RAYAGADA: Vivid orange marigolds, dense purple aubergines and luminous green cabbages... not just farm produce but the colours of freedom for the women of Rayagada who defied a society unwilling to accept their status as single women to collectively find independence.
Out to regain control over their lives and break free of societal shackles, more than 30 widows, divorced or unmarried women formed the Ekal Naari Sangathan (single women collective) in 2019. It was the starting point for a profitable business venture that over time included more women, and the turning point in their lives.
As they move through their fields tending to their crops, the song is back in their lives. Quite literally.
Women working as helpers in farms alongside men is a common sight across India. But look carefully, hear closely and the difference is clear.
The women of the tribal Dengasargi village in Rayagada, who break into song in Kui language, are the main decision makers who farm, market and sell their produce to earn their livelihood.
The Sangathan began with three acres to grow marigold as well as vegetables such as bitter gourd, aubergine and cabbage. In the three years since, the land being cultivated has grown to 40 acres. The women's families own land between 0.5 acre to 2 acres on which they grow flowers and vegetables. The collective sells it in the market. The amount earned goes directly in their bank accounts every week.
We had a turnover of Rs 47 lakh last year and this season we have made Rs 76 lakh. Of this, each woman farmer gets between Rs 80,000-1.5 lakh profit depending upon the size of land they are carrying out the cultivation on, said Morepingidhi.
She is a board member of Annapoorna, the collective formed with the help of the government and NGOs, to sell their produce. There are 98 women in the company right now.
The marigold cultivated here is transported to different temples in Odisha and Andhra Pradesh and also used in family functions.
The company is now planning to extend its operations to other southern states,Morepingidhi said.
For these women, most from the Kondha tribe, who didn't or couldn't get married, got divorced or were widowed, the financial independence has translated to not just autonomy but also respect and equal status in their families and in society.
“We were abused, called names for stepping out of our homes to farm. But when the money started coming in, our status not just in society but also in our own family changed, Morepingidhi told PTI.
The 35-year-old said she could not get married due to a leg injury and didn't get a chance to study because of her family's financial condition. She worked all her life in a farm where she grew rice and millet, just enough for the family to survive with nothing left to sell in the market.
When her brothers got married, Morepingidhi was left alone and reached out to other women in a similar predicament.
And the Ekal Naari Sangathan was born.
The stories are many.
Saalmeinpedenti, 40, lost her husband when she was very young and started working as a daily wager and a domestic help. She recalls mortgaging a pair of gold earrings 10 times to take a loan to help the family....