They have formed a farmers’ produce organisation in Dewas that bypasses exploitative middlemen to access markets directly

The fine lines on Chintabai Trigram’s face bear testimony to the challenges life has thrown at her from time to time. Years ago, she moved to Rehmanpura village in Dewas district, with three young children to support. To make ends meet, Trigram helped local villagers with their household chores and farming and did odd jobs for them.

Life is relatively kinder now — her son works as a driver in Indore and she owns a home. “I’ve begged for food. I didn’t have a roof when it rained and went from house to house so someone could take me and my children in. I helped others in farming and in return got grains, flour, etc. I built one brick at a time and today have a house of my own,” says Trigram, now 42, tears of joy streaming down her face.

Not far from Rehmanpura, in Jhadkapura village, Barki Dodwe tends to her soyabean farm. Years ago, a falling water table and no alternate water source was cause for worry.

There was a dam nearby but Dodwe’s land was in the upstream area. So she did the next best thing: marshalled 20 other women who took a loan of Rs. 2 lakh each and built a 3-km pipeline to fetch water from the dam to her village.

They purchased a powerful motor as well to pull the water to the upstream area of their village.

“If our water worries are solved, we could even try multi-crop cultivation to increase our income. Once power supply is secured for the motors, we could look at cash crops,” she says.

Trigram and Dodwe are doing their best not only to raise their own standards of living, but are also helping other tribal women for whom agriculture is the mainstay, raise their station.

Small, marginal farmers

The feisty women have come together under RamRahim Pragati Producer Company Ltd (RPCL), a farmers’ produce organisation (FPO) that helps them secure the best possible price for their produce besides good-quality, pesticide-free seeds.

Trigram is its chairperson, and she works aggressively to create awareness about the organisation amongst tribal farmers.

Formed in 2012, RPCL is owned by more than 2,600 tribal women farmers in the predominantly dry area of Dewas.

Most of its members are small and marginal farmers with average land holding of less than a hectare.

In 2014, RPCL became the first entity to receive an equity grant from the Central government through the Small Farmers Agri Business Consortium, a body under the Department of Agriculture and Co-operation.

What sets RPCL apart from other FPOs in the country is that its board of directors and shareholders comprise tribal women farmers. Also, it has helped many women farmers bypass the exploitative group of local money lenders and traders to directly trade in the mandis at government-notified prices.

On a few occasions, RPCL has even helped farmers sell their produce directly on the National Commodity & Derivatives Exchange Ltd to get better prices than the mandis. It also offers loans to farmers for equipment — Dodwe’s was one such.

“We realised that real benefits happen only when communities are empowered. We work with many self-help groups and clusters, RamRahim FPO being one of those,” says P.S. Vijay Shankar of Samaj Pragati Sahayog (SPS), a not-for-profit organisation that played a key role in establishing RPCL. The FPO has helped farmers be more aware of the benefits of collective and sustainable agriculture, he adds. Incidentally, Magsaysay Award-winning social worker Baba Amte is associated with SPS.

The organisation describes itself as one that “has primarily engaged in activities for ensuring fair, transparent, timely and equitable market links for agricultural produce of small and marginal farmers.” RPCL operates in the ‘Ghat Neeche’ or plains of the Narmada valley, where 90 per cent of farmers belong to the marginal category and are predominantly tribal.

352 villages covered

The area covers 352 villages and the crops grown here traditionally are soya, maize, cotton, Bengal gram and wheat, which together make up nearly 95 per cent of the farm produce. Other crops include red gram, jowar and chillies.

Up until 2015, the group sold 40,000 quintals of soya, wheat, maize and Bengal gram with a total value of Rs 5 crore.

The farmers say RPCL has brought in the fairness quotient, earlier non-existent. “We are now aware of current prices and also get an idea about the way they may move in future,” says Yashodabai Parmar of Devnaliya village in the district.

“We plan our sale accordingly. This was not the case earlier, when we had no option but to sell our produce to the local trader who we knew cheated us. The collective strength of RPCL has benefitted us.”

Chintabai, however, says getting to where they are today was a Herculean task, thanks to opposition from people who saw their easy commission waning. She recalls that a truck carrying the produce of one of the members to the mandi was once stopped by a group of traders. “On receiving the message, I immediately left with a group of women. Seeing the large number of women, the men backed off and the truck was allowed to go. Eventually, we got a better price for our produce,” she says.

Selling to the local trader was a double-edged sword, with the famers being cheated not only on price but also on weight. But they didn’t have an option as the nearest mandi was nearly 90 km away and marginal farmers did not find it feasible to hire tempos to transport their produce.

Ever since RPCL has been formed, the produce is aggregated at pre-designated local collection centres at the village and transported collectively to the mandi, bringing down farmers’ costs.

The bags are weighed using an electric weighing machine and marked so as to avoid any discrepancy in sale value. Such economies of scale help in bringing down the overhead costs for a small farmer and in securing the right price for the produce.

A local collection and storage centre may sound like a simplistic solution, but it was the key reason for farmers selling their produce to the local trader instead of at the mandi.

“More than 80 per cent of the farmers do not have storage facilities and are compelled to sell within two months of production instead of waiting for a better price,” says Shankar.

In future, RPCL plans to help farmers focus on crop diversification and look at millets, pulses and other traditional crops. This has also been necessitated due to recent failures of crops like soyabean and maize.

The organisation also plans to educate farmers on issues like quality seeds, organic fertilisers, pest control and post-harvest management. It aims to expand its reach to livestock and poultry farmers, and wants to build more collection/warehouse centres.

RPCL has also tied up with Bengaluru-based Safe Harvest Pvt Ltd, which procures organic produce from farmers and sells directly to retail customers. For many tribal women in the district, this may be the beginning of a whole new way of life.