There are very few things more inspiring and riveting than witnessing individuals strive for dignity, voice, and most importantly, changing the lives of their community. It becomes even more remarkable, when this change is driven by a social group which has been on the margins.
In my decade-and-half long experience of capturing and telling stories of change, seeing the power of land-based livelihood in creating ripples of change in the entire community have been some of the most fascinating ones.
In India, agriculture continues to be the mainstay of livelihood, food security, and dignity. Though the focus of growth for the national economy and its workforce has been shifting to cities and urban areas, some of the most marginalised sections of society continue to depend on farming for survival. As non-disabled boys, men and even young women migrate for work and opportunities, those left behind – persons with disabilities, single women and elderly – struggle to find ways to tide over poverty.
In the week of 20th to 24th February, CBM India colleagues will be in Vienna at Zero Project Conference and awards to tell this exceptional story of inclusion and empowerment. The blurbs of the story have already gripped attention from online followers, including a popular Bollywood actress.
I have been following the project for close to eight months now. To be honest it feels much longer than that. Through this blog, I want to share with you some powerful moments that fill my mind when I think about the story and how it has been evolving.
The summer sunlight in the northern India during the months of May and June is so harsh that you could get a heatstroke within a couple of hours. The heatwave conditions, as the weather reports call them, are marked by a warm gust of winds that feel like a coal fired furnace breathing on your face.
It was during this time of the year that I first met a dozen persons with disabilities and their families who are part of an ambitious but equally intuitive project that brings together persons with disabilities and non-disabled in groups to train them on organic farming techniques, supports them in accessing loans, develops accessible tools, supports with assets like shops, grinding machines and packaging of produce for local markets.
I met Puneeta, a shy but confident young woman with a disability, to get a sense of what is the most significant she has been through or expects to have through the project. She not only cited a bank balance, a steady income and respect within the family but also added that she is seen as a person with knowledge about a process that everyone else wants to know as it is changing her life. The power shift from being seen as a dependent to someone who has a voice and potentially life changing technical knowledge is significant. For an inclusive society, the stereotypes need to be challenged, Puneeta knows this will happen with her and other persons with disabilities becoming a central part of the economic empowerment process the project has created.
The disability inclusive organic project has also challenged gender stereotypes while developing entrepreneurial skills and strengthening livelihood generation capacity of women with disabilities. As I felt while talking to Maya on two occasions, both separated by six months.
She said: “I am the man of the house.”
Maya’s statement that needs to be seen in the context of her being a single mother with a disability.
Her confidence stems from her ability to grow vegetables and season crops through organic methods, that has reduced the cost of expensive fertilisers, and a small shop through which she sells spices and oil extracted from mustard seeds which grow in abundance.
To Maya, the most significant change that has come from being a part of the project is her emergence as a leader in the community. She is the head of the disabled people’s organisation and president of the farmer interest group formed under the project.
The second time that I met Maya, it was an early onset of winter with lush green background characteristic of the region. She had just opened a new shop with support from a community loan. This was a dream come true for her. The first time I had met her; a small table outside her house was her makeshift shop.
The distinguishing aspects of disability inclusive organic farming include: low-cost inputs and high returns, involvement of people with disabilities as asset and knowledge holders of new techniques, creating inclusive farmers groups increasing capacity to take loans and support of government schemes and marketability of the organic produce like vegetables, spices, honey and edible oils. The ownership of this business and decision-making is with the farmers.
Innovation is mostly about localisation and solving problems through the perspective of the user. This to me has been a big part of the project’s success and popularity, and needless to add its sustainability.
Suresh highlights this aspect. He appears much older than his age but his high energy levels soon dispel the impression of old age, as he juggles several small sized wooden boxes that are colored in green paint, creating a contrast with the lush green climbers on the bare walls behind him.
The boxes are models of composting pits used for creating manure for growing vegetables and crops. This becomes clear as he starts explaining each of them through a spirited presentation based on touch and voice. Suresh, 52, is a person with blindness and works as a master trainer with the CBM supported disability inclusive organic farming project.