How Coal India’s initiative turned barren land into profitable farmland in Odisha villages

May 24, 2022

May 24, 2022

Bipin Behera, 78, from Basiapada village in Jujumura block of Odisha’s Sambalpur district could barely make ends meet. The few acres of land he owned in a hilly, forested area were uncultivable. Poverty and the vicious cycle of debt had wreaked havoc on 27,000 farmer families in the coal mining districts of Angul, Jharsuguda, Sambalpur and Sundargarh. But things began to change in 2019 with ‘Utthan’, a community development programme initiated by Mahanadi Coalfields, a subsidiary of Coal India Limited (CIL).

The Rs 20.3 crore CSR (corporate social responsibility) project has helped convert barren lands into high-yielding assets and create sustainable farm livelihoods in 40 villages, benefitting approximately 25,000 people. The project has not only improved the economic status of 6,200 poor SC/ ST/ OBC households but also created a model for farm sector development that is being replicated by the wider community in the state. “The interventions made by Utthan are bearing positive results in terms of livelihood,” says B. Sairam, executive director (CSR), CIL.

The new farming model adopted is Wadi cultivation and includes inter-cropping with seasonal vegetables and horticulture (mango, lemon and custard apple, etc). Since adopting Wadi, Behera in March 2021 reported an income of Rs 68,000 from half acre of farm over a period of 18 months. He expects his annual farm income to stabilise at a minimum Rs 60,000 within five years of starting Wadi cultivation, once the trees bear fruit to their full potential.

Behera’s is one of the 6,500 farmer families to have benefitted from Utthan. According to CIL, the aim of the CSR initiative was to uplift the socio-economic status of 27,000 SC/ ST/ OBC people living in the project area. Implemented by the Pune-based not-for-profit BAIF (formerly Bharatiya Agro Industries Foundation) in a phased manner, Utthan aims to create sustainable livelihoods through a range of innovative farm-sector interventions related to agriculture, dairy, goatery, mushroom cultivation, backyard poultry, fodder development, etc.

Utthan also has additional goals of capacity-building and improving the overall quality of life by promoting sanitation, education and menstrual hygiene. In the long run, the project aims to showcase a self-sufficient and inclusive development model that is worthy of replication by the wider community.

Tribal villager Nala Pradhan’s revived fortunes is an example of the wide-ranging change that Utthan is bringing about. Pradhan owns three acres of land. Till 2019, he grew paddy on two acres. The rest of the land was unfit for cultivation. Since switching to Wadi cultivation, a large portion of the barren land now has 28 apple and 30 mango trees, from which he has earned nearly Rs 46,000 since early 2021. Inter-cropping fetched another Rs 60,000. Pradhan’s earnings are set to go up in the mango harvesting season. His success has convinced 25 other poor households to adopt Wadi; they were helped by BAIF with critical information on market access and price realisation.

Apart from farming, Utthan is also helping creating water storage capacities. Ponds are being dug and the base covered with polythene sheets to hold runoff water and stop seepage. To help reduce the cost of farming, Utthan has set up solar pumps in villages. These are operated by a self-help group of farmers who benefitted from the project.

For Wadi development, farmers bear 10 per cent of the cost of components (fertiliser, plants, fencing material, etc) and 40 per cent of the cost of labour. Farmers’ contribution to labour cost is higher to encourage families to provide free labour and reduce the loss of man-days.

There are many other success stories of Utthan. Saudamini Barik, a 38-year-old OBC resident of Birsinghgarh village in Sambalpur, started mushroom cultivation with 20 beds in 2019. Today, it has expanded to 200 beds. In the past year and a half, Barik has earned nearly Rs 1 lakh.

Utthan had so far set up 244 wadis, converting 122 acres of barren land into flourishing plantations. Some 935 paddy farmers witnessed a 15-20 per cent rise in their yield. Utthan aims to extend the coverage to 2,500 paddy farmers over the next five years.

Since vegetable farming is an important component of Utthan, efforts are on to train farmers to adopt newer techniques, such as trellis cultivation, to improve yield. More than 500 families have benefitted from this initiative alone. Irrigation potential has increased in at least 50 acres through measures like water harvesting, surface storage (50 new ponds storing 4 million litres), and setting up of eight solar pumps. Additionally, close to 800 families are getting better returns from livestock through dairy activities, goatery and poultry while 600 families have set up kitchen gardens to grow nutritional vegetables.

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