Leaving behind their impoverished past, 900 tribal families in Jharkhand’s Gumla district are now growing mangoes and vegetables simultaneouslyand successfully

Unlike the sage who could not describe its taste, Shivshankar Oraon knows the flavour of his mangoes. When challenged by the king “Tell me how you would describe ‘truth’?” the sage had instead handed a mango to the king saying, “Only by eating it will you know the truth of its taste.” For Shivshankar, however, the truth is that his life has been distinctly flavoured ever since he harvested his first crop of mangoes three years ago.

Jointly owned with his brother, the small plot of an acre is located in Kurrag village in Ghaghra block, some 30-odd km from the district town of Gumla. In undivided Bihar, this district was literally meant for punishment posting for government officials. In the new State of Jharkhand, however, Gumla enjoys close proximity to Ranchi. While the district town has retained its mofussil outlook, its predominantly tribal villages have persisted in poverty.

Not anymore, as some 900 households have been harvesting the fruits of their labour and patience in four of the 12 blocks in the district. Mangoes have ushered in an economic prosperity that allowed Mr. Oraon to move his family to the town for availing education facilities for his children. Shifting from coarse grains to fruit trees in their erstwhile barren plot has transformed his life.

Raising a mango orchard isn’t rocket science but nurturing saplings for the first three years of non-fruiting period could be frustrating for the poor. “Had the waiting period was not utilised for raising vegetable crops between the rows of mangoes, most farmers would have opted out,” says Rajeev Ranjan, who led a team of young farm experts under the aegis of Professional Assistance for Development Action (Pradan) to trigger this sweet revolution.

Intercropping of vegetables has been worth Rs. 25,000 during each calendar year. Applying the popular dictum ‘buy one get one free’, the number of mango growers have gone up to 50 households in Kuraag village at the strength of vegetable cultivation. Overall, some 557 hectares have come under mango plantation in Gumla, producing no less than 20 tonnes of mangoes worth over Rs. 12 crore each season.

But what went into the making of this mango district? “We did not raise funds from traditional donors but mobilised existing resources under various schemes of the government to usher in the change,” explains Mr. Ranjan. Under the Integrated Tribal Development Programme, the Micro Economic Social Organisation (MESO) offered Rs. 29,500 for per acre on an experimental basis, a part of which was used for creating irrigation infrastructure in the form of a well.

With the vegetable-mango farming combo becoming economically viable, not only are tribal farmers but even government officials are upbeat about the success of the initiative. Amrapali  — a hybrid cross of Dasheri and Neelum varieties — is the lead mango variety being grown in the area.

For various farm-related interventions, of which mango cultivation is one, Pradan has mobilised about Rs. 2.15 crore during the last eight years for 216 villages in the district. Unlike time-bound projects, such an approach helps continue expanding the outreach.

Notable in this approach is rather than engaging poor tribals into alternate livelihood programmes like food for work, the focus of engagement has been land-based. For tribals, land is the only source of livelihood because land is not just an economic commodity but a source of spiritual sustenance as well. Tribal ethos has been suitably understood and appreciated in reaching out to some 20 per cent of the villages in the district.

This successful initiative has significant lessons for planners. If one-time investment of around Rs. two crore can generate Rs. 20 crore on an annual basis, there lies an enormous potential of turning things around in rural areas through welfare schemes. However, intermediary organisations with clarity and commitment need to be supported for pulling the poor out of poverty. Else, food and employment security will cripple the economy for all times to come.

(The writer is with Delhi-based The Ecological Foundation)