In his rubber chappals and oversized shirt, Pushpadhar Das isn’t the usual St Stephen’s College-IIM Bangalore alumnus. But his community work shows the education has not gone in vain. Das has not just heralded a profitable community farming initiative in his home village, Harhariya, in Assam’s Baksa district but has also utilised his expertise to transform productivity at Sitajakhala Dairy Farm, a cooperative society in Jagiroad, Morigaon district.
The desire to do something for the community kept Das from taking the corporate path after IIM. The initial days were difficult, his family and friends thought he was wasting his life, and the area’s youngsters were not keen on farming. There were several failures too -he dabbled with cultivation of herbs, medicinal plants and vanilla but it turned out to be a disaster. A personal tragedy struck in 2010 when Das’s father passed away.
Two years later, he took the biggest gamble of his life -getting people in his native village and several others to begin community farming in 3,000 bighas spread across 10 villages. The first big challenge was irrigation. He channeled the water of the local rivers using the traditional Bodo methods of building ‘dong’ dams. “Manpower was never a problem. In fact, irrigation needs where canals had to be constructed afresh every year kept people in and around our villages united,” says Das.
But he was short on funds. An elaborate project plan was prepared and the NGO Gramya Vikas Mancha based in Nalbari offered a loan of Rs 25 lakh to the community farming project. There has been no looking back since -paddy production per bigha has jumped from 480 kg to 1,000 kg. More importantly, Das and his fellow farmers have diversified to pea, cabbage and mustard in the second year. Farmers’ earnings are up from Rs 5,000 per bigha to Rs 10,000. Soon, big names such as the Azim Premji Foundation were showing interest in Das’s community farming.
The second step was exploring the dairy potential of the region. “Almost every household rears cows here, but there was no commerce in milk production,” says Das. It began with the small Baksa Dairy Cooperative Society.
When Sitajakhala Dairy Farm came onboard, things became clearer. The management had sought Das’s expertise to create a successful brand of packaged milk. By now, some 700 villagers and their 5,000 cows were available to Das. A pasteurisation and packaging plant was bought and he now sells packaged milk for Rs 54 per litre -the lowest rate in the market. “We pay the milk producers Rs 43 per litre, which is perhaps the highest in the country,” says Das. Sitajakhala earned Rs 32 crore in 2017, the target is Rs 60 crore by 2020.