April 15, 2024

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

This article, by Shreya Subramanian, was voted a runner-up in Imperial College's Spring 2022 I,Write competition, the science journalism contest organised by I, Science magazine for students in Years 10-13.

Vadana’s daily life consisted almost entirely of household chores, working on the farm owned by her husband, with him making many of the decisions regarding farming and finance. Along with many other families across India, the only crop they grew were the colloquially named “cash crops”, mainly sugar cane. The area where she lived, Maharashtra in the west of India, had a long history of extreme droughts. The impact of the droughts were exacerbated by climate change, which increased their frequency and duration. The number of farmer suicides were going up drastically due to the increases in droughts as many were unable to pay back the loans they had taken to sustain their farms due to poor harvests. An average of 3000 farmers committed suicide in Maharashtra every year – a horrific number that left families further damaged.  The reliance on sugar cane, an especially water-inefficient plant, and the use of pesticides meant the droughts had debilitating effects for Vadana. 

And yet it was not just the poor harvests that affected her. In Maharashtra, 70 per cent of the total female workers are involved in agriculture activities. Women often have years’ worth of knowledge and expertise – knowledge about cultivation after working on farms as children and understanding what food is needed in households.  Despite this, women like Vadana had very limited say when it came to crop cultivation, production and sale. Most of these decisions related to agriculture were taken up by men who had been historically more inclined to grow cash crops due to the higher profit margins they earned, despite their environmental side effects. They also used more traditional methods of farming, such as using urea as fertiliser. The overuse of urea caused the soil to become infertile. Despite working and making impressive contributions, women were only seen as casual labourers, whose opinions did not matter.  

To address the issues arising due to climate change and its impact on agriculture and women farmers, the Swayam Shikshan Prayog (SSP) NGO connected the dots between the problems facing agriculture and those facing women. The people responsible for decision-making in individual farms were also the ones who marginalised and undervalued women, and were resistant to adopting more sustainable farming practices. This worsened the impact of droughts and other weather patterns. To resolve these two problems, the organisation came up with a solution that involved women farmers to be the bearers of change within their community, thereby changing their roles in their communities and their ways of life.  

The SSP devised a climate resilient model which focused on a grassroots approach rather than that of a top-down approach. This SSP encouraged women to take an acre of land from her family’s farm (with their support) and make informed decisions about how they would manage the land. They promoted the use of bio-pesticides and fertilisers as well as the practice of diversifying food crops to five to seven varieties, rather than a single monoculture, on their acre of land. This was different from traditional methods of farming, which employed chemical fertilizers and pesticides. The model also paid close attention to water security – water management systems were also used as are conservation structures. On the single one-acre plot, women were able to gain complete cultivation rights. Rekha Shinde, a woman of a very similar backstory as Vadana, used the model to diversify her farm, producing variety of vegetables and livestock. Compared to previous earnings of around £185 GBP per acre, her family now earns £420 per acre along with the other sources of income she has encouraged her family to adopt, such as buying cattle and other livestock. The beauty of this model is that it can be applied anywhere. What is used in the west of India can be transferred to the south and in other places where similar problems arise. Through the empowerment of women, households benefited from this holistic approach to development offered by the SSP. This issue is much bigger than farming, engaging women means that development goals are made even more effective. 

Even though people in small villages have started to shift to using natural gas for cooking, some people still prefer to use the traditional firewood methods for cooking. This brings along a variety of health issues such as respiratory diseases that cause about half a million deaths a year. Keshar Rasal, also from Maharashtra, was involved in the SSP’s clean energy programme. She installed a biogas unit near her house, with the help of a government scheme and subsidy. This unit ran on cow dung, water and farm waste. The by-product of the biogas, the slurry, can be used in fertilisers, complementing the climate resilient farming model mentioned above. Keshar stated that she would “recommend every family to shift to a biogas unit”. This investment in clean energy means better health for rural women and the environment.  

Keshar and other women are used as the driving force towards environmental change due to their roles as household managers. They provide the opportunity for an integrated development approach which involves them as clean technology users, educators and providers. With clean energy access and increased income generation, women can then become uplifted both socially and economically.  

This is no better exemplified than in Vadana’s case. After meeting a SSP leader, she enrolled for agriculture training and turned her two acres of land into an organic farm. Through this, her income has doubled to around £990. She has also benefited from becoming a leader within her community. She now inspires other women to adopt sustainable agriculture practices – such as the usage of organic fertilisers and vermicompost beds (which are made from using worms to create a mixture of decomposed waste)– to continue making a change. 

Shreya attends St Paul’s Girls’ School and is in Year 10. She is particularly interested in Physics and Chemistry, especially in their real-world applications which have the potential to improve people’s lives.