Ticket to hope
As more days pass without rain, hundreds of people from parched villages throng the cities of India. Gobar Times meets these migrants whose lives depend on rains.
New Delhi, August 5, 2002: The Kalinga-Utkal Express screeches to a halt in the Nizamuddin Railway station. People troop out. Fat women, fanning themselves hard; Babies crying themselves hoarse; businessmen running out with small suitcases; families with tonnes of luggage, waiting for a coolie. As people thin out, you see a few groups remaining on the platform. Looking lost and confused but smiling. Dhoti-clad and gamchas around their shoulders, the men are in charge while in their colourful sarees, the women look after the children running around.
They are the latest migrants from Madhya Pradesh. Here in Delhi in search of jobs as labourers, as their fields parch at home. Chippu Aherwar, 50 years old, is the head of one such group. From where? Zila Sagar, Banda Tehsil, Gaon Khatora Kala. The group comprises 25 to 30 people, including women and children.
Farmers back home, they waited for the rains and finally gave up the vigil. “We grow soybean, mungfali (groundnuts), and mung. The sowing season falls around two months before Raksha Bandhan — hardly 15 days from now. Last year the yield was barely enough to see us through, so if we stayed at home this year too, we would be dead.”
Mohan Aherwar, the ‘second-in-charge’ aged about 35 years, says, “We are the lower castes, you see. There are no irrigation systems. We depend on the rain or 200-feet-deep wells. Each well requires Rs 50,000 to Rs 60,000. Who has that kind of money? The upper castes like Brahmins, Banias, and Lodhis have wells, planted their fields in time and so will not suffer. They have plenty of land and so lot of money.”
But do they eat the mungfali and soybean they grow with so much trouble? “Nahi, we grow this for sale”, replies Mohan, “I have two acres of land, and in a year I grow 2 to 3 quintals of soybean (sell it at Rs 6 per kg) and 1-2 quintals of mung (sell it at Rs 9 per kg). Groundnut cultivation is very less.” What do they eat then? “We eat jowar (sorghum), makka (maize), dhan (rice), and gehu (wheat), which we grow in small quantities for our use.”
Out of the money Mohan Aherwar gets, he also pays the landless labour who helps out on his fields. “Not all our women are here with us. The rest are at home, looking after the land and animals. The families that don't have land and survive on animals did not come with us”, says a young man cleaning his teeth with a datun (“I got this from home”).
Mohan is worried about his daughter's marriage. “She is already 15 and will have to be married in another couple of years. I will need a lot of money for that. This year, there were hardly any rains.
What if it doesn't rain for the next two years. We put in almost all our money into the train tickets. Here in Delhi, I'll work, earn, and perhaps go back one day”.
This group is one of the many that are migrating to Delhi or other cities. From farmers to daily wage labourers. A long journey. Mohan Aherwar and his friends smile. Finally they are here. Finally they don't have to depend on rains for their food.
Morning. Labour Chowk, Munirka, New Delhi. People waiting for work. Wages range from Rs 40 to 150 a day. Rates vary with the climate. Right now, you can even take five labourers for Rs 100 a day. A drought rate.
Per day wages Painter – Rs 150
Raj Mistri – Rs 150
Construction labourers – Rs 90-100
Garden / Household Help – Rs 40-60
Working Hours – 8 hours
The rainfed farmer
Mostly poor and marginal, owning very small fields, Indian farmers have learnt to cope with truant monsoons
It is important to understand that the very fact that somebody is called poor means that he or she does not benefit from the country’s Gross National Product (GNP). But most of the rural poor do somehow survive. They depend on another GNP — the Gross Nature Product — for their survival. Their energy, housing material, food, fodder for animals, medicine, water — all come from what they grow and collect from the local environment. There are different ways in which Girijas across India cope with what they get. Zaheerabad in Andhra Pradesh is known for two things — its infertile soil, and its rich crop diversity.
Farmers here have withstood drought and devastation. What keep them going is their crops that demand nothing. The nutritional value is also much beyond the government supplied whitecereals, rice and wheat. The farmers, in gratitude, call them satyam pantalu — crops of truth. Millets. Traditional crops. Almost erased by the efforts of the government and private companies. When the Deccan Development Society (DDS), an NGO based in Pastapur, started work with low-caste Dalits owning the worst land, they discovered that elaborate systems of diverse cropping, rotation, pest control, fertilisation were already in use. Although small millets are getting threatened, there are a few families who have seeds of over 65 varieties. The women, having seen the worst, were the best believers in tradition.
Scientists split hair
When the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) predicted “normal monsoon for the 14th consecutive year” in 2002, they did not pluck daisy petals to get an answer. The monsoon forcast model being used by the IMD is a statistical one. This is based on 16 climatic patterns including global parameters like El Nino effect and the eurasian snow cover. These parameters are minutely studied before weather personnel in India say Good Monsoon, Normal Monsoon or Bad Monsoon. But as P. R. Pisharoty, the Indian Monsoon Man, said to Down To Earth exactly five years ago, “Willynilly the monsoon will come each year, but what confounds the scientists is, when it does, how variable and unreliable will the rainfall be ”.
The Met office predictions take into account the total rains. Heavy rain in Bihar can make the national rainfall good. Farmers though, need regular and even rain. Gowadikar, who designed the IMD model, however has not lost hope. “The Indian monsoon even in the worst of situations yields 75 to 80 per cent rainfall of its average value. It can never fail totally”, he said to Outlook last month. Migrating farmers look at it differently. “The rains did not come when we had to sow. It doesn’t matter a tiny bit to me even if rains come now”, says Chippu Aherwar, a small farmer who migrated from Madhya Pradesh this year.
Wheat and rice are pushing out their ‘unfashionable’ cousins
Girijas across the drylands of India, especially the Deccan Plateau, northern Karnataka, Marathwada, deserts of Rajasthan and tribal areas in central India, have seen a number of monsoons similar to this one. Monsoons that arrive too late and with too little. But they managed to survive. Girija used to know his land, you see. He used to grow crops that can withstand the hot and dry weather and infertile soils. Coarse grains.
Grains that have been the mainstay of agriculture, diet and culture systems across rural India. Until the government policies changed the story. Helped of course by you and me who prefer white, refined cereals to brown and yellow coarse grains.
As you read this, visit the website of the Ministry of External Affairs, India. The page for Rajasthan tells you rice is a principal crop of the region. Turn to the chapter on Rajasthan in your Geography textbook, and you will see wheat being listed under the head of Crops Grown. Rice in Rajasthan? This wasn’t what the textbooks told us in the 1970s and the 1980s. But it's true. Rice and Wheat, the fashionable crops of India today are soon replacing the coarse Coarse Grains, not only in Rajasthan but all over the country.
“ Rice was introduced in this area through the PDS (Public Distribution System). With rice available at Rs two per kg, farmers lost interest in other crops. Fields became fallow. ”
Salome Yes Das Agriculture Research Station Medak, Andhra Pradesh
Mohammed Moiunuddin from Kalbemal village of Andhra Pradesh, reflects the general attitude when he says, “If rich people can eat rice, why not our children? We do not have enough money to give them even the cheap rice so we give them Kanki (broken rice), which is cheaper”. “We eat jowar roti, but the children ask for rice now. This is the era of rice”, says Ghadappa, an old lady from Kalbemal. In Pastapur, near Hyderabad, Tuljamma, a mother of two, says, "Jowar roti is very good for strength, but we now eat rice for taste. We started eating rice only after the PDS shop began selling it. But even today, when people become weak due to illness, we give them roti of yellow jowar".
Today, even though the country is more or less self-sufficient in food, this food does not meet the concerns of people living in difficult terrain, arid or semi-arid regions without enough water to cultivate wheat or rice. Anwar Alam, deputy director general (engineering) with the Indian Council of Agricultural Reasearch, New Delhi, said to Down To Earth in May, 2001, “Paddy and “We eat jowar roti, but the children ask for rice now.
“We eat jowar roti, but the children
This is the era of rice” wheat consume about one-third of the total energy consumed for production of major crops in India.” This energy cost is due to irrigation needs. Places not familiar with paddy, Punjab for instance, have already seen the aftermath of a honeymoon with the crop, when the Food Corporation of India (FCI) refused to buy the substandard crop produced.
Government policy, as can be seen through the Public Distribution System that is blindly pushes rice and wheat, seems to be encouraging this shift to water-intensive crops like rice. Never mind that this has led to chronic food and nutritional security. Plus a dreaded feeling every year before the rains. Even the residue of coarse grain crops that provided fodder is missing for their animals. Slow productivity growth and low prices make sure that coarse grains lose out to smooth cereals.
Crops loans and insurance are not available for these crops. In case of bad weather or slide in production, the government does not come to the rescue unlike for rice, wheat, cotton and tobacco. All these while international demand for coarse grains are on the rise. Global trade in coarse grains is projected to raise to 175 metric tonnes (mt) in 2005 (against a demand of 132 mt in 1995). About 80-85 per cent of this demand is from industrialised nations.
Indian policy makers have a different view. In the ninth and tenth five-year plans, rice gets 42 per cent of the total cropped area, wheat almost 35 per cent and coarse grains only 14 per cent. A. Seetharam, Bangalore-based project coordinator ague of the All India Coordinated Research Project on millets says it is not enough to dissuade farmers from growing paddy in inadequately irrigated regions. “The only way out is to put the traditional crops like millets at par with paddy and give proper remuneration to farmers”, he says.
Plus demand from consumers, of course. I mean how many of us would prefer a Bajre ki Roti instead of a Atta or Maida one? Have any of us even heard of Ragi and Thali? Till a time when the changed farming habits change again, every monsoon will be the difference between a happy farmer and a sad one in most states of India.
Anyone for Bajre ki roti?
Hello, I am feeling fine after a first class breakfast of oats and millets. Yummy. My cousin in the America sent these fancy Kellogs packets across. Did you know once upon a time, my village too used to grow millets? Now this is all too old fashioned. What is all this Bajre ki roti shoti? Everyone in our village eats and grows rice and wheat now.
But you know I am thinking, why are these Americans and Europeans eating these coarse coarse grains...fibre-shiber? In the news I heard millets are promoted in restaurants and shops in Japan. Everyone in ‘phoren’ country is eating these ugly brown grains. In my village all my farmer friends are happy that government is paying money for rice and wheat, and so stopping millets.
Therefore I am again wondering why is the government doing this? Why do you in cities not eat Bajra and Jowar? Because you do not get it in shops near you? Now that my mind is running, I am remembering those days when my farmer friends did not become sad after the bad monsoon. This time, all of them are crying. I am wanting to help. What about you?
Grain of Truth, Down To Earth, May 15, 2001