In Bengal, vegetable gardens brew hope for women left jobless in locked tea garden


Alipurduar: Phoolbanti Lakda, a 30-year-old Adivasi woman from Bandapani tea garden village in Alipurduar district of West Bengal was gleaming with joy while showing her rain-washed emerald green kitchen garden which had a green array of lady’s finger and brinjal plants laden with vegetables. Some long beans and bitter gourds were hanging from creepers tied with bamboo trellises in her small but very well laid out garden in the backyard of her small tin roofed house. 

Phoolbanti Lakda in her kitchen garden. Image courtesy Anurag Khati

Like Lakda there are many other Adivasi and Nepali women in this locked tea estate who have earned their place in the sun by establishing their own vegetable gardens. The women of this village who are living in the fringes of the society decided to grow their own vegetables to fulfill the nutritional needs of their families since the estate got closed in 2013.

The women farmers with minimal literacy rate ranging between the age group of 20 to 50 have found the freedom to decide what they get to eat. From spinach to mushrooms, they grow it all. “Some families sell their surplus vegetables after meeting their family requirement in the weekly Mangal Haat (Tuesday market) of the village. I don’t sell my vegetables in the market but I don’t have to buy them either. We mostly eat what we grow,” said Anima Xalxo, another women farmer in the village. Sujita Oraon, another resident, said she sells her surplus vegetables in the local market and makes around Rs 3,000 from every batch of vegetables. She had a comparatively bigger garden than the others and it had lady’s finger and spinach growing when this writer visited her farm.

Bandapani tea estate is around six kilometres away from the Dalgaon (Birpara) railway station and sits cheek by jowl with the Bhutanese border. There is one bridged and three unbridged rivers that one has to cross to reach the village. During the monsoon, the village gets disconnected from the mainland as the rivers get swollen up with rainwater.

“More than 200 families in the village have big or small kitchen gardens. Which has helped families to fulfil their nutritional needs and be less dependent on the market,” said Rajmuni Kindo, who runs a ration shop in the village. “Most of the time the families barter vegetables according to their yield. A sense of community bonding develops because of our kitchen garden," she added. Kindo has been working for a few years liasioning between the district rural development body and the villagers. “I have a vermicompost pit, which I have learned from a skill training programme of the district and a small kitchen garden where I grow all seasonal vegetables,” Kindo said.

Rajmuni Kindo in her garden. Image courtesy Anurag Khati

Brewing problems in the locked tea estate

A total of 1,200 families live in the Bandapani gram panchayat and every house had at least one or more than one member employed in the tea garden till the estate got shut down eight years ago due to financial irregularities. Many left the village after losing their jobs for bigger Indian cities and towns while a few unfortunate ones fell prey to human traffickers and are still away from their families.

“There are many tea estates in the Dooars region which are shut for many years now and due to poverty and lack of employment, it has become a breeding ground for human traffickers. We get to hear many incidents of human trafficking of women for the sex trade and domestic labour from the region,” said Shanti Oraon, a village coordinator of an Alipurduar-based NGO. “Livelihood is a major concern in Bandapani village. Though many former garden employees have formed a committee and are plucking and selling the tea leaves and few have joined the nearby functional tea gardens, however many women who earlier worked as tea pluckers and factory staff are still unemployed,” said Oraon.

The tea industry is advertised as the country’s second largest employer, but it is also an industry that undermines labour rights and deprives workers and their families of the most basic needs.

Bandapani suffers a major water crisis as there are only 17 functional bore wells for 1,200 families. The village is heavily dependent on Bhutan for water. The neighbouring country has given two water pipeline supplies from where villagers carry home water every morning. But there are times during the monsoons when the pipes break and the village suffers massive drinking water woes.

“Despite the crisis, we irrigate our kitchen garden with the water we gather from bore wells and the Bhutanese supply,” said Rathni Lakda, another women nutri gardener. The mother of two has a good yield of seasonal vegetables all year round. “I get villagers who walk into my house looking to buy veggies. I make around Rs 500 to Rs 1,000 every month by selling surplus vegetables,” Rathni said.

Rathni Lakda in her kitchen garden. Image courtesy Anurag Khati

A five-minute drive from Chaybasa Line where Lakda lived lead us to the house of Puja and her mother Rita Kujur. The mother and daughter duo have been growing mushrooms in their house and a shed made next to their two-room house for three years. “We don’t have a kitchen garden but the mushroom cultivation has turned out pretty profitable. We make more than Rs 6,000 per batch," said the 26-year-old daughter.

Mushroom farming by Puja Kujur. Image courtesy Anurag Khati

There were many cylinders (mushroom bags) hanging from the shed which had oyster mushrooms growing. If the climatic conditions are favourable a cylinder can produce between 4-5 kilos of mushroom and it takes 25 days to grow,” Puja said. “The women farmers of the region still need many summers to grow vegetables that can make them economically independent by selling the crop in the local market. Instead, the kitchen garden has undoubtedly given us independence from relying on the local market for nutritional vegetables," said Puja.

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In Bengal, vegetable gardens brew hope for women left jobless in locked tea garden
In Bengal, vegetable gardens brew hope for women left jobless in locked tea garden
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