Women Leaders - Sarda Bai
By M Jemima Margaret

No longer a farm laborer, but a businesswoman and proud farmer

Multi-cropping has enhanced Sarda Baiís earnings. She first invested in a flour mill and later on in livestock. This year her earnings were good and she could hire a goat herder. Sarda is working towards building a bigger house and providing good education to her children

Sarda Bai. Photo: V Nagasrinivas Reddy

When you step into Sarda Baiís house you can see that her house is different from the barely furnished houses in the rest of Siyalwada village in Madhya Pradesh, India that is inhabited by the tribal group, Adivasi. The TV blares on as the flour mill chugs away; thereís a big granary in the corner to store wheat; in front of the house is a shed for the goats and a buffalo, and in the narrow courtyard, a brand new bike glistens in the afternoon sun. One other thing that stands out conspicuously on the verandah is the red instrument provided by ICRISAT, which her husband uses to measure the water levels in the wells and tube wells in the village and five other neighboring villages.

Amidst all the signs of prosperity, it’s Sarda’s confidence, her efforts to educate her children, and her desire to constantly better herself that shines through. Once looked down by the village folk for walking out of the joint family along with her husband, she is now looked up to as a role model with her neighbors trying to emulate her success. Even her once estranged family has patched up with her.

She grows her own food

Sarda is busy cooking a meal, when we arrive at her place. Self-sufficient – is the word that comes to mind as you watch her go about her work. The vegetables are from her garden, the rotis (flat bread) she is making are made from last season’s wheat that has been ground in her mill and the rice that’s cooking on the earthen stove is from the recent harvest. Even the ghee (clarified butter) she applies on the rotis is in-house, courtesy the buffalo she bought recently.

Breaking away from tradition

Sarda Bai in her kitchen. Photo: V Nagasrinivas Reddy

As she narrates her story it’s hard not to admire her grit as she fights back the tears recollecting the hard times – “We had to live in a tiny room, which was our kitchen, bedroom and living room. I did not know how to make a clay stove and none of the villagers would teach me. I observed the stoves in other people’s houses and finally made one on my own,” she says flashing a proud smile as she talks about the odds she had overcome and the opportunities that came her way even as she admonishes her youngest son to finish his breakfast and get ready for school.

In 2011,  Sarda Bai and her husband Bhagchand decided to leave the joint family that comprised of Bhagchand’s parents, four brothers and wife of the eldest brother. “My sister-in-law took all the decisions with regard to running the home and I used to have frequent quarrels with her. I am glad we decided to step out as it helped us grow as individuals, but we had to face a lot to get to where we are now. We were denied our share of land by the family. We worked as farm laborers for a living. When the watershed project started hiring labor, we took up the opportunity. For the first time, I received a wage of Rs 100 (US$ 1.62), on par with my husband. The previous rate for farm labor was Rs 40 (US$ 0.65) for women and 50 (US$ 0.81) for men. ”

Starting off with a vegetable patch

Sarda Bai at the vermicompost unit.
Photo: V Nagasrinivas Reddy

“We continued working as farm laborers and at the same time we took two acres of land on lease to grow vegetables. It cost us Rs 20,000 (US$ 323.23). I enrolled as a member of Puja Self-Help Group and acquired a loan from the SHG for the purpose.  At that time, the NGO, BYPASS (Bhopal Yuwa Paryavaran Shikshan Sanstan)  with the aid of ICRISAT discussed Productivity Enhancement trials with the farmers in the village. I was ready to try out the new methods on my vegetable farm. I learnt how to make vermicompost; through the soil analysis I came to know that my land was deficient in zinc, boron and sulfur and applied the required amount of fertilizers; ICRISAT also supplied us the seed. That year we had a good crop and my husband and I sold the vegetables in the weekly haat (market) for a good price. This year, we have also been able to dig a tube well in our vegetable plot.

“My husband volunteered to measure the water levels in the open wells, tube wells and take recordings from the rainwater run-off recorder. He was paid an honorarium of Rs 1,000 (US$ 16.16) per month for monitoring six villages. Our income was very little but I made sure my three children went to school”

A farm at last

Sarda Bai and her husband Bhagchand Sirsham use the Broad Bed Furrow implement to sow chickpea seeds in the postrainy (rabi) season Photo: V Nagasrinivas Reddy

“After a couple of years, my husband’s family relented and they gave us 2 hectares of land. On our plot, I adopted ICRISAT’s Broad Bed Furrow system to grow soya bean and chickpea. Previously we were only into single cropping, but in 2013 I started paddy cultivation. It is because of the watershed initiative that we have been able to cultivate paddy on our farm as many of the tube wells that we share with other farmers have sufficient water. Soon after the paddy crop, I sow wheat and chickpea. I have adopted this pattern for the past two years.”

Flour mill from farm earnings

“Multi-cropping has enhanced my earnings. I first purchased a small mill. With it, I was earning less than Rs 50 (US$ 0.81) per day. Now I have bought a bigger mill and I earn Rs 150-200 (US$ 2.42- 3.23 in a day. I have a TV at home, so the kids in the neighborhood who come to watch TV also help me by operating the mill.”

Sarda Bai operating her flour mill. Photo: V Nagasrinivas Reddy

Of goats, gold and more

“From the flour mill earnings, I bought a goat. The goat had five kids in a year. I sold one of the goats and bought gold (she shows off her mangalsutra set in black beads and gold). My earnings are good and this year I have been able to hire a person from a nearby village to take care of the goats. I also have a buffalo but since my daughter and elder son are studying in a government residential school in a nearby town, there is a lot of surplus milk even after setting yoghurt, churning butter and making ghee. This year, I am planning to sell the surplus milk at the local milk cooperative. I don’t buy fodder. Instead I go to the fields or to the nearby forest to gather fodder for my buffalo.”

A motorbike for the mister

Bhagchand Sirsham was able to save money to buy a motorbike. The bike helps him save time as he commutes to nearby villages to monitor water levels in wells.
Photo: V Nagasrinivas Reddy

Pointing to the new bike that her husband had purchased, Sarda says, “I earn well myself, so I don’t take my husband’s money. Last year, seven more wells were dug up under the watershed program and my husband’s monthly income has increased by Rs 1,000 (US$ 16.16). With the extra money he bought a motor bike. This helps him complete his work of measuring the water levels in six villages in three hours. Now he has more time to help me with the work on the farm.”

Future plans

Hardworking Sarda has chalked out a lot of plans for herself and her family in the coming year – “We are living in a big hut which is spacious and nice, but my dream is to build a pucca house with bricks and cement. I want my children to study well. I know that education is important if they want to come up in life. Educated people earn well, get more opportunities to travel and see the world, they know how to talk appropriately and dress well. I wish I could travel to various cities. Thanks to ICRISAT, I travelled by train for the first time in my life to attend the Women Farmers Day held on September 12. There I met other women farmers from across the country. I saw the work that is being done and I am proud that I have adopted quite a few of the methods. That one visit has opened up a whole new world to me.”

Sharda Bai lives in a village on the forest edge that receives abundant rain and yet faces water scarcity.

During the monsoons, rainwater from the nearby hills rushes down the slopes taking with it crops and soil, leaving the farms denuded and depleted of nutrients.

There was an urgent need for capturing and managing rainwater and restoring soil health.

Farming is fairly new to this region, most of the people are second generation farmers
Scientists worked together with the community to:

  • Build check dams, ponds and bunds to prevent soil erosion,
  • recharge groundwater and store water for the dry season
  • Conduct soil testing to identify nutrient deficiency
  • Supply deficient micronutrients like Zinc, Boron and Sulphur at subsidized rates
  • Provide training for preparation of vermicompost
  • Introduce Broad Bed Furrow system for better water management
  • Provide quality seed
  • Teach pest management techniques including seed treatment

Sarda Bai's husband volunteered to monitor levels in open wells to help farmers take decisions depending on water availability

The impact of the efforts led to:

  • Groundwater level increase by five meters
  • Water is now available in summer
  • Water-intensive crops like rice were grown here for the first time
  • Crop yield doubled on the farms

Increase in production (tons per hectare):

  • Wheat:  From 2.1 to 2.9
  • Chickpea: 0.6 tons to 0.9 tons
  • Soyabean: 1.5 tons to 1.95 tons
  • Cropping intensity increased from 115% to 160%

The Padarlya-Siyalwada Model Watershed, Raisen District, Madhya Pradesh, India, had an important partnership with international scientific researchers, national government and local NGO partners. It was led by the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), funded by the Indian Ministry of Rural Development, and implemented by an NGO, Bhopal Yuwa Paryavaran Shikshan & Samajik Sansthan (BYPASS).

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