Friday, 28 June 2024 08:38

Kashmir Frontier Woman Leads the Way in Breaking Down Patriarchy

Surjeet Kumari and her husband, Pardeep Kumar, in their barn. Surjeet has started a mushroom business, which has helped the family weather various storms, including COVID and climate change. Credit: Umar Manzoor Shah/IPS

R.S. PORA, India, Jun 28 (IPS) — Smelling the toxic smoke coming from burned powder kegs and helplessly watching fields turn into smoke and ash is traumatic. Rushing to the government’s safe houses and leaving your homes, belongings and cattle behind whenever the armies of India and Pakistan trade fire is inexplicable. Then came climate-change-induced weather unpredictability.

But the inhabitants of this frontier town called Bala Chak, located in the R.S. Pora sector of Jammu and Kashmir, have faced these ordeals stoically for decades. In 1947, when the subcontinent got divided and Pakistan was formed as a separate country, a deadly line was drawn in this village too. Sialkote (a Pakistani city) is just a few meters away from this village.

In the midst of the seedy-looking dwellings spread across the lush green paddy fields of Bala Chak is Surjeet Kumari, looking after her mushroom crop in a dimly lit room located adjacent to her single-story house.

The woman, in her late 40s, has been living in the village for the past 25 years. Married to a farmer, Pardeep Kumar, Surjeet is the mother of a son and two daughters.

Farming in the open fields, says Surjeet, has always been a dangerous affair in her village.

“You do not know when the shell from the other side of the fence will hit your fields and your years of hard work will get destroyed in moments. All you find later will feel catastrophic. This happened to us in 2014 when the hostility reached a crescendo and our fields were bombed with shells by Pakistan,” Surjeet says.

Surjeet Kumari with her mushrooms.
Surjeet Kumari with her mushrooms.

Ensuring her two daughters were educated was Surjeet’s priority. She has been the victim of patriarchy herself and believes that education alone can end the centuries of patriarchy and the miseries that come along with it.

“I was the only daughter of my parents and have three elder brothers. They were sent to school. They even got jobs in government but I was constantly told that I must learn the household chores—this is why I was born. When my daughters were born, I resolved to give them a good life—a respectable one—free from the jaundiced eyes of patriarchy,” Surjeet tells IPS.

But making ends meet and covering the expenses of her children’s education was a costly affair.

As if the clouds of political uncertainty hovering over Pardeep’s fields were not enough, the drastic change in the weather pattern wreaked havoc on the fields in the year 2017. The late arrival of monsoons, coupled with untimely rainfall, put the hamlet’s farming community in dire straits.

Every evening that year, Surjeet and her perturbed husband, Pardeep, talked intensely about switching to some other mode of livelihood for sustenance.

“I was weighing the option of finding a job in the main town. The income from agriculture was dwindling but leaving the land unattended is considered a sin in our society. I was caught between the devil and a deep sea,” Pardeep recalls.

Surjeet was worried that the family’s dipping income may affect the education of her two daughters, Survi and Boomi, who that year were in grades 10 and 12. Her son, Shuvam, the eldest of her children, was completing his education in science.

She learned about a local service agency’s training program in mushroom cultivation one day while she was discussing her problems with a cousin.

“I was told that the mushroom crop needs no open fields and is not a seasonal one. Being in high demand in a market, I can earn a constant income from it. The training they said was free of charge,” Surjeet said.

Experts from Jammu’s Agriculture University trained the women. Apart from the training, the university also supplied the initial infrastructure for the women to start their businesses, providing fertilizers and seeds.

Surjeet rushed to the office of Sevanikatan, the NGO recruiting people and enrolled. For over a month, she was trained in mushroom cultivation and its processing at the centre. She learned the intricate details of the crop and the dos and donts of its harvesting.

The next stage, she said, was to dedicate a small room for establishing the mushroom cultivation unit.

“I reluctantly told my husband about my plans. I told him that he doesn’t need to worry about the income and that if all goes well, we can have a decent-earning month. Thank God that he trusted me and allowed me to construct a shed in the backyard of our house. He even built the shed himself,” says Surjeet.

In the first three months of sowing the mushrooms, she was able to sell about 150 pockets of them to the wholesale dealers. She earned Rs 18,000 (USD 200) in the first season.

In the next two and a half months, Surjeet was able to produce more than 170 packets and make a profit of about Rs 24,000 (USD 250).

“I became so well versed with the crop that I purchased the seeds myself and know every minute detail of the business. I now at times taunt my husband that I earn more than him and he taunts me back, telling me it was all because of the shed he built at the onset,” says Surjeet, grinning.

Even at the outbreak of COVID-19, her income didn’t plummet.

“While the villagers were suffering due to the lockdown, I was confident of earning my income from the mushrooms. I even make pickles from them and they are in high demand in the market. I used to get direct orders from the wholesalers, even during the lockdown." Surjeet says. "The fact that the lockdown had no impact on my earnings is a blessing from Maa Durga (the Hindu goddess)."

She says by the time lockdown was imposed, she was well trained in the making of compost from poultry manure, wheat straw and horse dung. She said her husband helped her make the beds and harvest them.

In the past two years, the borders in Surjeet Kumari’s village have remained calm, with no major cross-firing incidents being witnessed. The cease-fire pact that the two countries upheld earlier this year has been bringing positive change and farmers living in the frontier villages have been yielding its results.

Pardeep says the farming in the village has been going on without incident for a while and that the family’s income is gradually coming back to normalcy.

“It is all because of my wife’s hard work that my children are studying and we now have livestock too. I didn’t know before that my wife was such a resilient woman that when crises would strike the family, she would be at the forefront to steer the ship to the shore. I am proud of her,” Pardeep said.

The other women in the village have started to step forward and enroll themselves in various farming practices as a result of Surjeet’s efforts.

Surjeet is proving quite a guide for these ambitious women in her small hamlet. “Earlier, the women, like in other households in the countryside, were being considered nothing more than a commodity. She was expected to do all household chores and was deemed to be a burden. The self-reliance is helping them to break the shackles and come out triumphant. I teach them the skills and encourage them to work hard so that they can find respect in the eyes of their families and husbands. I am doing my bit,” Surjeet said.

Madhulika Sharma, a senior official at Sevenikatan, who assisted with the training, says the Surjeet has become a beacon of hope for other women who want to get their families out of financial crises and those who want to become self-reliant.

"There was not much enthusiasm in her village at the time when she enrolled herself in the program. Many women thought she was wasting her time but she turned the tables around. She is now a new hope for the women of her hamlet. She is guiding them, mentoring them and even imparting training to them in mushroom cultivation. All this is very inspiring,” Madhulika said.

IPS UN Bureau Report