Sunday, December 23, 2012

Farming, theory and reality

Farming, theory and reality


“About 100 young brilliant minds that chose to go the hard path come here, so what difference would you make after graduating from some well-known institute of rural management?”

This question from my professor always haunted me while studying rural management at IRMA.

By the time placement season arrived, I was very clear that I should have a career in the development sector and not go for greener pastures. So, I joined the Ministry of Rural Development with the Andhra Pradesh Government and worked on projects that included monitoring NREGS work to creating job opportunities for rural youth and assisting in policy briefs for policy makers.

Even though I felt the job was demanding, the bureaucrats did all the talking, leaving the professionals as mere rubber stamps. Drawing inspiration from Verghese Kurien, I resigned from the job. I packed my bags and set off to a village in Tuni, 100 km from Visakhapatnam to become a farmer.

Dwindling Numbers

Keen to make farmers aware of the power of cooperatives, I began work with a help of a school teacher and when the post master chipped in, we had about 40 farmers who came for my workshop. The only thing they enjoyed during the four hours spent at the workshop were the Karachi biscuits served with tea. What started off as a group of 32 farmers became 20 when I proposed that we go the organic way.

But after talking to some experienced professionals, I gained confidence that 20 is not at all a bad number to start a group that would do the farming and sell the produce directly to the big buyers, eliminating middlemen. We started off on the understanding that we would not borrow from middlemen or local money lenders. Instead, we would approach rural banks for our financing needs. But all too soon, 12 members of the group turned to local money lenders. By this time, I was so far into the venture that I staked all my savings — what the group of 12 did would determine my future. I too was now at the mercy of the monsoon and market prices.

The other proposal I made — that we go for crop insurance — too met with stiff resistance. The farmers saw it as unnecessary expense. Fearing more walkouts from the group, I did not muster the courage to stand by my proposal.

Cyclonic crash

These 12 farmers had land ranging from half an acre to two acres, they were all married and needed to support wife and children. All they had was a small home with basic things that included utensils, a TV, wooden cots, and a cell-phone. Their wives would at times join NREGS works and the farmers, during off season, would go to Hyderabad and Bangalore looking for construction jobs.

Finally, my dream of being a farmer in a group took off and we decided to cultivate paddy in about 20 acres (all put together). The seeds were sown, fertilisers sprayed and all seemed to work to plan. Neither moneylenders nor middlemen were involved. We were sure of having a good crop and as a rural management graduate, here came my moment to make a difference.

With my laptop, I put together a presentation and sought appointments with big buyers. Sure enough, one company promised to send its representative to the village. I dreamed of celebrating Pongal with the farmers marking the beginning of a new life.

My dream was shattered in a few hours. Cyclone Nilam destroyed everything. In the fields, all the paddy crops were bundled up. In those bundles lay the labour of the farmers who had been sweating it out for the past few months in the scorching heat. Those bundles were indeed gold for them at that moment.

There was a sudden and heavy downpour. What followed was a mad scramble to save the crop, but everything was swept away. The farmers’ faces mirrored it all — fear of debts, the grind of poverty, one-meal-a-day fate. I do not know whom to blame. Is it the farmers who still do not accept insurance, the financial service providers who never see these farmers as potential customers, or our policy makers who do not factor in natural calamities?

Forget the fields -- the farmers’ homes were washed away in the floods, children went missing. The only thing left is hope — hope that I’ll make it some day. Now I can understand what difference Verghese Kurien has wrought to rural India. Let us not define farmers as someone who dies to make us live.

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated November 23, 2012)

Monday, December 10, 2012