Neetu draws inspiration from her mother, a single parent who raised her family. She has fought societal norms to become the first girl in her village to get a bachelor’s degree. When she got an opportunity to work as an agriculture professional; she broke another male bastion. Facing opposition from politicians and her village members did not stop her from working to improve the incomes of small farmers in her village. Today, she is financially independent, and, respected by women and men alike in her village. She has single-handedly transformed the way farmers in her village use water. Inspired by her, people have started sending their daughters to school.
I hail from Basawanpur, a village in Siddharthnagar (a flood-prone region in Eastern UP). I was only two years old when I lost my father, who worked as an assistant to the deputy director of agriculture. My mother is an Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA) worker and that’s how she supported our family of four. She always spoke of the importance of education. Rarely did girls from my village study after matriculation, but I wanted to continue my education after completing school. I walked eight kilometres to the nearest college every day to complete my Bachelor of Arts in Sociology and Hindi in 2014. Although people questioned my mother’s decisions, she persisted and ensured that I was the first girl from my village to complete a college degree.
While other friends from my college wanted to move to cities for better prospects, I wanted to stay back at Basawanpur to solve the many problems we faced - water being at the core of them. All the water bodies in my village were in extremely poor condition. Over the years, temperatures during the summer months had increased. The 7 ground bore wells in my village started drying up during these months. Farmers were compelled to draw water from a river which was very far from the village. The brunt of this shift was borne by women who had to now spend a lot of time sourcing water for family needs. Serendipitously as I finished college; I met an organisation* working on water issues in my village. I decided to join their team as a community resource person (CRP).
As a CRP, I was given extensive training on farming and water use practices. When I started, I wanted to focus on two issues: How could I improve the conditions of water and farming in my village and How could I empower women to become equal partners in decision-making?
I started by giving farmers suggestions to improve their rice cultivation methods. But I was often turned away as they thought – what can a girl teach us about farming? I realised that experienced farmers would change only if they saw the results for themselves. I started practicing what I had learnt during my trainings on my own farm. I kept the soil moist instead of flooding my farm with water and planted seedlings ensuring that there was the right spacing between them. This set of practices is called SRI (system of rice intensification). It increased my farm yield and reduced the amount of water and fertilizers needed. Soon, a few farmers saw value in these practices and adopted SRI.
Women often spent more time than men on the fields but were not involved in farming related decisions. I started gathering women in groups of 15 in my village. They felt empowered to be in a social group where we discussed ways to improve our livelihoods. Simultaneously, I learnt how to shoot and edit films. I would show films on SRI during our group meetings. These films also helped me reach a larger group of women. In three months, 60 women adopted the practices I showed in the films on their farms. Through these experiences, I learnt how changing age-old beliefs and behaviour requires a lot of patience.
Today, 266 out of 310 women in my village are part of farmer groups. They are building consciousness on water use in their families. They have reduced the amount of ground water and use bio-fertilizers instead of chemicals on their farms. Farmers now grow crops in the summers too, which was extremely difficult earlier, by using techniques which require much lesser water. They have started measuring ground water levels and discuss them at village meetings. This shift has been a milestone in raising awareness about ground water depletion.
Despite the progress made in my village, challenges remain. I was the first girl of my village to step out of the house for work. As my influence grew, the male dominant society started rejecting my work. They were sceptical of my influence on other girls in my village as they opposed women working outside of their homes. Local political leaders also claimed that SRI was ineffective and provoked people against me. But after seeing the result of my work, my village members rejected the views of these politicians. This filled my heart with hope and gratitude.
For my work, the block officials, the district administration, the agriculture department and the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, have presented me with awards and appreciation. I now mentor 5 women professionals like me in seven Gram Panchayats across my block. In the future, I would like to start my own organisation so that there can be more like us in my village, state and the country. I feel that it is very important to realise that no one is alone in their life. With grit and determination, the universe always finds ways to support one’s dreams.
Testimonial- “The most important change is that now girls are free from their societal restrictions. Looking at my story, they are now looking forward to studies and professional careers"