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Updated: July 17, 2013 11:22 IST

When Leelabai runs the farm

P. Sainath
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THE LAND LADY: While Ashanna is a symbol of success in agriculture in these parts, Leelabai is the woman behind the achievement. Photo: P. Sainath
The Hindu
THE LAND LADY: While Ashanna is a symbol of success in agriculture in these parts, Leelabai is the woman behind the achievement. Photo: P. Sainath

In a region of poor yields, a gritty woman farmer succeeds even in years of crop failure. But high costs are depleting Vidarbha’s success stories

“I am the farmer, he did no farming. He only moons over his cattle, he loves those cows (even if they yield just a litre of milk each). Men hang around the village, women are in the fields.”

Leelabai is speaking of one of Yavatmal’s most famous farmers, Ashanna Totawar. He is something of a legend, a man credited with record yields in cotton and soybean even in years of major crop failure in Yavatmal. Ashanna is a gentle, experienced man who has closely observed farming in the Vidarbha region across 50 years. He is also Leelabai’s husband. The couple live in Pimpri village adjoining Panderkauda town, a major cotton market in Yavatmal district, Maharashtra.

Leelabai holds her husband in great respect and affection. She has little formal education, but is highly-skilled and trained by her own experience. On farming, she believes in telling it like it is. Especially when it comes to who really does the farming. “Bai (women),” she says. “And they do it better.”

Her knowledge, having been the main farmer on a highly successful holding for decades, is impressive. Also because she was the decision-maker in both farming and finances.

We met Leelabai at the home of Lalita Anandrao Gandhewar. Lalita’s husband, Namdeo committed suicide on May 20 this year, another digit in Maharashtra’s frightening farm suicide numbers. (No less than 3,786 last year, according to the National Crime Records Bureau.) Ashanna was there at the Gandhewar home, too.

After speaking to Lalita on what drove Namdeo to suicide, we chatted with Ashanna, the legendary farmer. Leelabai was squatting on the floor, almost in the next room in the darkened house, so we couldn’t even see her. But she made herself heard, butting in freely to address our ignorance.

On the field

“We desperately need to go back to more sensible farming. The costs of cultivation and the lack of proper price for produce — that’s killing us.”

Later, in their own home, Leelabai told us her story.

“When we started, it was possible in some places to acquire 40 acres of land for Rs.10,000. Today, you won’t get one acre for Rs.40,000 anywhere.

“The kind of inputs we now use invite serious problems. Weedicide, for instance, is not controlling the grass, it is damaging the plant and soil. It and other chemicals are eroding soil fertility. We are killing the soil.

“Ten years ago, we used much less pesticide. Now, even when yields are higher, the profit is less.

“Either we change many of the things we are doing or we will destroy agriculture.”

They were still children when they got married in 1965. He was a homeless orphan related to her family and chosen by her grandparents to be Leelabai’s husband. She dropped out of Class IV before marrying him. Today, she is 63 and he 67, she thinks, though both could be older. No one can be sure, though, since few kept records in those days. Neither had an inch of land to their names. Leelabai set about changing that after marriage, slaving in the fields to build both an income and a top-class farm.

Scant recognition

In a society where the man is always regarded the farmer and “head of the household,” the credit inevitably went (and still does) to Ashanna. As with women cultivators across most of India, Leelabai is seen as a “farmer’s wife” and not a farmer in her own right. Like anywhere else, women do the bulk of farming work here too, with little recognition of their massive contribution. Ashanna is a symbol of success in agriculture in these parts. But Leelabai is the architect of that success. To his credit, he recognises it. As for Leelabai, she is clear about it.

“I was always the farmer. Ashanna was a petrol pump attendant earning Rs.70 a month for a long time.” (Ashanna agrees that he only left that job some 15 years ago. By then his wife had built a thriving farm.)

“First, from the money I saved from all the work I did, I bought four acres for Rs.1,000 each. That was in 1969.”

Not just any acres — but excellent black cotton soil, land she chose herself.

“Those four acres are now worth Rs.50 lakh. (This plot is along a highway that has sent land prices soaring.) Then in 1971, I selected and bought 20 acres for Rs.9,000.

This she followed up with the purchase of 15 acres for Rs.25,000 in 1973 and four more acres for Rs.35,000 in 1985. And finally, another 10 acres for Rs.70,000 in 1991.

“I also sold off some acres along the way. So today we have 40.”

“All our food is from our own fields. I grow paddy on one acre, wheat on two, and jowar on 10. (Giving 10 acres to jowar is a very rare thing here.) The remaining land is equally divided between kapas (cotton) and soybean.” On the farm, Leelabai decides what to grow where, and when. And she is in the fields much of the time, most days, working. Which has a lot to do with their regularly hitting the 10 quintal-per-acre mark in both cotton and soybean. The average in this region is far lower.

She has built a beautiful house — and carefully constructed a lot of storage space around it. This enables her to preserve her cotton safely and for much longer than others, and so hold out for a better price from the traders. While most growers sold their crop for around Rs.3,800 a quintal here late in 2012, Leelabai’s family was able to hold on to its cotton until February this year. She finally sold at Rs.4,200 a quintal.

“We also have some 14 head of cattle. That includes six bullocks, five cows and three buffaloes.

“He looks after those,” she smiles in the direction of her husband. “He really loves those animals (even if they are not highly productive). We don’t need to ever visit the doctor because we drink only this milk and eat only food we have grown on our own lands.”

But on agriculture: “Something has to happen. Farming cannot continue as it does now. These costs of cultivation, no one can bear. We must have cheaper inputs. And we must get a better price for our cotton and soybean. If there is no change, we’ll all be lining up in the queue after Namdeo Gandhewar.”


In these days of spiralling prices of agricultural inputs , dwindling
ground water and shortage of manpower, continuing agricultural farming
is an uphill task that too in regions where farmers suicides are more.
The successful story of Ms Leelabai tells the world many facts. The
efforts of such women needs to be staged at appropriate forum. The
State as well as the Centre should focus on such sincere farmers and
encourage them by providing sophisticated agricultural implements to
help them to come up. The local Agricultural departments should note
the critical success factors of such people and propagate elsewhere
for replication. Such people deserve awards and prizes from the
Centre to enable others to emulate.

Posted on: Jul 18, 2013 at 06:49 IST

An inspiring story again. As Mrs. Leelabai points out, it is necessary
that agriculture is made the focus of our policies again. Development is
needed, industries are necessary. But how will we live without food? Our
farmers need attention so that we all survive.

from:  Neetika
Posted on: Jul 17, 2013 at 20:18 IST

Inspiring and motivational story by Sainath.I like the Hindu by posting this types of articles.

from:  priyabrat
Posted on: Jul 17, 2013 at 18:15 IST

Excellent story.. doubles up the happiness as it is real.
But a poignant moment for farmers doesn't escape from the mind with one
such story.

from:  kiran sabbineni
Posted on: Jul 17, 2013 at 17:40 IST

Its sad to know that the younger generation quits agriculture.
Agriculture is seen as a mean job and youth get lured by the jobs in
cities which give them good remuneration with less effort. One day world
will realize that farming and farmers matters much more than any other

from:  Ramesh Sivashanmugham
Posted on: Jul 17, 2013 at 17:05 IST

Like leelabhai/Ashanna Mr.P.Sainath/The hindu is the only person &paper in this country to give this inspiring news stories.I used to
tell my family if rural women folk decide to call a bandh all the
idle rural/semi-urban men folk will go hungry for ever.Shakthi at work.The line "He is also husband of leelabhai" looks very odd instead it should be"He is the husband of leelabhai" gives much

from:  ramachandrasekaran
Posted on: Jul 17, 2013 at 16:49 IST

Leelabai's words send a clear message to the victims of American junk
food: "We don’t need to ever visit the doctor because we drink only this
milk and eat only food we have grown on our own lands.” Thank you
Sainath for this fascinating story.

from:  Digvijay Singh
Posted on: Jul 17, 2013 at 16:34 IST

lilabai story is inspiring such people who believe in farming.i am also interested in farming.if every indian did work like lilabai then india become super power early"!! thanks to editor for this inspiring story.

from:  anil kharpude
Posted on: Jul 17, 2013 at 14:58 IST

Inspiring and thought provoking story by Sainath. People like Ashanna should be made members of agriculture panels to boost productivity in the state. Farmer suicides are a blot on India's rural history. They must be prevented at all costs.

from:  Vishnu
Posted on: Jul 17, 2013 at 14:41 IST

The heart of the farming issue is the following: The input is
based on capitalism and output is based on socialism. So we have
the worst of both systems. The farmer has to buy the input in open
market, but he can’t sell as he/she wants. The GOI can ban any
agriculture export with impunity – in the name of food security.
Until we decide which suits us, farmer suicide is not going to
stop. Sure, this game cannot go on forever like present situation.
But the price we are paying is only possible in this country.

from:  arul
Posted on: Jul 17, 2013 at 14:24 IST

Salutations to you Leelabai! But these few bytes on this page are so
worthless to you, who recognizes what ails Indian agriculture. We city
dwellers can hardly even hope to hold a candle to you! It's people like
Leelabai who need support from the right institutions. Agri Universities
and the Govt, and not from giant MNCs.
I am so proud of you, Smt Leelabai!

from:  swarna
Posted on: Jul 17, 2013 at 14:02 IST

This is an inspiring story to read especially during such hard times where inflation and poor demand & supply ratio has been rapidly killing Agriculture and Farming. These professions were once considered to be self reliant and carried on to many generations. My sincere thanks to P.Sainath the editor of this article to hear this story from the lady herself and presenting it to us; which is becoming a less frequent practice for today's journalists.

from:  Vinod
Posted on: Jul 17, 2013 at 12:15 IST

Agriculture and farming is essential for our life .But as the computers
evolved most of the young and old is not interested to work but sit
under the A/c and work in an office.This tendency is increasing as days
go by.Something has to be done to reverse this trend.But looking after
the crops should be considered as something to be cherished.

from:  DrAsok Sanker
Posted on: Jul 17, 2013 at 11:50 IST

Leelabai's tale is fascinating in more than one way.Most
importantly,breaking the monological perversity of "farmer" perpetually
programmed in 'male' tense.Indeed heartwarming to see a woman who
credits herself as a successful farmer.Secondly,this exceptional
'landlady' sets her inspiring script from the farm suicide capital of
India.A most wonderful story told in a most arresting way.

from:  Sherin
Posted on: Jul 17, 2013 at 11:23 IST

It is nice to see that the once luctative profession is getting back on its wheel for at least in some rare case.Farming has recently suffered a amajor set back due to various reasons.let it be the crop destruction consequent to climatic condition and natural disasters, lack of proper governmental aid and lack of dedicated farmers.
LIke the story portrayed here, I believe farming is all about dedication and interest.
India has to do something like an organised effort to ensure enough crops are produced to feed the incresing population of the country.

from:  pallikunnil Divakaran
Posted on: Jul 17, 2013 at 09:11 IST

While I was baby sitting with my grandson Vashisht in his home at
NEWJERSY USA , we listened To the familiar rhyme 'Old Macdonald has
a farm".My grandson was singing along about Cows,dogs etc and the
created by them.It gave me an idea about the impressive old Macdonald
and his farm.Now reading about the farm of Leela bai(wife of Ashanna)
we are more impressed about them than old Macdonald.Leela Bai has
12 heads of cattle,bullocks,cows and buffaloes which should be making
sounds as that of Macdonald's Farm all the time.In addition to animals
they also grow Paddy,wheat,Jowar,Kapas(cotton)and Soybean. These
products would also be making minute sounds though feeble would have
been musical to these couple.They loved the animals, the grains as well
as the sounds they were making throughout.Any poet in Maharashtra near
their farm would like to write rhymes which even the elders would
like to sing.

from:  T.S.Gopalakrishnan
Posted on: Jul 17, 2013 at 07:32 IST

We need to learn from our elders.They have mastered practices from years of experience.

Farming is basis of all civilization.If we neglect that we are doomed.Food inflation is result of decades of neglect of this sector

from:  Senthilkumar
Posted on: Jul 17, 2013 at 04:21 IST

I am wondering whether Land ceiling act is in enforcement in Maharashtra or not. She is happily confessing in a reputed newspaper that she has bought so many acres of land. Someone can correct me if I am wrong that land ceiling act allows you to own only limited no. of farm land by any single individual. Regarding the farming is not profitable inspite of owning so much land is a pity. But the only solution for this is to switch to organic farming wher you can use natural fertilisers and no pesticides. I am not an expert to say whether organic farming will work for the above crops/

from:  R.Manivarmane
Posted on: Jul 17, 2013 at 02:07 IST
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