Invoking Gandhi: The need to focus on small and marginal farmers of India
By:Amit Ramchandani – Class XI A
It was pouring cats and dogs. My father and I were headed towards an area called Alandi Phata . We followed the directions prompted on the Google map and reached the location. In a few minutes, we saw an auto approaching the designated point and then we stepped out and walked towards the vehicle. My father handed the man inside the auto an envelope. I could see an elderly women in the backseat of the auto, she looked like she was unwell. We found out that she was suffering from colon cancer and her son (the auto driver) was taking her for a chemotherapy session. The private hospital where she was being treated was nearly 40 kms away from his village and the auto was the only means of transport that they had and which they could afford in the lockdown.
Our driver was instructed to unload the large bag of onions (it weighed 50 kgs) from the auto and after exchanging some pleasantries, we left the place. On the way home, I learnt that the man was the husband of a farmer we knew from the Vetale village. Her name was Padma Bombale. I had met Padma Bombale on a couple of occassions before since my mother was conducting a research project in the areas around Vetale (near Pune, Maharashtra). She used to welcome us warmly when we visited the village along with our mother, making sure that she gave us some sweet treats when she met us.
I knew that her husband was an auto rickshaw driver in Mumbai and that she had two school going children. She did not own land in her name and so used to toil in other farms located near Vetale village on a daily wage basis. She also used to cultivate pulses and vegetables on a ‘produce sharing basis’. This meant that she could keep half of crop while the landowner got the other half.
The daily wage rate in Vetale is Rs 100 – even now! This rate is lower than the prevailing MNREGA wage rate for our state . I had found out about this a couple of years ago on one of my visits and did a quick calculation to figure out that a medium size pizza along with a soft drink cost me much more. In a matter of few minutes, my sister and I would spend more on our fast food cravings, stationary and clothes than the amount that Padma aunty made by working under the scorching sun for eight hours every day.
The main source of income for the family, were the funds received from her husband. He used to share a one 200 sq. feet room space with four other men from the same village in Mumbai, in order to save money. He would remit money every month and somehow between his income and Padma’s earnings, they were managing their monthly expense. This was a common model followed by a few other families in the village, who did not own any agricultural land. This approach had worked for all these years, but the Covid19 pandemic changed everything.
The menfolk from the village lost their livelihoods in the city. The reverse migration of people back into the villages from the cities resulted in pushing down the daily wages, due to the excess supply of labour. The market linkage was broken due to the long curfew and the villagers were not able to sell their perishable produce in time. This resulted in the agri produce rotting away. All in all the situation was very grim. Small farmers like Padma and her family were hit very badly. As if this was not enough, Padma’s mother in law was diagnosed with cancer. She was the elderly lady that I had seen, sleeping in the back seat of the auto. Padma’s story is sad but there are millions of small and marginal farmers like her who are in a very difficult position right now.
Infact the 10th agricultural census released by the Government of India shows that small and marginal farmers with less than two hectares of land account for 86.2% of all the farmers in India. However they own just 47.3% of the total crop area. The situation of women engaged in agriculture is even more challenging-not only do they have to toil hard and keep their family together but they also have to supplement income if required and that can be very demanding if there is no way for them to reach customers and markets where they can realize a fair value for their produce. According to a survey conducted by Oxfam, around 80 percent of the farm work is undertaken by women in India, however they own only 13 percent of the land. This is due to a variety of factors such as our patriarchal norms, absence of land rights that favour women or even an approachable institution whom they can contact in order to get solutions to problems related to marketing of their produce, difficulty in accessing banks for loans or even find work in case they need it.
My father told me that we had procured the 50 kg onion bag from Padma, in order to help her a bit. Not much, but something is better than nothing. We also contributed towards her mother-in-law’s treatment. The next day, my neighbours got a free overload of onions! I was deputed with the task of distributing them and since we had so many-that meant a lot of packets to distribute!
On August 15 2020, we celebrated our country’s 73rd independence day. Yet the very people that feed us are starving. If the roots that nourish our country are shaky then how can we thrive as a nation? Technology (Tech) is one way that we can level the playing field but then the solutions have to well researched and simple to use. We can try to make a difference on a personal level but it can only go that far. What we need a sustainable solution. What we need is to realize that beyond the cities are places where people live, grow and have needs just like us.