"Biovillagers" tell their stories

An estimated 25 000 people live in 19 "biovillages" in the Union of Pondicherry, India. When the Biovillage Project was first established in 1992, it consisted of 42 participants in three villages. This people-oriented project has been designed to exploit markets, introduce income-generating activities and provide employment that will enable rural communities to help themselves. It aims to reach the "unreached" with new technologies.

Selvi looks after crossandra and jasmine seedlings in her nursery

Crossandra flowers to be woven into garlands and sold to temple-goers

Selvi tends to mushrooms hanging in darkened shed behind her home

Selvi Alagappan lives in Mangalam village about 35 km from Pondicherry, in southeastern India. She has a large family to support. Besides her husband and two children, it includes her mother, mother-in-law, sister-in-law, nephew and niece.

Her day begins early and ends late at night. She goes to her tiny patch of land to pick crossandra and jasmine flowers. These then have to be strung into garlands for sale. The chickens clucking away in the shed adjoining her hut have to be fed, their coops cleaned. And then there are the mushrooms to tend to, growing thick and fast in their pitch-dark, hot and humid shack, specially built with paddy straw, dried sugar cane leaves and coconut thatch. Once the mushrooms, which follow a 15-day growth cycle, are picked, the straw that has served as the natural growth medium will be put into her vermi-compost pit. This, in turn, will yield natural fertilizer for her jasmine plot.

All this work brings in about Rs1200 (US$28) per month. Although still living below the poverty line, Selvi's home entrepreneurial activities have trebled her income and saved her family from destitution.

Selvi's family belongs to the Vanniar caste, among the lowest of the low. They do not belong to Mangalam village and are looked upon as squatters who have encroached upon land and made it their own. Her husband Alagappan had, until recently, never worked in his life. The family's sole income came from a small paddy field. After they had eaten the produce, they had no more food to eat. For religious reasons Selvi was forbidden to seek work outside the home whether in the fields as a daily wage earner or in a factory.

Two years ago, Selvi became a participant in the Biovillage Project. She learned how to grow mushrooms in a polythene bag in the darkened shed behind her hut. She was taught how to dig, maintain and care for a vermi-compost pit. She now speaks confidently about protecting her jasmine bushes from disease.

"In the past two years I have progressed a great deal," said Selvi. "Now I can see the happiness on the faces of my husband and children. How their faces have changed! When other women see me they feel they want to do things like me."

Kathanayagi demonstrates mushroom technology

Kathanayagi and Bhagyalakshmi demonstrate mushroom technology to a group of women who have gathered at the project's research station in nearby Kizhur. They have begun to reap a small but steady income from cultivation and lecture demonstrations.

"I too began in a very small, hesitant way," recalls Kathanayagi. "But now these women need no persuading. They look at our bank accounts, how much our credit society has been able to save. Money talks, you know. Now everyone wants to join in."

A group of women gather at the temple pond in the village of Kizhur. As the local fisherman draws in his net they all congregate to view the catch and have it weighed. The sales are carefully noted in the community cash ledger.

Two years ago, Indira, Kala, Krishnaveni, Amudha, Amudhavalli, Vasugi, Madhi, Lakshmi and Vijaya formed a cooperative society in order to start up an aquaculture business. The temple pond was de-silted and cleaned and six varieties of freshwater fish were introduced. The temple is the sleeping partner and gets a tenth of the profits. The fish sells for Rs60 to 80 ($1.40 to $1.80) per kilogram depending on its weight and variety.

Local fisherman brings in catch for women's aquaculture cooperative

"Sometimes the fish weigh as much as 5 to 7 kg each. Even if we catch two large fish per day, it brings in a good-sized income for us," says Lakshmi. "I was very sceptical when all this began. I had never thought of fish as a possible means of income. The Biovillage Project has made us think differently. That with training we too can learn. There is no reason why we should remain destitute all our lives."

Back to main story: Biovillage approach represents the greening of development

18 September 1998

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