Orchestrating the exit

This post concludes the series – Voices from the Margins.

The exclusive sign of success in a society steadfast in growth-centric development and urban centric growth appears to be one’s distance from soil. Family farms (farms run mostly by family labour) in India present a dismal picture with worsening cash flow both to and from them. The only surviving ones are either farmers close to big cities, growing exotic crops or animals or rural farms with reliable non-farm income. Nevertheless, as rural non-farm livelihoods like those from forest produce, arts, crafts, weaving, leather and metal works vanish in the glitz and glamour of globally connected industrial production, family farms emerge as the universal eco-cultural livelihood of Indian villages.

Village commons are crucial for small holders to survive, graze livestock and maintain soil fertility. Increasing privatization of commons for powerful organizational entities (than distributed either to the landless or to those displaced by dams, wildlife sanctuaries, airports, express ways, industrial estates or special economic zones), constrain the cash strapped family farms. Thus whether rain-fed or irrigated, rural landscapes witness an exodus of its people – either seasonally or for good. Those who continue in the production landscapes, more often than not, struggle in distress.

farmer with local cows

Though urban India constantly encounters these farmer migrants as casual labour, it neither notices nor recognizes them as producers. Only if land could speak, it could tell the story of how our society knowingly and unknowingly is engaged in cleansing the last ecocultural livelihood of millions. Why else do we pitch food policies and farm policies against each other? Can consumer priorities be against or away from the interest of family farms who are vulnerable consumers themselves?   Do we think of these producer –consumers when we hurriedly nod for shipments from distant shores? Spread across diverse agro ecologies, family farms produce anything from coconuts to walnuts; coffee to apples; spices to vegetables; pulses and oilseeds to staples like millets and tubers.

We overlook their potential to provide goods and services at competitive costs. Despite being a functional democracy, we make the goods and services provided by millions of family farms cheaper and those they need costlier.  Soaring cost of production, crop loss and price volatility, alongside unaffordable medical expenditure are tearing apart our agrarian economy as the stories in Voices from the Margins portray. Living our lives as exclusive consumers, we are oblivious of the connectedness between our own health, the food we consume and the livelihoods in producing our food. Is it too difficult to see that orchestrating distress in small family farms goes hand in hand with our own ill-fare?

farmer in dryland

Many believed that as small farm units become unviable, families can move out of rural India towards urban opportunities. Scores of migrant workers in Indian cities prove that it is not a viable move both for them and the city.

Hope? In the era of social networks, revitalizing positive sociocultural institutions for sustaining diverse skills, knowledge, food and agroecology must be an opportunity. Start-ups are not difficult to be founded by sourcing local farm products or employing local human resource without mining natural resources, displacing people or polluting the landscape.  A thoughtful and humane society will try to unlearn some of the irrelevant science and economics copy pasted from alien geographies and societies. A decentralized democracy in such a society will try and meaningfully link production and consumption; for instance linking school and hospital feeding programs with local farm products under community monitoring. It will evolve practice, knowledge and governance for integrating societal well-being with livelihoods; offering a lesson or two for others to learn from.

 

youth in farm (without date)

Unless we harness the promise that top soil and agrarian communities together extend, 21st century India will be known for driving to extinction, a potentially vibrant ecology, culture and livelihood called small family farms.

Next set of posts in this blog will be on some practical problems encountered in pursuing the above.

Rural = Farming?

Farming though predominant, was only one among the many mutually reliant rural professions.  Rurality used to be reflected in unique skills and artistry. Farmers, weavers, carpenters, blacksmiths, barbers, musicians etc closely interacted and formed the rural society. Though marred with caste disparity, this skill rich society meant local self-reliance. Such diversity is fast disappearing, with farming as the only rural character, albeit in a vulnerable state. Despite surrendering to the mainstream market economy, the woes of both farmers and non-farmers remain unabated. Was deskilling the rural society a necessary cost towards socio-economic change?

Yankappa belongs to a family of musicians near Yadgir. He is a seasoned tabla player like his father and forefathers. Though he loves to play percussion instruments, that cannot earn him a livelihood anymore. He accuses television for shifting people’s time and taste away from local events with folk songs. Last year, Yankappa earned a paltry 20,000, playing tabla.

folk singers -2

Though not too comfortable to take up farming as their major occupation, this family of five tries to cultivate cotton in three acres of dry land -including one acre of leased land- and also engage in wage labour. While three acres of input intensive cotton farming earned him 1.03 lakhs, its’ expenses crossed 1.5 lakhs. Wage income of about 60,000 helped the family survive. Yankappa sounded desperate talking about his unpaid loan of 1.3 lakhs taken from other villagers and the co-operative bank as well as the 30 grams of gold that they lost to a money lender.

Puttaswamy and his wife belong to the community of nekars (weavers). Their village in North East Karnataka is known for skillful nekars.  All 200 households in the village used to be involved in weaving. But they could not compete with machine made cheaper cloth. Now there are only 50-60 families of weavers, mostly contracted by Khadi Gram Udyog (KGU) in Kodekal. Most moved to other occupations though working as agricultural wage labour or construction labour was too strange for many among them.

Puttaswamy and his wife still engage in weaving, taking orders for two-three sarees every month from local women. His wife mostly works on charaka while he does all other things required. For the past 5-6 years, they both have started working as handloom weavers with KGU in Kodekal. All materials and equipments are provided by KGU and even lends them small amount of money in crisis. They can avail credit from KGU in exchange of work.

Khadrapore - Mallamma

Puttaswamy also diversified. He has a petty shop selling small daily need things and also leases out an acre of their dry land. His share of red gram from the rainfed leased land is usually just enough to be used at home. That year (2015) they earned 11,600 from selling red gram, about 14,400 from weaving, and 18,000 from the petty shop. Thus even in a good agricultural year, this two member household finds it difficult to repay the loan of half a lakh taken to repair their house and also to meet cultivation expenses. Yet, Puttaswamy feels he is respected for his weaving skills and would rather stay back in the village as long as the basket of livelihood options – weaving, leasing farm land and the petty shop – helps them survive.

Belief systems in the time of distress

Sunset (post 7)

Sun was setting across the river Krishna, as we sat in Hanumanthappa’s field, chatting with him and Kaveri, – his daughter of six years. Fifty five year old Hanumanthappa cultivates three acres of land inherited from his father and also share crops another acre from his neighbour. Both pieces of land lie close to the river but are rain fed. He grows lentils, sunflower and cotton for more than seven years now. Earlier it was sorghum and groundnut mostly.

This crop change meant a change in his family’s food pattern. For some years now, they eat more of rice every day. Rice is cheaply distributed by the government. It made sense to eat rice and raise crops for the market instead of cultivating jola for their daily roti. The cost they had to pay for this shift, Hanumanthappa says, was in terms of health, stamina and medical expenditure. Annual food related expenditure for the family also comes to more than 60,000. He spends around 66,000 annually on agriculture. A good crop fetched him slightly more than 1.16 lakhs that year. This is pretty much what the family has, to tide over the whole year, without much wage income. Two local breed bulls and a cow serve the family with draught power and milk, but not cash income.

Girls in field carrying lunch (post 7)

Hanumanthappa has two overdue loans – agricultural loan taken from the Grameen bank (Rs. 35,000) and another Rs. 40,000 taken from a neighbour. When we met him, he was all set to realise the irrigation dream, installing a pump set in Krishna’s overflows next to his land, availing a new loan from a village money lender. This will take his total debt above 1 lakh, excluding interest. Towards the end of each agricultural year, he is left with nothing to repay loans. Hanumanthappa tries to rotate borrowed money to meet various expenses.

Talking about expenses, he mentioned two wives and their children staying with him. Kaveri hastily added that the first wife stays in the next room and she goes there to sleep. She was talking at ease about her father’s wives. We weren’t clear if he had two or more wives; though didn’t spare time in clarifying. Hanumanthappa explained how he needed to marry more than once – just for a son. To our questioning look, he responded – everyone needs a son for their funeral rituals. By his first wife, he already has two grandchildren while his youngest born – the son of the family – is a toddler. One of his married daughters is back to live with her parents, along with her children. There are four adult women in the family who labour in the farm and house. Family of five adults and four to six children (including toddlers) dependent on a rocky rain fed four acres along with their cattle, live in a shaky congested house.

Hanumanthappa lamented that with new seeds and new inputs, neither their grains nor chicken taste well and fail to give them enough strength to work on the stone filled land. While resenting the dietary change, he upheld the hardships the entire family goes through to ensure customary heirship for after life rituals.

Gundalli cotton and lake

Voices from the Margins – II Culture, Customs and Farm Livelihoods

In the first part of Voices from the Margins we saw women who appeared courageous and vulnerable at the same time. For men in farming, the picture is not all that bright either. They deal with a multitude of social changes while struggling to sustain their families – change in technology, food, consumption habits as well as family and social relationships, to name a few. Simultaneously, economy and culture in a globalised world alter the perceptions and aspirations of farm families too. In the second part of Voices from the Margins we bring two posts on how cultural practices and social customs in the 21st century often represent and accentuate distress among small holders.

In rural Karnataka, as elsewhere in India, agricultural decisions are often taken with religious interventions. On the new-moon day just before the onset of monsoon many villagers travel to witness the pronouncements by soothsayers on what to sow in their land.  Beginning of the harvest season, local deities are generally offered that season’s best harvest. This you will see during winter months in the temples of North-East Karnataka when temple roofs and pillars will be adorned with panicles of sorghum and small bundles of kapas. With new crops in the fields and unknown risks, these offerings now are prayers to guard against disasters like price crash and pests.

offerings at the temple

It is common to see small family farms trying to emulate agricultural strategies followed by large holders or intensive agribusinesses, despite having very little information on hidden risks. Notwithstanding the risks faced in agriculture, farmers contribute significantly to village festivals. Apart from contributions to the temple jatre, most spend two to three times of their average monthly income on annual rituals for their family deity. Rural families owning large extents of land or with considerable non-farm income often set the tone for such customary expenses too. This influence is seen in the way small holders spend on weddings, funerals, gadgets, alcohol etc. Influence of commercials appearing in all kinds of media makes this race faster and universal than it was a generation ago, despite the fact that this generation of small holders apparently are less endowed with resources and more vulnerable to distress situations.

alms seeker-dyvasandra

Gangamma jatre in Reddihalli of Bangalore Rural district is a cultural event both binding and burdening the farmers.  This jatre is celebrated every three years if rain fall is normal, otherwise every five years. Expenditure (in 2015 -16) of farmers in this village during the jatre ranged from Rs.5,000 to Rs.15,000 with some spending more than Rs.50,000.

Gugle_animals fair

The jatre in Allammaprabhu temple near Kadrapur in Yadgir, is famous for its cattle fair. The Gram Panchayat organises the jatre with donations from villagers. Bustling with people and animals, it showcases bulls from all over the region. In the new format of this jatre, festivities extend to competitions with heavy prize money, like bulls pulling heavy stones. Scores of people from surrounding villages cheer the competing bulls, while media reports critique the treatment meted out to animals. Farmers in these vast dry lands often invest huge amounts in buying and keeping specially chosen breeds of bulls that can pull heavy weight.

  Stone dragging competition 3

A proverb in Kannada – ವೇದ ಸುಳ್ಳಾದರೂ ಗಾದೆ ಸುಳ್ಳಾಗದು (Veda sulladaru gaade sullagadu) – reposes faith in local wisdom, asserting that while even Vedas may err, the gaade (proverbs) won’t. But as the interplay of money, technology and policies traverses national borders, along with the ‘localness’ of culture, conviction and reliance on local knowledge systems also diminish. While disappearance of old social negatives (like exploitation of certain social groups) and emergence of new positive social institutions will be a welcome change, often the reality in rural India is the persistence of old negatives and disappearance of positive institutions that nurtured human values, creativity and ecological wisdom.  Amidst the changing cultural milieu of agrarian landscapes and a social structure weak in values and norms, small holders with little information on the invisible claws of the market economy, often end up taking disproportionate financial risks with disastrous consequences.

Women in farming- stories of courage and vulnerability (Part 4)

45 year old Mariamma has been the sole breadwinner of her family for a long time now. She lives near the industrial area in Ramnagara district, with her asthmatic husband of 70 years and their 21 year old handicapped son. Seven years ago, her son’s leg was amputated after an injury. The artificial leg provided by a charitable organization gives him some mobility, though he couldn’t continue studies or pursue a job in the factories nearby. He manages to put in some work in cultivating their inherited land of 1.5 acres.

Mariamma used to work as a house-keeping staff in a factory, earning Rs.7,000 a month, in addition to earning another Rs.8,000 as house-maid in the evenings and weekends. Last year, while going to the factory one day, she fell down from the bus and was severely injured.  Her treatment took away all that she had till then and also made them avail about Rs.300,000 from a bank and their neighbors. Two more grafting surgeries are needed, but expenses are formidable in private hospitals.  Between her accident, husband’s asthma, son’s handicap and daughter’s marriage, the family accumulated huge debts despite Mariamma’s toil in multiple manual jobs for years.

On the 1.5 acres of unirrigated land still in the name of Mariamma’s deceased father-in-law (which means they can’t avail loans and subsidies for cultivating this land), they grow finger millet and horse gram for home use. They also rear silkworms, cultivating mulberry on half an acre of land leased for an annual payment of Rs.10,000. Selling cocoons last year earned them a little more than Rs.8,300. Mariamma’s accident happened when there was a boom in cocoon price and hence couldn’t reap the rare windfall.  They also keep two native cows that give milk for the family and earn Rs.6,000 annually from cow dung. Land and animals together earn a little more than half a lakh every year and around Rs 9,000 worth farm produce for family use. Their expenses on food, festivals and medical treatment far exceed earnings, especially after Mariamma’s accident.  To add to the anguish, there are occasional conflicts with her son-in-law who demands money – a common occurrence in patriarchal communities here.

PArt 4 women story - house

Despite possessing two acres and two cows, this family of just three adults is at loss on how to pull on. Such precarious lives are not too rare among farming communities. Their plight tells us how the inadequacy of public health care along with expensive customs add to farmers’ misery.

Women in farming- stories of courage and vulnerability (Part 3)

Typical sight in the irrigated belt of Ramanagra-Mandya-Mysore stretch will be of lush green paddy fields, swaying blades of sugarcane or shiny mulberry bushes; rows of bamboo stands (chandrike) on the roadside with circles of ivory colored cocoons neatly arranged, as also of cattle and sheep roaming here and there. Coconut palms or bushes of pulses line the boundaries of most fields. Network of long canals run through parts of this landscape. Farmers – usually men on bikes- taking rounds around fields, markets and offices is a common sight. Absence of empty fields imply bounty and even farm labourers seem to be making a decent living. Despite this vibrancy, lives here seem to be vulnerable in many ways – especially to volatile prices.

35 year old Gayathri’s is a landless household of three women, including her mother and younger daughter, Reshma. The threesome live in a village about 35 km away from the town of Ramanagara. Her husband died of tuberculosis six years ago, after a prolonged treatment financed through loans and disposing off their share of ancestral land. Currently she has an outstanding loan of Rs. 85,000 on this account, taken at 2% interest rate per month. This is just one among the many loans that Gayatri has availed. Her elder daughter went away with someone. She spent borrowed money to find her and get the couple married. She also took a gold loan of one lakh from a bank to repair her house and a fourth loan from a women’s self-help group to buy cows.

Gayatri keeps four local-breed cows and two of them yield four litres of milk every day that is sold to the village dairy. Though she cannot grow mulberry anymore as their land has been sold off, she keeps a few chandrike to rear silkworms into cocoons, buying mulberry leaves from her neighbor. ‘Milk’ and ‘silk’ together earned her around Rs. 77,000 last year. In addition to this, Gayatri together with Reshma earned around Rs.30,000 from wage labour.  Thus silk, milk and coolie work support Gayatri in her tight rope walk of life on multiple loans.

silk coccon rearing activity 2

She pays huge amount of interest every month. When silk prices crashed in 2014, even interest payment was halted, accumulating penalty. She wades through such crises by selling cows. When ‘silk’ ditches, as and when trade polices change, milk and cattle save them from starvation and distress. She trusts milk more than silk as its price doesn’t seem to fluctuate much, though it is silk that gives her occasional savings. Gayatri hopes for a secure future for Reshma, who ironically spends more days in wage labour than in school.

Women in farming – stories of courage and vulnerability (Part 2)

In the vast dry landscapes of Yadgir district, the extent of land one owns doesn’t mean much. Apart from the harsh weather, stones buried underneath make it hard to cultivate and produce a decent crop.  If this is what nature bestows, there are others that the society gifts to its’ women. Women from certain castes are not allowed to draw water from the common well. They wait for women from other castes to draw water for them and pour into their pots. Village records show very few holdings owned by women. We wanted to meet women land owners to see how different are their lives compared to those who toil on stony land or graze animals traversing kilometers under blazing sun, without ownership or a say in managing these assets.  There was four acres in Parvathamma’s name. We made two brief visits to her house within a week’s time, before she agreed for a chat under the tree near her field.

About 40 years old, Parvathamma is the second wife of 60 year old Muniappa. Muniappa married Parvathamma 20 years ago as his first wife didn’t bear children; though the family remain childless. He has been an alcoholic and too weak to do any work. When he sold some of his inherited land to the sahukar in order to pay off debts, Muniappa registered four acres of land in Parvathamma’s name and five acres in the name of his first wife.

woman-collecting-fuelwood

Though there are nine acres between the two wives, Parvathamma’s share of four acres has been encroached by Muniappa’s stepbrother, who works for a local politician. A few years ago, he threatened aging Muniappa and forcefully started cultivating Parvathamma’s land.  Since then, Muniappa’s family hasn’t stepped on this piece of land, though Parvathamma continues to pay the land tax. This explained their reluctance to talk to us as we started the conversation from women land owners. Though we introduced ourselves as agricultural researchers, a faint hope that we may be of some help later made them sit down with us for a couple of hours.

This family of three aging adults rely on share cropping of jowar in five acres of dry land, which fetches around Rs 40,000 annually. The two women supplement around 10,000 to this, doing farm labour (for Rs.100 a day) while taking turns to look after Muniappa. They don’t get work under the employment guarantee scheme, though a job card has been issued some time back. Annually this family needs a minimum of Rs. 30,000 for medical expenses, Rs. 30,000 for farm expenses and Rs. 15,000 for running the kitchen.

A crop loan of Rs. 65,000 taken several years ago is still outstanding. Though they keep paying the interest amount, outstanding principal makes them ineligible for a fresh loan from the bank and force them to approach private lenders to meet farm expenses. Lot of people from their village go to Bangalore during dry months in search of construction work, in order to pay back loans. Parvathamma is disappointed that they can’t do it, as they are always worried about their land and Muniappa’s health. She occasionally visits relatives when they work in Bangalore and likes the life there. This foregone opportunity or the discrimination she faces at the village well are not major concerns for Parvathamma. Cultivating her land, affordable treatment for Muniappa and getting enough wage work in the village form her wish list. Quite reasonably, she shudders at the prospect of being a child less and landless old widow in the village!