Climate Change

Voice of hope: Radio Bundelkhand’s Varsha Raikwar is using communication tools to help farmers cope with climate change

The channel hosts live discussions with agricultural experts and also seeks solutions from farmers who call in

By Preetha Banerjee
Published: Saturday 28 October 2023
The radio show invites farming solutions from villagers to promote traditional knowledge. Photo: Varsha Raikwar__

About two decades ago, Prakash Kushwaha, a farmer in Ladpura village in Madhya Pradesh’s Tikamgarh district saw the environment around him begin to change. Rainfall decreased, the number of dry days went up and crop production took a hit. One by one, many of his neighbours gave up agriculture and migrated to the cities to earn a livelihood. 

But he wanted to stay on and started hunting for a solution. One day in 2010, the radio crackled with a hopeful message: A rural reality radio show will be awarding a handsome prize to any group that can come up with a solution for the problems plaguing the drought-prone region of Bundelkhand. 

Radio Bundelkhand, a community radio run by a non-profit Development Alternatives, with funds from the World Bank, reached out to people in some 100 villages in the region and 25 groups were formed with their representatives. They were suggested five themes: Kitchen garden, vermicomposting, agroforestry, amrit mitti (bio-enriched soil) and water harvesting. 

Kushwaha had been following the radio programme Shubh Kal, which was hosting the competition, since 2008 and he decided to take part in the two-year-long challenge. 

In 2012, his project on the use of vermicomposting and amrit mitti won and inspired 200 farmers in neighbouring villages to stop using chemicals for cultivation and switch to organic farming.

Varsha Raikwar, who is the station’s first female radio jockey, has been producing the show Shubh Kal on climate and agriculture-related issues since 2017, after fighting a long battle against her family and society who didn’t think it was a sustainable job for a woman. 

Raikwar recording a sound byte for the radio programme Shubh Kal.

Growing up, Raikwar also noticed her village, Ghoradongri in Madhya Pradesh, slowly becoming empty as farmers abandoned their unproductive land for jobs in the cities. “Unable to find an alternative for rainfed or water-guzzling crops, they preferred to leave,” she shared. 

At 14, she couldn’t identify that anthropogenic climate change was behind this environmental degradation she was witnessing all around her. But since she was taught the subject in school, she made it her mission to raise awareness and stir environmental consciousness among individuals. “We are at fault for destroying nature and I wanted to find a way to communicate this to the masses,” she told Down To Earth (DTE).

That is when she heard about Radio Bundelkhand and wasted no time in getting herself a place in the radio station as an unpaid apprentice to learn the nuances of environmental communication. 

“At home, we never throw away water used to cook rice or lentils or wash dishes. We use them to water the plants around our house. I learnt the principles of conserving nature from my parents and with age, I began to wonder if other families have also adopted such practices,” she added. 

She learnt about various topics like organic farming and rainwater harvesting that the channel covered, which made the 60 kilometre daily commute, part of which she did on food, worthwhile.

But her stint was cut short after three months when her parents discouraged her to spend so much energy on a job that wasn’t paying her. 

But eight years and multiple jobs later, she found her place back at the radio station, this time as a salaried staff member.  

The one-hour show Shubh Kal that she hosts reaches about 250,000 residents of the region consists of a discussion on a specific topic related to climate change with experts associated with the environment or agriculture departments of the government, interactions with farmers who call in during the session, jingles that highlight the main message of the episode as well as folk songs in the local languages that talk about the issue. “We use music to ensure the programme isn’t just informative but also entertaining.”

She added:

We ask listeners to call us and share their views or environmental challenges they wish to raise with the Panchayat, such as how to overcome a barrier created by climate change or how to deepen or improve the local pond, so that there is mutual exchange of information. We also remind them that the Sarpanch of their village may also be listening and becoming aware of the problems and solutions shared by the experts.

While Radio Bundelkhand is available only in around 300 villages in the region, its mobile application gives farmers from across the country access to its programmes that are live streamed on the app.

Beyond the live sessions, the team also makes recordings of some of the episodes and visits a particular village to play it to a target group of 20-25 farmers. They call this ‘narrow casting’ and have covered almost 150 villages in Madhya Pradesh’s Niwari and Ujjain districts and Uttar Pradesh’s Jhansi district. 

Post listening, the team members engage in a debate with the group when they are asked how they would like to implement the solutions taught in the recorded session and what other challenges they are facing. 

“For narrow casting, we have chosen episodes on water conservation, pond recycling, rainwater harvesting, mer bandhan (boundary to keep water from flowing out of farms and percolate into soil), diversifying farming on a single piece of land, promoting soil testing, organic farming and preventing stubble burning,” Raikwar shared.

“We didn’t just listen to their problems but also sought solutions from them,” she added, highlighting how traditional knowledge has been promoted through the show.

A narrow casting session. 

In 2018, when she began a narrow casting session on water conservation and crops that require low rainfall in Mador village in Orchha, Tikamgarh, her participants became uncomfortable. 

“The women got up to leave saying they don’t have water to drink, what can they conserve?” Raikwar recollected. “Every day, these women have to travel 6-7 kilometres to fetch water.”

During the post-listening debate, a solution emerged: Building a water tank within the village. 

“It was decided that the NGO associated with us will set up the tank and supply the pipelines. But after that, a community will be designed with people from the village who will maintain the structure, thus becoming self-sustaining,” the radio jockey said. 

The tank was set up in 2018 and since then, the villagers have been maintaining the tank on their own, systematically collecting money for any repair work and ensuring smooth supply of water.

Incidents of eve-teasing during her 500-metre walk to and from her office to the bus stop didn’t deter her from her goal. She kept experimenting with tools to communicate the science behind climate change and agriculture to farmers.

Raikwar, who is now doing her bachelors in social work, worked with the team to design a radio sketch with two characters ‘Bhauji’ and ‘Devar’ who chat about ways to adapt to climate change and prevent further environmental degradation in the local language. 

Voice and pitch modulation makes the dramatised bits interesting for the listeners, she added. 

These tools have kept her regular listeners hooked, Raikar noted. 

Among her loyal listeners and callers are Vikesh Prajapati, a farmer from Banwa village, who is blind. He had also participated in the competition in 2010 but his kitchen garden project didn’t win. 

But he continued listening to the expert panel discussions on the radio and with tips gathered from it, continued with his practice, Raikwar added. “When we visited his home, we saw his entire yard was full of vegetables that he grows. These are the only vegetables he consumes and buys nothing from the market.”

The team keeps experimenting with communication tools to raise awareness on climate change, related topics. 

Varsha became a part of the Women Climate Collective, an online climate action community in India, eight months ago and this has opened up new possibilities for her to learn practices being followed in other states, she said. “We have regular online meetings and workshops with our counterparts from other states. Here, I get to interact with people from different fields with a shared goal — of coping with and abating climate change at the grassroots level.”

She connected with Neelima Mishra, a fellow member of the collective from Odisha, on one of these virtual meetings and was inspired by her work to reduce plastic use and disposal. “I noticed she was completely immersed in this goal and that motivated me to try to emulate the same in my neighbourhood,” Raikwar noted, adding that she will be focusing on this topic in her outreach programmes as well. 

Photos provided by Varsha Raikwar

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