Monday, December 19, 2011

The farmer's daily gift to us

Those of us who live in cities and work in software companies and other white-collar professions sometimes lose touch with the ground realities of everyday life, the things that we use and consume on a daily basis but require very hard labor from many who may not enjoy all the things that we do.

I was reading this article in 'India Today' about the plight of the long-suffering farmers in Vidarbha, the dry eastern part of the Indian state of Maharashtra. To give an idea to non-Indians, this is the state whose capital is the city of Mumbai, India's financial capital, home to Bollywood and beauty contests, Dalal Street (India's own Wall Street) and thousands of other businesses, big and small. This is also one of the alpha world cities, truly one of the world's biggest cities in terms of population, variety of industries, educational institutions, cultural activities and probably GDP if you look at it not just by the dollar measure but by the sheer volume of economic activity.
Young people from Mumbai and also those who migrate here from other parts of India and even neighboring countries dream of becoming Bollywood stars, models, designers, bankers, businessmen/women or landing a good, cushy job in one of the many organizations here. A large percentage do end up making a decent living with upward mobility leading to at least a decent flat (apartment) and possibly a car with all the other modern utilities that money can buy.

Yet, drive or take a train a few hundred miles to the east and there is abject poverty with children still dying of malnourishment, farmers committing suicide because they are unable to pay their debts and lawlessness that aids in perpetuating the worst in Indian society including the rigid caste system practiced in its most exploitative form and the safety of women and children endangered.

Newspapers and politicians wail about the plight of the farmers, big sums of money are donated either through bank loans or government aid but the fundamental issue remains the same.

Here, some of us are, living abroad, thinking about what is the best post-workout snack, how many servings of fruit and vegetables we get, contemplating whether brown rice or whole wheat or gluten-free, high protein quinoa is the best and buying pricey handmade organic cotton goods from Whole Foods and feeling great about our healthy choices.
Please don't get me wrong here. I am a big fan of Whole Foods, The Body Shop, Starbucks and the fair trade coffee they sell and everything organic, whole grain, etc. I will always buy such products as far as I can afford because not only are they good for my health and my family's but also good for the environment. Also, fair trade products do help farmers both in the United States and the developing world by making sure they get a fair share of the profits.
I just think more about those people who toil all day in fields through whom we get our daily bread and lots more to sustain us as well as keep us healthy and glowing.

I don't completely know the economics of agriculture and how much percentage of the profits actually reach the farmer but I do know that the lifeblood of India - the monsoon and its mood swings along with other factors that influence crop yield do decide the income of the farmers to a large extent. There may be other factors, too, for example, farming of cash crops versus food crops, over-farming, etc. which are complex issues that I am not delving into in this post.
As for agricultural loans, that is another issue altogether. The reasons for someone not being able to repay their debts may be manifold.
There are two very good articles here on this topic - one from the Daily Mail (UK) and the other on the Huffington Post.
Rapid, large scale industrialization and aggressive, yield-centric farming with genetically modified crops, pesticides and fertilizers along with other human intervention in the environment have all been blamed as per these articles and some of the enlightening comments.

What if farmers had an alternate source of revenue and growth in many other ways rather than just the hard drudgery of agriculture? Right now, most rural folks send their children to good schools and colleges, hoping that they can secure a good job in a successful company and move up in life. In short, the only certain way out of poverty seems to be a good education, a white collar job and moving to cities.

I am thinking about rural industry - investments in alternative energy sources and local industries that use farm products to create innovative, eco-friendly products.
Agro-based industries supply the world with many basic and ancillary necessities right from food, clothing, footwear, cosmetics and accessories such as hats and bags and even has immense scope for the pharmaceutical industry and natural medicine. Here is where the agro retail sector can help agriculture, just as the latter directly sustains the former.
People from villages could receive training in management, economics and environment-friendly practices and this would result in a more well-educated, happier, more ambitious populace.
Indians and the Indian government should focus on creating jobs and industries through agriculture by encouraging private investment and rural entrepreneurship.

The agro-industry sector needs people just like Narayana Murthy and Azim Premji who revolutionized the Indian IT industry with Infosys and Wipro, respectively.

The fundamental issue is that the rural poor need to be empowered with education and innovative, environment-friendly industry, not just forced to migrate to Asia's already burgeoning cities, rampant with their own problems of pollution and overcrowding. We need less government bureaucratic involvement and more job-creating initiatives from the private sector.

India's and probably other developing nations' future lies in the empowerment of the most vulnerable sections living in far-flung villages.

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