Bihar Farmer Profiles

The following farmer profiles may be copied & pasted into your congregation’s publications, websites, and newsletters. We will add new profiles here as they are available.

Puspa Besra

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Puspa Besra is just 23 years old, but already she knows she wants to make a difference in her community. The young mother recently decided to run for a seat on the local government, and through the course of her campaign, personally visited all 500 families in the ten villages she hoped to represent.

“I had seen others stand for elections and I thought, ‘why not me?’” she said. “If they can fight, I can fight! I just wanted to see how many votes I could get.”

She narrowly lost, but said she learned a lot and plans to run again in the future. If elected, she said, she would try to address some of the challenges that she and other residents of rural villages face. “One village I visited had no water supply,” she said. “If elected I would surely try to do something about that.”

The challenges of rural life in India are many, and Puspa knows them well. She rises at 4:30 a.m. every day to begin her day’s labor — household work, cooking, and whatever agricultural work the season demands, like the threshing she was doing during a recent visit from Lutheran World Relief staff. After the stalks have been harvested, she extracts the grains by manually beating bundles of stalks against a stone table called a pataan. This year, she said, they harvested 1600 kilos of rice, which will take about two to three weeks to thresh. With access to a threshing machine, that time would be cut in half.

Puspa does most of the agricultural work because her husband supplements the family’s income by migrating to the closest city, Ghazipur, for a factory job. If they could make more money from agriculture, she said, he wouldn’t have to migrate, and she hopes that will be the case someday. She sometimes has trouble keeping up with all the work that has to be done while he is away, and ends up hiring help for the fields just so she can manage.

In the meantime, she does the best she can with the farm, and cares for their 3-year-old son. “Sometimes I give him a biscuit [cookie] for breakfast,” she says, “but not often, because I don’t want to ruin his teeth!” Usually their diet consists of rice and vegetables, dal, and roti and chapatti, types of Indian bread.

Sangita Devi

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Sangita Devi, 36, usually starts her day with a breakfast of leftover rice — if there is any left after her four children have eaten. She and her husband both work in the informal economy as daily wage laborers, often working someone else’s land and receiving rice, not money, as payment. She earns a little money by making and selling puffed rice, a popular snack food, to her neighbors, for a meager profit of 15 rupees (about 25 cents) per kilo.

She has a small home garden where she grows eggplant and okra and a few cowpeas, which they save for special occasions. Usually, she said, their family’s diet consists of mainly rice and potatoes, with a few other seasonal vegetables from the garden when they have them. They go to the weekly market in Katoria, the nearest town, but usually just buy oil and spices because they often can’t afford to buy vegetables. The children get a meal at school, but even the school meals don’t include eggs or meat, so they get very little protein.

Her family struggles financially, she said. They are always in a cycle of indebtedness: they take a loan for one need, and as soon as they get it paid off, they have to take a loan for something else. Most recently, her husband and his brother had to take a loan of 50,000 rupees (over $700) from a money lender at 60 percent interest to pay for his grandfather’s funeral, which will take years to pay off.

Sangita said she wanted to be part of Partnership Bihar because she believes it will help with their financial problems. They don’t want to have to depend on erratic wage labor for income, she said. With additional income, after paying off debts, they would dig a well to provide a safe and reliable source of drinking water, then would make repairs to their house.

Shobha Devi

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Flipping through the pages of her notebook, 32-year-old, Shobha Devi, shows how she keeps records for her village’s self-help group. As president of the group, she says, she keeps both the meeting minutes and the members’ account balances in addition to presiding over the group’s weekly meetings. She is the group’s second president, elected by her peers because she is one of the few women in the village who is literate.

The self-help group concept is a way for rural women to work together to access banking services. Members contribute a small monthly amount to the group — for Shobha’s group, that is 44 rupees, or about 60 cents — and, when they have a need, are able to take a small loan from the group at a low interest rate. Lutheran World Relief helped to established the self-help group in Shobha’s village about a year ago.

Shobha and her husband are parents to four children, ages 3 to 13. They live with extended family: her husband’s parents, his two brothers, and his brother’s wife. They grow one to two months’ worth of wheat, and two to three months’ worth of rice, four if the rains are very good. Their diet is mostly rice and potatoes, with lentils once or twice a week, and occasional other vegetables such as eggplant and tomatoes. Shobha’s husband spends five to seven months out of the year in Kolkata, a 4-hour train ride away, doing construction work, and she also supplements the family income by doing day labor in a brick factory during the off-season from agricultural work.

She is excited about the work that Partnership Bihar is starting in her community, and looking forward to learning ways to improve her family’s livelihood and food security.

“We don’t have much money to invest in our children’s education,” she said, “but with enhanced livelihoods from the project we will be able to invest in their education and many more things, like improving our health.”

Surajmani Murmu

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Surajmani Murmu and her husband Chandan Marandi remove their shoes and step into the soft mud between rows of barely-sprouted wheat. The couple, with support and training from Lutheran World Relief, is growing demonstration plots of wheat and lentils that will soon be used to teach their friends and neighbors the most effective ways to grow these nutrient-dense crops. The mud cakes their feet as they wind their way down the rows, carefully plucking weeds that have begun to show.

Like most women in her village, Surajmani rises before dawn to begin her day’s labor, cooking for her family, doing household work, and working hard in the fields. She grows a variety of vegetables, including pulses (beans), onion, spinach, potato, tomato, eggplant, pumpkin, and cucumber, so her family’s diet is more balanced than many, but only during the monsoon season when there is regular rain. The rest of the year they struggle to meet their needs, and often seek out daily wage labor to earn money to buy food. Like many other women in her village, Surajmani also earns a little extra money by making disposable plates from leaves she collects in the forest, which she sells at the market.

Surajmani and her husband live with his father and their five children. Their eldest son, 25, recently married, and he and his wife live with the family, as is traditional in rural India. The other children, growing teens ranging from 12 to 18, also help out when they are not in school. She would like to have extra money to invest in the children’s education, she says, and with additional income might also purchase more livestock and maybe even start a small business.

She is excited about participating in Partnership Bihar to improve her family’s situation. “We are looking forward to having year-round food security and additional income,” she says.

Champa Murmu

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At age 60 years old, Champa Murmu shows no signs of slowing down. She rises at 5:00 each morning to fetch water, do household chores, and cook breakfast and lunch for her family, before putting in a full day’s work in the fields. She and her family grow rice as well as a few vegetables, but they struggle to produce enough to meet their needs.

Champa and her husband, Nunua Kisku, live with their adult son and his wife; another son, who is also married, lives nearby. Since the family is unable to grow enough food for the full year, her son migrates to Kolkata, several hours away by train, to earn money so they can buy what they need at the market. They mostly eat rice and vegetables, with pulses (beans) included a couple of times a week at the most.

Asked if they ever eat meat, Champa laughs and shakes her head. Maybe once or twice a month, she says, they have enough money to buy a little chicken or fish or a few eggs at the market. They would like to include more meat in their diet, but, she says, they usually reserve it for special occasions like festivals or when guests are visiting. Sometimes someone in the village will slaughter a pig, and neighbors will buy shares of it for 150 rupees a kilo (about $2.30). While pork is not commonly eaten throughout India, Tribal communities such as Champa’s village, Govindpur, do eat it occasionally during celebrations.

Champa also earns a little extra money for her family by making and selling leaf plates – she collects leaves from the forest, stitches them together, and dries them in the sun to make disposable plates. She earns about 100 to 250 rupees a week (about $1.50-$3.75) depending how many plates she was able to complete. She usually sells the plates, then uses the proceeds to do her shopping.

Lutheran World Relief has already done some work in Champa’s village, starting a women’s Self Help Group for savings, and Champa serves as the group’s president. Before, she said, if someone needed a loan for medical care, household expenses, or any sort of financial need, they had to borrow from moneylenders who charge as much as 100 percent interest.

“We used to have a lot of challenges – disease, indebtedness, always at a high interest rate,” she said. “But now [with the SHG] we have a lower interest rate for loans. We lost a lot of income paying back loans but that has eased now that we don’t have to get loans from outside moneylenders.”

She is hopeful for the future and looking forward to the better agricultural techniques she’ll learn through Partnership Bihar so her family can grow more of the food they need.

Hemati Murmu

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A few years ago, Hemati Murmu and her husband were in such dire straits that they regularly skipped meals. Now, she said, he has a job as a security guard, which enables them to manage a little better, but he had to migrate to a city 18 hours away to find work, so she only sees him every few months. Hemati used to migrate for work as well, doing some sewing and some agricultural labor, but stays home now to care for their 3-year-old daughter.

Even with the income from her husband’s job, Hemati says, they can rarely afford to buy fresh vegetables at the market. They primarily eat rice and potatoes, and sometimes collect wild leafy greens from the forest to add to their plates. Hemati has a home garden where she grows a few seasonal vegetables, but, she says, the yields aren’t enough to meet her family’s needs. Occasionally, they have some dried fish and mussels, and she is able to grow about a month’s supply of pulses (beans), but otherwise they consume very little protein.

They have a small tract of paddy land – less than a quarter-acre – where they grow rice, and she says it yields enough for about seven or eight months. Like many of her neighbors, she earns a little bit of extra money making and selling disposable plates from leaves that she collects in the forest, but it’s not enough to allow them to purchase the nutritious food they need.

Shushila Devi

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“With better income,” says 30-year-old Shushila Devi, “my first priority would be to revive my health, because if I don’t have good health I can’t take care of my family.”

For the last year, Shushila has suffered from a medical condition that leaves her weak and unable to do much heavy labor. A relatively routine surgery could alleviate her symptoms, but her family cannot afford the cost of the treatment. So her mother-in-law does most of the cooking for the family, her husband does most of the hard agricultural labor, and Shushila does light housework and takes care of her children, ages 3 to 15.

Shushila and her family grow three to four months’ worth of rice and potatoes, and purchase the rest. Her husband earns money working as a day laborer in a brick factory. They primarily eat rice and potatoes, with a few other vegetables, including lentils once or twice a week. She doesn’t tolerate much protein due to her health problems, she says, and they can’t afford it anyway. She has tried to grow other vegetables such as eggplant, tomatoes and chilies, but hasn’t had much success.

She is secretary of the village’s Self Help Group for women, and helps run the weekly meetings along with the president, her friend Shobha Devi. She hopes the group’s savings will help the members get capital to invest in farming and buy better seeds. “With enough capital and a little hard work I believe it would be possible to cultivate enough to feed our family all year,” she said.

“We used to think that nothing good could happen to us, that we would always be poor, but now we are confident that with your help and our hard work we will soon be on a better path. I hope that in the next few years I will look around and see everything green, lots of vegetables to help improve our well-being.”

Usha Marandi

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Usha Marandi, 32, begins her day when most people are sound asleep. At 3 am, she rises from her bed in her home in Baratand Village in Bihar, to begin boiling recently harvested paddy rice to loosen the grains from the husks. She cooks her family’s breakfast and lunch, then heads to the fields to tend her vegetable plants. She grows potatoes, eggplant, chilies, squash, tomatoes and beans, but says she barely grows enough for her family’s needs. They only eat beans when her husband is home, she says. When it’s just her and the children, they stick to rice and vegetables.

Her husband is rarely home because he migrates to Ranchi, a city about five hours’ drive away, to work in a rice mill to supplement the family’s income. He is gone about nine months out of the year. If they were able to earn more from farming, Usha says, her husband would be able to stay with the family.

And Usha is determined to make that a reality. In fact, she is very involved in Partnership Bihar and the previous Lutheran World Relief project in her community. Usha has the role of an “animator,” which means she visits with neighbors in her village as well as the nine other villages in her panchayat (district), and collects data on their farming progress. How much did they harvest? Did any of their crops fail? Why? What challenges are they dealing with in their agricultural work? How often does their village-level Self Help Group meet? How much money have they saved? Has anyone taken out a loan from the Self Help Group?

Usha collects the data on a tablet, and reports back to the local partner on her findings. She has received training on how to use the tablet and on how to ask the interview questions for data collection, and she says she enjoys the work. She is responsible for collecting information from about 500 families, and she mostly makes her rounds on foot or by bicycle.

Usha says she is excited about the Partnership Bihar. She says she was most excited in the beginning about the savings and loan aspect of the Self Help Groups, but she is also looking forward to learning more about agriculture and ways to improve her yields.

As her 7-year-old son proudly shows off his red bicycle while his 10-year-old sister looks on, Usha smiles at her children. “My hopes for them are that they will get a good education, that they will be good human beings, and that they will grow into self-sufficient adults,” she says.

Kunti Hembrom

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A monkey chained to a tree might make a foreigner do a double-take. But Kunti Hembrom, 32, holds out her arms and the animal jumps into them as a toddler might, then crawls down the length of her body and shyly hides its face in the folds of her bright blue sari. The family pet, rescued from the wild as an orphaned baby, offers a bit of joy and levity to a life filled with hardship.

Kunti and her husband have one child, a 10-year-old son, and have struggled to conceive again though they would like to have more children. She suspects that her health may be a factor. She says she is still weakened from a case of tuberculosis more than two years ago, and can’t do a lot of the heavy labor that comes with farming. Her family had to sell some assets and borrow funds from a moneylender to pay for her treatment, and they are still repaying the debt. In addition, her husband suffers from health problems, but hasn’t sought treatment due to the cost. He earns a little money as a daily wage laborer when he is well enough to work.

Because of their financial difficulties, Kunti says, they often eat just rice, as they can rarely afford to buy additional food. She grows a few chilies and eggplants in her garden, and enough pulses (beans) for two or three months, and sometimes they buy potatoes. She makes and sells leaf plates to earn a little extra money, collecting leaves from the forest and stitching them together to make disposable plates, but the income isn’t sufficient to buy the all food they really need.

Having completed a little bit of schooling as a girl, Kunti is one of the few women in her village who is able to read, write and do basic math. Thanks to these skills, her neighbors elected her treasurer of the village Self Help Group that is now helping women save money collectively. Now, she said, families who have a health crisis like she did will no longer have to borrow money at exorbitant rates in order to pay their medical expenses.

Fulia Marandi

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Fulia Marandi gets up at 5:30 a.m. every day, gets her three children ready for school, prepares their breakfast and lunch, and then Fulia Marandi’s work really begins. Once the children – ages 10, 12 and 15 – are situated, Fulia, 30, starts whatever agricultural labor there is to be done. Some days it’s working in the fields. Some days it’s threshing rice by hand. Some days it’s boiling large vats of paddy – the term for unprocessed rice – to separate the rice grains from their tough outer husks. Sometimes it’s working in her household garden, where she has tried to grow eggplants, tomatoes and potatoes, with varying degrees of success. This year, she said, all her eggplants and tomatoes died due to an unexpected frost.
Her family farms a fairly large tract of rice paddy land, and they usually keep half their harvest for family consumption and sell half of it. A typical harvest would be around 4000 kilos, but this year they only harvested 3200 due to poor rains.

What they are not able to grow for themselves, she says, they buy in the market. Her husband spends most of the year in Kolkata, several hours’ train ride away, working in a concrete factory, and sends money home to support his family. He earns about 300 rupees a day (about $5), and they appreciate the income, but wish they were able to spend more time together as a family.

Monsoon season, typically June and July, is the only time of year when they don’t need to buy additional food, Fulia says. That’s the only time her home garden produces enough vegetables to feed the entire family. Lutheran World Relief’s partner organization, PRADAN, recently had a program in Baratand, her village, where she learned some improved agricultural techniques. “Before, I didn’t know how to take care of the plants – I would just sow the seeds and forget about them,” she said. “Now I know better how to care for the plants.” She is hopeful that her new knowledge will help her produce a more successful garden this year.

Fulia looks forward to further improving both her agricultural skills and her financial knowledge through Partnership Bihar.

Sabita Devi

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Smiling, Sabita Devi, 27, unlocks the metal box on her lap and begins to sort through the bills inside. Since they began their collective savings project, the women’s self-help group in Ambatanr Village, Bihar, has amassed about 6000 rupees (approximately $100). Soon, they will begin making the money available to their members for small loans to cover things like medical expenses or household repairs.

As the self-help group treasurer, Sabita is the “keeper of the cash.” Each member of the group contributes 44 rupees (about 60 cents) a month, and that precious cash goes into the metal lockbox that Sabita keeps in a safe place in her home. Another group member holds the key to open the box, she says, but there is a general sense of trust among the women and they operate on something of an honor system. Soon, she said, they will open a bank account and deposit the funds there on a regular basis. She has high hopes for the group’s potential to make a difference in the lives of its members, and continues to participate despite her husband’s objections.

Sabita has five children, ranging in age from 1 to 13. They live with her husband’s parents, as is traditional in rural India. During the growing seasons, she says, she gets up at 4:00 a.m. to get her cooking and cleaning done before going out to work in the fields at sunrise. Her family grows rice, wheat and vegetables, but only enough to provide for about three months’ worth of their yearly food needs. The rest, she says, they buy at the market with the little bit of money her husband earns from his job in a grocery store in Chakai, the nearest city. They can’t afford much, so their diet is mostly potatoes and rice, with lentils maybe twice a week.

When it’s not the growing season, Sabita rises a little later – around 6:00 a.m., and cleans the cow shed and does work around the house. She has more time during the fallow season for other work like making quilts or doing small repairs around the house. “If I had any free time,” she says, “I would probably gossip with the other ladies in the village, or maybe take a nap!”

She worries about money, she says. Though her oldest daughter is just 13, she is already thinking about the costs associated with her future marriage. Sabita married at 15, and anticipates that her own daughters will also marry young. Paying for the traditional bridal dowry and the wedding festival will be a challenge, she says, since they have no savings.

Gauri Devi

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Walking through her garden, Gauri Devi, 52, picks a few small eggplants that have begun to ripen. She will likely cook them for her family’s dinner, she says, along with the rice, chapatti and potatoes they eat at almost every meal. While they generally have food year-round, she knows their diet isn’t as nutritious as it could be. They eat beans a couple of times a week, but rarely can afford to put meat on their plates. Often, they just eat rice and potatoes when they don’t have any other vegetables available.

Her family grows enough rice and vegetables for about six months of the year, and they purchase the rest, she says. They earn money by working as daily wage laborers, and she gets occasional work from the government patrolling the forest edge to keep out cattle and poachers. Her husband drove a rickshaw in nearby Deoghar for 15 years, but he had to stop last year after battery-operated rickshaws began to dominate the market.  With the dominance of automated rickshaws, little work was available for traditional pedal-rickshaw operators, and he could not afford to replace his pedal rickshaw with a newer automated one.

Gauri, a mother of three, says she is looking forward to participating in Partnership Bihar. She is most interested in the Self-Help Group that will assist the village women in collective saving to create a fund that can be used for small loans to families that find themselves in need of extra funds. She also hopes to increase her family’s income by improving their agricultural yields. With more income, she says, they would not only eat better, she would also make some needed repairs to her home, buy some gifts for her children, and maybe even treat herself to some new saris.