“Like me, my daughter will be someone else’s daughter. It depends on them.”

Harshi Devi, age 42

Ginwalla village , Mandakini valley,

Rudraprayag District, Garhwal Himalayas

Harshi Devi is preparing potatoes for sowing as she speaks. She is the secretary of the local Mahila Anna Swaraj (Women’s Food Sovereignty) group. At their last meeting, Rs 50 was collected from each member, and amongst other things, the group discussed methods for saving water. Last year Harshi Devi, women from the Mahila Anna Swaraj Group and other women from the local area protested for 100 continuous days against the building of a new Hyrdo Electric Dam in the valley close below the village. The dam consists of a series of tunnels that will divert the Mandakini river from flowing its natural route for over 12 kilometres. The construction of the tunnels uses explosives daily to blast holes into the mountains. The protesting women made a human wall in front of the tunnel in an attempt to stop the construction work. Harshi explains that nothing came of this protest and in the end they had to stop the protest because it was difficult for the women who had to do their own work as well.

It is unclear when the dam will be finished. “First we were told it wasn’t a dam, it was only a test,” explains Harshi.  Now residents are being told it will take over 20 years to build. Harshi explains how the daily use of explosives in the mountains has caused cracks in her house. Her husband, who works for a local Hindi newspaper, went to the dam office to report the problems, but was told, “scientists say there is no effect.”

Harshi has lived in Ginwala since 1985 and has two sons and one daughter who are all in school. During the holidays they come and help in the fields. In addition to one buffalo and two bulls, the family also has 12-15 nali  (20 nali = 1 acre approx) of land.

Harshi’s daughters will marry elsewhere.  She would rather her children do something other than farming, but it is unclear now how their lives will unfold. “Like me, my daughter will be someone else’s daughter. It depends on them.”

The Mahila Anna Swaraj group also protects seed, and discusses methods of compost.  When asked about how to save seeds, Harshi says, “we know. “ She continues, “I taught myself,” and brings two handfuls of rice to show: “Can you see?”

In her right hand she holds healthy looking rice with long ears, and in her left hand she holds rice with no long stems. Harshi explains why it is important it is to know the difference between good and bad seed: “why waste bad seed in the soil when you can eat it?”

Next Harshi holds up two potatoes. “This one has eyes [where the potato has started sprouting] and this one is blind.”  The ones with eyes are used for seed, and the blind ones are used for eating.

Sometimes her crops feed the family for a good amount of the year, but it depends on the rain. This year, there was too much rain and many of the crops were not good. As a result the family will have to buy more food from market.

The biggest problem Harshi faces in farming is monkeys. Harshi believes that the government takes the monkeys from Hardiwar and Rishikesh and brings them to Mandakini Valley: “The monkeys disturb tourists, so the government brings them here.”

Despite the monkey problem, Harshi still believes farming is important: “The taste [of food you grow yourself] is good. We get more diversity.”

Harshi Devi from Lakitalki on Vimeo.

“Hard work” (on what it takes to be a farmer)

Sarojany Devi has four daughters between age 14 and 20. All of her daughters are in school now. Sarojany manages 40 nali (20 nali = approx 1 acre) of land herself. Her daughters are unable to assist her and her husband cannot plough because he is ill. Her husband says that no one will farm here in the future once the daughters have moved to the families of their husbands, but Sarojany says, “if we can, we will do it, if we cannot, then we don’t know.”

Sarojany is 38, and she came to Sauri when she was 18 years old. Before marrying, she only learned how to cook. In Tonada village where she was born, she explains that there was another type of farming that uses more water. “Here the work is different.”

After she was married, her mother-in-law taught her farming. “They teach ‘little little’ and until I knew everything.” Saroj says that it took three to five years to gain experience in farming.

Sarojany says she “grows everything.”Generally, the family is able to support themselves from the land, “due to climate change we have to buy food sometimes.” “There is a very big problem with monkeys” she adds.

It takes hard work to be a farmer, according to Sarojany. Since January, she has had support in the form of the local Mahila Anna Swaraj (Womens Food Sovereignty Group). She collects all kinds of seeds and exchanges them with others in the village. The women’s group started in January and has already collected Rs 5,000 or Rs 6,000. “We discuss what work we have to do, about seeds, how to make compost…” Sarojany says. They also sing songs together.

Sarojany believes it is important for her daughters to be educated so that they can “Do well with farming.” Already she is teaching her daughters  “to make roti, to weed, to make compost, to clean.”

Concerning her daughters’ futures, she says, “That depends on luck. If they can do service that is good, if they do agriculture then she will do it well.” Sarojany received help for her farming work from her studies. She explains that she gained a better understanding of how much to sow which helps not to waste seeds. Sarojany says she is able to tell if it is a good seed or not by the yield: “If it gives a good yield, then it is good.”

Her husband believes it is important to grow food, because then it will be “pure.” According to her husband, if the rain is good they will exchange some crops for salt and if the harvest is enough, then they will sell some of the crops.

“The spoon with which we give, the old woman knows how to use.”

Abbaldey, age 56

Souri Vinowapuri village, Mandakini valley,

Rudraprayag District, Garhwal Himalayas 

“If one time we eat food and it is not enough, then we cook a second time,” Abbaldey says. “We make big portions. Sometimes we make 5kg of food, if all are coming [all the family and all the grandchildren] and guests also come.”

Abbaldey is the one who distributes food at meal times: “Otherwise someone may be hungry afterwards… The spoon with which we give, the old woman knows how to use.”

Abbaldey gestures towards the children around her in answer to how she defines health. She is surrounded by her five grandchildren, who for her serve as visible proof of the abundance of the land. ”Some people worship God to get such family, I did not go anywhere,” she says.

Abbaldey married at age 15, and is now 56. She has two sons and one daughter. Her two daughters-in-law assist her in her fields. Though her fields are spread-out, overall, she has more than 50 nali to farm. The family also owns a bull, a buffalo, a cow and a calf.

She grows the same things as her ancestors, and she believes the next generation will work on the land after her. For the most part, she is able to support her family. Sometimes they buy rice, if they do not have enough home-grown. When there is a surplus, she sells her crops and each year she saves seeds and uses the best for next year’s crops. She doesn’t buy seeds.

She learned farming from her parents and now teaches her family. Abbaldey shows us some seeds she has put to one side. She has harvested them now so that the monkeys do not eat them. The small seeds are for eating and the big seeds are for sowing.

She also exchanges seeds and if she has better seeds she will give them to others, and if others have better seeds they will give some to her. She has always used organic methods, and when asked she replies, “If they have compost then why should they use chemicals?”

Abbeldey explains that in her childhood, some of the diseases that currently exist were not there: “If they [people nowadays] don’t work then they get ill.” She also sees that people are buying from the outside. “Now some people take grains from the market and they become ill. At that time we grew fingermillet and we were becoming strong”.

In regards to the weather she says, “Now sometimes only the wind comes in the monsoon, no rain,” but sometimes “they get heavy rain.” This has also affected the amount of yield: “Before the yield was very big, we could jump from the second storey [of the house] onto the pulse harvest.”

Abbaldey Devi from Lakitalki on Vimeo.

Before, if the farmer expected water, it came.  However, now the weather is changing.

“Without seed there is nothing at all”

Narmada Devi, age 68
Bhatwari village, Mandakini Valley,
Rudraprayag District, Garhwal Himalayas

Narmada Devi, named after India’s Narmada river, was 11 when she came to Bhatwari village. She works on her own now, as her three boys and two girls all live away from the village.

“In April/May we sow paddy, at that time we do hard work,” she says. “Lots of work we have to do.” She explains that first ploughing is done, then compost is spread, the seeds are sown and finally the crop is harvested. She saves seeds as well. “Without seed there is nothing at all. We should save seed and only then we will sow,” she says.

According to Narmada, “Before they [people] worked, and now people are not hard working.”

These days she sows her wheat and then goes to Chandigar to her son’s house for the winter, and comes back in April to harvest the wheat. Her sons also come in June during their holiday, to assist on the farm. While she could also live in Chandigar, she likes agriculture. Even her son says, “come here, we will feed you”. But Narmada says, “this is our habit, we like this, working with hands, then we become strong.”

“I grow everything every person sows,” she says, meaning she grows all that is needed to support her family. With the surplus harvest, Narmada sells at the market or in exchange for necessities such as salt and sugar.

She says it is different now. “Now we don’t do as much hard work, but when my mother-in-law was here, [we did more].”

Her only challenge is that she is now becoming older. “That is why I am tired,” she says. She doesn’t believe her children will come back to work on the land.

Before the interview is completed, her mobile phone rings. With a sickle in one hand and a phone in the other, she has to go.

Narmada Devi from Lakitalki on Vimeo.

“Everything comes from the earth. We sow one, and thousands come.”

Ganeshi Devi, age 80+

Bhatwari Village, Mandakini Valley, Rudraprayag District,  Garhwal Himalayas

Surrounded by her harvest, Ganeshi Devi’s short frame sits comfortably amidst the dal laid out to dry. “The dal is my chair,” she says smiling.

Ganeshi’s favorite crop is black dal. After saying this, she immediately bursts into song. She is over 80, and has two sons and one daughter.

“Everything is mine,” she explains, motioning towards the different kinds of amaranth and fingermillet. As an organic farmer, Ganeshi doesn’t use chemicals, instead she uses ash as a natural pesticide. She grows nearly everything she needs, and for the essentials such as salt and sugar she sells her amaranth. She also exchanges seeds with those around her.

In addition to her crops, Ganeshi has a wealth of knowledge when it comes to herbs and medicinal plants. The tradition of healing runs in her family, as her father, uncle, and grandfather were also known as “wise people” and local healers. Despite this knowledge, the youth do not seem to be impressed, “The new generations says it [traditional herbal medicine] is not good.” She mentions one herb that cures scabies. Another with three needles can be used for eyes and there are others for shampoo. “Everything is here,” she says, referring to the plethora of medicinal plants. However, now is not the right time to see it all: “Come in April, I can show you lots.”

Ganeshi explains that there are three or four types of jobs but “a job is not good, farming is number one.”  She explains her reason for this priority, “Everything comes from the earth. We sow one [seed] and thousands come. In the bank, we have to wait many years for it to grow.”

She also believes farming is intricately linked to hard work, “If you put mud on the roots of a small plant, then we get more. That person who will do work, he will get [the crop]. Good farmers are those who work.” Ganeshi Devi depends on hard work and luck. “Who has luck? Water, food, flowers, money? Everything is here, it depends on hard work and luck.”

In other areas, people were worrying about water. Ganeshi Devi believes that those who have done well and worked hard in their in their past lives are doing well now. She says, “The knowledge comes when we speak and the water comes when we dig.”

When asked about the weather she says, “They [the gods] will destroy and they will create again.”

Ganeshi intersperses slokas (traditional Sanskrit verses or songs) into her conversation. She seems to have a strong faith in God, which is also tied to the land, “We cannot see God, but this we can see, everything is earth, our mother.” When she goes to the temple they ask: “What will you give us?” She responds, “I will give you seeds.”

Ganeshi Devi from Lakitalki on Vimeo.

Excerpts from Twenty Women Farmers

Celebrating women farmers at the forefront of the Indian organic movement, Twenty Women Farmers allows the reader a glimpse into their daily lives. These women are not celebrities or public figures, they are hard working farmers who tend their land each day and make sense of their environments and livelihoods using experience, knowledge and wisdom.

These twenty women are linked by their commitment to protecting soil and seed. Each woman was taught how to farm for the subsistence of the family by her mother, mother-in-law and ancestors, in a mountain area where the majority of agricultural work is carried out by women.

All of the women live or have lived in Mandakini valley or in Pratap Nagar, areas of the Garhwal Himalayas. Garhwal is a mountainous region located in the East Indian Himalayan state of Uttarakhand. The women we met and interviewed are only a small percentage of the 4 million plus women who live in this state, but their insights speak beyond the borders of villages, state or country.

In Mandakini and Pratap Nagar, water, forest, soil, and husbandry systems are intrinsically linked through human labour. Leaves from the forest are used for animal fodder and wild plants are collected for medicine. The forest is a vital source of firewood for cooking and maintains the natural water systems. Cows and buffaloes provide not only milk, but the manure which is converted into essential compost for the farmland. Soil is farmed for cereals, pulses, oilseeds, vegetables, spices and fruit, providing food for the family. The by-products of farming, the straw and green manure provide food for animals. Land and animals are cared for with the acknowledgement that human survival depends on nature’s capacity to continually renew itself. Careful mixed-cropping techniques, planting schedules, occasional irrigation and composting are used to enrich the soil. Seeds are saved and worship is an integral part of daily farming practice.

The region has a varied climate according to altitude and the crops are outstandingly diverse from cereals and pulses, to vegetables, fruits and spices. Each area, village or home often grows different varieties of the same crop. The genetic evolution has been cultivated and protected through generations by the effort and skills of many, as seeds are selected, saved and shared within the community. Seed-saving and seed-exchange is governed by the women farmers as an ancestral heritage.

This is not to say that the women featured in these profiles live with out the challenges of the modern world. Some of the women live in the shadow of enormous Hydro Electric Dam building projects, which are having very real impacts on their lives. Others talk about the challenges of farming in a ‘changing’ or ‘extreme’ climate and the loss of crops after this years damaging monsoon. Many of the women are separated from husbands and children for long periods of time as more and more people go out into the world to seek paid work, modern careers and higher education.

It was an honor and a privilege to meet with these strong, hardworking and knowledgeable women. It is our hope that each profile allows the reader a glimpse of each woman’s heart and mind. In addition, it is hoped these women’s wisdom will prompt readers to ask questions integral for living together in harmony with earth and each other: Why is diversity important? What is work? What is enough?

(Excerpts from “20 Women Farmers” a Navdanya Project completed by Lakshmi Eassey, Eva Munk-Madsen, and Hannah Claxton, Bija Vidyapeeth, Autumn 2010)