A few days ago there was a gathering of people who were concerned about the crisis in agriculture. Some said it was not the crisis in agriculture, but the crisis of the farmers, because the same amount of food was being produced as earlier, therefore its not crisis of food production, but one of marketing and distribution where in the consumers were paying high prices while the farmers were hardly getting the minimum support price. Some from the farming section said, the high cost of labour due to the introduction of NREGA has catapulted the problems of the farmers and thus they are now forced to declare a crop holiday as it happened in the coastal region. Some Telengana think tanks said, this is nothing new in Telengana because farmers are anyway leaving agriculture and have been migrating to other jobs and other places, so there has been a long crop holiday in Telengana, yet, no one talks about it. One gentleman representing a leftist farmers union, said, that the govt. is not bothered about the farmers they are continuously having to beg for fertilizers, seeds, and then bear the high cost of pesticides and thus the high input costs and there fore the losses and there by the farmers suicides. Another gentleman representing the farm labourers claimed that the agricultural crisis is solely placed at the feet of the farm labourers, and the NREGA, but its actually, the issue of lack of marketing facilities for the farmers and that needs to be addressed first. He went on to suggest, that it is in fact, the farm labourers who do the farming and not the farmers, and when will the labourer become the land owner? He added, the real solution should be land redistribution and all those with other incomes from other sources, should give up on their claim for land ownership, and only those who are actually involved in the day to day farming should have titles to land and all the surplus land must be redistributed among the landless. Which is the way forward, but I will deliberate on that later.
‘Who will do farming? was the title of the programme and the discussion ensued threw up these opinions. However, there was one issue, most of those people assembled there and giving their opinions, were not farmers, nor remotely connected to farming, nor were they farm labourers either. Except for a few of us, a few like me – recent farmers and a few others who were long time farmers, a total of not more than five in a crowd of nearly 100 plus!
The problem in this country is that people who are not involved in the day to day processes of farming are the ones who pass judgments, give opinions and write policies. It’s not a wonder then that we are in the mess that we are in today.
In our meeting on “who will do farming?” I suggested that the need of the day is to remove the dependency factors for the farmers and make them self-sufficient and gave my own experience of having saved my seeds from last years crop and then sown them without any hassle of having to run around the government departments for subsidized seeds and added that we need to stop this dependency on subsidies and work towards self-reliance. One friend remarked jokingly, “you cannot be considered to be a farmer, you are only a hi-tech farmer”, so we won’t accept your opinions.
I wish he would come and take a look at how hi-tech my farming is – cleaning my house, filling up water which comes once every two days, cooking, carrying lunch and anything else like seeds, walking two kilometers to reach my field, and looking for labourers and for the day’s work, sitting out in the sun the whole time the labourers work, ensuring they do their job properly and then walking back two kilometers and then again cooking and cleaning. That is my lifestyle. And I chose to make a living out of farming for various reasons, ideological predominantly: experimenting for sustainable developmental alternatives, living with lesser resources, saving our biodiversity: our seeds. My friend imagines I am a hi-tech farmer because by default I was a city dweller until recently. Sitting in a plush office, earning a lakh of rupees a month, he may not understand that making a living out of farming especially in these days, has become very tough – especially if you want to stick by the rules – don’t use pesticides, chemicals, use only local seeds and then pay “wages on demand” to the labourers.
Whenever, I raise the issue of higher labour costs, people supporting NREGA, immediately come up and say – “but you have to reduce your input costs, stop using chemicals”. I don’t use any chemicals, use native seeds which cost me about 500 rupees or less and this year even less as I used seeds from my previous crop, unlike others who spent thousands on seeds alone. But just the labour costs last year were nearly 16,000 and the cost of the tractors and tillers was some 10,000. I stopped using the manual plough, since that too has become expensive and hence unviable. I managed to get about a quintal of green gram and half a quintal of black gram (much was lost due to untimely rains) and then about 3.2 quintals of horse gram from one acre land. Since I managed to sell them at a good price of 7500 for green gram, and 3000 for horse gram, I recovered something like 21,000 and a few I kept aside for my own consumption, taking even that into consideration and marking that at market prices, I managed to break even. Now, I am living on my previous savings from my earlier work as a filmmaker. But in a normal situation, I would have no money at the end of a year of cultivation. What does one do for the next year? Take loans. And if that year also one has problems, take more loans and finally, not knowing what to do, commit suicides.
In my village the labour chargers are okay – about Rs.100 per person for a woman labourer, but in some villages not really far off, they are charging 200 to 400 also at times. In our area the rates fluctuate from 100-150. However, my labour costs for last year were based on last years rates when the women were charging something like 70-80 rupees. This year, they wanted me to pay Rs. 2400 for weeding in one acre of land. I just said; let the weeds be. I am a dry land farmer, I do not know if the rains will come or not, if I invest in the money today and I don’t get a crop tomorrow what is the point. I was right on that count, we didn’t have much rain as it is, but since last 10 days there was hardly any rain though it was pouring down heavily in Hyderabad. So in any case my rain-fed paddy would not have had much difference, weeding or no weeding. Any way, their charges amounted to something like 300 per person. So, instead I decided to let the weeds be. So, what do farmers do faced with such a situation – it is easier to get a bottle of weedicide and spray it to remove the weeds. Because, the whole job of cultivation is all about fighting out the weeds and pests as I came to understand in these three years. Pests are still not as big a problem at least for me, since I do mixed cropping and use native seeds. But weeds are an altogether different issue. And it is for weeds that one needs to use a lot of labour. I remember when I first did farming on leased land in Khammam district in 2008, the farmer who leased me my one acre dry land had another 1.5 acres of rice field, he was charged close to 3000 for weeding. At first the quote was exhorbitant money which was a five digit number. Can any small farmer with 1-2 acres afford such costs? And when the crops fail due to excess rains, hails storms, droughts or other uncontrollable issues like monkeys and elephants, who will pay for the loss? Will the labourers be prepared to reduce their charges when the farmer is in a loss situation? That doesn’t happen anyways, as I realized this year. Last year, when I hired people, thinking they had worked hard, I paid an extra Rs.10 per person. This year, though it was pouring in Hyderabad, there were hardly any rains in my village; as a result I didn’t have a very good crop of Green gram, unlike last year, which was not great, but better. So, today, I called 3 labourers, but about 9 came to work. I told them that I don’t have enough work for so many and asked only for 3 so I shall pay only for 3. This particular gang, (which does behave like a gang and holds farmers for ransom as you realize later), says, “its okay, we will share the amount”. Now, according to what we agreed I should have paid only 300. My plan was I use 3 people today and depending on the volume of work; I can call them again the next day thus, my total costs for harvesting would have been only 600. Anyway, at the end of the day, I felt since they had worked the whole day, I said I shall pay 80 each, and they simply refused, “you have to pay us 100 or else we won’t take the money!” Sickened at their lack of ethics, I just told them, fine I shall pay you this time, but would rather keep my land fallow than call you guys for work next time. Now, I want all those people who blame farmers for having brought in machines like harvesters, what will they say about this sort of behaviour? At least the machine does its work properly and then sticks to its fixed price. By the way, at the end of the day, I got seven and half (50kgs) bags of green gram pods, which after all the cleaning, and winnowing might yield about 30-40 kgs of green gram which if I sell at 100 rupees a kilo, I shall be able to recover about 2400 of the cost of labour (400 for spraying of bio pesticides, 1000 for weeding, 400 for one day, and 900 for the second day of harvesting).
Many friends say, “oh, but small farmers do their own work, and when they go for agricultural labour, they get extra income”. Whether it is a small farmer or a big farmer, everyone has to use labourers. To some extent, small farmers can avoid use of labourers, as they do their own ploughing and some such other works, but they too have to use others for transplanting, weeding and harvesting. When people were living in joint families or with large families, it was possible for the family to get its own work done. But in today’s day of small nuclear families, where in the children are sent to school and colleges, farmers have to use labourers. At least, in my village, there are a lot of young people who still go to work on the farm. It is common to see school going children go to graze cattle or work in their fields, during their holidays or off time and sometimes bunking classes. At least, they are learning the skill of farming from childhood, which is a basic requirement, for anyone to take up any kind of traditional livelihoods, be it farming, fishing, cattle rearing or weaving. However, our mainstream education doesn’t allow for such an activity to be incorporated into our educational system. Further more, we constantly create the opinion that doing manual work is beneath the educated person’s dignity. Hence, no child is willing to take up farming as an option. And then we have people who say that children should only be in schools and doing any work is considered child labour. I consider going to the modern school is actually bonded labour, not even child labour. But that is a different issue. Working as servers in a city hotel or working in hazardous places can be considered criminal. But why must a child not work in his or her own farm? Contrary to people’s belief, a child learns a lot while working with the earth – you need to integrate your education system to suit the rural economy. Instead we try to fit a very western model of education, into our systems, there by creating a whole generation of confused kids, who cannot relate to what is being taught in their schools, nor can they have enough confidence to go back to the farm, since farming is considered a “dirty job”, not meant for the ‘educated’. The same is the issue of fisherfolk. Anyway, without any more digression, therefore, for any farmer today, be it a family farm, small or marginal farmers, every one has to use farm hands to get the job done. At some point or the other. Therefore, the issue of higher labour costs is an issue for everyone.
Last time, I spoke to my neighbouring farmer who came to work in my field. She is a tenant farmer. She and many small farmers like her go for agricultural labour work as well. I asked her, “Do you think the EGS has made things better for you?” This was her reply, “No, it hasn’t. Earlier, we used to go for agricultural labour and we were able to live peacefully with what we got. Since this EGS, everyone is now hankering to make more money, while the cost of living too has increased, therefore, we neither have peace of mind nor a better standard of living”, She added further, “I have to pay about one pot of paddy to the labourers per person per day and what is left after that we have to eat at home. What is really left for us to sell?” was her question. But to me personally, the biggest issue with NREGA is that it is further making people dependent on the government. Instead of working towards an agricultural economy that brings out opportunities on its own merits, we are making agricultural labour dependant on the govt. agencies. What will happen when governments don’t have funds or due to some reason stop the EGS works? What will happen to the labourers? Since the hassles with labour, people have stopped using animals and are instead switching to tractors. In many places, harvesters have also come in. Weeding especially is a big work generator in agriculture, next comes harvesting. If people start using weedicides to remove weeds and harvesting machines for harvesting, what happens to the laborers? And more importantly, what will be the implications for agriculture? Will there be more corporatisation or less? Let us not forget the lessons from SHGs when they came in we were all very happy. Now, see the situation in villages – every relationship has become so monetized, and women spend all their spare time only to earn more so they can repay their debts. I absolutely agree about Land redistribution, because that alone will ensure some safety and food security for the underprivileged. Second most important thing, the NREGA was passed at the same time as SEZ Act…or about the same time / same year. Does it ring any bells to anyone? It does for me. I feel the government had become so benevolent at that time, just when they were planning for the “India for Sale” project called SEZ Act. While all activists and NGOs are busy spending their time trying to get the NREGA implemented, the Govt. got busy in its stealthy land grab. And it became easy to take away land from vexed farmers, who feel its better to sell out and make some money while they can, rather than continue with all these difficulties. So, today activists are busy fighting each other instead over NREGA or spending a whole lot of their time in trying to get a fair implementation of the EGS, and thus unable to give time to more critical issues like introduction of GMOs and stopping the land grab in the name of SEZs. A similar thing is happening now, while the whole country is fighting the pros and cons of Jan Lokpal, the Biotechnology Regulatroy Authority of India Act, which could spell the end of the sovereignty of the farmers is trying to be tables in the parliament very stealthily. Instead of paying attention to the destruction of agriculture which is happening by way of GM seeds and the BRAI, and bothering about debating on this issue, most activist friends are busy arguing for NREGA.
But I have some fundamental questions to ask my friends from the civil society.
I have a friend, one more supporter of NREGA; she has bought land of 1acre along with five others, so they are doing co-operative farming in those five acres. They are employing a person to oversee the farm, and when I asked him how much he gets paid, “10,000 a year”. I found out later that someone who looks after a farm is normally paid at least 24,000 per year. (I pay Rs. 2500 per month for a person to keep an eye on the crop and keep away the monkeys; this farm manager of my friend has to ensure all the works happen – from ploughing to sowing, to any crop management to harvesting to final products). I remember one of her comments while we were discussing about their farming initiative some years ago, “we basically want to do agriculture, but we are not under any illusion, that we will survive solely on agriculture”. That was nearly four years ago. All of them are still doing consultancy work for NGOs.
So, by the earlier definition in the meeting – where someone suggested that those with other sources of incomes should let go of their land, these people should not be holding on to the land. Second, these supporters of NREGA, who are not having any illusions about farming being good enough for their survival, how can they be telling farmers that they are making a lot of money and therefore should be able to handle the higher labour costs?
There was someone in the meeting who kept saying it’s the labourers who are actually doing the farming and not farmers. Yes, its true the labourers are the backbone for agriculture, no one is denying that. But who bears the final brunt of it all? If a crop is lost or if the markets fluctuate, then is it the farmers’ risk or the labourers? All those friends who talk high and mighty, I wish to ask how many are willing to give up on their high salaries. Which are many more times higher than the lowest job seeker in their organisations – many a time, a grass root worker, who gets paid a pittance as compared to the high salaries of people working in Upper Crust of the NGO sector? Or be willing to take salaries on par with the grass root workers? What makes the UpperCrust more deserving than the Lower Crust? Why do their children have to study in up market educational institutions? While they profess that govt. schools should be strengthened in order to reduce the burden of educational expenditure for rural people, especially farmers. And they say the same about government hospitals. That is a very good suggestion. But by that same yardstick, will they be sending their children to govt. schools and go to government hospitals? So, long as we send our children to upper class institutions, we are setting the trend for the rest of the people in rural areas, they too wish to send their children to ‘English medium schools”. They too want to buy their children all the goodies on this earth; hence, the pressure to make the most of the land, which has its limitations, which can give only so much. Is it any wonder then that farmers want to extract the maximum? Be it in cutting down on labour costs or using chemicals to produce more? A farmer in Telengana can hardly make 5 to 10,000 a year on one acre of land if he is lucky with the weather gods, and if he knows to sell his produce at a higher price. How many people in the Voluntary Work sector (which has become a highly paid sector of late) are willing to live on the same kind of money and the same kind of lifestyle as a small farmer? While they ask this question how long will a labourer be a labourer, I wish to ask, how long will the peons in their organizations be peons for ever? When will the peons become Directors of an NGO network? What is the value of each of their work and who decides these values and on what basis?
I have friends teaching in HCU. They teach two classes per week a total of 16-20 hours in a month, and their salaries are anything between 40,000 to 1lakh rupees a month. What is the value of their services? If there was a barter system, as it existed before, they would have been paid some pots of paddy and some vegetables in return to their service. Or some landlord would have donated them some land. And that is how these landlord farmers who made their money out of the slavery of labourers came about. Today, since we don’t give out land, we give out money. If what we are fighting about is this Landlord system, then why are we not questioning the fall out of this system in its modern avatar?
I remember another incident, during a documentary work, I visited a village near Bhongir, and there was a lady dalit farmer who was into organic farming and growing traditional crops like millets. She asked the NGO which was supporting her Seed Village programme in her village, “If you can help me dig a borewell, I will grow even better crops than the “reddy farmers”. To which, “oh, but that is not our policy, we are against the concept of digging borewells, replied my friend, who was from another NGO which promoted organic farming, And that local NGO head replied when I mentioned that lady’s request, “you see the moment we dig a borewell, she will be tempted to shift to cash / commercial crops, so we don’t wish to encourage that”. I remember that lady’s house – a small brick and tiled house a two room little place thrown away from the rest of the village. She is the poster girl for this local NGO, they send her everywhere to SAARC countries et al, so that they can display about the success of traditional, organic farming methods using native seeds. However, our man from the local NGO lives in a three storey building with a huge SUV sitting in front of his house. Now, did he earn all that only by doing organic farming using traditional seeds and paying good labour costs? And my friend, who said it’s against their policy to encourage borewell digging, I wanted to ask, she lives in a city, doesn’t she get her water in the tap from a borewell?
I am reminded of my classmate who used to wear a badge in college, it said, “take my advice, I am not using it”.