“There is no force equal to a woman determined to rise”-W.E.B .Dubois
There was a time when she just had a fistful of sattu (roasted gram flour) to feed her family of four. That she had no money, an unemployed husband and three children below five. But that was 1988. Twenty-one years later, she has not only turned her life around but also those of countless others in Anandpur, Bihar. Today, documentary producers are queuing up to tell the story of Raj Kumari — popularly known as `Kisan Chachi’ — who has been honoured with the Kisan Shree award.
She has become proficient in assessing the quality of soil in her area and ensuring successful harvests. With three decades of experience, 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 almost 30 kms daily through the dusty lanes of villages in Bihar’s Muzaffarpur district, giving tips to people on kitchen farming and developing the right agro-based products for business. She has mobilized more than 300 women to form self-help groups (SHGs) and become financially independent.
Rajkumari laughingly explains how she got the nickname Kisan Chachi: “Since most people in the area called me chachi, and I also was a successful kisan, 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 inspect their land and predict their crop quality. “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 born a farm expert. Thirty-five years ago, she had nothing, except one acre of arid land, which she inherited from her husband’s family. But she had the 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. He grew tobacco for many years because, like most farmers in this block, that was the only thing he knew. When he was away in nearby towns to sell the leaves, Rajkumari would single-handedly toil on the farm.
That’s how she learnt everything there was to know about her land. As time went by, this hardworking farmer realized that there was much more to agriculture than just growing tobacco. So she embraced change. “Over time, I understood my farmstead so well that I knew what to grow where. So I divided the land into plots and began to grow vegetables and fruits instead of tobacco,” she says. Initially, people had a hard time accepting her new role. Even nature not really on her side — the annual floods would wipe away all the assets she built over the year. But despite the tough times, Rajkumari persevered and perfected the cropping cycle. She grew paddy and wheat in the low-lying fields and rows of banana, mango and papaya trees in the remaining land.
As she got busy transforming her land, fellow villagers — especially women — watched her hard at work. Soon, her neighbours began emulating her and she, in turn, gave everyone her wholehearted support by sharing her expertise freely. She also helped form 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 from the Swarna Jayanti Swayam Rozgar Yojna. A happy Meera Devi, 40, of the Pipra Khusboo SHG, says, “We were simple housewives until Kisan Chachi taught us how to grow vegetables and fruits. We are now self-reliant and can earn up to Rs. 3,000 a month.”
The road to success, though, has been tough for Rajkumari, and only she knows how. After a split in the family’s assets left her on the verge of penury, she took charge of her fields, allowing her husband Awadhesh Choudhary to run his tobacco shop. As relatives and local residents questioned her motive and made fun of her daring – even her husband opposed her decision initially, and said she was treading into male territory – she spent endless nights staying awake, thinking how she could skirt the thorny issue. “Finally, I found a way to do what I wanted without hurting sentiments,” she said, looking back. “I started working in the fields after sunset and would come back before my husband returned from the shop. I used to keep my three children on a small cot near the field.”
When that didn’t work – the limitation on working hours affected her crops – Rajkumari started spending time in her fields from three in the morning till sunrise every day. Her husband eventually yielded, allowing her to work during the day. Not surprisingly, it invited the wrath of family members who live in the same house. The most vociferous opposition came from her father-in-law, Kalika Prasad.
Rajkumari, who is in her fifties now, began championing farming techniques among fellow villagers after she met social worker Viji Srinivasan in Saraiya. Srinivasan also promised her a bicycle if she learnt to ride one. The bicycle would later allow her to visit Rajendra Agriculture University in Pusa, where she collected information on the latest farming practices. Her fields became her laboratory. Soon, Rajkumari branched out into food processing. Her pickle business, which has the support of Saraiya Krishi Vigyan Kendra (KVK), has flourished and now has an annual turnover of about Rs 5 lakh.
Her contribution to society hasn’t gone unnoticed. She’s officially the only woman farmer in Bihar to have earned the distinction of being called Kisan Shree. The Union ministry of agriculture, too, has feted her and made a documentary on her life, which will be shown throughout India. In fact, another documentary on her, made by the Bihar Agricultural Management & Extension Training Institute, has already been screened at many fairs organised by the agriculture department. “People like Rajkumari Devi are a rare breed and we made a film on her life to inspire others,” said BAMETI director R K Sohane, adding that her achievement is all the more noteworthy because she had to fight not only poverty but gender bias in feudal Bihar.
Though she has achieved many times over what she set out to do, Rajkumari is not one to rest on her laurels. She writes songs on the scourge of dowry and sings them whenever there is a gathering of farmers. She is also learning English and saving up to buy a motorbike. “It comes from the need to save time and reach out to more people,” she explained, smiling. In Anandpur, many will tell you, nothing is impossible for Kisan Chachi.
Rajkumari has also set up a non-profit organization, which not only picks fresh produce from the SHG-run farms nearby, but also employs women to make agriculture-based products. Such has been the impact of Kisan Chachi on farming practices in Muzaffarpur, a district that is just 80 km from 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.She is also likely to visit Bangkok as part of a team of women entrepreneurs working in food-processing and agriculture. She still remembers how Lalu Prasad had admired her suran at an exhibition in Patna a few years ago.
Rajkumari’s son Amarendra has taken to farming after his graduation. Her eldest daughter Sanju is married to a Pusa businessman and the youngest, Upriya Sonali, a BCA student, helps Devi make mango, lemon and litchi pickles. To further her work, this feisty woman took the plunge and contested panchayat elections from the neighbouring Manikpur Gram Panchayat, which is reserved for women. She lost. Rajkumari says 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.”