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Plant organic, eat fresh: Emlen Bage's journey from migrant labour to agri-entrepreneur

Emlen Bage overseeing the papaya saplings she has planted
By Chandrashekar and Kriti*
Who is a farmer? Type this question in the google search and check out the images? You can see men thronging the screen. This is the popular perception around the globe. Well one can understand how difficult it would be for a woman to defy this perception.
Breaking this stereotype is Emlen Bage, a rising entrepreneur in the agriculture sector. Her journey from a migrant labour to a farmer and an agriculture entrepreneur is no less inspiring. A native of Rania village in the Khunti district of Jharkhand, Emlen belongs to the Munda tribe of Jharkhand and speaks fluent Mundari, Sadri, and Hindi.
A strict follower of routine, she sets to work sharp at 6 a.m. for her nursery. She remembers fondly, going into a haze of her sweet memories and says, "I have always followed a routine in my life since childhood throughout my marriage, I am still following it. I would work hard and then also take out time for the studies.” Although education seemed inaccessible, she relentlessly pursued her education and almost completed her graduation.
After her marriage, she stayed with her husband in Durgapur, West Bengal, for five years till 2003, where he used to work as wage labourer in a fertilizer company. The company closed down in 2002, and they both tried to find menial jobs in Durgapur but unable to sustain for long they returned to Latehar, her husband's native place.
In search of better prospects for income and their child's education, they shifted to Kuru village in Lohardaga district and bought four decimals of land after taking loan from a relative. After settling down, she immediately joined an SHG named Mukti Mahila Mandal promoted by Pradan and started saving and credit activities. For her, joining Mahila Mukti Mandal was a new family.
A tragedy struck home in 2006 as her husband succumbed to brain malaria and her effort to save him dried up their entire savings. An existing bank loan for a tractor became a burden for the family whose repaying responsibility fell upon her. She was devastated. But it was not the end of her story.
During her tough times, Mukti Mahila Mandal, her self-help group (SHG), became her backbone and gave her a new breath of life. Mukti Mahila Mandal, thus, became an essential part of her life as they not only helped her in her financial needs, but they also provided her with the required emotional and social support.
She talks very fondly about them, “Mukti Mahila Mandal is my extended family, it has been there for me throughout my ups and downs and has always boosted my morale, it is because of didis that I have made an identity for myself." With their help, she started indulging in social work and learnt useful skills, most importantly, leadership.
In 2013, she became the first executive member of Block Level Federation (BLF) and was trained on women's rights and empowerment by Pradan under the National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM) project. In 2014, she went for an exposure training to Society for Elimination of Rural Poverty (SERP), Andhra Pradesh where she learnt about the community-level work done by women, and how they are supporting each other and uplifting the community at the same time.
She was highly impressed by this model and started applying this in her village. Inspired by the exposure, she took a loan of Rs 50,000 in the same year to start a stationery shop and later expanded it to a cosmetic shop to finally become financially independent.
The next year, in 2015, she got the opportunity to visit Kudumbashree, Kerala, where she understood about the Pandhayati Raj Institute-Community Based Organization (PRI-CBO) collaboration through which several government schemes especially social security schemes were efficiently delivered to the last mile person. She even observed their organic-based farming which stayed there in her heart, on which she later started working.
A tribal woman who rose against all odds to become agri-entrepreneur is currently inspiring others with her motto of organic farming
Once getting the confidence to move ahead in life, she started reaching to the government and different organisations to know about developmental schemes and how to avail them. In 2016, due to her continuous effort, her SHG was nominated by Jharkhand State Livelihood Promotion Society (JSLPS) in her panchayat to receive farm implements (a power tiller, a pump set, an electronic sprayer set for fertiliser, pipe for drip irrigation- 35 pieces, a paddy threshing machine, and a drum for mixing manure) worth Rs 2 lakh.
Emlen Bage making her organic fertilizer
The same year, she also received a drip machine through the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) project. She is even working as an active woman in Jharkhand Opportunities for Harnessing Rural Growth (JOHAR) Project and, had formed a Producer Group to start collective farming and collective marketing for small scale farmers.
These schemes by the government and non-government organisations have proved advantageous for her. She urges others to benefit from such projects. ”Nowadays, there are many schemes and programmes that our government and several organisations are curating, we just need to connect with such schemes. Women have to step out of the houses, as we will gain nothing while sitting in our homes."
Emlen is passionate about farming. She proudly says, “I took 66 decimal of land on lease and cultivate vegetables and cereals through jaivik farming.” She is ardent propagator of sustainable farming. According to her, the organic farming costs much less as the ingredients required to prepare organic fertilisers and pesticides are locally available and practically have no cost.
She makes her organic fertilisers like kechua khad (vermicompost), jivamrit (fertiliser), ghana jivamrit, and agniastra (an organic insecticide). The crops retain most of their natural values and are fresh and healthy. For her, chemical fertiliser is a thing of the past now. For three years now, she has been successfully growing organic vegetables and selling them in nearby markets.
Her motto is quite simple, “जैविक लगाएँगे, स्वच्छ खाएंगे, स्वस्थ रहेंगे और साथ में पर्यावरण भी बचाएंगें।” [(I will) plant organic, eat fresh, be healthy and at the same time, save the environment too].
In early 2020, Emlen Bage took technical training on “Improved Papaya Nursery Raising”, a one-day training programme from Indian Council of Agricultural Research- Research Complex for Eastern Region (ICAR-RCER) in Plandu, Ranchi along with other farmers of Lohardaga and Gumla District. This detailed training programme helped her to understand the village entrepreneurship model.
She studied the establishment of a nursery, maintenance, usage of fertilizers and appropriate tools. She also received some input materials like papaya seeds and poly bags for nursery raising under the Tribal Sub Plan of ICAR-AICRP on fruits from ICAR, Ranchi. “I was very inspired, I thought I can raise a papaya fruit nursery and sell the seedlings.”
She took it as a challenge and built her papaya nursery and raised almost 5,000 papaya seedlings of both, hybrid variety (Red Lady) and local variety (Ranchi Local) in her homestead. She sold these papaya seedlings to more than 50 farmers in and around her Panchayat during the lockdown period. She says:
“Initially, because of the lockdown, it was difficult to sell the seedlings, people did not have enough cash to buy the seedlings. I reduced the prices and also asked to pay me later. I had contacted farmers who were interested to cultivate papaya and reached out to 45-50 farmers. I earned around Rs 30,000 by selling the hybrid variety plants at the rate of Rs 12-15 and local variety plants at Rs 5 during the lockdown.”
Emlen Bage is currently planning to expand her organic nursery farm of just planting papaya to other fruits and vegetables by using this hard-earned money and through different linkages. She, thus, plans to expand her nursery and convert it into a full-fledged business.
Even in the difficult times as of Covid-19 pandemic, when a huge number of reverse migrations were occurring due to lockdown in our country, Emlen Bage stood against all the odds to show how a village economy can fight this epidemic all being just self-reliant. Her journey has been an extraordinary one, not because of the problems she faced but how she faced those problems, with dignity. She, thus, proudly establishes her identity as a female agri-entrepreneur.
She has compared this return with her experience. She has expressed how to create opportunities for them, so they will never want to go to cities for the livelihood, "Now, our sisters and brothers are returning back from cities to their villages. I also returned from a city, but now I am standing at a place where I don’t have to depend upon anyone. It is a necessity that we pave new ways for our worker brothers and sisters, and stop them going back to cities."
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*B.Tech from Biju Patnaik University of Technology, Odisha and MA in development studies from IIT, Guwahati, Chandrashekhar is development practitioner, working with rural communities in Jharkhand. Kriti is studying English (hons) at Lady Shri Ram College, Delhi University, and works as content writer; she has worked with student-run start-up, Shelfebook,  facilitating educational material

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