From walk to scooty: What does it take to sustain women-led collectives, like KBSSSL?
Updated: Aug 3
The Krishi Bagwani Swawlambi Sahkari Samiti Limited (KBSSSL), a women-led cooperative supported by PRADAN, has charted out an interesting journey in the past two decades towards developing strategies for profitable farming through convergence with state policies and schemes. Amidst the social-ecological constraints, their story is indicative of the long gestation periods involved in developing the confidence and capacity of farmers to form such collectives and negotiate with the market in a predominantly tribal part of Jharkhand.
Women empowerment through collective action
“What struggles have you seen? You ride a scooty, and we used to walk kilometers in our times when the cooperative (KBSSSL) was just established in 2003. Even our mother-in-laws were not happy allowing us to attend the meetings then.”
This is what Radha Devi, the first vice-president of KBSSSL, said to Sukarmani Devi, the current vice-president (fourth generation in Board of Directors), during the discussion around a critical question: what has changed in the 18 years of operation of the all-women KBSSSL collective? The above quote alludes to the progressive path Krishi Bagwani Swawlambi Sahkari Samiti Limited (KBSSSL) has charted in the past two decades on women empowerment through collective action and remunerative agri-based livelihoods. In this journey, the support of Professional Assistance for Development Action (PRADAN) has been crucial, along with the strategic use of public policies used in convergence with the services of this collective.
Beginning with 243 members and a grant of rupees two lakh (INR) in 2003, KBSSSL has grown into a collective with 2680 members, 52.92 lakh (INR) turnover, and share capital of 14.06 lakh (INR) as of 31st March 2020. Palkot, where the head office of KBSSSL is located, has a predominantly tribal population (48,608 out of the total block population of 80,859 consists of scheduled tribes, as per Census of 2011). The place is rich in forest cover, comprising Sal, Mahua, Asan, Gamhar, Simal, Mango, Neem, etc., which are essential for forest dwellers. Along with crop-based agriculture, the collection of forest produce constitutes a significant proportion of the cash and subsistence livelihoods in the region.
Genesis of KBSSSL: Building on the strength of Self-Help Groups
Around 1997, the place had subsistence-based smallholder agriculture predominantly, and the challenges of food security and distress migration were also widespread. It is within this context that the livelihood intervention of PRADAN emerged. The aim was to provide access to better quality inputs and crop advisory, supplemented in later years with support for marketing of high-value crops especially. Moving ahead with this rationale, the cooperative was established in 2003 by drawing upon the existing self-help groups (SHG) membership.
To alleviate the community’s mistrust in the idea of the collective owing to past experiences with chit fund scams, KBSSSL decided to set up its office campus to increase transparency and credibility in the region. In 2004, a land of twenty decimals was bought using grant money and some portion of didi’s (member farmers) corpus fund, and the office was established in 2006. The capital required for transactions was mobilized from SHGs of the area.
Exposure visits to exemplary SHGs in Jharkhand initially (e.g., one in Khunti district), followed by visits to other cooperatives in Maharashtra, and then the regular training and support from PRADAN on governance, business planning, and financial management have been instrumental in capacity building of the member farmers.
Community endorsement through the provision of quality inputs and services
KBSSSL was based on a contribution of 100 rupees per didi. PRADAN initially kept the focus on farming techniques and better inputs. The community started getting cooperative's services in terms of good quality agricultural inputs at a fair price, training on improved farming practices, and support in the marketing of outputs followed gradually.
For paddy, the high-yielding varieties from Odisha were initially introduced. Around 2006, the myth “tomatoes don’t grow in this region” was broken via timely seed delivery and farmer’s training. At present, multiple villages produce tomatoes for subsistence and cash income, and broadly similar is the narrative around mangoes and watermelons. The cooperative has appointed supervisors (community professionals) who are helping in the supply of the agri-inputs and package of practices at the doorsteps of member farmers.
Rewant Raj, from the PRADAN team, revealed how the farming of summer crops has been possible in the last few years after the establishment of a solar lift irrigation facility through the government line department. Examples of works undertaken via the District and Block Agriculture Office as well as convergence with MGNREGA were also mentioned in this regard.
Currently, the KBSSSL has a better campus with a sorting grading facility, a storage hall, a meeting hall, an office-cum-input sales center in its Palkot campus near the block office. They have hired one full-timer accountant, stock manager, and contractual supervisor for the smooth functioning of the works. We noticed there were 20 crates of strawberry seedlings stored on the campus. Received from the agricultural department, these were meant for distribution to the farmers soon.
Social changes through economic independence: How didis got to ride a bike
When the didis started contributing to household income, the family members also began to accept them as decision-makers. Witnessing larger participation of women at the community level, changes began to emerge. Due to the emergent cooperation at the household and community level, it also became relatively easier to negotiate with the public agencies, like the agriculture department for installation of subsidized lift irrigation systems.
“Initially, we had financial problems and had to go to informal money lenders... now, the cooperative has allowed us to save money and helps in the dissemination of farming techniques for better outputs. Earlier from 40 kg paddy seeds, we used to get a maximum 5-6 sacks of paddy, and now if we sow 1 kg paddy seeds, 10-15 sacks of paddy is our harvest.”
As smiling Basanti Didi shared.
Beyond household income, social change around mobility also emerged in discussion with the old and new leadership at KBSSSL. As per the old leaders, they had to walk 10-15 km to attend meetings and coordinate with cooperative members, but the new members have two-wheeler vehicles (scooty) and the other transport facilities have also improved.
The will to flourish
KBSSSL has also had its rough phase during the years 2013-2016, when the support from PRADAN was withdrawn and the profits had fallen drastically. The untimely demise of the CEO supported by PRADAN impacted the functioning in these grim years. However, the recent foray into high-value crops coupled with the impressive turnover in the past three financial years suggest signs of recovery.
With an average land ownership of 2 acres and water availability to support three cropping seasons, the average income from vegetables comes to around 40 thousand annually. Importantly, this is solely the income from the sale of vegetables, and paddy contributes in addition to this income. Towards the end of the Gudma village (Palkot block), a sorting-grading center was recently installed through the support of the horticulture department. Most of the households had a poultry farm unit in their homestead. This has also significantly added to their income.
These figures may seem modest compared to the scale of business achieved by other farmer collectives, but the changes are significant for the women involved. As Kerketa didi from Gudma commented,
“Before 2002, we used to have only six months of harvest for our food, and thus we had to migrate to cities, leaving our children in the village; there was no education and the quality of life was really poor.”
Now, there is a steady optimism and confidence to imagine better futures for their community.
Gautam Prateek is an Assistant Professor at Xavier University, Bhubaneswar (XUB). He is grateful for inputs from Mr Pranamesh Kar in writing the case.