One of the key issues that troubles most of us in the development sector is the state of India’s farming and agriculture and the stark poverty that stares you in the face when you are in the field.
Statistics tell us that 84% of our farming community comprise small and marginal farmers with less than 2 hectares of land holding. Farming is rain fed, by and large subsistence – with a hand to mouth existence being the norm. So when the opportunity came along to directly work with small farmers and impact their yields, it seemed just right to do your bit.
March 2009: Our initial field trips were to tribal pockets of Dharampur block in Valsad district and Surgana block (Nasik) – all just a couple of hours from Mumbai. We spent the day talking to farmers from the Kokana tribe in little hamlets where the women and children still fetched water from the nearby rivulets – about their farming, why after sowing seeds, watering and weeding them, once the flowers bloomed, it was all ‘Bhagavan Bharose’ (dependent on God) – and this is where bees came in. If there were 100 flowers in the fields, how many turned into fruit? 20 -30 was generally the answer. So we explained how bees went from flower and flower collecting pollen performing the crucial service of pollination- hence they were the farmers best friends and should not be killed just for a little honey or wax. Alternately lets start learning to keep bees in boxes – not just would we no longer need to roam the jungles and get stung for honey but our crops would also benefit.
These interactions were usually greeted with disbelief – ‘how will a bee which lives freely in the forest live in a box?” “Surely you must be joking’ was the most common response…..to the loudly whispered “yeh log jaante nahin hai’ (these people have no idea ). In the course of these conversations, many in the community – honey hunters for generations would tell us how slowly the population of bees was declining as they were not finding as many colonies any more. As we came away, this would only make us more steadfast in our determination that the intervention would need to begin in these very villages soon. And so we began our work.
Today these same villages have 50-60 beeboxes each, crops like sunhemp that would fetch a couple of hundred rupees today earn for the community in the thousands due to better pollination cover for entire villages. Honey hunting has been banished as a result of the realisation of the crucial role bees play for a farmer. Households proudly proclaim on their walls “Hu madhmakhi palak chu” (I am a beekeeper). Some farmers who took up beekeeping in 2009 today are so technically skilled that they travel across districts and states passing on their knowledge to others who like them are just beginning their beekeeping journey.
These moments are what makes the UTMT journey worthwhile. In 2013-14, we got an opportunity to work with women – training them to keep beeboxes. Some graduated to Master Trainers breaking many gender stereotypes along the way– for themselves, for us and the community. They did Natural Colony Transfers (NCT : the process of relocating a feral bee colony into a beebox)- considered one of the most technical and difficult tasks and traditionally the preserve of men- with ease.
Vimaltai from Village Mauchipada, Sakri Block, Dhule district (Maharashtra), belongs to a family of traditional honey hunters and remembers accompanying her parents as a child to look for honey. She is now a skilled NCT expert and much sought after in her community, thanks to her beekeeping skills. A proud moment for us and one that fills you with a sense of fulfilment and makes your job truly worth having.