April 15, 2021 8:38:25 pm
Tilak Mahto could return home from Delhi, to his village in Bihar’s Sitamarhi, last year after the lockdown was announced only because of the money his wife, Gita Devi, had earned and saved through mushroom cultivation. Devi had started mushroom cultivation on a small patch of land in 2019 December. By the first week of March 2020, which is when the mushroom season ends, she had earned Rs 12,400 by selling 60 kg of mushrooms. Her husband, Tilak, a daily wage labourer in Delhi was stranded in Delhi without money and had to bunk with a relative for a few days till Gita sent the money.
Amidst the surge in COVID-19 cases, sporadic lockdowns, images of migrants boarding trains and buses to return home and speculations on the state of economy in India, the story about the rise in mushroom cultivation brings succour in times of uncertainties. Mushroom cultivation has been gaining momentum in the last few years. As has been reported, India produced 17,100 metric tonnes of mushroom in 2013-14, which increased to 4,87,000 MT by 2018. Our work shows that it can be extremely helpful to bolster the rural household economy while disaster-proofing them.
Case in point is Gita and Tilak’s village — Koriyahi in Sitamarhi’s Bajpatti block. Sitamarhi is a flood-prone district in Bihar. During the floods of 2016, and the subsequent years, there was huge destruction of lives and livelihoods. The worst affected were the Dalits, and among them the Musahars since they were not eligible for any compensation because they were sharecroppers or worked as farm labourers. To add to it, the lockdown last year dealt a double blow to these families. Men from these villages migrate to towns and cities, both inter-and intra-state, and women are left behind to work as daily wage farm labourers to augment the household income. With the lockdown, the men returned home without money or savings and those in the village lost work. It was evident in 2020 and earlier this year how mushroom cultivation has come as a blessing for these families.
Why mushroom cultivation? Kharif crops, grown during the monsoons, are a boon for small and marginal farmers as they don’t need irrigation. But, every year, floods destroy these crops, affecting their income. Mushroom cultivation starts in November, which is soon after the floods, and continues till the first week of March. By December, the farmer starts earning from the cultivation. For the rest of the year, the community has some savings from mushrooms and the daily wage work to fall bank on.
Though Oxfam India had been working in the flood-prone Koriyahi village since 2012 on disaster preparedness, it was only in 2017 that it started working on livelihood interventions — mushroom cultivation and vermicomposting — with a special focus on the women from the Musahar community. Training began with two households in 2017; by 2020, 64 families had joined. Apart from training and input support — 20 bags of raw material for mushroom (which included Casein 1 kg, compost 9 kg and spawn), room thermometer, a one-litre sprayer and fungi-guard — the women farmers were given constant supervision and help.
In order to flood-proof these, the women farmers grew mushroom in dark rooms and mushroom huts built on raised land, so when floods did hit the village, these patches did not submerge and they were able to bank on mushrooms to take them through the next few months.
In December 2020, 30 women were provided inputs. Ram Kumari Devi, from the OBC community, was one of them. Her husband Hulash Mahto is a daily wage labourers while she worked as a Jeevika community mobiliser. Around December, her average monthly income ranged between Rs 2,000 and Rs 2,500. By March, she earned Rs 10,000 selling 50 kg mushroom, apart from saving them for household consumption. This was over and above what she made as a community mobiliser.
By March 2021, the women in the village had earned Rs 2,36,600 from the sale of 1,183 kgs of mushroom. At the moment they are selling in nearby markets, restaurants in neighbouring towns, and in close by government residential areas. Families are now able to spend more on the education of their children, and avail the medical facilities around. The next step, is to form a cooperative of the mushroom women farmers, provide improved linkages with markets and government schemes, and ensure that all the inputs, barring the spawns, are prepared and provided from within the village community.
Mushroom cultivation has social implications too. Musahars, the most marginalised among the Dalits, are socially ostracised and discriminated against and are considered to be unclean and unhygienic. Mushroom cultivation, on the other hand, requires maintaining cleanliness and hygiene. It has in a way helped change social perception. Samundari Devi, from the musahar community, sees a difference and feels that the larger community is beginning to recognise and accept the musahars. Of the 64 families, 23 are from the Musahar community.
This is just the beginning — in the village alone there are at least 200 more women farmers waiting in the wings to start mushroom cultivation. And with the impending crisis looming large, mushrooms might just be one of those things we need.
The writer works at Oxfam India
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