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God helps those who help themselves: Kunta Devi

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Shobha Shukla, Citizen News Service - CNS

God helps those who help themselves: Kunta Devi
(image by Citizen News Service - CNS: citizen-news.org)

One day, more than 20 years ago, Kunta Devi's husband never returned home from his workplace at a brick kiln and has been untraceable since then. He seemed to have vanished into thin air, leaving his wife alone with their 3 children--I daughter and 2 sons, with the youngest one barely 2 years old. Kunta does not know if he is dead or alive. She now lives with her 2 sons and their wives and 4 grandchildren--3 grandsons and 1 granddaughter.

Kunta was born in a fairly well-off farmer's family in Alampur village. Her father had 40-50 bighas of land. She was the eldest of 3 sisters and 2 brothers, and being the eldest daughter in the family, was the apple of everyone's eyes and pampered by all the elders. Except for her younger brother none of them had any education. But she was good at farming.

Life after marriage

Kunta got married at the age of 17 years. There were ups and downs in her new life in a new family. Her husband was illiterate and was slightly mentally challenged too. This was Kunta's greatest problem. He would earn INR 5 per day as a labourer. Kunta learnt stitching and started stitching clothes--working from home--to augment the family income. "Often I would ask my customers to pay me in grain instead of money. So I would manage to get not only INR 20 per month but also 10 bags of wheat--which was more than what my in-laws' family could grow on their 9 bighas of land."

Kunta got a lot of respect from the other family members. But perhaps nobody understood her agony of living with an abnormal husband.

After the division of family property they got 4 bighas of land. Kunta was unaware that her husband had leased out this land to another party in exchange for some money. After his disappearance she was told that she would get the land back only after his return. Perhaps this first encounter with the big bad world sowed in Kunta's mind the seeds of standing up for women's rights.

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"I was not sure about the real status of the land. Perhaps people were trying to intimidate me thinking that I was alone in this world with no one to help me out. But I did not give in and stood my ground. My husband had sown sugarcane on that land. Despite all opposition and use of force by the opposite party, I cut the sugarcane crop. The police did not help me either. But the villagers did."

Her work as a woman farmer

While her husband was there, Kunta had done very little farming, as she was mostly involved with her stitching work and also teaching stitching to other village women. But after he was gone she had to take care of her land as well. She took up the challenge, came out of the confines of her home and became actively involved in farming. As it is, people were eyeing her land and trying to occupy it illegally. But she faced the world bravely and single-handedly. Very many nights she would sleep in her fields only to protect her wheat/paddy crops. She was also smart enough to give an application in the police station against some persons stating that 'if anything untoward happens to me, the onus would be on them'.

After some time another problem cropped up. Some villagers blocked the path in front of her house, leading to the road, saying that it did not belong to her and that she should find some other path. She told Citizen News Service (CNS): "They were trying to take advantage of my situation--I was illiterate and without any male member in the family to support me. But I was not to be cowed down. I fought and won the case after a long drawn-out legal battle."

Kunta grew wheat, paddy, and grass on her small piece of land. Later when her sons were old enough to help her, she would lease other people's fields to grow crops. "One bigha would yield around 5 quintals grain in a year, out of which I would sell some and keep the rest to feed the family."

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Now she also grows some lentils (urad) and has also planted eucalyptus and poplar trees; so cropping area has decreased. But then she is able to earn more by selling the wood of these trees--INR 50,000 at one go. "So I lose some and win more."

Kunta feels that crop productivity has increased due to better farming techniques. "My knowledge about farming techniques has increased thanks to my coming in contact with organizations like the Aaroh Mahila Kisaan Manch ('Aaroh' is a campaign for rights and recognition of women farmers in Uttar Pradesh supported by Oxfam India). By attending their meetings I have come to know of many new things--availability of better seeds, timely planting of the crops, better use of fertilisers and pesticides, and dealing with crop diseases. All this has helped me become more organized."

Kunta is the treasurer of a Kisan Club (Farmers' Club). "We have formed small groups. Usually these clubs are for men farmers, but the clubs under Disha Organization have male as well as female members."

Kunta believes in the power of Self-Help Groups (SHGs) and has formed one herself. "We started by taking a contribution of INR 20 per month from each woman member. Initially we would give loans of INR 500 to members in need. But our kitty has grown over the years. The bank has also helped us. We are now able to give/take loans of INR 25,000-50,000. Of course the money is always returned with interest. This has proved to be very helpful for all the members."

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