Santok Majra, Haryana: Sometimes a dream deferred can be a dream realized.
As a young boy, Suresh Martin Chauhanplanned to leave the family’s farm far behind to study at the London School of Economics with the goal of becoming a professor. However, in 1974, while he was a student in Agra, his elder brother died and Chauhan was left in charge of the 60-acre ancestral property, located about 170km from Delhi and a world away from London.
Instead of selling the land and continuing with his studies, Chauhan ploughed wholeheartedly into his new role. Today, his farm in Haryana exemplifies how innovation and modern farming techniques can help rural India too taste prosperity. India’s recent GDP growth of over 9% has been mostly fuelled by services and manufacturing, while agriculture—which 60% of the country relies on to make a living—has posted steady declines.
Chauhan and his land defy that trend. “Fertile land to me is God’s gift. It has to be conserved,” says the 56-year-old Chauhan. “The decision to quit academics was my toughest. But…tilling the land and understanding the forces of nature have taught me much more than books ever did.”
Chauhan was 22 and pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in law and a Master’s in mathematical economics at Agra University when his brother died of a viral hepatitis infection.
Once he returned home, Chauhan, alongside his father, walked every inch of the property over the course of a year to understand agricultural cycles. On these walks, Chauhan devised changes in crop cycles to work around a perpetual water shortage in the village and to maximize the resource. He began increasing the farm’s units devoted to less water-intensive cash crops such as cotton, peas, beans and lentils, mustard and millets. He converted more agricultural land to cultivate wheat and discontinued the growing of paddy since it absorbed so much water. Following his example, other farmers converted their fields as well.
Chauhan extended his innovations beyond the land. Appalled at the poor treatment of labourers, Chauhan devised a compensation package that extended shareholder status to his workers. Each May—when the agricultural year begins—Chauhan appoints five shareholders and gives them a salary advance. He then takes the money back as their investment in the farm. After a year, he allows them to share a fifth of the farm’s profits. “This way, they work like the land is their own,” he says.
Perhaps the most telling sign of his success is that Chauhan runs the farm like a corporation: always on the lookout for growth and opportunity. He invests around Rs2.5 lakh back into the business annually and reports four-five times that in returns.
Currently, he is trying to increase sugarcane output on 16 acres of his land. After consulting research centres in Lucknow, Chauhan plans to implement a “ring-pit” method of sowing sugarcane to double productivity. The method entails digging 6,000 pits, one foot by two feet in diameter, on a one-acre plot. Sugarcane seeds are arranged in the pit in the shape of bicycle spokes and then concentrated with fertilizers. Though this method is more labour- and cost-intensive than the furrow method, which uses a tractor to make rows into which seeds are manually placed, higher output is projected—about 10,000kg per acre instead of the average 5,000kg.
Drawing more lessons from the corporate world, Chauhan diversified and became the first farmer in the area to enter horticulture. Two orchards now grow red and green plums on a six-acre plot. Next on Chauhan’s agenda is floriculture. He wants to harvest marigolds to tap the huge demand for flowers during the wedding season in Delhi.
The same lessons in diversity apply to his workforce. Chauhan employs five women and two disabled labourers in his fruit fields. He is characteristically pragmatic when asked to explain this. “Women squat easily and therefore are good for plucking, sorting and packing,” Chauhan says, adding that he intends to more than double his workforce to 50 with mostly female hires in the next year.
Bringing a 10-bed hospital to Santok Majra is also on Chauhan’s agenda, prompted by a memory from a scene he witnessed more than 30 years ago on one of his walks with his father. The pair had come upon a group of women huddled together. His father told him to look away. “Later I found out that the woman was delivering a baby in the open fields and a sickle was used as a surgical instrument,” he says.
Chauhan is now in talks with Mission Hospital authorities for a franchise in the village. Hygienic toilets and hospitals increase worker output and job satisfaction, he says.
Some workers have been with Chauhan, who they call Sahabji, for more than a decade. “I was never lured to go to big cities,” says Indrayasth Masih, 26, who joined the farm as a teenager, “as my work here is respected so much by Sahabji who has always pushed us to learn and adapt to new and productive techniques of working.”
Chauhan’s wife Chitra too shares her husband’s desire to give back to the village. The couple hopes to set up a primary school in Santok Majra, which has a population of 1,600, according to the 2001 Census. There is a government middle school in the village that is overcrowded with 600 students.
“When I came here as a new bride in 1975, I was in a state of shock. There were no basic amenities like water, electricity and infrastructure,” she says. “But soon, my husband began channelling his restlessness on the land, and I took to teaching the village folk.”
As he walks in his fields at sunset, the crops soaking up the last of the day’s golden dust, Chauhan ponders the biggest lessons learned from farming.
“A true farmer is one with nature, and can smell and feel climatic changes. So whether it is droughts, floods, low output, insects that can damage an entire crop,” he says. “There is always something a farmer can do in the spirit of fighting back against all odds. It is what defines the man of the soil.”
Sixty in Sixty is a special series that we plan to run through 2007, the 60th anniversary of India’s independence. We will introduce you to sixty Indians—both here and abroad—who are not rich or famous. These are people who are making quiet, but important, contributions without seeking headlines, to help make India and, in some cases, the world a better place. We also welcome your suggestions on people whom you think should be profiled in this series. Please send your suggestions by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org