“Listen, remember to bring miracles when you get home.”
Ram Singh gives these instructions to the caller and disconnects the call. Then, with a gleam in his eye, he begins to think about his potentially bountiful potato crop that requires a chemical fertilizer miracle.
The miracle (miracle) of 59 years has already reached his home. It can be seen, felt and smelled standing on its six kanal ground in Girgir village of Behar Jaswan Panchayat in Una district of Himachal Pradesh.
This barren land near his potato fields was leveled and made cultivable in June this year. Now Ashwagandha and Moringa plants are growing here. He did not spend a single penny on land leveling, labor charges, purchase of seeds and plantation. Everything has been taken care of under Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MNREGA) as an initiative to promote medicinal farming by the district administration.
Therein lies the specialty. “Medical farming is being done under MGNREGA in Himachal at two places: one under Bihar Jaswan Panchayat in Una district and the other in Kangra district. This is happening for the first time in the country. Earlier, aromatic plants were cultivated under MGNREGA in Sundergarh district of Odisha,” says Dr Arun Chandan, Regional Director (North), National Board of Medicinal Plants.
There is much more to the story of the miracle of the lion. While wild animals damaged their Moringa plants twice or thrice, they did not destroy Ashwagandha plants at all. All the plants are chemical free because they use earthworm manure, a household fertilizer. Less irrigation and less effort – this is another advantage. He plants his potatoes after five days and medicinal plants after 15 days when the weather is warm or once a month if the weather is fine. He admits that he didn’t have to worry too much about the other care tasks required by the plants.
If it’s a win-win for Singh, why isn’t he so excited? Because he is doing medicinal farming for the first time and is worried about the result. “NREGA workers were engaged. Me and my family members also used to work. There was no money and the job was done. But I don’t know what will happen.
There are 20 other farmers who share Singh’s concerns. They are also doing medicinal farming. One of them is Yashbir Sahota, who is growing Ashwagandha and Moringa plants near his house. This two kanal land used to be barren and is next to the children’s graveyard. He planted the saplings at the end of June and watered them only till the rainy season started. Plants have grown on their own after rain. “It is time for us to water here. I did not water the plants after the rainy season. Bhi ye achhe se lage hai (we have water problem here. I didn’t water the plants after the rainy season). Despite this, he has achieved decent growth),” says the 28-year-old.
Surendra Paul, a resident of Behar Bithal village of Bihar Jaswan Panchayat went a step ahead. He not only watered the plants immediately after planting, but also watered them until they took root in the middle of the rainy season. After that, he did not irrigate them at all. These plants are growing on four kanals which used to be “my wasteland”.
Dr. Chandan brings more clarity: “The soil here has a high sand content; It is sandy loam. Water availability is a perennial problem. In such a situation, medicinal plants are a good option because they can bloom even in rainfed conditions. In addition, they can avoid the threat of monkeys and wild animals.”
Paul, who is also a punter, proudly shows the lush green Moringa tree planted on his land by Deputy Commissioner Raghav Sharma, and talks about the time when these little trees were just plants and innovative ideas. There were only seeds. “I was asked by the district administration to persuade some farmers to take up medicinal farming. I prepared a total of 18 farmers but 17 of them went back at the last minute. Then I spoke to another group of farmers who agreed and came forward for medicinal farming. Later, some of those who took back earlier also came back,” says the 45-year-old.
Dr Amit Sharma, Additional Deputy Commissioner, recalls the initial phase. “We organized workshops, spoke personally to farmers and persuaded them to diversify crops. We also organized their interactions with experts and their visits to the nursery. The Covid period did its bit to highlight the importance of medicinal plants. That’s how the whole thing went. Now I am also experimenting with some plants in my hospice.
What is happening in the cluster of villages here has a Kangra connection. “Earlier, I was posted as Additional Deputy Commissioner in Kangra. I got an offer for medicinal farming and I joined that project. When I was transferred to Una, I thought of doing something similar here too,” says DC Sharma.
If all went well, 21 farmers started intercropping Ashwagandha and Moringa. Sanjeev Thakur, Deputy Director cum Project Officer, District Rural Development Agency says that under the Sanjeevani project of the ongoing district administration in two villages of Bihar Jaswan Panchayat, a total of 77,400 saplings – 62,950 of Ashwagandha and 14,450 of Moringa were distributed. Each farmer was entitled to an assistance of Rs 1 lakh under MGNREGA – 60% for labor and 40% for material. This amount varies from farmer to farmer depending on the size of the land chosen for cultivation. A total of Rs 14,33,365 has been spent so far.
“Generally, the focus under MGNREGA is on generating wage employment. But our endeavor has been to create a source of future income,” says Thakur.
Thakur has even more interesting stats to share: Because of this project, Bihar Jaswan Panchayat has generated 104 percent more person days than last year. DC Sharma has a comparative data ready: “There is an AYUSH scheme that subsidizes medicinal plantations but this is for only six notified plants in Una district, whereas we cover plantation material, land development cost, wages to farmers and all medicinal plants.” cover the plants. Cover the plants. covered under MGNREGA.”
Unlike Singh, Sharma is not worried about the outcome. Rather hopeful. “We have arranged buybacks for the farmers. We will not leave them in limbo. In the next financial year also, they can avail the same benefits as per their eligibility,” says DC Sharma.
According to Thakur, they are moving towards value addition and will “hold the farmer’s hand”. “We will bring them under the National Rural Livelihoods Mission and provide them more financial benefits,” he says.