From homes to farms: Unique call centres of Rajasthan
Junjhunu: As a young girl, Vijay Laxmi was never allowed to visit her family farm in Bikaner, an arid district in north western Rajasthan. Rajput women, she was told, stay in purdah (veil), their world restricted to their home and hearth. Even when Laxmi got married to Mahendra Singh of Jhajhar village, in the neighbouring Jhunjhunu district, her life did not change much. Until last year, that is, when she got a chance to learn and, thereafter, earn a living – without stepping out of her home.
Laxmi now runs a small, home-based call centre for farmers. Where earlier she was clueless about agricultural practices and trends, today she is considered an expert in organic farming and can rattle off information on bio-fertilisers, pest control and growth promoters with ease. In fact, not only is the 25-year-old quite comfortable collecting information on seeds and irrigation from farmers, she is also proficient in recording it all on an Excel sheet on her computer.
So, what brought about this immense transformation in Laxmi? A special training programme initiated by the MR Morarka GDC Rural Research Foundation, a leading resource organisation that offers solutions for sustainable agriculture.
The Jaipur-based NGO began promoting organic farming in 2005. The initial focus was on developing organic inputs as a substitute to chemical inputs, with the simultaneous objective to reduce the cost of cultivation by 10 to 50 per cent. "We achieved reasonable success by developing organic inputs and practices for about 10,000 acres in two years to cultivate a wide range of crops," says Mukesh Gupta, executive director of Morarka Foundation. Today, there are about 250,000 farmers across 22 states registered with them.
The Veer Bala (Brave Woman) project, which began in 2009, was conceptualised with the twin objective of spreading the word on organic farming as well as empowering local women. Under the programme, Rajput women are trained in organic farming practices and basic computers to help them earn a living. Says Gupta, "The idea is to train them so that they can run call centres from their homes and earn a living. We started by training ten women in Jhunjhunu in 2009, although four of them later dropped out."
Laxmi belongs to the second batch of 14 women who received training in Jhajhar village in Jhunjhunu. Of course, it took some work getting through to the community and even the women. Project officer Shailendra Patidar remembers the struggle, "As the women initially refused to come out of their village, we decided to conduct the first two months of training in Jhajhar itself. For the final phase of technical training, however, they did come to the Foundation's office in Nawalgarh, usually accompanied by a male family member."
At the end of the three-month training, which had begun in September last year, each of them was given Rs 35,000 worth of equipment, including a computer and voice logger to run the call centre. A list of farmers registered with the Foundation was also given to them.
Presently, these 14 Veer Balas reach out to 2,015 farmers – 1,015 in Jhunjhunu and 1,000 in Jhalawar. First, they interact with them to gather crop data, getting information like the area of farming land, fertiliser used before sowing, seeds and their treatment, irrigation and estimated yields. Later, they also transfer technology about organic inputs and solve problems related to pests and diseases. While the cost of telephony is borne by the Foundation, the women, in turn, are paid Rs 5 for every call they make.
Depending on the amount of time a trained Veer Bala is willing to commit, she is allotted the number of farmers she has to call – those who can devote around four hours in a day are given a list of 300-plus farmers to contact, while those who can spare around an hour or so are expected to call around 70 farmers everyday.
The farmers are contacted twice during a cropping season – once during sowing and then later during the harvest. While the crop data for Rabi season has been collected over December and January, the harvest data – like yield and market surplus – will be collected by March-end.
Besides being a first year student of Masters in Political Science, Rekha Kanwar, 26, is also a Veer Bala like Laxmi, running a similar call centre from home. She explains, "Often it takes around three calls before the relevant data can be collected. Sometimes the farmers are busy or their phone is switched off, so they need to be called time and again until the information is gained." Each call is recorded on the computer with the help of the voice logger.
However, a maximum of just three calls per farmer is allowed in a month and the data collected over phone is then put on Excel sheets for field supervisors to verify.
Besides regularly calling registered farmers to offer tips on organic farming, these one-woman call centres are also used for collecting specific information for other special projects run by the Foundation. For instance, for the NGO's carbon credit project, under which data on food and social security was collected, the 14 Veer Balas called up each of the 2,015 farmers to gather information about their family size, education, daily food intake, and staple diet, how much ration they get through the Public Distribution System (PDS) shops, and what, according to them, should be done for food security. For this exercise the women were allowed a maximum of five calls per farmer a month.
The women work according to their convenience although the more hours they put in, the greater will be their earnings. For instance, Laxmi worked for three days in December 2012 - five hours a day - and made Rs 700. Her fellow Veer Bala, Suman Kanwar, 24, however, made only Rs 400 since she was busy with a marriage in the family. Says Laxmi, who lives with her in-laws and a five-year-old daughter while her husband works in UAE in a paper mill, "This doesn't sound like a big amount but if I can make some money sitting at home, what's the harm? It is my money."
Besides the money, what attracted Suman to the training programme was the chance to learn how to use a computer. "I have a Masters degree in Sociology and I am in the final year of my Bachelors in Education (B.Ed.) course. I want to become a teacher. I've even cleared the Teachers' Eligibility Test (TET) this year but I wanted to learn computers, that’s why I joined this project," she says.
Incidentally, Suman's husband, Satvir Singh Shekhawat, is a farmer, who took up organic farming four years ago and was declared the best farmer in Jhunjhunu district this year. "Now, he has expert guidance at home as well," beams his wife.
Homemaker to farm expert – yet another facet of the emerging Rajputana woman.
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