Uttar Pradesh, India: Community owned solutions strengthening resilience of rural communities

In the villages of Uttar Pradesh, India, a local NGO has set up community grain bank services and mobilised farming families to grow their own vegetables and ensure food security during Covid-19. Neelmani Gupta reports

This is the forty-third in the series of stories from Voices from the Frontline initiative by ICCCAD and CDKN.

Situated in the north central part of the country, Uttar Pradesh is the most populous state in India as well as the most populous country subdivision in the world. Agriculture forms an integral part of Uttar Pradesh’s economy and the lives of its people. Marginal farmers (who work less than 1 hectare (ha)) and small farmers (1 – 2 ha) cultivate 92.5 percent of all landholdings in Uttar Pradesh which accounts for 64.8 percent of the total area cultivated in the State.

Small and marginal producers and agricultural labourers face shortages of food grains at times throughout the year. This happens when the prices of food grains in the market are high and there is no money in hand to purchase them. They borrow food grains from bigger farmers and return them at the time of harvest, but they are bound to harvest their fields first and at a lower wage.

Community Grain Bank

Since 2011, Shramik Bharti, a local NGO in Uttar Pradesh has enabled rural disadvantaged communities to set up “Community Grain Banks” to ensure their food security throughout the year. This simple yet effective solution is one that women in villages can easily manage and sustain. Today, there are more than 200 community grain banks that ensure the food security of more than 6,000 small and marginal farming families and agriculture labourers in six districts of Uttar Pradesh, thus influencing the lives of more than 30,000 people.

“I am managing a community grain bank named “Tulsi Samudayik Anaj Bank ” which was promoted by Shramik Bharti from 2017-2018. It comprises 51 women members from 51 small and marginal farming families who initially contributed 2 kilograms of wheat towards setting up a community grain bank in our community. Shramik Bharti further provided support of 400 kilograms of wheat and a storage bin of 5 quintal capacity. This way there was 5 quintal (500kg) wheat available at a community grain bank”, says Phula Devi, a community grain bank manager – in respect of her experience of managing a grain bank in Siyarha village, Bhadohi.

It was decided that a member can borrow up to 100kgs of wheat or whatever grain is stored from the grain bank. At the time of harvesting, the borrowers of grain will return the grain to their grain bank after adding 25% to it.

During Covid-19, the grain bank proved to be a great help to the member families as there was no wage earning due to the sudden lockdown. The grain bank provided grains to the needy families and they could get food during this tough time.

Reshma, aged 40, is a resident of a small village Siyarha in Bhadohi district of Uttar Pradesh.  She is a member of a women’s self-help group “Khushi Mahila Swayam Sahyata Samooh”, which is promoted in her village by Shramik Bharti.

Reshma recalls “When our prime minister announced a sudden lockdown on 24th March 2020, due to Covid-19, all markets were closed. My husband is a small vegetable vendor and used to sell vegetables in village markets and in neighborhood villages. It was the only source of income for our family.”

“Our daily earning stopped unexpectedly and then there came a time when I did not have a single grain at home to feed the family. Being the member of Khushi Samudayik Anaj bank in my village, I borrowed 25 kgs of rice from my grain bank. Who else would be there to help us if our grain bank was not there?” she further adds.

Community Kitchen Gardens

Besides community grain banks, there were multilayer kitchen gardens or vegetable gardens developed using natural farming processes, which truly aided survival during the pandemic for people who have small pieces of land.

“Vegetable cultivation is practiced by certain castes in India. A farmer household in rural communities spends about Rs. 1,000 per month to purchase vegetables. Many times when cash is not available, they manage without vegetables. Additionally, the use of chemicals in cultivation of vegetables has also become common,” states Rakesh Pandey, chief functionary of Shramik Bharti.

With this background, Shramik Bharti started mobilising farming families to grow their own vegetables using natural farming practices. Awareness sessions, training sessions and on-job demonstrations were conducted. Presently about 3,000 rural households in six districts of Uttar Pradesh and three districts of Punjab have kitchen gardens giving safe vegetables round the year. Some families are sharing surplus vegetables with neighbours and some are selling in neighbourhood markets.

Kitchen gardens based on natural agriculture practices also build understanding and confidence in farming families towards natural farming. So it becomes a learning school of natural farming. As a result of this activity, about 1,500 small and marginal farmer families are now practicing natural farming on their farmland and have abandoned chemical use in agriculture.

Rakesh Pandey believes that the leadership developed at the community level to manage community grain banks, and promotion of kitchen gardens enabled communities to respond to the Covid-19 crisis. Both of these simple, community owned and managed solutions ensured that no family sleeps without food. The villagers also took care of the influx of their relatives who came back to the village as returnee migrants. They continued providing food supplies at a reasonable price.

Restrictions on mobility during lockdown, however, posed challenges in reaching out to deprived communities and providing them relief and conducting restoration activities. However, community level volunteers and modern communication technologies such as mobile phones and WhatsApp proved a great help in maintaining activities.

Interviewer’s Perspective

Today, both urban and rural poor communities are marginalised. They are being exploited by a variety of stakeholders be it market traders/brokers, political parties, religious leaders etc. The Covid-19 crisis has made them more vulnerable. What we learnt during this time is that all human actions must harmonise with nature and that is the only way to achieve prosperity and pleasure. This is also reflected in Shramik Bharti’s programmes that emphasise and contribute towards ecologically sustainable human development, organising and capacity building of deprived communities to improve their quality of life.

About the Interviewer

Neelmani Gupta is a development professional associated with Shramik Bharti as Documentation Coordinator. She holds Master degree in Extension education and owns more than 20 years’ experience of working on the issues of women’s empowerment, violence against women, reproductive and child health, and livelihoods, etc. She has an interest in documenting stories of change that have created lasting impact on the lives of deprived communities.

About the Interviewee

Phula Devi is a community grain bank manager in Siyarha village, Bhadohi district, Uttar Pradesh, India.

Reshma, aged 40, is a resident of a small village Siyarha in Bhadohi district of Uttar Pradesh.  She is a member of a woman self-help group “Khushi Mahila Swayam Sahyata Samooh” promoted in her village by Shramik Bharti.

Rakesh Pandey is the chief functionary of Shramik Bharti. Under his leadership, Shramik Bharti has established itself as the leading NGO that influences the lives of more than one million people in rural and urban disadvantaged communities in the spheres of empowerment, renewable energy, natural resource-based livelihoods, and water, sanitation and hygiene.