The hands that grew a brew are now raising fungus for survival in northern West Bengal. Sabitri Toppo and Mausumi Minj are among 700 plantation workers who lost their jobs when the Madhu Tea Estate in West Bengal’s Alipurduar district closed down seven years ago.
The tea estate is one of 26 in the district’s Kalchini block, many of them in a bad shape due to low yield, quality and labour issues.
“We formed a cluster of women from 50 families, some of them from the closed tea estate, and trained them in organic mushroom farming more than a fortnight ago. We also provided them a permanent mushroom-growing shed and home-delivered spawn,” Binoy Dhar, a farm specialist with the Assam-based Mushroom Development Foundation (MDF) told The Hindu from the Kalchini area.
Ms. Toppo and Ms. Minj, who have been struggling to make ends meet since their estate shut down, hope the mushroom they are growing would help sustain their families.
“Mushroom takes 20 days to be harvested. Each trainee can earn ₹10,000 per 100 kg from a shed from mid-January if they go by the training provided,” Mr Dhar said.
Jamuna Boro, a Kalchini-based mushroom cultivator and trainer, said the landless tea plantation workers have been rearing pigs and goats for survival. But they often lose their livestock to leopard attacks and their inability to provide enough fodder.
“Life has been hard for women tea plantation workers because of erratic or no payment over the years. What mushroom does is kill two birds with one stone – ensure a sustainable livelihood and take care of their own nutrition to a large extent,” she said.
Pranjal K. Baruah, who heads the MDF, said their project goes beyond providing training, technical support, building materials to set up a 10 ft by 8 ft mushroom-growing shed and 60 bags of spawn as seed money.
“Our work entails most harvesting and inventory management, business plan development, formation of area-level federations, the opening of bank accounts of the beneficiaries and branding and marketing,” he said.
“The consumption of low-cost mushrooms, especially the oyster variety, is growing because more people are conscious about health and nutrition. There is a market small-scale growers can cater to,” he added.
The MDF has been providing training in mushrooms across Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya and Nagaland for quite some time. It began targeting the plantation workers in northern West Bengal some time ago.
The NGO is also developing a complete industrialisation cluster model for mushroom cultivation for the Democracy Republic of Congo to be implemented by the African government over five years for sustaining 1,00,000 people, Mr. Baruah said.