Born and brought up in Delhi, I had a fascination to get an exposure to the grassroots of India and see the rural realities in its raw form. To pursue this, I joined India Fellow, a social leadership program. As a part of that, I was placed with Shramik Bharti, an organization working at grassroots in Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh. The organisation works on diverse projects and thematic areas such as water scarcity, livelihoods, agriculture, and healthcare with the vision to provide sustainable solutions with equal opportunities for all.
Since the beginning of my stay in the village, I was keen to understand the aspirations and dreams of youth in these rural areas. To know if they are educated, the role education plays in their career choices and if there are any meaningful opportunities that they can pursue in their village itself. In the one year that I spent in rural Kanpur, it was not uncommon for me to meet parents who struggled to see their educated children not doing anything which according to them was meaningful. There was a reluctance among youth to take up farming seriously. On interacting with the youth, I could understand the issue to some extent.
Many of them were looking for meaningful avenues to work. However, a lot of them thought that agriculture is not a viable means of livelihood for the farmers. Some said that it is not respectable while others had seen their parents as farmers struggling to meet ends and so, they did not want to be full-time farmers.
Beekampur Jagheer is a village at a distance of 3 km from the banks of Ganga river in Sambhal District of Uttar Pradesh. Babloo, a 23-year-old man involved in agriculture after studying till 12th standard, shared that nobody in the village is content with the way farming happens. The income they generate from agriculture is really low. Many of the young men have sought loan for agriculture that hasn’t been repaid yet.
One of the major concerns for families with small land holdings is the further division of land in tiny parts, for example, an acre gets divided into 3-5 parts depending on the number of children. Due to this, the youth don’t have much of a choice but to work as labourers in bigger fields, in order to earn decent income.
However, on asking if they would want to stay in the village or go out to the city to earn money, most of the young people said that they would prefer to stay in the village. “शहर जाना तो मजबूरी है, गांव में खेती अच्छी हो तो हम खेती ही करना चाहते हैं. गांव में रहने का सुकून है, बाहर जाने से धोखे भी हो जाते हैं” (We go to the city out of helplessness. If agriculture gives good income, we would stay in the village itself. Living in the village is peaceful. When we migrate, we also get cheated).
During this year, I also got a chance to meet a farmer with a vision, someone who loved his profession unlike many other farmers who were either struggling with debt or didn’t like being a farmer.
Prem Singh lives in Banda, Uttar Pradesh. It is a part of the Bundelkhand region. Earlier, I had known Bundelkhand as a drought prone are where the farmers often commit suicide. But when I visited Banda, the first thing I saw, was the lush green mango orchard, at Prem Singh’s place. There were many fruit bearing trees lined up, a small lake, a tiny food processing unit and several young volunteers working together.
Prem Singh practices mixed cropping as per his household food requirements and sells the excess production after processing it. This enables him to make good profit from his 3 acres of land, without any input cost. He believes that farming can become profitable, even for small and marginal farmers, if it’s done the right way.
With the learning and inspiration at Shramik Bharti, I was motivated to start a residential program for rural youth to learn sustainable ways of farming. In addition to farming, they would get trained in food processing and marketing. This idea emerged after spending a few days at Prem Singh’s farm and I strongly felt the need to conceptualise it, looking at the scenario of agriculture as a livelihood option among youth.
A conversation with the farmers brought home the realisation that those who are still cultivating the fields are the ones who don’t have an alternative.
Here’s why I wanted to start this program:
- Farming, to me, is one of the most important professions and one should be proud of being a farmer. Our lives will not come to an end if there are no CAs or IT professionals but we can’t live without food even for a day.
- During the fellowship, I got to meet and read about people from urban areas who had well paying jobs and comfortable lives but they had moved to villages for a simpler lifestyle. This felt odd to me and I thought that if right kind of opportunities are made available to the rural youth, they can also become agricultural entrepreneurs rather than living a life as a migrant worker in cities.
With that, I designed Khetshala, a year long program for rural youth to learn sustainable ways of farming by actually practicing it. These youth were to spend a year living in the Human Agrarian Centre in Banda District of Bundelkhand, to understand agriculture, both practically and philosophically. This centre was started 20 years ago by Prem Singh. He has built the campus with years of compassion and devotion to a garden and a farmland that presents a picture of futuristic organic living with homegrown compost, fruits and vegetables, livestock shelter and water bodies.
The youth would be motivated to explore profitable and creative livelihood opportunities in agriculture as well as other agro based fields such as livestock management, post-harvest food processing, kitchen gardening etc. After this one year of residential program, they would be given financial support and guidance to either start their own business in agriculture or do farming.
Even before starting the program, I got immense amount of support from a bunch of people. Firstly, my mentor at Shramik Bharti, Rakesh sir helped me with program design. My co-fellows from India Fellow had raised money, that they gave me in hope that it will be put to its best use.
I was charged up when I went to Banda again in August 2019 to get the work started. For the first month, I went from village to village, interacted with the youth, tried to understand the agricultural scenario, talked about the program and waited to see if they will be willing to join. I met the youth and their parents to understand both sides of the stories. Many of the parents were worried about the future of their children because no local job opportunity was available, and like Kanpur, agriculture was seen as the last resort here as well.
The parents and even the youth themselves, wanted to be a part of our program as long as they are assured that they will have a well paying job after a year, and that they will be trained in marketable skills such as computer, accounts, management. Of the 10-12 villages I went to, only 10% of the youth were keen to join the program. The others were of the opinion that it will waste one year of their life, that can be put to earning money by working as a labourer in a factory.
Before meeting them, I was sure that the youth will be eager to join such a program as they hardly have such opportunities. But these interactions gave me a sense that, in general, there is a negative connotation associated with agriculture. Despite that, I invited the interested ones for a day long orientation program so that they have more clarity about the program and how it will be beneficial for their holistic development.
10 young adults attended it, and we shared our purpose of doing what we want to do. We also talked about the skills and knowledge they will acquire in a year and even after. Additionally, we told them about Prem Singh who has been engaged in agriculture profitably for many years now, and will guide them through the program. We then interacted with each one of the them personally, to understand if they are willing to join us. Only one of them responded affirmatively while the rest much value in it.
After this experience, I had an elaborate discussion with Prem Singh, to understand what went wrong. Whether it is the approach or the idea itself. That conversation made me realise that he himself had felt that approaching rural youth for a program in agriculture may not work. He explained how, usually, people who are living in villages aspire to go live in the nearby town for a better lifestyle. It’s unusual for those living in towns to aspire for smaller cities. Similarly, people who live in small cities, aim for metropolitan cities and those in metros, want to live aboard. Conventionally, villages and their lifestyle, be it farming or any other livelihood, are seen hierarchically lower than the cities.
So, to start a program for rural youth with an objective of a sustainable life in villages, it may be extremely difficult, if not impossible. No matter how much we try to tell them that their life is better and peaceful in the village than in a city where they will have to live in a small congested house; unless they don’t experience it on their own, it would be hard to convince it to them based on other people’s experiences. They will go, struggle, experience the city life for themselves and then if they do not like it, they will come back to where they were.
That’s when I started to feel a bit doubtful about starting the program because the one person that I was counting on, was also getting reluctant. Unless both of us have the same vision and belief, nothing will work out for real. Secondly, if I want to give an experience to other people, I myself should have gone through that experience.
This time, I did not have the agriculture skills, that I could teach on my own. Be it for rural youth or urban, I needed to have the skills and confidence to run it, or a partner as invested as me. Prem Singh, in all fairness, wanted to be there only in the role of a guide.
I still want to start this program but with more clarity on why, what and how. Plus, with better capacity to be able to function on my own. Looking at the agrarian realities of the country and the youth being reluctant to pursue farming, I continue to feel that such a program is important to bring out a much needed change, and I hope that it’s time will come.