Monday, October 26, 2009

From The Fields : Intrigued and well-fed in Punjab

By Rucha Chitnis
We wake up in Ludhiana.

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It's day 3 of WEA's India Women and Agriculture Initiative. We are 14 women, transplants from different parts of the world, who have a deep sense of reverence for land, food cultures and the sanctity of our food systems. We find ourselves transported to Punjab, the land of 5 rivers, blessed with one of the most fertile soils in the world. These life-sustaining soils, we are told by many sustainable agriculture practitioners, are hurting by the unbridled use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers employed during the Green Revolution.

Today is yet another rich day of lively interactions and meetings with women and men in Punjab who are leaders of of sustainable agriculture movement and food processing in this great state. Our first stop is at the Central Institute of Post Harvest Engineering and Technology (CIPHET). CIPHET provides training, particularly to women farmers, in food processing and value added farm products.

We are introduced to many women who have traveled long distances from surrounding villages to meet Team WEA. They are here to share their journeys in seeking self employment in the food processing business. The women are involved in milk processing, production of pickles, squashes, jams, jellies, chemical-free detergents, bee-keeping and designing beautiful candles, among other things. Many of them have received loans, training and encouragement from CIPHET to stand on their own feet and breathe life into their local economies.  “Why should only multi-nationals make these products when women can make them in their own kitchens,” an audience member states bluntly.

One woman called Jyoti Sharma shares that she dedicates much of her time meeting and organizing local women and listening to their needs and priorities. She says her dream is to have a resource center in every village where women can find information and tools on starting businesses and learn about groups and networks like CIPHET and WEA. Some of the questions the women ask us delve into responsible management of waste and expanding their businesses locally and overseas. WEA delegates share their personal thoughts and reflections that include setting example for sustainable living by starting from home to the community, focusing on local food systems and economies and the importance of women's alliances and networks. There is a real potential here for groups like CIPHET and others to encourage local women entrepreneurs, like these, to take the lead to produce organic value added foods. The meeting ends with a photo session, laughs, warm hugs and personal exchanges.

Our next stop is at the Punjab National Bank's Farmers Training Center (PNB) in Fatehgarh Sahib District. We see the training facilities here that include computer literacy, vocational training classes for women and workshops to boost agriculture production. Training is also given to farmers to diversify their crop production—vegetable farming, fruit production, processing of fruits and vegetables, floriculture for no charge. We meet a group of young women who are in a 4-month tailoring workshop who have made beautiful embroidery. Many of these girls want to leave the farms
behind to pursue a career in hair and beauty salons and tailoring.

Farming, we hear, is considered an unsuitable livelihood for women to engage in. This sentiment, it appears, is echoed quite widely in Punjab, and farming is considered largely a man's domain. We are intrigued and puzzled by this, because we know that across India women are the backbone of the local food systems. I wondered if in Punjab, in particular, there are social taboos around women farming. I also wondered if groups like PNB offered special incentives and training opportunities targeted for women to have viable livelihoods as farmers? Many of us feel this needs to be explored further.

Our next stop is at a vermiculture training center. We meet Dr. Sarbjit Singh, Chief Agriculture Officer at Fatehgarh, who is a passionate advocate of organic farming. Many farmers, including women, receive training on bio composting here.
“Every family farm should use organic manure and produce healthy food for themselves and their livelihood,” he says.

His dream is to ensure that every farmer in his district is aware of the benefits and possibilities of organic farming. The day ends in the warm home at an organic farm in Fatehgarh. We are served a divine meal of piping hot kadhi, matter paneer, rotis and lassi—the staple of every Punjabi home. Every bit is organic. Every bite is exquisite. The flavors are rich and the legendary Punjabi hospitality unforgettable.
Rucha Chitnis 
Rucha Chitnis is the former Director of Programs and Development at One World Children’s Fund, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that networks resources to community-based organizations in Asia, Africa and the Americas that are investing in the dignity and long-term well being of children and their caregivers. She is passionate about developing OWCF’s Champion Model that creates a structure through which individuals and communities in the US can build respectful partnerships with grassroots groups around the world and spotlight opportunities to make a difference.
Rucha was born and raised all over India. She has a masters degree in Journalism from Ohio University and a masters degree in Sociology from Mumbai University. She serves on the board of Grantmakers Without Borders, a philanthropic network dedicated to increasing funding for international social justice and environmental sustainability initiatives. She is also an advisor to the Nirvanavan Foundation in Rajasthan, India, that promotes children’s human rights and initiates literacy programs for children from vulnerable communities. Rucha would like to believe that she is a respectable birder and an amateur photographer.
This is part of a series entitled From The Fields which follows WEA's Women and Agriculture delegation on their 10 day journey through Northern India. Read more about this initiative here.

3 comments:

  1. Organic farming methods offer several benefits for the environment and human health as a whole, but unfortunately, there are many misconceptions and falsehoods being spread regarding organic food and farming methods, both by proponents and detractors. Here are the facts about what organic methods can do for us and what they can't.

    http://www.selfdestructivebastards.com/2009/11/organic-myths-and-realities.html

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  2. Dear Canada Guy,

    Thanks for your comment! You're right - organic farming is a . But, as you said on your blog, it is "absolutely necessary in the long term for stable and sustainable food production." And that's what we at Women's Earth Alliance are working towards.

    We just returned from 2 weeks of traveling through Northern India with the goal of building connections and identifying ways in which we can support women environmental leaders there. We met women saving seeds, using compost, keeping bees, harvesting rainwater, and working in tune with the earth's rhythms. There is a lot of wisdom about how to grow food in a stable and sustainable way and WEA is going to help make visible these grassroots solutions.

    Women's Earth Alliance have the mission to coordinate training, technology and financial support for women on the frontlines of environmental justice causes (i.e., sustainable farming). So while organic farming practices alone can't solve the changing climate, they are a big step in the right direction.

    Melinda & Amira
    Co-Directors, WEA

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  3. Melinda & Amira, absolutely agree it's a necessary component. It's great to hear about your experiences. Please keep up the wonderful work!

    I recently wrote about how we need to ban plastic water bottles:

    http://www.selfdestructivebastards.com/2009/10/water-bottle-manifesto.html

    Since you've visited India, you're probably aware that much of the groundwater is being pumped out of the ground by companies like Coke to make their products, which is drying up their farmland and depleting their drinking water. Just another reason to ban bottled water (and hopefully get these companies out of India!)

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