Mumbai might be the city of dreams for people across India — the city that attracts job seekers and the city that is home to some of the richest people in the country. But you travel some 100 km away from the city — in the district of Raigad, and the scenario is quite contradictory. Water taps, basic agricultural techniques and options for livelihood are all quite scarce in some of the villages here.
Swades Foundation, the brainchild of Zarina and Ronnie Screwvala, operates in six talukas of this district in their mission to empower rural India. Rural empowerment through best practices, modern technology and values, is how the foundation describes its core vision and is thus active in six blocks currently — Tala, Mahasla, Mahad, Poladpur, Mangaon and Srivardhan. We, at Sakal Times, recently visited these blocks and interacted with the farmers, entrepreneurs, youth and the women there. “Ours is a 4E strategy — Engage, Empower, Execute and Exit. The idea is to empower our communities to execute programmes that transform their lives, enabling us to exit and allow them to serve as role models and change agents for the rest of the country,” explains Prasad Patil, senior manager, Swades Foundation.
India lives in her villages and it cannot rise to its true potential as a country without a fundamental transformation in the lives of people in rural India. At Swades Foundation, the partnership of rural India with corporates, young urban India, the government and other foundations is facilitated for an irreversible change for good.
The sweet story of bitter gourd
“The drip irrigation techniques and alternate crops patterns in place, I now want to go for large-scale mulching,” says an extremely confident Manohar Nana Jadhav, a farmer from Divil village in Poladpur. What is mulching, we ask him, and he takes us through a one-acre land to the next field, with plastic-like sheets over the surface of soil, interspersed with vegetables planted at uniform distance. “This,” he answers, explaining the reason behind the practice, “helps in many ways: with these sheets on the ground, the moisture retention of the soil increases as there’s no direct water evaporation. It also fastens the activity of the microbes since it’s always dark beneath the sheets, thus enhancing soil fertility.”
Jadhav, who was mentored by Swades Foundation a couple of years ago, would earlier only practise rice farming, which is what the majority of farmers do in the Konkan belt of Maharashtra. Along with many others in the village, Jadhav too would follow the annual cropping pattern according to the monsoon season, thus earning very little. He was then introduced to community farming by Swades and soon enough, Jadhav, along with Santosh Chikane and Subhash Raghunath Bhilare from nearby villages, began farming together.
“We were taken on a visit to a village in Gujarat where we saw various new techniques and I also attended a three-day training session in Alibag about bitter gourd farming. With all this knowledge, we invested Rs 32,000 in a 12-guntha land to grow bitter gourd last year and earned a total of Rs 1.5 lakh,” Jadhav tells us, while showing us the irrigation equipment that was bought through the farmers’ contribution and help from Swades. This is the income the three farmers earn apart from the annual income from rice farming and other vegetables. Next, they plan to replicate the cycle on a one-acre land, along with other vegetables. “We are now saving on the cost of labour, thanks to drip irrigation, and that also makes the use of fertilisers more uniform since it is mixed with water and evenly distributed,” adds Chikane. The farmers send their products to the Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) market in Panvel or Vashi.
Farmers across all these six blocks are guided by what Swades calls ‘Krishi Doots’. These are essentially the learned among the community who then guide the rest of the farmers in their respective regions. “The idea is to help them with knowledge and make them independent, instead of simply providing financial aid,” says Sandeep Shigwan, a gram executor, who works with Swades and the concerned gram panchayat.
Swades has so far trained 22,000 farmers in new farming technologies and 407.8 acres of land has been transformed through drip and flood irrigation respectively.
Sow today, reap forever
In another village, Raghunath Krishna Bhilare is a beneficiary of the grafting technique taught to him by Swades members. Grafting is a horticultural technique whereby tissues of plants are joined so as to continue their growth together. The upper part of the combined plant (the scion) is attached to the lower part (the rootstock) for getting the desired species of fruit trees. “Since Alphonso is a much-adored and demanded mango species, we do this to grow more Alphonso mango trees. This way, the tree takes lesser time to grow and flower as compared to a newly planted tree, since the stem is already developed and ready with all the nutrition in place,” explains Bhilare, who has earned close to Rs 2,500 with every such tree that he has developed in the last few years. The government too provides funds for this activity, along with insuring the plants.
Part of its Orchard Development Programme, Swades has so far planted 6.5 lakh such trees across the six blocks. The programme also includes counselling sessions in neighbouring urban areas — mainly Mumbai and Pune —where Swades members enlighten the migrated population about planting fruit trees in their lands back home. “Planting fruit trees doesn’t need much effort, and by the time these people retire and return to their villages, they already have fruit-yielding trees,” points out Patil.
The aim at Swades is to bring together the best global practices, accountability, and corporate governance to create a model of sustainable development, which can be replicated.
Vikas Ramesh Kadam was one of those many migrants in Pune, struggling to make ends meet and was barely able to send money back home to his family. “I was earning Rs 7,000 a month, managing my rent and hardly sending anything home, when my friend informed me about Swades. I decided to take the plunge and returned to Raigad three years ago where I began my poultry business,” says Kadam, who initially began on a small scale and now doesn’t have the space to expand his poultry. He rears country chicken which have great demand in the nearby markets and also encourages other village youth to follow suit. With an earning of around Rs 13,000 per month now, Kadam has also bought an autorickshaw that he uses to ply passengers to nearby towns for some extra buck, and is happy living with his family in his hometown.
While Kadam is one among a few youth who have gone back to their villages to pursue farming or allied activities, Swades now plans to conduct more such counselling sessions in cities to educate people about the options available back home if life is not exactly great in the urban space.
Along with training in poultry, another 3,372 entrepreneurs have also been created in the dairy field with 4,255 milch cattle across the six blocks. About 800 households are currently engaged in goat rearing. Ramdas Laxman Chandhvikar of Kumbharwadi village in Poladpur owns two hybrid buffaloes apart from one country buffalo. They fetch him around Rs 70,000 a year now. “All my buffaloes are insured too, so I am quite stress-free and the finance to buy new cattle is also provided by NABARD,” he says.
Apart from these initiatives, Swades also works in the water and sanitation, community health, education and infrastructure sectors as part of its 360-degree approach to empowerment.
“The mission is to empower 1 million rural Indians every five to six years, creating a permanent, irreversible change for good. We believe in holistic development,” concludes Patil, who is part of a team of 1,600 people — 1,300 community volunteers and 300 full-time staff of professionals working at the grassroots.