Kargil veteran, Brahmi and growing hope in Meghalaya’s farmlands

Kargil veteran, Brahmi and growing hope in Meghalaya’s farmlands

If the might of one army veteran can bring about such change, what an army of dedicated women and men can do to solve India’s agrarian problem?

Major Ajit Singh (retd) is a man on a mission. From the Kargil war to tackling the corporate and social development sector, Ajit likes to court challenges, especially the ones that take him to unfamiliar land and challenge his core. His next one is — doubling farmers’ incomes in Meghalaya. With no knowledge of the Khasi language or sin or cos theta of Meghalaya, he ventured into the state two years ago and since then has created a network of 14,000 farmers.

Using a combination of government programmes, post-harvest safeguards and effective logistics, he has already improved their incomes from Rs 4,000-5,000 to over Rs 8,000.

I fished out his story after speaking with farmers near the Nongpoh area. His recent event — Farmers’ Football World Cup — had made him a mini-celebrity in the area and was supported by the army, state government and even rockstars. But how was he changing things?

One had to visit his farm to find out, so on a rainy day in a blue rented Hyundai Eon I drove past the flooded paddy fields and low hills to reach his home — a small farm lodge with robust turmeric plants and baby pineapples growing. Snuck into his makeshift solar dryer hut, was sniffing cinnamon, bay leaves and other spices, when white bearded Ajit wearing his black worn-out polo T-shirt called out. We exchanged greetings and his story began.

Kargil veteran Brahmi and growing hope in Meghalayas farmlands

A woman sorting Bhutjolokia near Nongpoh in Meghalaya. Image courtesy Indra Shekhar Singh

“This place wasn’t always like this. An apparently “haunted” run-down yard welcomed me. In fact, even today, our domestic help leaves by 5 pm due to fear. But we began the work, started involving bamboos and other local construction methods to repair this place. And then started to farm, build bamboo drying huts and a mini-processing centre, where local youths are skilled and employed,” Ajit said. It was like a farm hermitage, I couldn’t disagree.

We drove to the nearby lake and ordered veg pakoras, a north Indian treat no doubt. “This area is a predominantly Hindu area. They have seven villages here that were given land grants by the Khasi kings. Culturally also they are unique, for example, the lake in front of us was full of fish but no one fishes, as this lake is considered holy. This is a unique way of matching spirituality and environmental consciousness,” Ajit explained.

But soon our conversation moved towards agriculture. “During my work with skill development, I realised the model they are teaching is wrong. It’s not bottom-up. The farmers already know everything about farming, we as city people can’t teach them. Our job is to help them gain access to correct information on government schemes, good farming practices, financial institutions, et al. Agriculture needs a systems approach,” Ajit said.

Kargil veteran Brahmi and growing hope in Meghalayas farmlands

Learning about farming. Image courtesy Indra Shekhar Singh

Being a rice-eating country “all government schemes are linked to paddy”, but Ajit burnt his fingers with corporate procurement first.

“Meghalaya is filled with over 100 rare medicinal and aromatic plants. But let me tell you how things go wrong. A Bangalore-based company approached us for Gotu kola (aka Brahmi). I had no idea what it was, so the villagers told me it’s called Mana muni and grow abundantly here. Mostly as grass between the two growing seasons. It is also used by traditional healers as medicine. Now we calculated the costs and started procurement by giving 50 per cent advances to farmers. The company paid us Rs 120 per kg. It appeared to be a fair price at that time, but I later found out that the market price for Brahmi was over Rs 600/kg. The extracted oil was even costlier. The middlemen are much better than these companies as at least they are with the farmers 24/7 and give them fair prices,” Ajit said.

Ajit was doing this work during Covid and hence personally took on the financial burden of paying the farmers upfront and procuring about 6 tonnes of Brahmi. Now he doesn’t work with these kinds of company or big institutional buyers. But as luck would have it, the company eventually came back to them through another NGO and paid about Rs 600 per kilogram for it.

Kargil veteran Brahmi and growing hope in Meghalayas farmlands

Women carrying farm produce near Nongpoh in Meghalaya. Image courtesy Indra Shekhar Singh

“I don’t want to be the middleman, that is not my model. Our efforts are to create a front for farmers with farmers in it. We have started an organisation which is empowering farmers to be beneficiaries of government scheme collectively and advises them how to utilise using a community-centric approach for bettering their agriculture incomes,” Ajit said.

Ajit’s model is a simple one, pick high-value products that can get high returns for the farmers in a short period, and then build the support structure around the product so the probability of failure is reduced greatly. He has been successful with many crops, Brahmi included.

So how did he envision agriculture? “We call it the participatory approach to sustainable development as farming is a community programme. In case you talk of Punjab and big farms, where labourers come from Odisha to Bihar, that is not the right model. Farming is a community activity, it’s not an individual industry. Meghalaya’s farmers are interdependent and self-sufficient. They still barter and that’s why the lockdowns were not detrimental to their economy. Their community approach is their strength,” Ajit said.

So how does this approach manifest, and how do farmers really benefit? During lockdowns, Ajit helped local youths get trained in pisciculture and even gave his leased land for running a local fish and meat shop. “Collectively these eight people earned Rs 6,000 a day. But as they were college students, they returned to their studies. Now we are working with women and helping them lead the work and eventually, farmers will own these enterprises and train others too,” Ajit said.

Kargil veteran Brahmi and growing hope in Meghalayas farmlands

The local fish and meat shop near Nongpoh in Meghalaya which former Indian Army officer Major Ajit Singh helped to open. Image courtesy Indra Shekhar Singh

With his recent jackfruit processing plant sanctioned, Ajit estimates the real-time income from agriculture will be much higher. Jackfruit is the new super food, fetching great returns, but he has plans for community-owned processing centres for pineapple and cashew that can potentially bring a mini-economic revolution in the area.

So what was his new “OP area” like and the difficulties? “Forming PGs and convincing farmers is the toughest part. In the Garo hills area, you have to walk for days to reach the villages, it’s almost like the Wild west, but the people are very nice. They know everything about organic agriculture as they practice it. It important we conserve the good agriculture wisdom and not destroy it promoting chemicals. The government may develop these areas as organic clusters. By making turmeric, ginger et al farming more efficient, we can bring a revolution here,” Ajit said on a positive note.

In our conversation, it became clear he shared a passion for the environment and sustainable farming. Now as time was running out, I wanted to understand Ajit’s motivation. “The farmers should be our business partners. Farmers are the stakeholders in our model. We want to bring dignity to farmers and not charity. My role is to give logistical support to farmers and skill them until they can become entrepreneurs themselves. Fortunately, we have had many failures to learn from and fair amount of success too,” Ajit said.

Kargil veteran Brahmi and growing hope in Meghalayas farmlands

A group of younsters trained by Major Ajit Singh (Retd). Image courtesy Indra Shekhar Singh

To sum it all up Ajit candidly said, “Farmers don’t know the value of what they have because of no infrastructure support -– testing labs, markets, information portals, etc. They also don’t know that the market is them. If Uncle chips can buy potatoes from them and sell them back at inflated prices, so can our farmers. They can create a new healthy tasty food economy that brings their money back to them and gives health to the community. I am only trying to make them aware of their own strengths. Meghalaya’s farmers are my people now and I will do everything to make our community a model for the world.”

I left feeling hopeful because if the might of one army veteran can bring about such change, what an army of dedicated women and men can do to solve India’s agrarian problem?

This is part 1 of a three-part series.

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