Vivid orange marigolds, dense purple aubergines and luminous green cabbages... not just farm produce but the colours of freedom for the women of Rayagada who defied a society unwilling to accept their status as single women to collectively find independence.
Out to regain control over their lives and break free of societal shackles, more than 30 widows, divorced or unmarried women formed the Ekal Naari Sangathan (single women collective) in 2019. It was the starting point for a profitable business venture that over time included more women, and the turning point in their lives.
As they move through their fields tending to their crops, the song is back in their lives. Quite literally.
Women working as helpers in farms alongside men is a common sight across India. But look carefully, hear closely and the difference is clear.
The women of the tribal Dengasargi village in Rayagada, who break into song in Kui language, are the main decision makers who farm, market and sell their produce to earn their livelihood.
The Sangathan began with three acres to grow marigold as well as vegetables such as bitter gourd, aubergine and cabbage. In the three years since, the land being cultivated has grown to 40 acres. The women’s families own land between 0.5 acre to 2 acres on which they grow flowers and vegetables. The collective sells it in the market. The amount earned goes directly in their bank accounts every week.
“We had a turnover of ₹47 lakh last year and this season we have made ₹76 lakh. Of this, each woman farmer gets between ₹80,000-1.5 lakh profit depending upon the size of land they are carrying out the cultivation on,” said Morepingidhi.
She is a board member of Annapoorna, the collective formed with the help of the government and NGOs, to sell their produce. There are 98 women in the company right now.
The marigold cultivated here is transported to different temples in Odisha and Andhra Pradesh and also used in family functions.
“The company is now planning to extend its operations to other southern states,”Morepingidhi said.
For these women, most from the Kondha tribe, who didn’t or couldn’t get married, got divorced or were widowed, the financial independence has translated to not just autonomy but also respect and equal status in their families and in society.
"We were abused, called names for stepping out of our homes to farm. But when the money started coming in, our status not just in society but also in our own family changed,” Morepingidhi told PTI.
The 35-year-old said she could not get married due to a leg injury and didn’t get a chance to study because of her family’s financial condition. She worked all her life in a farm where she grew rice and millet, just enough for the family to survive with nothing left to sell in the market.
When her brothers got married, Morepingidhi was left alone and reached out to other women in a similar predicament.
And the Ekal Naari Sangathan was born.
The stories are many.
Saalmeinpedenti, 40, lost her husband when she was very young and started working as a daily wager and a domestic help. She recalls mortgaging a pair of gold earrings 10 times to take a loan to help the family.
“I joined the collective because it gave me a tiny ray of hope that my financial situation may improve and that was the best decision of my life,” she said.
Today, Saalmeinpedenti earns enough to be able to send her daughter to college in Bhubaneswar.
Then there is Sivai, who decided to start farming after her husband left her when she gave birth to her third daughter.
“I initially grew vegetables on my own but it was not profitable and I did not know how to sell it in the market. I would wake up at 4 am every morning and carry them door to door to sell but it was not yielding any profit. That is when I decided to join the collective. Now I have bought gold and I am also getting my house renovated,” Sivai said.
The aim, she said, is to increase turnover of the company to ₹2 crore by next year.
“There is also a proposal with the state government to open solar cold storage in nearby areas so we can store our produce and sell it when we get the right price in the market,” she said.
Many married women have joined the venture.
Savita, for instance, who said she got a new way of life. “Now every house has food on their table which was not the case earlier.”
She said distress migration in their village stopped after the collective was formed.
“We earned ₹20,000 to 25,000 but now I earn more than ₹1.5 lakh per annum,” she said.
It has been a tough journey towards self sufficiency for the women, many who never received a formal education and struggled to learn the tricks of the trade.
“We would go to market early in the morning and observe how crops are sold. We also received help from the government and civil society organisations like Pradan,” Saalmeinpedenti said.
The tribal women farmers were brought under the Agriculture Production Cluster (APC) programme led by the Odisha government, Bharat Rural Livelihoods Foundation, and Pradan.
Under APC, they received support from various government departments such as Horticulture, Mission Shakti, Panchayati Raj & Drinking Water, Women & Child Development, and Odisha Livelihood Mission to help build their organisation.
“We were not just taught the trade but also how we can use environmentally friendly insecticides and pesticides in our field made from cow dung, urine, tamarind and honey,” Saalmeinpedenti said.
Hemant Bag, the block development officer of Rayagada district, said the important thing is that NGOs and the government joined hands to empower the women.
“We did not work in silos and made sure that we are able to fill knowledge gaps wherever required. Most important, these women are doing everything on their own and we are just for their guidance,” he said.
According to Pramathesh Ambasta, chief executive officer of the BRLF, the organisation is already in discussions with the Odisha government to expand the scope of the programme.
“We are trying to expand it to more blocks. We are working on it,” he said.
As their lives improve in many tangible and intangible ways, the women of Annapoorna say their collective is an inspiration for other women who who want to study and become entrepreneurs and take their business forward. And so it moves on.
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