I am spending my AIF fellowship year helping to build a community owned dal milling venture. Farmers in southern Rajasthan and particularly my focus area (Kotra) grow tur as their main cash crop. Tur is a pulse – that ubiquitous yellow dal (lentil) that you have probably enjoyed at an Indian restaurant. The farmers sell their raw tur to local traders, who move it to major trading bazaars (known as mandis), where it is then bought and eventually sold to processing mills. After going through wholesalers and retailers, tur finally reaches everyday Indians at a price roughly 3-4x that which the farmers originally received.
We are helping a community of adivasi (tribal) farmers to improve their meager livelihoods through collective action. The endeavor essentially involves three steps – (1) procuring the raw tur, (2) processing it locally, and (3) selling it to wholesale/retail channels. We began the project in earnest only in Oct and hence opted to focus on procurement this season (Dec-Mar). This essentially involves buying raw tur every day in the villages, amassing it, and selling it upstream at the mandi or directly to mills. Due to organizational issues within my NGO (Seva Mandir), our Dec launch was delayed. We just launched however and are off to a good start notwithstanding the delay. We hope to get funding for the milling machinery by Mar to begin processing before the rainy season (Jul-Aug).
The challenges have been massive. Collectively mobilizing a few hundred farmers across several villages, breaking down societal structures, and battling my own organization have all kept me quite busy (and frustrated at times). We are moving forward though. On one level, this project is about improving incomes 20-50% in a seriously poor area (family earnings of <$2 per day). On a wholly different level, this project is about building confidence in a community that has suffered from centuries of societal repression and discrimination, like most poor communities in developing countries. At Seva Mandir, we call this "Changing Mindsets". Development works best when it comes from within. Making that happen, however, is the hard part.
Pics (top to bottom):
1) Tur pre-harvest, 2) Our official signboard and my teammate, Sunil Nepak, 3) Weighing our first load! -Arun Gupta