Mumbai: “It was in the beginning of 1980 — I was the sarpanch of Poi then — that we began the prohibition campaign,” says sexagenarian Hiraji Anna Butere, a kirtankar and Shiv Charitra ballad singer. “Ever since then we have had no liquor joints in the village, nor does one come across drunkards moving around, a common feature in the past.”
Around 12 km from Badlapur railway station, the village of Poi in Kalyan taluka sits amidst lush green paddy fields with a winding concrete road reaching a cluster of houses. The 180-household village in recent years has made a name not only for being alcohol-free, but also for discontinuing the practice of caste-based wells and for deciding to collectively grow only one kind of vegetable.
“It was sometime in the ’80s that we stopped having separate wells after a series of village meetings, in which youngsters, mostly school- and college-goers, took a leading role,” says Mr. Butere.
A beneficiary of scores of rural schemes doled out by the Centre and State government, the village has reversed migration of locals to the neighbouring cities, and stands tall among the 74 villages and 26 adivasi padas of Kalyan taluka.
Ravindra Narayan Ghodvinde, the chairman of the Kalyan agriculture produce market committee (APMC), says, “The educated youth do seek out jobs in places like Badlapur, Kalyan, Ambarnath and Thane, while their family members continue farming, which comes naturally to us. During the paddy sowing season, these youngsters return to lend a helping hand.”
With an average land holding of three acre per household, Poi was traditionally a paddy-growing village — like others in the Konkan region — during monsoon, keeping the land fallow rest of the year due to lack of irrigation facilities.
But that is history. Now, Poi’s okra (lady’s finger) is a much sought-after vegetable in Kalyan APMC and is even exported to the Gulf nations, thanks to the Barvi river.
Bringing about change
Barvi originates from the Sahyadris and courses through Kalyan taluka, but shies away from Poi. When years of representations to the authorities to bring the river’s water to the village in the summer yielded no results, the villagers decided to take matters in their own hands in 2000.
For two months without a break, 30-odd village men took up spades and shovels to dig a channel through the forest land, as using earth-movers is forbidden under the Forest Act. The villagers laid a 2-km pipeline from the river bed to the village, which is at a considerable height, and installed a water pump.
They were led by Gurunath Sambre, a postgraduate who left a lecturer’s job to return home and follow his family’s farming tradition.
“In March 2000, we held a meeting of villagers, and decided to ask each household to make a monetary contribution. Some gave ₹2,000, while others gave even more,” says Mr. Sambre, seated in a room adjoining his residence that serves as an extension counter for the Bank of Maharashtra and has 1,200 account holders.
Being a perennial river, Barvi gave the villagers the opportunity to try their hand at growing vegetables. Over the years, they tried growing different types of vegetables, ultimately settling for okra.
Using high-quality hybrid seeds costing ₹2,000 per kg, organic fertilisers and pesticides, and hormone traps, the okra is grown on 125 acres. The six-month crop has come as a boon to the farmers, with an acre yielding around 12-15 tonnes. Says Sambre, “Over the years, we have been able to perfect the technique of growing okra organically as a kharif crop. In fact, we have created a template which others in this region can follow.”
So wide has been Poi’s fame as an okra-growing hub, that in 2012, the village was offered a grant of ₹24 lakh, to be distributed among its 90-odd okra growers, under a Central government project to popularise the cultivation of vegetables close to cities.
‘Poichi bhendi’, as it is popularly known, has become a commercial crop bringing prosperity to the villagers. Beginning February, around four tonnes of okra arrives daily at Kalyan’s APMC, around 20 km from Poi, after the produce has been gathered from individual farm plots, and is picked up by traders within hours.
“Okra from Poi has received a brand identity, and gets a premium price. While others get ₹30 a kilogram, Poi’s okra attracts ₹35,” says Mr. Ghodvinde, who also runs the Kalyan-based college, Jeevandeep Shaikshanik Santha.
Under the Sant Tukaram Vangram Yojana, a joint forest management scheme, Poi villagers adopted the deciduous forest neighbouring the village in 2000. Adopting the 1,100-hectare forest — half the size of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park — at the foothills of the offshoots of Sahyadri mountain range has brought an end to the practice of felling trees for fuel, stopped cattle grazing, removed encroachments and prevented forest fire in summer.
Over the years, the tree density has multiplied considerably, and wildlife, like wild boar, deer, jackals, hyena and rabbits, and a wide variety of butterflies has returned. “Being agriculturists, we know the importance of biodiversity and conserving the forest. Now we have unlimited water supply, as the wells and borewells no longer dry up. In the past, we had to call for tankers by February-end,” says Harishchandra Bhambre, a former employee of the Thane Forest Division who has now settled in the village.
While Mumbai battles to save the SGNP from encroachments and government projects, the 800-odd villagers in Poi have shown that people’s participation can revive a forest and in the long run make it beneficial for the community. In recent years, the villagers have been knocking at the doors of the Forest Department for permission to introduce eco-tourism in the forest, but have failed to move the officials. They plan to approach the State government with their plea. And if they are successful, the world will be aware of Poi’s contribution to the environment.