Harsh Mander

Barefoot - Naren’s last testament

Lessons from living: Naren trying out an organic soil enrichment tonic at his farm.  

A little over a year ago, we lost one of the finest men I have known. As his wife Uma aptly noted, ‘Naren passed away peacefully after (not) fighting brain cancer on July 5, 2009'. I wrote then in these columns about the many ways in which my friend Naren had taught me many lessons about life and goodness. I continue to learn from him.

Naren left behind an almost completed manuscript, “Dilemmas in Agriculture: A Personal Story”. We persuaded Uma to update the volume, and add a few personal notes. The little book is ready and published by Vasudheva Kutumbukum ( kutumbukum@gmail.com). It is rich with wisdom and gentle insights about the predicaments of rural life in India today, but what makes it significant is that it is based on their own journey. The narrative begins in 1987, when Naren decided to leave his well-paid job in a Bank to return to his ancestral village Venkatramapuram in Chittoor, Andhra Pradesh, for a ‘life of organic farming and social work'. With heavy hearts, they sent their older daughter Samyuktha to a school, Kalakshetra in Chennai, whereas the younger Lakshmi was raised for many years in a village school. Looking back, Uma writes: ‘I have no doubt that villages are the best places for children to grow up'.

Firsthand experience

In their new life in the village, Naren and Uma learnt about the plight of farmers in the most authentic way possible: by becoming farmers themselves. The questions for which they sought answers were: why are farmers continuing to commit suicide, even while our country is poised to record growth of nearly 10 per cent annually? And is it a historical inevitability that as we ‘ develop', our farming population will have to be reduced from 60 per cent to 15 to 2 per cent, as it has happened in ‘developed' countries? If so, where will they go, what will they do? What is the future of 600 million people engaged in farming?

Collected experience

This slim volume is a log-book of what they discovered through their own toil and investments over 20-odd years as farmers. Naren describes with self-deprecating irony their ‘battle with crops': always half-failed attempts at farming mango, paddy, sugarcane, groundnut, coconut and vegetables, deploying organic technologies and ethical payment to farm workers. With elaborate calculations, he establishes that it is impossible to break even in farming today. Prices are unstable and unpredictable, and credit, inputs and electricity prohibitively expensive. ‘Indian farmers looking at the skies for rains are not just images in photographs and films; they indeed are a ground reality, a fact of life. Timely, adequate and regular rains at different stages of growth and fruition of the crops make all the difference … between prosperity and desperation. The dry-land farmer knows this better and more bitterly than anybody else'.

When they took control of their 32-acre farm, Naren had a bank account of Rs. 10 lakhs. But in 1997, Chittoor fell into a drought which lasted seven years! By 2000, their bank balance had vanished, and they were in debt for Rs. two lakhs. He asks: ‘If the plight of a farmer like me, owning 32 acres was like this, how about farmers having two to five acres? From 1993 to 2005, 2,50,000 farmers have committed suicide; that is 20,000 per year! Share of agriculture in the country's GDP has come down from 50 per cent during the 1960s to 17 per cent now. That is, 60 per cent of our population has only 17 per cent of the nation's wealth. Migration from the rural areas has been on such a massive scale that villages are getting emptied out. People are literally fleeing from agriculture and rural areas'.

If there is good price for a farmer's crop, Naren found, the yield is poor. If the yield is good, the price is low. ‘To add to their woes, under the LPG (liberalisation-privatisation-globalisation) regime, there is pressure to withdraw even the meagre subsidies and concessions, and uncontrolled exports and imports' result in highly volatile prices. Farmers repeatedly demand, often through violent protests, to come to their rescue when prices fall below the minimum support price declared by the government. ‘But government becomes deaf and dumb at such times, leaving the farmers to their own devices. How are farmers to survive when they find whatever the crops they grow, they are in loss and debts?'

Uma endorses that ‘In Chittoor district farmers are a weary, tired lot today. Whatever they may do they seem to be in losses. The feeling of frustration and resignation is pervasive; the sense of inferiority is profound. Farmers introduce themselves apologetically, much like the women who introduce themselves as “just housewives”.' Farmers are unable to find brides for their farming sons. A marriage broker said that a father rejected a prospective bridegroom who owned 20 acres of mango gardens, and pleaded: ‘please look for some teacher or an attendant or clerk.'

Changing priorities

They observe that our tradition recognised food to be the basis of life and society. But today farmers are encouraged to grow ‘cash crops', as if they can eat cash! ‘If a society is to progress in peace and prosperity, its people should have access to adequate food under any and all circumstances. Our culture and society supported public feeding through temples and endowments on a very large scale. But all this has changed. Modern farming puts earning money as the primary objective of farming, as opposed to growing adequate food first for the farmer's family and then for the society'. The neglect of dry-land cultivation, and a Public Distribution System centred on rice and wheat, has led to sharp declines in production of nutritious millets, pulses and oilseeds.

Naren's book is accordingly a passionate — even desperate — plea to save the Indian farmer from hunger, pauperisation and despair. At least some answers for policy-makers are not so hard to find. Dr. M.S. Swaminathan headed a National Farmers Commission which submitted its recommendations in 2006. Above all, it recommended that governments must ensure minimum support price for all crops; it deemed a fair remunerative price to be 50 per cent more than the cost of production, so that the farmer has a small profit left after meeting the cost of production. The Commission called for land reforms, cheap credit for farmers including consumption credit, social security for farmers, crop insurance, safeguarding traditional seeds, strengthening dry-land agriculture, small irrigation projects, and small farmer cooperatives.

For an evergreen revolution

Naren endorses all of these, and adds, ‘True we need a second green revolution, an evergreen revolution, but that … has to come from improved organic farming, afforestation, watershed development, water-bodies restoration, pastures development, and so on.' The solution in the long run is ‘to get off the train of industrial-chemical agriculture. We will have nothing to lose except the desolation of a poverty-debt-ridden-polluted planet!' He believes that if the small farmers have to stand on their own feet, they must grow enough food to feed themselves, and have some cash for other expenses. ‘By eco-friendly farming, we can feed the nation good nutritious non-poisonous food, we can stem groundwater as well as power crisis because good organic farming practices retain moisture in the soils far better than chemical farming, we can improve soil fertility, we can contain water and air pollution, and we can reduce fossil fuel energy use to a great extent'.

My gentle friend left the world dreaming of a new caring India, which would restore the dignity, hope and morale of the Indian farmer. Swaminathan's report and Naren's last testament shows us many pathways. But even as farmers across India continue to kill themselves in an unending epidemic of despair, is anyone listening?

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