Bitter route to sweet success

Bitter gourds, amla, tulsi, jamun, aloe vera and giloye may be healthy but are neither mouth-watering nor grown in abundance in Punjab. Yet these are the source of the livelihood of thousands of farmer families in the lower Shivalik belt of Punjab, also known as the Kandi area.

The belt, which includes Mohali, Hoshiarpur, Pathankot and Ropar districts, also has a reputation for unemployment and livestock malnourishment, mainly because few dealers would show an interest in procuring the karela, amla, jamun and medicinal herbs.

The fortunes of thousands of families have, however, changed, the culmination of the dream of 14 friends that started in 2003. Thanks to the friends' Unati, a cooperative society processing and marketing these products, the farmers are now getting good prices.

The dream was one of "utilising natural resources for empowerment of local people". It has now resulted in a five-acre processing and marketing unit set up in the midst of green fields in Talwara, Hoshiarpur, and at present benefiting more than 3,000 farmer families.

"We were a group of 14 friends studying together in Himachal Pradesh University," says Jyoti Saroop, one of the founders of Unati. "We always wanted to do something that can help these farmers who grow not rice or wheat but very uncommon vegetables and herbs in wild areas of the Kandi belt. Thus we started Unati, which we registered as a cooperative society in 2003."

It deals in products such as karela juice, karela and jamun juice, geloye and tulsi juice, amla juice, amla candy, aloe vera juice, and amla morabba.

Today, Unati is not only procuring the produce but has also given jobs to 36 women and 16 men in its unit.

A reward has come in the form of recognition from the Indian Council of Agricultural Research. Under its project National Agriculture Innovation Project, ICAR entrusted the responsibility of helping farmers of Kandi area on Guru Angad Dev Veterinary and Animal Sciences University, Ludhiana, in cooperation with Unati. GADVASU was granted Rs 5 crore as funds in 2008 to work on improving the livestock of farmers, while Unati has been procuring and processing the farm products. The project, which started in 2008 with 200 farmer families, now has Unati working with more than 3,500 families. says Dr A L Saini, project-in-charge for GADVASU.

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