Rajput women in Bikaner have found empowerment through home-based call centres dispensing tips on organic farming

As a young girl, Vijay Laxmi was never allowed to visit her family farm in Bikaner. Rajput women, she was told, stay in purdah, their world restricted to their home and hearth. Even when Laxmi got married to Mahendra Singh of Jhajhar village in the neighbouring Jhunjhunu district, her life did not change much until last year when she got a chance to learn and, thereafter, earn a living without stepping out of her home.

Laxmi now runs a small, home-based call centre for farmers. Where earlier she was clueless about agricultural practices and trends, today she is considered an expert in organic farming and can rattle off information on bio-fertilisers, pest control and growth promoters with ease. In fact, not only is the 25-year-old quite comfortable collecting information on seeds and irrigation from farmers, she is also proficient in recording it all on an Excel sheet on her computer.

A special training programme initiated by the MR Morarka GDC Rural Research Foundation, a leading resource organisation that offers solutions for sustainable agriculture, changed Laxmi’s life.

This Jaipur-based organisation began promoting organic farming in 2005. The initial focus was on developing organic inputs as a substitute to chemical inputs, with the simultaneous objective to reduce the cost of cultivation by 10 to 50 per cent. “We achieved reasonable success by developing organic inputs and practices for about 10,000 acres in two years to cultivate a wide range of crops,” says executive director Mukesh Gupta. Today, there are about 250,000 farmers across 22 States registered with them.

The Veer Bala project, which began in 2009, was conceptualised with the twin objective of spreading the word on organic farming as well as empowering local women. Under the programme, Rajput women are trained in organic farming practices and basic computers to help them earn a living. “The idea is to train them so that they can run call centres from their homes and earn a living. We started by training 10 women in Jhunjhunu in 2009, although four of them later dropped out,” says Mr. Gupta.

Laxmi belongs to the second batch of 14 women who received training. Of course, it took some work getting through to the community and even the women. Project officer Shailendra Patidar remembers the struggle, “As the women initially refused to come out of their village, we decided to conduct the first two months of training in Jhajhar itself. For the final phase of technical training, however, they did come to the foundation’s office in Nawalgarh, usually accompanied by a male family member.”

At the end of the three-month training, each of them was given Rs. 35,000 worth of equipment, including a computer and voice logger to run the call centre. A list of farmers registered with the foundation was also given to them.

Presently these 14 Veer Balas reach out to 2,015 farmers. First, they interact with them to gather crop data, getting information like the area of farming land, fertiliser used before sowing, seeds and their treatment, irrigation and estimated yields. Later, they also transfer technology about organic inputs and solve problems related to pests and diseases. While the cost of telephony is borne by the foundation, the women, in turn, are paid Rs. 5 for every call they make.

Depending on the amount of time a trained Veer Bala is willing to commit, she is allotted the number of farmers she has to call.

Besides being a first year student of Masters in Political Science, Rekha Kanwar, 26, is also a Veer Bala, running a similar call centre from home. She explains, “Often it takes around three calls before the relevant data can be collected.”

The women work according to their convenience although the more hours they put in, the greater will be their earnings. Laxmi worked for three days in December 2012 and made Rs. 700. She says: “This doesn’t sound like a big amount but if I can make some money sitting at home, what’s the harm? It is my money.”

(Women's Feature Service)