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Australian farm project takes root

The experts at Uttar Chakoakheti in Alipurduar district. Picture by Anirban Choudhury

Alipurduar: A project funded by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) to boost collective farming systems for marginal and tenant cultivators by focusing on improved water management and irrigation practices has started yielding results.

The project, started by the Uttar Bongo Krishi Vishwavidyalaya in 2014 and covering women among the marginal farmers, identified two villages in north Bengal - Dhaolaguri in Cooch Behar and Uttar Chakoakheti in Alipurduar district.

Another highlight of the scheme was to minimise crop damage from elephants. The researchers suggested the cultivation of mustard, something the jumbos do not like, and now large numbers of farmers have taken to the crop.

Each village is divided into three sites under the project to promote collective farming and mutual benefit-sharing. As part of the scheme, social mobilisation is also fostered through a series of community meets, group discussions and gender-awareness sessions held from time to time.

An annual review meeting of the project was held on Tuesday in Alipurduar. Twenty delegates from four countries, including scientists from Uttar Bango Krishi Visya Vidyalaya, were present at the review.

Addressing a news conference, Rupak Sarkar, a professor of the Krishi Vishwavidyalaya, said: "The ACIAR provided (Australian) $82,000 for the five-year project. The project was started in 2014 and we identified these two villages (Dhaolaguri and Chakoakheti). In the eastern Gangetic plains (which covers Bengal), marginal and tenant farmers play a crucial role in ensuring food security and socio-economic uplift," Sarkar said.

"A big challenge is to empower such marginal and tenant farmers by improving water-use efficiency. The project mainly helps farmers to produce crops during the dry season and teach them how to use water scientifically for cultivation," Sarkar added.

According to the professor, the project also promotes "protected cultivation" and last year, farmers cultivated vegetables in polyhouse - enclosures made of transparent hardened polythene sheets - successfully and profitably. Crops under the project include summer paddy, wheat, maize, mustard, winter vegetables like potato, cabbage, cauliflower, garlic, chilli, and tomatoes.

"We are creating awareness among villagers regarding the benefits they could enjoy from government schemes. We have given shallow tube-wells with pumpsets and polyhouses. More important, in three sites, we have set up pumpsets run by solar energy. They are cost-effective. Otherwise, the villagers have to carry diesel over 7km (from the nearest fuel outlet)," Sarkar said.

Mustard crops have helped too. "Last year, we saw that elephants do not eat mustard and this year many farmers are cultivating it. At the same time, we will intimate forest officials (about crop damage) as elephant depredation is on the increase."

Erik Schmidj, the project in-charge from Australia, visited the area on Monday. "We are initiating similar projects in Bihar (Madhubani district), Nepal and Bangladesh. We are satisfied with the progress of the project (in the two north Bengal areas) and we have another two years to go (for the five-year pl;an). Our plan is to motivate the villagers to get the benefits," Schmidj said.

"Famers are innovative and it is a community-based project. Our plan is to spread the benefits from the two villages (Dhaolaguri and Chakoakheti) to other areas. Now the villagers can cultivate three to four crops in a year instead of only one in a year earlier," Schmidj added.

Suren Chikbaraik, a farmer of Uttar Chakoakheti, said he and others " earlier cultivated only rice". "But from last year, we are cultivating at least four crops in a year."

Chikbaraik added: Elephant depredation was a daily phenomena in the village and they used to damage crops. Last year, we cultivated mustard. We saw that the elephant damage wheat plants but do not touch the mustard in the adjacent field. Now we cultivate vegetables in polyhouse and even in winter also."

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