Artisanal soaps to lavender tea, Chhattisgarh’s gobar revolution is helping rural women

By Ishadrita LahirionJul. 09, 2022in Economics and Technologies

What started as cow dung procurement & organic fertiliser production scheme in 2020 is helping state give rural economy a push. Success stories abound, but challenges remain.

Women workers at the Navagaon gauthan | Photo: Ishadrita Lahiri | ThePrint

Raipur: Mushroom and chocolate protein powder, lemongrass-scented artisanal soaps, ragi cookies and mahua squash.

It may be difficult to believe that any or all of these things — which will not look out of place in even the poshest of South Delhi homes — are products of Chhattisgarh’s ‘gobar (cow dung) economy’.

Indeed, who associates poop with fragranced, artisanal soaps? Fewer perhaps would think of it as the key to set up a robust rural economy.

Chhattisgarh’s flagship economic model began as a cow dung procurement and organic fertiliser production scheme in 2020 — under the Bhupesh Baghel government — aimed at providing income support to farmers, while also addressing a shortage of chemical fertilisers in the state.

Two years on, the government is using the scheme as a stepping stone for a larger model that builds on existing schemes to increase their efficiency and create a rural industrial economy.

In the process, sources in the Chhattisgarh government said, it is trying to create avenues for rural entrepreneurship in the state. CM Baghel, during the annual state budget this year, even carried his documents in a briefcase made of cow dung.

“The scheme will turn gobar into a profitable commodity,” Baghel had said while launching the Godhan Nyay Yojana in July 2020.

The scheme has not been without its share of hitches, however — both economic and social in nature. From lack of participation of women, to lack of local demand for vermicompost, the government has faced many hurdles as it sought to use the scheme to implement its idea of rural industrialisation.

Gobar to retail

In July 2020, the Chhattisgarh government announced that it will procure cow dung from registered cattle owners in the state at Rs 2 per kg, under the Godhan Nyay Yojana, aimed at providing income support to farmers.

The cow dung procurement scheme, which Baghel played a crucial role in formulating, according to sources, also sent out a strong political message — that of making the holy cow’ economically viable.

The same year, in order to address a shortage of chemical fertilisers in the state, the government said it will process the cow dung that it buys into vermicompost and sell it to farmers at Rs 8 per kg, which is much cheaper than chemical fertilisers, priced at Rs 48 to 50 a kg.

According to government figures, between July 2020 and May 2022, the Chhattisgarh government bought cow dung worth Rs 144 crore from rural cattle owners. During the same period, it also produced 15.24 lakh quintals of vermicompost.

“It was launched as an animal welfare scheme by the government, but gradually it has become the backbone for the people in our village who are now earning a good amount because of this,” said Bhagwant Prasad Sahu, sarpanch of the Navagaon village in Raipur district.

The cow dung procurement and composting scheme led to the setting up of gauthans, where cattle could be kept for the day and looked after. The cow dung collected would then be sold to the government.

The gauthans gradually started housing vermicompost pits. Employees included women from SHGs in the villages in which the gauthans were located.

Women work at a gauthan’s mushroom growing unit | Photo: Ishadrita Lahiri | ThePrint

According to the government policy, the land and infrastructure for the setting up of the gauthan came from the local gram panchayat, which buys the land and then ensures that it has adequate water supply, sheds for cows, pits for vermicompost etc.

The state administration plays a crucial role in terms of first identifying a strip of land large enough to serve its purpose.

District officials then speak to gram panchayats and convince them to use monetary grants and other funds to set up the gauthans. Government figures peg the number of operational gauthans in Chhattisgarh at approximately 8,400.

It is now in the process of transforming these gauthans into what it calls rural industrial parks, or centres for cottage industries that the government hopes will create retail products that can “compete with the market”.

“The aim is to increase economic activities in rural areas and empower the rural populace to create avenues of income for themselves,” said a government official.

From sarees to metal sculptures to food supplements and lifestyle products — the government has big plans for what it wants these cottage industries to produce. Many of the products have no connection with cow dung, except that they are made at the gauthans.

In the 2022-23 annual budget, the government allotted Rs 600 crore to expand 300 gauthans that have successfully made the move towards expansion and industrialisation.

The rural industrial park

Under the Chhattisgarh government’s vision for its gobar economy, a rural industrial park is essentially a large area that is expected to house cow sheds, vermicompost pits and infrastructure for cottage industries like vegetable farming, perfume-making, pisciculture, poultry-farming, textile work and more.

“It is meant to be like a co-working space for women in SHGs who want to run their own business,” said Ravi Mittal, CEO Raipur zila panchayat.

The parks are also supposed to be centres where villagers can be trained in skills required to run such businesses and create such products. Here, too, the administration plays an intermediary, facilitatory role, added Mittal.

SHGs are approached by the administration and asked to visit the rural industrial parks for training and to work there. Once the women pick up the requisite skills, they can use the infrastructure at the park to start and run their business. Usually, four or five SHGs are involved with one rural industrial park.

“SHGs are enthusiastic because, as a way of social mobilisation, we link them with funds either through existing government schemes or through banks. Livelihood activity is a very natural reason for the formation of any SHG,” Mittal said.

“Earlier they didn’t have the opportunity to get involved in economic activities that can multiply the money they get through loans. They used to spend it on their personal farms or save it for emergencies.”

The women at one such rural industrial park visited by ThePrint in Navagaon said it was this opportunity for up-skilling that they treasure most.

“Our saas-nani (mother-in-law and grandmother) had never heard of any of these things (like mushroom farming in dark rooms or herbal extract distillation),” said Anjini Sahu, part of an SHG involved with the Navagaon gauthan. “Now, look at us! We are earning our own money, while also picking up skills that even our husbands may not know.”

Sahu learnt how to run a distillation machine — used to derive extracts of plants and herbs like lemongrass, mint, prima rosa etc — at the gauthan.

The distillery, a tall structure in the middle of the colourfully decorated gauthan, is the pride of the establishment, said sarpanch Sahu.

If one were to look at the rural entrepreneurship model as a supply chain, then the produce from the gauthans would be the first step.

The gauthan produces raw material, like the herbal extracts, which are then used in making things like soaps and perfumes.

A woman holds up soaps made at Kalpataru Multi-Utility Centre | Photo: Ishadrita Lahiri | ThePrint

Apart from the distillation unit, the 13-acre establishment at Navagaon had fish ponds, vegetable gardens, cultivation patches of medicinal herbs, dark rooms for mushroom cultivation, and composting units.

Here too, various schemes like the Baadi Vikas Yojana and the Ausadhi Paudha Yojana are linked with the gauthan to fund various units.

Most women at the unit started work at the composting units, before diversifying into other things. Mushroom farming is a popular choice.

The women are encouraged to take their produce to the local market, especially the weekly village haat, for sale.

Herbal and floral extracts, the USP of this gauthan, are procured by the government.

The women take the other products to local markets themselves.

While business was slow initially, Bindu Sinha, who began cultivating mushrooms about a year ago, said her produce is almost entirely sold off at the weekly market these days.

“When I started in 2020, I could grow about 150 bags of mushrooms in a season. A year later, I can now grow about 250 bags. I take them to the haat and sell them at about Rs 200 per kg. I made Rs 18,000 the last time I took my mushrooms to the market in May,” Sinha told ThePrint last month.

While some women have started their own businesses at the gauthans, others work for a fixed wage that the SHGs pay out.

On average, the gauthans provide eight hours of fixed daily work to about 30-40 women in the villages where they’re set up.

‘Never going back to household work’

A district official explained that each gauthan has a USP — products that it specialises in and can “compete with the market”.

For each product, the government designates four gauthans as the best in the category from which it buys directly, the official said.

While some of the gauthans function as sources of raw material, others have been expanded into production and packaging units.

The BIHRA bakery where cookies and herbal teas are made | Photo: Ishadrita Lahiri | ThePrint

At one such production unit called the Kalpataru Multi-Utility Centre (KMUC), in Sedikhedi village, about 15 kilometres from Raipur, the word BIHRA, adorned with colourful graffiti, greets visitors right at the entrance.

BIHRA is the acronym for Bihan Raipur — the brand under which SHG products made in the Raipur district are packaged.

Bihan is the name by which the National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM) is known in Chhattisgarh. In order to homogenise the branding for all SHG products, the government has brought them all under the Bihan brand, with each district having its own variation of the brand name for its products.

The KMUC boasts of a bakery where women make various kinds of cookies and artisanal teas.

“Each type of tea is for a different mood and serves different purposes. The lavender tea is for headaches, the lemongrass flavour is for the morning, pudina tea is a detoxifier and so on,” said 36-year-old Mohini Daharia, who is among the women tasked with running the bakery.

She can similarly hold eloquent on the benefits of the ragi, cashew, pista and muesli cookies that she makes.

For Daharia and the other women at the KMUC, this is their first job, for which they get paid Rs 6,000 a month.

While the money brings with it financial freedom, the break from what they describe as mundane and sometimes “irritating” household chores is what keeps them going.

“At home, the kids keep troubling you, husbands keep troubling you. Everybody wants something or the other. This is a good break from all this chik-chik,” said Daharia, with a laugh.

Apart from everything else, there is a sense of pride in the work they do. Khileshwari Madhukar, another SHG worker at KMUC, holds up a basket of artisanal soaps she’s helped make and shape, with obvious joy.

“This one is my favourite,” she said, pointing to a pearl white soap shaped like a sleeping baby.

Her other pride is the gold mangalsutra — a necklace worn by married women in many parts of India — adorning her neck. She bought it with her own money.

“My husband was quite shocked when I told him I wanted to buy this. But he was supportive. Told me that it is my money, and I can use it to buy what I want,” she said.

Tikeswari Yadav, 23, the youngest of those working here, used her savings from the job to buy a yellow scooty.

“I took the scooty on EMI. I have to pay about Rs 27,000 more. I’ll settle that by the end of the year,” she said, adding that her parents were looking for a prospective groom for her, and her job ensures she gets great offers.

It is this social capital, created by the government’s entrepreneurial push to these women, more than the vision of industrialising the rural economy, which has Professor Anupama Saxena of Guru Ghasidas Central University rooting for Baghel’s scheme.

“Getting women into the public space is important. It affects their confidence and their psychology,” said Saxena.

She added: “With this entrepreneurial push, the rural economy is getting strengthened and that is increasing the income in a village woman’s hand. This bit of the government’s efforts is highly appreciable.”

The lifestyle products at the KMUC facility are made under a sub-brand, called Arth.

They are marketed in a box pretty enough to be displayed on Instagram, which bears a QR code that gives details of the brand, its story and its products.

“For our lifestyle products, we try to match the packaging of (luxury) brands like Forest Essentials and Kama Ayurveda. The aim is for these products to look at home at the shelves of retail stores, where they can compete with such brands and prove a viable alternative to customers who are looking for such products,” said a government functionary at KMUC.

Retail marts for SHG products

The government has taken responsibility for taking unique, branded products at KMUC and other such establishments to the market.

For this, retail supermarts are being set up by the government. These supermarts have been named C-Mart or Chhattisgarh Mart. At present, 27 such retail marts have been set up across the state, according to government data. Each store sees daily average sales worth Rs 20,000-50,000, the data shows.

One of the shops set up to sell gauthan-made products | Photo: Ishadrita Lahiri | ThePrint

These supermarts sell products that are unique to each district of the state, that are ideated, branded and packaged to someday take on legacy brands.

So, while there is mahua squash from Bastar, there are bell metal items from Sarguja and Kosa silk from Raigarh.

A pack of three essential oils, in vials of 15 ml each, is priced at Rs 335, 50 grams of herbal tea costs Rs 225, and so does a 100 g bar of organic soap.

How viable is gobar economy’s entrepreneurial push?

Government officials that ThePrint spoke to accept that the “third-phase” push is still far from perfect, mostly because of trouble that is now cropping up in the first two phases.

A government source said “intrinsic problems” — in the amount of gobar the government can procure, its quality, and demand for vermicompost — have created problems in the last two years.

“The amount of gobar being procured by the government has come down because, for that, pits for composting would need to be dug up and that is not happening at the required pace,” said a government official. Year-wise data on procurement was, however, not available.

Another official added: “Second, fertiliser is only required during the May-June cropping season. After that, there is no demand for vermicompost. There is also an issue of quality control. People are mixing impurities with the cow dung to increase weight.”

According to the official, there is “stagnation” in some places (districts or gram panchayats) because of this, but the government was looking to “engage professionals” and venture into the private market for vermicompost sale.

A government official said getting rural women to “be patient” for the time that it takes to reap benefits of entrepreneurial ventures is also a task.

“One needs to give at least a year or two for any business to show considerable profits. We find it difficult to get women to continue the business for that long,” said the official.

Professor Saxena also pointed to the problem of middlemen that plagues the model at some levels.

“We’ve seen during our field research that there are gauthans where there are no cows. This happens due to the involvement of middlemen. Since the government buys gobar at specific times, villagers in need of quick cash sell their gobar to a middleman for a slightly lower price. The middleman then sells it to the government at Rs 2 per kg,” she said.

But this corruption reveals one thing about the government’s flagship model and the role that it is playing in the state, added the professor.

Gobar in Chhattisgarh has now become liquid cash. And this cash is now coming into the hands of women too,” she said. “Only time can determine the success of such models and other social factors also play a role. But it is appreciable that at least such a model is in play and is looking to empower rural women”.

(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)

First Published by The Print on 4 July 2022

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