmers have taken their problems to the local MP,NHM and JSHM.
A plan to set up a mega fruit and vegetable market was approved by the Centre in 2005. But it is yet to fructify because the state government has failed to provide land for the purpose, said Ranchi MP and former Union Minister of Tourism Subodh Kant Sahay who held the portfolio of food processing till last year.