In Maharashtra's Ambap village, a couple with polio defied odds to set up a model farm
Geetanjali and Shivaji were affected by polio, a disability that subjected them to terrible name-calling.
This story is part of a series on the everyday heroes of rural Maharashtra.
“My hands have become like my legs [sic],” says 36-year-old Shivaji Suryawanshi as he picks up a sickle. His wife Geetanjali, 32, proudly says, “We don’t need any help in farming.”
In Ambap village in Hatkanangle taluka of Kolhapur district in Maharashtra, the villagers look at their achievement as an inspirational story. Every time the Suryawanshi couple farm, they remember the terrible body shaming which wrecked their dreams of education.
Geetanjali and Shivaji were affected by polio in their childhood. The disability brought in terrible name-calling. “People kept calling me pangla [handicapped] in school and eventually I decided to quit education,” recollects Shivaji. Geetanjali sustained the conservative body shaming till grade VII and couldn’t take it anymore eventually dropping out of formal education.
Two decades later the couple decided to fight the societal crisis differently. They took the path of agriculture. “My hobby was farming but my father didn’t allow me to enter the field because of polio. He wanted me to go to school,” Shivaji recollects. He would closely observe his father, the late Balaso, farm every day who passed away after a cardiac arrest.
Learning from the mistakes
Since his father never allowed him to farm, he lacked firsthand experience in farming. After the sudden demise of his father, the responsibility now fell on the Suryawanshi couple. “In the first year of farming, I made a tremendous loss in sugarcane [100 tonnes],” he recollects.
Shivaji and Geetanjali used this as an opportunity to learn from their mistakes. The crisis gave birth to innovative ideas which helped him mitigate it faced in the acute drought. During drought, Shivaji waters only the alternate canals in the field. This ensures that he uses only 50 percent of the water and still manages to get the produce. He says, “Rarely farmers follow this practice fearing lack of sugarcane growth.” For the past two decades, he has been following it and has managed to get crops even during the water crisis.
Another important aspect according to him is cutting the weeds and unnecessary grass twice before the sugarcane matures. Usually, farmers avoid cutting it twice because of the labour cost involved in the process. “If we do the farming on our own, only then it becomes affordable,” he says.
Battling body shaming
After attending the school for a month, Shivaji decided to drop out. At the age of 16, he started working as a mechanic in an electric motor winding workshop in Ambap village. “Whatever little money I got from there was my pocket money,” he says smilingly. People started observing his work and that is when the name calling reduced slightly. After quitting his job as a motor mechanic, he started learning the basics of agriculture. “I always wanted to farm the fields,” he says passionately.
Geetanjali has a simpler piece of advice to battle the crisis. She started ignoring what people had to comment on them. “People often ask me as to why I work?” These kinds of questions enraged them earlier, but now they ignore it. Earlier, people never supported the Suryawanshi couple. Even today, they try to demean them every day by talking about the disability.
Shivaji doesn’t use any stick as an aid while walking. He walks on his hands. Geetanjali self-learned farming by observing Shivaji and his 65-year-old mother Sakubai. The couple leaves for their field early in the morning at seven and returns late in the evening. “There is no work in agriculture which we cannot do,” they say proudly. Eight years ago he self-learned driving a vehicle and now uses it for the commute. Sakubai remembers how society would make fun of Shivaji and the mental impact which made him quit schooling. “He used to run away from people earlier, now he can face everyone boldly,” she says. She has been farming for more than five decades now. “I am a farmer from my childhood,” she says smilingly. For the past five months, she’s on complete bed rest owing to an accidental fall which dislocated one of her bones.
Ray of inspiration
Both Geetanjali and Shivaji decided not to apply for the Sanjay Gandhi Niradhar Yojana which assures a monthly pension to the disabled. “If I can earn enough money to survive, why should I take that money from the Government? It should be channelised to the people who need it,” he says. Also, the paperwork involved in these schemes takes up a lot of time. “As a farmer, I can’t afford to skip work for so many days to get the paperwork done,” he adds.
“We should work on our talents and come forward. No one will ever lift us up,” he says. Shivaji has never seen any other disabled farmer like him but his mindset changed completely after he went to a gathering of the disabled. “There I saw people in worst conditions and then I realised how privileged I was.” From that moment, there was no stopping and he never thought about his disability.
Twice a week, he has to water the sugarcane late in the night starting at 11 pm which continues till early in the morning. “During the daytime, there is usually no electricity in the fields. How will we use the motors then?” The community wells are owned collectively by a lot of farmers. The turn for watering the plants is fixed for the entire month. “Even if I pay someone Rs 500 for watering the fields in the night no will show up.”It’s a risk. He just carries a LED torch in the night. “There’s always this fear of snakes, but I never think about it,” he says.
They farm their five-acre land without seeking any help from the labourers in Ambap village. “Why should we hire an agricultural labourer? What work will we do then?” he asks me. Also, it’s not affordable to keep them owing to the lesser amount which they get for their produce. They cultivate soybean, sugarcane, and groundnut. Talking about the younger generation from his village he says, “The youth today don’t want to farm. They feel ashamed of it, but there is so much innovation which can be done in agriculture.”
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