Small steps, giant benefits


Small farmers in India are a neglected and poor community. It is possible to make them fi nancially viable by the adoption of integrated agricultural practices, as demonstrated by the Sahbhagi Vikash Abhiyan in Odisha.

One of the most important priorities in India is to protect and promote the sustainable livelihoods of small farmers. On the one hand, there is the question of their sustainable economic well-being based on ecologically protective farm practices which protect the basic resource base including soil, water, seeds, biodiversity and knowledge. On the other hand, there is the related question of the sustainable production of adequate, nutritious and healthy food for all.

While several groups have been working on various important aspects of these issues, one group which stands out due to its down to earth understanding of the problems of farmers is Sahbhagi Vikash Abhiyan or SVA. The fact that this work is based in and around the sensitive Kalahandi region (West Odisha) and touches the lives of several tribal communities (apart from dalit and other communities), further increases the significance of the efforts of the SVA.

The recent work of SVA has included diverse issues like proper implementation of forest rights, improving income of non-timber forest produce gatherers, access to safe drinking water, promoting self-help groups and cottage enterprises including agro-processing, publication of development literature, strengthening Panchayat Raj with emphasis on gram swaraj approach. However, in the middle of many commitments, the one overwhelming aim of the SVA has been for strengthening the sustainable livelihoods of small farmers.

The SVA (campaign for participatory development) started as a collective of several concerned individuals and community based organisations in the year 1993-94. However, the activism of many of SVA’s leading members (including its founder President Jagdish Pradhan) goes back to much earlier days. They had been active in many struggles and campaigns on behalf of farmers, forest produce collectors and other villagers. SVA works in parts of four districts of Odisha (Kalahandi, Nuapada, Bolangir, Bargarh), covering a total population of about 15 lakh people and having direct links with about 16,000 households. Self-help groups of women have made an important contribution to economic security, thereby reducing dependence on usurious moneylenders.

It is now well-recognised that even in the so-called most successful ‘green-revolution’ states like Punjab, the spread of high-yielding varieties dependent on high doses of chemical fertilisers, pesticides and weedicides, had many adverse long-term impacts, leading to serious health and pollution problems as well as very high costs and indebtedness for farmers. SVA repeatedly gave a timely warning against such chemical-intensive, polluting, hazardous and expensive technologies which also made farmers highly dependent on purchasing seeds and other inputs. It is here that the SVA has made its most important contribution of constantly engaging in, experimenting with, evolving and extending those farming patterns, methods and technologies which can increase productivity and income in ways which are lowcost, ecologically protective and self-reliant, and as close to the concept of gram swaraj as is possible.

One of the important aspects of this technology is to combine the cultivation of cereals, millets, legumes, vegetables, fruits and spices with animal husbandry (with special emphasis on cows and bullocks). It is common for 2 to 3 acre farmers using this technology to grow even up to 30 mixed and diverse food crops within a single cropping year.

Farming methods which minimise purchased inputs are prioritised so that farming costs can be kept very low. Hence, chances of indebtedness are reduced. Some expenses cannot be avoided (such as in the case of borewells), but attempts are made to make good use of existing government schemes to reduce expenses for farmers as much as possible.

Bharat Dogra

Bharat Dogra

The writer is a Delhi-based freelance journalist who writes on social concerns.