Bhopal— There are some businesses that do not get talked about much, but gradually they become so successful that the yields from them surpass the gains made in many other occupations. One such business was started 52 years ago by the farmers of Lalriya village in Bhopal. This is the straw (fodder) trade: on one hand, farmers in different parts of the country are unable to access fodder to feed their animals, and on the other hand, farmers in [some] villages are handing out fodder.
The straw trade that started in the 1970s
In the 1970s, the one matter that became very clear to farmers in Lalriya, in the Berasia Vidhan Sabha constituency of Bhopal, was that their agricultural work alone would not fill their stomachs. The villagers certainly had a lot of land. But they lacked the means to irrigate it. There was a canal, but at a distance of about 25km from the village. Also, at that time, the village did not have any power supply or motors. The village farmers were wholly dependent on the rains, because of which they could not grow Rabi crops. To bring an end to their concerns, the farmers of the village decided to trade their straws.
The father of the present sarpanch, Shahid Khan, and other people from the village together started the straw business to overcome their agriculture-related problems. Khan says that necessity is the mother of invention. The people of the village found an alternative option for their livelihood, as a result of which today almost all the people of this village are directly or indirectly associated with this work.
Power reached the village in 1974
An elder sitting next to Shahid tells us that when this work commenced, there was no electricity in the village. Today, this work has been mechanized, due to which the work is done more quickly and the straw is also supplied to areas outside of the state. The village first received electric supply in 1974 but the straw trade here already started in 1970, he explains. At that time, elderly people used to gather the fodder after they had harvested their crop in the village’s fields. They converted the fodder into straw with the help of two oxen. But today, with the business having grown, they also get the dried up left-over crops in the fields belonging to the neighbouring villages collected and brought over. It is all sent to the factory. The village elder continued by telling us that even small farmers have made so much progress with this work that those who earlier used to be work hands for the transport trucks that delivered the straw, are now themselves owners of ten-wheeled trucks used for transporting the straw.
Shahid, elaborating on the account given by the village elder, says that the situation of this village today is such that, in this village with a population of 10,000, about 200 houses have a trucks. Which means that now the farmers do not have to depend on anyone else for the delivery of their goods (fodder, straw). Recalling his father’s days, he says that there was a time when the small farmers here had neither enough food nor enough clothes. If someone bought clothes during Eid, they would have been considered rich. But our elders, with their foresightedness, did such work that today our generation is leading a good life.
Champions earn double the amount
The Mooknayak team tried to get a comprehensive picture of this business from Khalid Neta, a former district panchayat member from the same village. Khalid said that you have already learnt about the history of how the business started.
As regards today, the situation in this village is such that every farmer, small or big, is associated with this business, including those who do not own agricultural land. They all work in this business. The situation is such that now people from the adjoining districts of this village come here for work. Whose get a wage of Rs.500. At the same time, there are the people who load the straw (fodder) in trucks and lorries. They are different workers. They do not get a daily wage. They are paid per vehicle loaded. They are called “champions”. They are paid Rs.1,200 for loading one truck. There are many such champions. Who load two to three trucks a day. He explains that the champions do not get wages as such, their earnings are a reflection of their skill, because not everyone can load the trucks.
If modernization has given us much, nature is also taking away a lot from us. These are the words of Khalid Netaji. He says that in the early days people used to work as labourers. Today, in the era of mechanization, the work is done by machines, because of which the work does get done quickly. However, after a while this also has consequences.
He said that in earlier times, people used to harvest the crops with sickles (a handheld harvesting tool). Due to which the plant was completely cut, and so the length of the [cut] plants was also more. The [cut] plants were greater in length so there was also more straw. Today we harvest the crops with the combine harvester machines. Due to harvesting by machines, the crop is not cut completely down to the ground. The machine cuts [the plants] 1-2cm above the ground. Due to which less amount of straw is produced. The result of which we saw this year as well. There is a shortage of fodder in different parts of the country. Today, the situation is such that due to lack of fodder, people are not able to keep animals. The way in which we are hearing about the shortage of fodder this year is a sign of future crisis, he said.
The work is seasonal, once a year
At the time when this trade was started, no one thought that it would become such a big business. Khalid explained that this is a type of seasonal work. The period for which is from March to June. It is work that happens during the harvesting time of Rabi crops (wheat, gram, maize). So [small] farmers conduct their business only in these three months. Whereas big farmers store their goods for the whole year and sell it throughout the year. In this time, the crops are collected from 10 to 15 districts around the village. There is a man who does this work by going from village to village and asking people to whom they are going to sell. As soon as people agree and the financial matters are finalized, the crop taken in a truck and stored in the factory. Khalid explains that when this work started, the price of straw was Rs.12 per quintal. Today its price has gone up to Rs.1,200 a quintal. Along with this, inflation has also increased. But it has to be said that people are living a life of contentment.
How the business works
This is the second generation of Shahid’s family who are in the fodder business. He said that it is not so easy to be in this line of work. Many problems are encountered in between the loading of the fodder in the truck and its reaching its destination. Today the straw from here goes to many different parts of the country Shahid said: Goa, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra. One truck takes 1,500 quintals of fodder, he continued. Sending this involves a lengthy process. There are two ways of sending the fodder. In first, you are in direct contact with your client. Where your goods always go. There is no problem in sending it to them. The second way is through arthiyas [agents]. He explains that the arthiya brings us clients and we pay them in return. The truck is not sent until the whole matter is finalized with the arthiya. The biggest reason for this, he says, is that there is no mandi [open marketplace] for fodder. Where whoever wants it can contact you directly.
Maximum fodder goes to Indore and Pune
While the straw tradeinLalaria village more generally serves the whole of the country, the maximum deliveries are in Indore and Pune. It is used in Pune’s mushroom cultivation business and for the dairy business in Indore. Khalid said that the profit made from each truckful is about Rs.20-25,000. It takes a week for a truck to be loaded, do the delivery and returns. Talking about the profits, he explained that this profit is possible because almost all the traders have their own trucks. So on the way back the trucks can be loaded with something else. There is another distinctive feature of this business, he added. The champions who load the straw in the truck also go with it to unload it. Because there is a technique to both loading and unloading it. Not everyone can do it.
Challenges in business
Shahid explained that like other businesses, there are various challenges in this business too. Fires are the biggest challenge for us. Occasionally it happens that the truck catches fire. With the fodder being dry, it catches fire very quickly. Sometimes people also get burnt in the fire. For some people, the whole business can vanish in a moment. Second, many times it happens that the big traders stock pile the straw. But due to lack of demand, it all turns to rot. And those heavy losses have to be borne.
Success in the business
Maqsood Maulana is a medium-sized farmer living in Lalria village. Who owns 21 acres of land. Seven years ago, Maqsood started his fodder trade. Today his business is doubling by the day and quadrupling by the night. He tells us he makes a profit of about Rs.15-20,000 by producing 1,500 quintals [of fodder]:Rs.850-1,200 per quintal. His business trades for the full 12 months of a year.
The make-up of the village
Lalriya village is a Muslim majority village. Where 80% of the population is Muslim, and comprises 1,500 families. There are about 50 big farmers. Those who have land ranging from 50 to 100 acres. There are 100 medium-sized farmers. Those who have land ranging from 20 to 50 acres. The remaining 40% are small farmers. In the whole village, besides agricultural work, people also keep cattle. The people of the village keep the fodder they require for their own needs and sell the rest.
Note: The Centre for Science and Environmentarranged a tour for several journalists from across the country to visit villages around Bhopal so that they can learn about the ground reality.
[Story Translated By Lotika Singha]