Rajkumari Devi is no astrologer. But with self-acquired expertise in agriculture she has become proficient in assessing the quality of the soil in her area and ensuring successful harvests. Through the experience of three decades 'Kisan Chachi', or 'Farmer Aunty' as she is called, has learnt all the nuances of good farming practices. Today, this 58-year-old mother of three grown up children cycles through the dusty lanes of the villages in Bihar's Muzzaffarpur district, giving tips to people on kitchen farming and on developing the right agri-based products for business. 'Kisan Chachi' has also been able to mobilise more than 300 women to form Self Help Groups and become financially independent.
How did Rajkumari get the nickname of 'Kisan Chachi'? Laughing, she explains, "Since most people in the area called me 'Chachi' (aunty), and I also was a successful 'kisaan' (farmer), everyone started calling me 'Kisan Chachi'." Although at first glance she appears to be like any ordinary village woman, the moment Rajkumari starts talking about farming practices she emerges the true "expert" that she is. In fact, people from across the block regularly invite her to assess their land and predict the quality of their crops. "I am no scientist. But over the years I have come to know the soil of this area well. I might not be 100 per cent right always, but I do know what can grow in this region," she says.
But Rajkumari was not a born farm expert. Thirty-five years ago, she was just another timid housewife of an unemployed husband in the remote village of Anandpur, in Saraiya block of Muzaffarpur. At the time she had nothing except for the one acre of arid land she had inherited from her husband's family. But she was endowed with a rare will to make life better for herself and her family.
So, in the early 1980s, a determined Rajkumari picked up the shovel and sickle to help her husband. As he only knew how to grow tobacco leaves – much like most of the farmers in this block – that's what they grew for many years. During the time he was away in nearby towns to sell off the leaves, Rajkumari would toil away on the farm single-handedly. That's how she came to know everything there was to know about her land. As time went by, this hard-working farmer realised that there was much more to agriculture than just growing tobacco. So she decided to embrace change. "Over time, I came to know my farmstead so well that I knew what to grow where. So I divided the land into plots and began to grow food – like vegetables and local fruits – instead of tobacco," she recalls.
Initially, people had a hard time accepting the fact that here was a woman who was trying her hand at growing food crops. Even the elements were not really on her side – the annual floods would wipe away all the assets she had built over the year. But despite the tough times, Rajkumari persevered and perfected the cropping cycle. She set aside the low-lying fields to grow paddy and wheat, while the rest of the land saw row upon row of lush banana, mango and papaya trees.
All the years that Rajkumari was busy transforming her land, fellow villagers – especially the women – watched her hard at work. Then change started happening. Neighbours started emulating her and she, in turn, gave everyone her wholehearted support by sharing her expertise freely. She did one more thing for them – she helped form self help groups (SHGs) in her block.
Today, inspired village women across Saraiya have got together in groups of 10 and formed around 35 SHGs that are working on integrated farming and agri-business. They get the capital to run their farms from bank loans and government support that comes in the form of the Swarna Jayanti Swayam Rozgar Yojna. A happy Meera Devi, 40, of the Pipra Khusboo SHG, puts it this way, "We had been simple housewives until 'Kisan Chachi' taught us how to grow vegetables and fruits. Now we have become self reliant. We can earn up to Rs 3,000 (US$1=Rs 44.9) a month." Fellow SHG member, Manju Devi, adds, "Life has changed here. Women have started earning. It is true that we were only experts in household chores. But now we also sell our home-made products in market."
Today, the fields of Saraiya block are never barren. Renewable crops are rotated between major seasonal crops for better yields and soil recycling. And thanks to the government's financial support as well as the low interest bank loans that are easily available, most SHG members are also expanding their farms to include fish farming, poultry and cow breeding.
Meanwhile, in addition to managing a sprawling farm, Rajkumari has set up a non-profit that not only picks up fresh produce from the various SHG-run farms nearby but also employs women to make agriculture-based products. She runs the Anandpur Jyoti Centre along with her eldest son, Amrendra Kumar. Says the proud son, "My mother has taught me to be a farmer. Now, not only do we grow crops, we also make pickles, banana wafers, jams, and so on, which are packed and sold in the market." They also have some expansion plans up their sleeve. "The idea of growing food has led us to explore other areas of business so that the whole trade keeps growing," reveals Amerendra.
Such has been the impact of 'Kisan Chachi' on farming practices in Muzzafarpur, a district that is just 80 kilometres from state capital Patna, that even Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar visited her when she was conferred the Kisan Shree Award a few years ago. "He had asked me what I wanted. And I said, 'All I want is that our backward district be less afflicted by the devastating annual floods,'" she recalls.
The welfare of her district and its people is always high on Rajkumari's list of priorities. Before she made her foray into farming, the people of Anandpur and 19 other villages in Saraiya and Manikpur panchayats had no idea they could change their cropping patterns. They were happy growing wheat, paddy and tobacco. Now, women from Pipra, Manikpur, Basochak, Saraiya and Karhara panchayats have enthusiastically taken to the 'Kisan Chachi way of cultivation'.
To further her work, Rajkumari also took the plunge and contested panchayat elections from her neighbouring Manikpur Gram Panchayat that is reserved for women. She lost the fray. Observes Rajkumari ruefully, "I did not win because people here vote on the basis of caste and that matters more than development."
But despite the defeat, 'Kisan Chachi' continues to be a greatly respected figure in these parts. Manju Devi, the present Mukhiya of Manikpur Gram Panchayat, speaks for everybody when she says, "Kisan Chachi has done a lot for all of us. She is a real role model."