HYDERABAD, INDIA – Bujjiamma Begary, 27, can finally afford to eat vegetables again.
“For nearly five years, all I could afford was rice and a thin red gram [pigeon pea] soup because I didn’t have the money to buy fresh vegetables, which have become very costly,” she says.
Begary is a Dalit, also known as the “untouchable” caste in the social hierarchy, who lives in Malchalma, a village in southern India. Without land of her own, Begary previously earned less than 655 rupees ($12) a month as a farm laborer.
But earlier this year, Begary joined a collective farm along with four other Dalit women in her community. Life has changed considerably since they joined this government initiative, she says.
Today, Begary and her fellow farmers grow 22 crops on the 3-acre farm, including corn, okra, gourd and an array of beans.
“Today, I cooked rice, pappu [lentil] and string bean curry,” she says. “I plucked the beans right from my own farm.”
The government has invited thousands of Dalit women to take up collective farming to empower themselves economically. The women say the program also elevates their social status within their communities. Caste-baste discrimination is illegal in India but continues against Dalits. The program’s success in changing this in one state is prompting plans to expand it nationwide.
In India, 70 percent of Dalit people are landless, according to ActionAid, an international development organization that works to eliminate poverty.
The percentage is even higher in Andhra Pradesh state, where 86 percent of Dalit people do not own any land, says Mary Madiga, founder and president of Telengana Mahila Samakhya, an all-Dalit women’s organization in Hyderabad, the state capital, that fights for Dalit women’s political and social rights.
“Dalits are considered inferior to people born in higher castes,” she says. “So, they do not want the Dalits to have equal rights because it would put them in equal position in the society.”
But the list of landless Dalit women overcoming poverty and finding economic independence through collective farming is incredibly long, says D.V. Rayudu, director of Community Managed Sustainable Agriculture, the government program that provides this collective farming opportunity.
Rayudu says the total number of women turning to collective farming exceeds 1 million. The majority of them are from marginalized communities in Andhra Pradesh, currently the only state where the initiative is offered.
He says the program started in 2004 to help eliminate poverty. But it has also succeeded in providing better nutrition to women while helping them to find dignity and economic independence.
“We especially targeted Dalit and tribal families because most of them live below the poverty line,” Rayudu says. “So, we started to set up all-women’s self-help groups in villages. In each village, the SHG identifies the poorest of the families and selects the women members for collective farming.”
The government buys 3 to 5 acres of land for each collective farm and hands control of it to a group of five to 10 women,