Organic Farming Empowers Women in India

For Sukhdai, 66, this was her moment of glory. She couldn’t help feeling happy and proud as she posed for pictures at a press conference in Lucknow, organised by a multinational company that manufactures organic drinks and medicines. Sukhdai was being honoured because her original recipe of a concoction made from tulsi (Indian basil) the company retails worldwide is a great hit in the market today.

“Tulsi ma ki jai (Hail Goddess Tulsi),” exalted the frail farmer, who until recently had not even gone beyond the limits of the farm she works on in Bahadurpur, a small hamlet of Uttar Pradesh. Nevertheless, she is a star now. For it is her innovative recipes and immense hard work in the field – tilling the land and tending to the herbs – that has helped the company she works for gain popularity and international prominence.

Of course, Sukhdai’s achievements are particularly remarkable because she has dared to be different in a society that rejects all change: Not only has she successfully taken on a task usually reserved for the men in her village, she has motivated many women like herself to become successful bread-winners for their families. Says the petite elderly woman, “When my husband died I was very young and had five children to look after. As a widow I was shunned by society and had no way to support my family. That’s when I decided to step out and earn a living. I sold my land to a company that was looking to start an organic farm in Bahadurpur. They told me that it would be a huge challenge and that the land would have to be detoxified first and nothing could grow on it for the first three years. I took the risk. But I also made a request to them that I should be hired a as a farm hand on my land.”

That’s how Sukhdai’s tryst with research and development in the field of organic farming began. Within three years, her farm was lush with herbs grown organically and, as luck would have it, around that time the demand for organic products too picked up pace globally. According to Sanjay Gupta, CEO of Organic India, the enterprise that has hired Sukhdai, “From the beginning, she has been the motivating factor behind this whole effort. Currently, the company’s turnover is around Rs 60 crore and we target to reach Rs 100 crore by the next financial year. Sukhadai and her team of village women have promised me that this will happen.”

He points out that the traditional homemade recipes using tulsi, turmeric, rose and many other herbs that the company markets as supplements and drinks, owe their existence to the hard work of these women. “I not only see them as entrepreneurs, constantly researching new ways to make their business successful, but also as storehouses of age-old knowledge. The company provides them with the technical know-how for organic farming and ensures that they follow international norms,” adds Gupta.

Of course, the women who have been the driving force behind this venture have done well economically, too. Usha, 35, mother of three daughters and a son, is happy with her decision to work with the organic farming enterprise despite the protests of friends and relatives. She says, “My husband works but ill-health doesn’t permit him to put in long hours due to which he loses out on many opportunities. So I decided to take over. Twelve years ago we had no money to pay school fees for our children. They either stayed at home or studied in the village government school where the conditions were bad. But once I began working on the farm I was able to save enough to send all my children to better schools nearby.”

Thanks to this work opportunity, not only has the financial status of these women improved greatly, what has really given them a sense of satisfaction is the fact that they are successfully shouldering the responsibilities of the family. Usha says, “I am glad I decided to work. Being uneducated I always used to feel inferior. I never want my daughters to feel the same way.”

The organic farming of herbs has had another major impact on the rural community in Bahadurpur. The herbs grown in abundance are also being used to treat common and frequent illnesses and this has drastically cut down on medical bills that had once contributed greatly to their impoverishment.

Elaborates Vandita J. Samuel, who works with the Organic India Foundation, “The company was founded in 1997 by an Israeli-American couple who partnered a Lucknow-based Ayurvedic physician, Dr Narendra Singh, on the idea of effectively harnessing the therapeutic qualities of tulsi. Manufacturing tulsi tea was seen as one option and this led to the collaboration with local farmers, particularly women. Organic farming pays above-average wages and an added advantage for the community is the free healthcare that comes with it. The medicines grown on the farm are prescribed along with modern drugs and it has helped improve the health status of women and children here.” These on-site clinics are being run in districts like Azamgarh and Lucknow and even MBBS doctors have now begun to visit these areas to render their services free of cost.

This organic farming model has caught the attention of many across the world. Recently, a very impressed and curious Anna Niedermeier, a research student from Germany, visited one such farm. She says, “I wanted to learn a different kind of corporate culture. As part of my dissertation I had been engaged with the topic of Corporate Social Responsibility for quite some time and I wanted to see how this concept is being put into practice in India. How can women farmer’s best operate economically without harming the company’s stakeholders? What does everyday life look like in an environment now shaped by women? What kind of people work in organic companies and being women are all of them hopeless idealists or is it all just a marketing gag? I found answers to these questions in Bahadurpur and Azamgarh.”

Observes Gupta, “Women farmers who have opted to grow organic produce are doing quite well now. Recently, another feather was added in our cap with the help of Sukhdai and her team when we exported the first container of fresh rose petals to Germany. There is a huge demand for fresh rose petals in the international markets but no country had been able to benefit as rose petals wilt fast and are perishable. When we discussed the possibility with Sukhdai, she took up the challenge and even managed to come up with a technique to preserve the rose petals till they reach markets overseas.”

Quiz the women on how this achievement makes then feel and most say it’s a win-win situation for everybody. Phool Jahan, 65, who walks for over an hour from her village in Beniganj to come to work on the organic farms at Bahadurpur, explains, “For generations we grew arhar and channa dals (yellow pulses and chickpeas) with wheat and paddy on own farms, and yet we had hand-to-mouth existences.”

Today, things have got transformed for her, “Ever since I have begun working on the organic farms, adding gobar khad (cowdung manure) and other natural elements to the soil, my fortunes have changed. Every morning I look forward to going to the farm and working on some new idea to help create an organic product. It makes me feel special because this is my way of doing my bit for my family.”

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