The IL&FS Group helps Odisha farmers transform their submerged paddy fields to yield fish and vegetables

Hugging the coast in Odisha, about 200 kms north of the state capital Bhubaneswar, lies Balasore district. Perennial and estuarine rivers criss-cross through the region before emptying themselves into the Bay of Bengal. Dotted with universities and engineering colleges, Balasore town boasts an average literacy rate of 88%, far higher than the national average — this is Odisha’s most literate town.

But the district’s main occupation is paddy farming.


Every monsoon brings floods to rural Balasore; overflowing rivers submerge entire paddy fields and cause major crop destruction

Meet Ranjan and Archana

Ranjan Bhadra is a paddy farmer in Balasore. He lives with his wife and two children in a dilapidated house on his acre of land. His teenaged daughter will soon finish high school. His fourteen year old son is mentally challenged. Ranjan’s ancestors have traditionally cultivated paddy. But every monsoon, the fields get flooded and the crop is submerged. An acre’s yield provides Ranjan’s family only about 5000 rupees a year.

Archana Ghadei’s family owns half an acre of farmland and a small pond. Her husband, a migrant mason, is usually away from home. She has a twelve year old daughter whom she sends to the government school, and a mother-in-law whom she has to look after. Every year she too sees her fields submerged and half her crop lost.

IL&FS quickly discovered that paltry incomes were a recurring story in every rural household in the region as heavy rains regularly bring floods, submerging fields and destroying crops.


Archana Ghadei struggles to support her family with the uncertain income from her half acre of land

IL&FS Transportation Networks (ITNL) had entered Balasore on the back of a 30-year concession secured from the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) to repair and reconstruct a 120 km stretch of the National Highway between Kharagpur and Balasore.

In the submerged fields and unmanaged ponds, there lay an opportunity

ITNL surveyed the catchment area in great depth in order to identify potential environmental and socio-economic impacts of the project. Comprehensive surveys like this are characteristic of the IL&FS project development approach. Based on this survey a full array of interventions was developed for the area, with a specific focus on improving livelihoods.

Discovering a new livelihood opportunity

Nalanda Foundation, then called the Social Inclusion Group (SIG) of IL&FS, discovered that in the submerged fields and unmanaged ponds of Balasore there lay a substantial livelihood opportunity. To unearth it, Nalanda Foundation approached Dr Munir Ahmed, a renowned fisheries scientist from Bangladesh, who pointed out that the submergence-affected areas could be converted into fish and vegetable farms. Balasore district was importing more than half of its fish requirements from neighbouring states — the potential here for aquaculture was huge.

IL&FS officials held meetings with SPARSHA, an active local NGO that had gained the trust of the farmers through its earlier Agricultural Productivity workshop here. Detailed plans were made in consultation with some of the farmers, who helped identify land that could be used for the new farming programme.

They had only ever farmed fish for domestic consumption, using poor seeds from local vendors

A pilot training programme was initiated with 39 farmers from 8 villages. Over the next few months, the success of the pilot was established and systematic plans to scale the initiative across the district were developed. Parameters to determine the success of the program and the evaluation of impact through third party agencies were also set up. A detailed plan for the buy-in and capacity-building of the local farmers was also developed.


IL&FS partnered SPARSHA, a local NGO that had worked extensively with the Balasore farmers in the past

Training the farmers for aquaculture

Ranjan, Archana and others had only ever farmed fish for domestic consumption, or occasionally to earn a bit of money selling it during festival celebrations. They would buy fish seeds from local vendors on bicycles, with no idea of breed or quality, and feed them whatever was on hand. Left to chance like this, fish growth would be poor and productivity erratic.

Now, under the IL&FS program, these farmers were trained in the proper identification of fingerlings, taught about the right feed for healthy fish growth, shown best practices to harvest, and ways to keep the fish fresh for the market. They were also taught how to maintain the health of their pond ecosystems, from the quality of water to layering of fish species.


The soil and water quality were tested and the ponds treated for freshwater fish cultivation

Among other technical input Dr Ahmed shared his expertise of making low-cost ponds in submergence-prone areas. Local fishery-scientists from Orissa were brought in to help conduct the training programmes. The farmers were learning in classrooms as well as in the field. They were taken to visit commercial freshwater fish-farms.

Based on the farmers’ plans IL&FS helped convert some wasteland into new ponds (ghers), and renovated the existing ponds that had been neglected. Soil and water quality was tested and the ponds were treated so they were suitable for freshwater fish cultivation.


Fishery scientists taught farmers about pond ecosystems, fish layering and maintaining water quality

SPARSHA helped the farmer groups make detailed schedules for the fish farming cycles and source quality fingerlings and feed, and access financial aid. The local fishery experts would make monthly visits to the farms to monitor progress; the farmers could also get in touch with them over the phone at any time if they had questions.

Organizational and financial literacy: Skills for a new future

The male farmers of Balasore had never before formed an organised group. Now, through games and role-play activities, they were mobilized to make Farmer Producer Groups. They were assisted to open bank accounts, and trained in financial literacy. Archana, the only woman in the group, received support from her family and consistent help from SPARSHA, and gradually gained the self-confidence to undertake this new endeavour.  

Archana, who had never dared to dream before, now sees the possibility for a brighter future

Equipped with the skills for fish-farming, and initiated into bookkeeping and record-management, Ranjan and his fellow farmers were ready to create a new future.


The farmers came together to form a Producer Group and were equipped with bookkeeping skills

Vegetables on the side

While fish flourished in the seasonal ghers, the farmers were encouraged to grow vegetables and fruits on the bunds at the edge of the ponds. Okra, tomato, pumpkin, bitter gourd, papaya and banana are just a few of the things that now populate these bunds, helping the farmers hedge the risk of lean periods. Some farmers earned as much as 50,000 rupees from the area around a pond just from the vegetables.


Surrounded by his pond-side fruit and vegetable farm, Ranjan Bhadra speaks about the transformation

A year into scientific fish cultivation, Ranjan is more than convinced of the benefits. With the profits from his one acre of gher, he has been able to buy himself a scooter, repair and renovate their home, and still save more than ever before for his family. Next year he wants to convert another acre of his land for fish and vegetable farming, so he can better look after his son and send his daughter to college.


Fish yield improved dramatically with the farmers now trained to identify fingerlings, procure the right feed and preserve fish for the market

Archana has set an example in her village by becoming the first woman fish farmer. With a green thumb for vegetables too, she is buoyant in her success. Her husband has returned home to help with the farm. Archana, who had never dared to dream before, now sees the possibility for a brighter future and expresses the desire to send her daughter to a better school.

The Balasore initiative has motivated the IL&FS Group to continue to actively seek livelihood enhancing activities in all its catchment areas. The positive energy that such successes unleash inspire employees to be more sensitive to local constituencies. It prompts management to internalize the externalities of their actions, and organizations to approach their businesses in a more holistic and meaningful way.