As thousands of migrant labour are stuck in camps in Mumbai, Delhi, Surat, Ahmedabad and several other cities, in Village India there is an urgency to put cash in the hands of women and others for their daily needs as well as provide transport support to take vegetables and harvested crops to district markets. Equally important, there is need to provide information and motivate villagers to protect themselves from the corona virus.
Among the best people to make this happen are NGOs with deep insights and bonding with communities at the grass roots. Many of them have already begun work to cope with rural distress. Tinni Sawhney, CEO of Aga Khan Foundation (AKF), says food is not such a big problem since the public distribution system is functioning and most villagers have ration cards. Some do not have ration cards and the AKF is assisting them to get one. Many continue to live off vegetables and home grown crops. What is more of a problem is finding liquid cash for their other needs like salt, turmeric, mustard, soaps and detergents.
The AKF has been working in Bettiah, West Champaran, Bihar, for several years now. When the lockdown was announced, with the help of its field partner, Samagra Shikshan Evam Vikas Sansthan (SSEVS), the AKF activated the SMS service to SHGs, farmers groups, Farmers Producer Company and others. Six messages in Hindi were prepared on social distancing, the need to wear masks even during harvesting, availability of super grain bags free of cost for safe storage of harvested grain/pulses till they reached market, and the service of four-wheelers to transport crops directly from field to the markets. Since villagers could not step out of their villages and the middlemen who normally bought their crop from their doorsteps could no longer enter the villages, there was urgency to market harvested crops.
In addition to the scaled up messaging service followed by phone calls, posters were created and pasted at village chowks, on school walls and public buildings to decimate the fear of the virus and share information on measures provided by the NGO to make life easier.
The good news is that not a single positive case of the virus has been reported in the 49 villages (population 2.5 lakhs) of West Champaran where the AKF is working. About 2,500 of the 4,000 plus migrants who were quarantined on coming back have also been cleared and have returned home. The return of the others is anxiously waited, since March and April are the months when the zaid crops are sown and the rabi harvested.
To ensure cash in the hands of the home-makers, the SHGs (Self Help Groups) at Jogapatti and Nautan blocks were activated to make masks using cotton cloth, based on the design given to them. Some 5,000 masks were made and sold to the Atmanirbhar Farmers’ Producer Company, also a partner of the AKF and SSEVS, at Rs 20 each with the women earning Rs 5 on each mask. Currently, they are working on an order for 50,000 masks. The masks are picked up from the SHGs by the Company and distributed door to door to some 2500 families.
Chanda Devi, Baikuntha village, secretary of Roshini Kisan Samooh and a board member of the Producer Company, says two masks were given to each of the 130 farmer families in her village. It’s an amazing sight to see farmers harvesting their fields wearing masks. Ghanshyam Prasad, Pakadia village, Savera Kisan Samooh says he is taking all precautions while going to the field as well as when stepping out of home. Each person in the house has a mask and sharing is taboo. Having got all the messages on the precautions to be taken, Ghanshyam wants to take no chances with coronavirus.
An important lifeline of the villages are the four four-wheel vehicles provided by the AKF and partners, that transport the harvested crops and vegetables to the bigger mandis. Four volunteers have been given passes by the local administration to ferry crops without hindrance from Nautan and Bariya blocks of Bettiah. By evening, the money is in the hands of the villagers without they having to step out. Going to the bigger markets, also ensures a better price for their products.
Pramila Devi of the Savera Kisan Samooh, Pakadia, Nautan block was ecstatic on receiving Rs 1,750 for the sale of coriander and potatoes through the new marketing facilities of AKF and SSEVS. She and four other farmers of her village got to know about the transport arrangements from her farmers group. Direct sale at the market, instead of selling to commission agents, enhanced her profit by 20 per cent.
Currently, plans are being drawn for wheat harvesting and sale of lentils from Bettiah. In fact, many of these villages, preferring cash crops like maize and sugarcane, had stopped cultivating pulses for many years. The absence of protein in diets had led to the occurrence of anemia. The AKF re-introduced cultivation of pulses with women taking the lead. The Farmers Producer Company is now negotiating purchase of six tonnes of lentils from 162 farmers at market price. This is expected to put at least Rs 3 lakh cash in the hands of farmers. Because of social distancing mandated by Covid, most of the negotiations are taking place on telephone.
Till the vehicles were arranged for transporting harvested crops, the AKF provided 52 super grain bags to farmers to pack and store their pulses. These 50-kg jute bags are lined with layers of plastic and have a locking system that retains the moisture of the grains while reducing pest attack. Women were provided with sieves to separate and grade the quality pulses.
NGOs, who have helped village communities with enhanced livelihoods, schooling for children, best practices in farming and in a myriad other ways, have earned their trust. So when they tell them about social distancing or wearing masks they listen. In the queues at the ration shops and even on the fields, social distancing is maintained. However, there is anxiety and scramble at markets where shops are open for a limited time, and in the queues outside banks because people are desperate for cash.
The writer is a senior journalist, who has reported extensively on developmental issues
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