Leela Shikhdhar was born in a farmer’s family of village Gabia. She had to leave her studies midway after passing Class 8 as her mother got sick and the responsibility of managing the household chores and looking after her four siblings fell upon her. But after her marriage she managed to finish her high school. Leela was married at the age of 13 years, in a farmer’s household that owned 30 bighas of land. Her husband, the eldest of 3 male siblings, had studied till class 7 and was into farming.
Life after marriage
Two years into her marriage, Leela had serious menstrual problems and there were remote chances of her recovering from her illness. Her husband had to contribute his income to the family pool and had nothing left to spend on her treatment. Since her husband’s family declined to pay for her medical treatment, her parents bore the cost of seeking medical advice from several private doctors, including faith healers. Eventually both she and her husband were asked to leave the family house without being given any share in family property.
Her work and achievements
Establishing their own house and making an independent living was a major concern for them, but they managed to survive. Both of them started working as daily wage labourers to earn their livelihood. Meanwhile Leela’s health also improved and she became the proud mother of 2 sons in quick succession.
After sometime they could save enough money to rent 2 bighas of land for contract farming and began growing pointed gourd (parval) on it, while continuing to work as daily wage labourers. They would take their vegetable produce on a bicycle to sell it in Puranpur mandi. At this point of time, they were managing to save INR 10,000 – 15,000 every year after taking care of the living expenses. Within 2-3 years they could save enough to invest in opening a small roadside grocery shop. But unfortunately Leela was once again became sick and had to close the shop. All the family savings were used up during the next 2-3 years in her treatment. None of her extended family from her parents or her husband’s side came to attend to her. Those were testing times. Her husband would do the farming and labour work while taking care of her and the family. She gradually regained her health and since then has not become sick ever.
Leela had no previous experience of farming. She learnt her lessons in farming-- such as sowing, weeding, ploughing, and harvesting-- while working as a farm labourer. Now they own 2.5 acres of land and also have 3 acres of land leased from someone else for contract farming. So now they are doing farming over 5.5 acres of land. Today she grows spices, brinjal, banana, potato, turmeric, etc. She sells her farm produce to local middlemen who sell it in Delhi.
Leela is also actively involved with Aaroh Mahila Kisaan Manch ('Aaroh' is a campaign for rights and recognition of women farmers in Uttar Pradesh supported by Oxfam India). Her engagement with Aaroh led her to get trained in vermi-culture and vermi-composting, with support from Vinoba Sewa Ashram. Earlier she had no knowledge about its benefits, but now she has shifted from chemical farming to organic farming. This has increased her farm’s productivity—while her neighbour’s field is able to produce 20 quintals of bananas per acre with chemical based farming, her organic farm gives a yield of 30 quintals per acre. She also saves money that was spent earlier on buying urea as there is no need of urea in organic farming. The risk of crops getting infected is also less in organic farming.
She has benefited from government schemes such as receiving fertilizers and insecticides. Her bank keeps her updated with information about government schemes for agriculture sector. Leela is actively involved in promoting organic farming in the village, by training other women farmers. She shares her own experience of using vermi-compost with them to encourage them to try it and see the benefits for themselves. She has also led and organized struggles on issues of proper drainage or when some land-owners were not letting people use paths that led to their farms etc.
“I also occasionally roll beedis (leaf-rolled cigarettes) to make extra income. I do not eat tobacco but the company’s contractors come and give us tendu leaves to roll them into beedis. Every night after dinner, before going to bed, I would roll 500 beedis. This extra daily income of INR 40 has helped me to buy new clothes for the entire family for the celebration of puja festival (dussehra) this year. I know that tobacco use is bad for health and no one consumes tobacco in our house”. By shifting to organic farming Leela has increased her annual income manifold from INR 10,000 – 15,000 to over INR 100,000.
Leela has a separate bank account as well as a joint account with her husband. But the 2.5 acres of land they own is in her husband’s name. Leela never thought of having the land in her name, as she believes (like so many other women do) that she is not separate from her husband and the land belongs to both of them. She feels that her husband is responsible and loving and so she will never assert for her legal ownership or property rights—not even joint ownership on paper.
“But if the husband is alcoholic then the land should belong to both husband and wife, and even the bank account should be in their joint names. An irresponsible husband is quite likely to sell his land/house/property, putting the wife and children in grave trouble. So in such circumstances joint ownership and property rights for the woman must be there.”
Women’s education, marriage and family planning
“I believe it is very important for everyone, especially women, to be educated and self-reliant to lead a life of dignity. This is also the surest way to ensure that next generation children will also get proper education”. “Getting proper education also makes a girl more employable and makes her financially secure. When a girl takes up a job it has a positive influence on the entire household.”
“Girls should not be married till at least 18 years of age. If the girl is interested in studying then marriage should take a backseat and she should focus on studies even if it means postponing marriage till 30 years”.
“A small family is a happy family. A proper and healthy upbringing of kids is only possible when family size is small. I had visited Kolkata once in my childhood and read the family planning slogan ‘two children, happy family’ and made up my mind to keep my family small. I am happy that we have managed to keep our family small to two children.”
Now and then
Eventually, Leela and her husband have established themselves as successful farmers. Earlier were the days of deprivation--– be it of resources or being denied the simple pleasures of participating in festivals. Her parents-in-law did not allow her to go to festivals like the Navratras and confined her within the house limits.
“When my husband’s family deserted us, we did not even have a utensil to cook our meals in. We were forced to beg and borrow from others. Today I own 8 cooking pots of different sizes and have enough to meet my needs. I can now afford to use cooking gas, and have bought a washing machine too. From 2 sarees I now have 20 sarees. It is only hard work that can change lives. The harder one works the luckier one gets”.
When they were working as daily wage labourers they were very worried on how they would be able to fend for the needs of the family and educate their children. But with hard work and persistence, life did bring sunshine in their lives. Leela is slowly able to realize her dreams of giving a comfortable life to her family. She wanted her sons to have motorcycles to go to college and has managed to do so. Both her sons are about to complete their graduation from a university.
All the loans (around INR 4 lakhs) she had to take during her illness and for renting land have since been repaid. They also saved enough money to buy a swampy land, which they have filled with mud over time and constructed their house.
“If we work hard then only can we hope to change our lives. We cannot spend INR 5 and earn INR 2. We need to ensure we are earning enough to meet our needs and saving for a rainy day and also to indulge in some luxuries once in a while. Without hard work, persistence and commitment we cannot hope to change our lives.”
“Women should come forward and do not just household work but also share work in the farms with their partners and family members. When both husband and wife will work together as equal partners then only will families progress more”.
(This article is part of a soon-to-be-released Oxfam India publication: "The Leader Lies In You - Success stories of women farmers in UP")