Nalanda on mushroom cloud nine: A cash crop to cash in

India’s ‘mushroom district’ reaps fruits of smart agri-revolution: wallets swell, barriers break

pankaj

Pankaj Kumar | November 1, 2012


A group of women who are into mushroom cultivation
A group of women who are into mushroom cultivation

Media for AccountabilityA widow from Saril-Chak village in Nalanda district, Nirupa Devi cannot dream of buying mushroom from the market. At Rs 100 per kg or thereabouts, it’s way too expensive for her limited budget.

Her association with mushroom is limited to growing it — an association that’s reaping the benefits like no other cash crop, a nano-step a day.

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“We can easily produce enough mushroom on a small patch of 1,200 square feet to earn Rs 5,000 to Rs 6000 per month,” Nirmala Devi of the same village says. Nirupa Devi would agree, almost to the proverbial T, that mushrooms are helping her fetch a decent life for her three children.

Little wonder, then, that the mundane button-like fruit of a fungus is writing a new script for the otherwise nondescript Saril Chak or neighbouring Raitar village in the district. In fact, Nalanda, India’s ancient seat of learning, is slowly acquiring a new status in millennium India: the “mushroom district”.

The result seems almost scripted by an average Bollywood fare: a typical happy ending, as Nalanda’s economy undergoes a radical change.
But before the end credits roll, this is the tale of a revolution in the making.

While the authorities, along with local-level activists and agricultural experts, go all out to popularise mushroom cultivation, farmers in the district are taking to new agricultural practices to bolster their economy. In Saril-Chak and Raitar, for instance, villagers have formed groups to educate farmers about the new practices known as Agriculture Technology Management Agency, or ATMA. About 15 groups, each comprising 15 members, are being trained in each village, with women in the lead.

In all, 22 villages are into mushroom cultivation in Nalanda, with nearly 6,000 women operating in groups.

Given the pattern of small land-holding in the district, mushroom cultivation offers a ray of hope for marginal farmers to improve lifestyle and raise their income. As Nirmala Devi says, even 1,200 square feet land is enough to grow about 100 bags.

The expert hand comes in

While Rajendra Agriculture University in Pusa, Bihar, is doing pioneering research in mushroom cultivation and actively providing quality seeds, it is the local level experts who are marshalling the forces on ground. Experts such as Kundan Kumar, a subject matter specialist (SMS) trained the likes of Nirupa Devi to put her scarce land to best use by cultivating mushroom.

These specialists are appointed to help educate villagers under a joint project of the Centre and the Bihar government.

Kumar says besides creating economic opportunities for marginal farmers, labourers trained under the ATMA scheme earn decent wages in the district, a crucial factor which has checked their migration to urban areas in search of work.

Interestingly, the economics of mushroom farming in Nalanda is only one angle. According to Kundan Kumar, its cultivation is also, at some level, breaking down caste barriers, perhaps the biggest bane of Bihar. "Mushroom cultivation has increased community feelings in the villages,” he says.

What has given fillip to mushroom cultivation is Nalanda’s geographical location. With influx of Buddhist pilgrims and tourists to adjacent township Rajgir, hotels and government establishments, including the Sainik School, buy mushrooms in bulk. The Bihar government is also promoting it by roping in its milk cooperative, Sudha, to introduce mushroom at its outlets across the state, says district magistrate Sanjay Agarwal, who played a major role in promoting mushroom and new agriculture practices in the district.

“We intend to introduce it in mid-day meal schemes as a nutritional fillip for children,” Agarwal says.

And as befits an ‘expert’ in the field, Nalanda district now boasts of its own “mushroom spawn lab” to provide quality seedling to farmers. The seedlings were earlier procured from Solan, Himachal Pradesh.

Given the conducive climate and abundance of husk produced from wheat and rice, Bihar is set to become a major mushroom centre. And for now, like it did ages ago, Nalanda is showing the way for future.

(Meet the mushrooming role model tomorrow)








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