Re: Enabling rural cooperatives and producer organizations to thrive as sustainable business enterprises

Ms. Reema Nanavaty SEWA, India


Due to rapid industrialization and in the absence of the necessary backward-forward linkages for inputs and marketing, the small and marginal farmers and agriculture workers in Mehsana district were slowly losing most of their land and assets.   In particular, excessive irrigation from bore wells dramatically reduced the water table and rendered the remaining water high in fluoride content; thus, irrigation became exorbitant and without dependable rains, many small and marginal farmers were forced to either migrate or take up casual labour.  Women agriculture workers were even harder hit: they could find no alternative work and often had to walk miles to collect the necessary fodder and fuel.

SEWA organized the women agriculture workers into a co-operative. They demanded and eventually received government revenue land.  However, it was not an easy process as the existing, disjoint laws in both departments led to a tricky struggle. As per the Co-operative Act, the cooperative could be registered only if the members own land.  However, as per the Revenue department, the revenue land could be allotted only to a cooperative.

The struggle dragged on for two and a half years, until finally, with SEWA’s continued intervention, the Revenue and the Co-operative department came to a mutually agreeable alternative: the landless agriculture workers had to be registered as a tree growers’ cooperative rather than as an agriculture workers’ cooperative. They were able to form a cooperative for growing trees on government revenue wasteland.  Only then, on registering the cooperative, could the revenue wasteland be allotted.
Through the cooperative, the women systematically planned how to make optimum use of the available land employing a multi-faceted approach. Through partnering with the local Research Station of Gujarat Agriculture University for technical assistance, they were able to maximize production and income by using scientific agriculture practices, including horticulture, agro-forestry, drip irrigation, compost pits, and rainwater harvesting techniques. They utilized low-cost methods of boosting productivity such as designing cropping patterns to enrich the soil. For example, the mung plant’s root increases the soil’s nitrogen content; therefore, strategic placement and alternation of mung augments subsequent crops. In all activities the cooperative encouraged participation of all village communities and women in their efforts. A green house is also developed at the Centre and the women are trained in raising of crops in the green house and its maintenance.
The members of the Vanlaxmi cooperative developed the wasteland into cultivable land through access to various trainings and agricultural inputs. They have been trained in farm planning and farm management also. These members take 3 crops in a year and use the farm planning techniques to decide on which crops to grow in which season and multi cropping. All this helps the women in improving the productivity and thereby helps tin increasing their income. Also the members grow vegetables, pulses & grains and medicinal plants at the cooperative. This is done with a view to ensure that a family can get the required vegetables, pulses and medicines from the Centre only.

Today, the Vanlaxmi cooperative stands as a model for the entire district of how the landless poor can successfully implement collective agriculture.  Women who used to earn just Rs. 15 as agricultural day labourers and, who never engaged themselves in matters of yield, sale, expenditure or market, are now recognized as farmers.  They now meticulously manage their land, tracking each and every cost. The cooperative has acquired improved equipment such as a power tiller, thrasher, and a drip irrigation system. The plan also ensures full employment for the members and the land meets the fodder and fuel needs of the village.  As it has been licensed as an authorized seed distributor by the Gujarat State Seed Corporation Ltd., the cooperative also provides timely and reasonably priced quality seeds to not only their own village, but to the entire area.

For the past two years the farm is has been developed as a demonstration centre for awareness raising and education to the communities from the other villages and the other districts. This site has been developed as an eco tourism centre; which not only helps in awareness generation among the community at large, but at the same time will also generate income for the women farmers. This is not only be helpful to the rural communities but at the same time students from schools, younger and older generations, private companies from cities and urban areas can also see and learn from the women of the Vanlaxmi Co-operative. The visitors enjoy the day in the calm and serene surroundings of the farm and enjoy the clean atmosphere. The trip starts from Ahmedabad. The tourists are welcomed by a traditional welcome ritual. This is followed by serving the guests breakfast and beverage. This is followed by a tour of the farm. A sumptuous lunch is served thereafter. The evenings are reserved for a local entertainment program followed by a trek back to the city.

As a result of the Vanlaxmi Cooperative, 20 women, who are the members of the cooperative, get an income of Rs 4000-6000 per month through various activities including agriculture. SEWA’s approach has been to treat agriculture also as an industry so that agriculture moves form subsistence to becoming viable and profitable.