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Mainstream, Vol XLVI, No 15

Agro-Economic Ramblings

Saturday 29 March 2008, by Sudhir Vombatkere

Small farmers survive on acre-sized plots
- and landless labourers work on rich farmers’ lots.
- They plough and they dig, work hard and save
- while scientists learned rant and rave
- that such methods are backward, and hi-tech can do
- with chemical fertilisers and pesticides too,
- what traditional farming cannot—and they’re right!
- ’Cause methods traditional don’t kill the earth or fight
- the forces of Nature. Rather, they re-generate
- soil health, and farmyard manure helps re-instate
- soil bacteria, earthworms and natural things;
- and the bounty of Mother Nature that brings
- Oxygen by photosynthesis
- that’s absent in economists’ analysis.

It’s organic food that saves the earth.
- It saves water and health, and leaves no dearth
- of compost from farmyard residue
- (which Grandpa, a farmer, already knew).
- But modern methods chemicals need
- and scientists create some “high-yield” breed
- that raise water demand and input cost;
- comes some pest, and the crop is lost!
- For seed the company charges more
- and IPR for seeds makes farmers sore
- since they’ve got to buy seed every year;
- saving seed from crops they clearly fear
- criminal action by seed company’s men
- since India joined WTO. And when
- they borrow money to buy the seed
- it’s at the cost of their family’s need.

We need to grow food and need food to grow
- from childhood to teenage to adult. And so
- let farmers grow food crops and cash crops abjure
- (though their cash income will be little, for sure).
- Let economists find food in “the market” to feed
- themselves; since they don’t care for farmers and pay little heed
- to the travails of farmers and the rural poor,
- who, thanks to “the market”, have to endure
- the indignity of debt when cash crops they grow,
- and when the crop fails have nothing to show.
- If he’d grown food for himself (simple ragi and such)
- he’d have fed his family and avoided so much
- domestic problems, with but little cash,
- avoiding suicide and such matters rash.

When he grows cotton, tobacco, cane, et al.
- that need hard cash for inputs and shall
- cause him to go to moneylender for loans.
- (The same Shylock who buys his produce and moans
- that he’s taking a risk by lending hard cash).
- He’d be indebted for life; and if he’s a bit rash
- indebtedness and shame in his efforts to hide
- he’d straight’way go and commit suicide.
- “Why, he should go to banks for money,” say some.
- But he’s got little collateral and no real income;
- and the Bank Manager says, “No, no loans for you.
- For you can’t pay back principal with interest too.”

All farmers need cash for “Man lives not
- by bread alone”, so he’s in a spot.
- The Sugar Baron says, “Look here, my good man.
- I’ll loan money for cane-growing, and I’m sure you can
make a go of it, for I’ll buy cane from you.
- And you’ll have money to pay back, and some left over too.”
- Thus are farmers lured to grow sugarcane
- and are offered a price; but it’s ever in vain,
- ’cause the cane’s delivered but the payment’s delayed
- by weeks, even months; and the farmer is greyed
- waiting for cash for feeding his brood;
- rainless are skies, and gloomy’s his mood.
- No credit from banks (he’s already in debt);
- cooking vessels at home are all that is left
- as collateral for loan from usurious rogue.
- Failed crop? Why, suicide is in vogue!

Economist and politician make studies detailed
- of farmers’ suicides when cash crops have failed.
- But wisdom from Harvard or e’en LSE
- Can’t fathom suicides ’cause they only can see
- markets and prices and GDP growth
- Or SENSEX figures. And I’ll say this on oath:
- They don’t give a damn for the small farmer in debt,
- they don’t give a damn for poor people; and yet
- they provide tax rebates for the rich
- and the wealthy, the likeness of which
- may be seen on Page Three or in magazines glossy
- that list billionaires who aren’t very fussy
- ’cept when they buy a car for a crore a-piece
- or choose a nice gift for nephew or niece.

But let’s revert to the under-fed poor
- who’ve grown weaker meanwhile, you can be sure.
- “Starvation deaths in Orissa’s K-B-K,”
- says the media; but believe it or not, the CM says, “Nay!
- They’ve died ’cause they ate inedible things.”
- Could they not get chicken legs or wings?
- Or the nice rice that’s stored in FCI godowns
- supplied when CM smiles (but he usually frowns).
- The post-mortem says kidney failure or such;
- there’s not more to say. The miserable wretch
- surely did not of starvation die.
- (The government doc would ne’er tell a lie.)
- Some organ must fail for a body to pass;
- but it’s not starvation—no way! And doc’s at a loss
- for words. But CM manages the political spot
- with consummate skill, and says what is not.
- So CM’s lesson for docs present and future
- when they’ve done post-mortem (and close up and suture),
- is to say which organ failed and never mind why.
- While survivors starve, and wail as they cry,
- “Give us this day, Lord, our daily bread,
- or three kilograms of chaval per head.”

For a moment suppose all farmers grow food
- only for themselves. Now cash crops are good
- for the national market ’cause produce is sold
- in far away places (and let me be bold
- to say it mostly benefits the middleman rich),
- and the farmer gets a pittance by the spending of which
- he buys food for his wife and children to feed
- while the middleman gets fat with congenital greed.
- But say he only grows food for himself and his kids
- and not a grain more than to fulfil their needs.
- Say all farmers do this, and to hell with the cash …
- no loans, no suicides, no cremation, no ash.
- Urbanites, rich and middle class
- down on their knees will beg farmers, “Alas!
- We know not to grow food but know only to eat
- we promise in future to fairly you treat.
- But do give us now our daily bread!”
- And matters economic will come to a head!

The Harvard and LSE economist brains
- don’t understand that industrial gains
- are predicated on agriculture and food
- production. And I-T’s no good
- when it comes to feeding the face
- even if GDP’s growing apace.
- For you can’t eat software or silicon chips;
- something edible’s to pass one’s teeth and one’s lips.
- Tata, Birla, Ambani, et al.
- can’t last very long without food, e’en their pal
- Mittal needs feeding with food that is grown
- on land that is tilled and land that is sown
- by farmers, simple folk, with an acre or two
- who eat simple food (dal-roti will do).
- Let farmers eat first and the surplus they’ll sell
- for support price in the market, and well,
- p’rhaps make a small gain, not huge profit, you see.
- And the economy’ll perk up (I do hope you agree).

Now prices are rising, near touching the sky;
- housewives are stressed-up, wondering why
- money doesn’t go far for housekeeping and foods
- while prices fall monthly for electronic goods.
- The explanation: “It’s the market, you fool!”
- Consumerism for the middle class, while they drool
- over holiday offers in Switzerland or Spain.
- Why be in Mumbai in the monsoon rain
- when manholes overflow with sewage and muck,
- with roads jammed with cars and buses and trucks
- stranded in water ’cause Mithi’s filled up
- by real estate dons and goondas who sup
- with top politicians, and share the loot?
- (For the poor in the slums they don’t give a damn’ hoot).

Slum people are mostly the rural displaced
- who can’t live in villages when daily they’re faced
- with caste discrimination and such social ills
- and so move to the cities the slums to fill.
- Some believe the streets of metros are paved
- with gold; and hear stories of others who saved
- money and spoke of glittering lights
- (but spoke not of police, mafia ‘n’ street fights).
- Still others are displaced by projects and such
- for planners in Delhi ne’er cared too much.
- Since Independence in nineteen fortyseven
- when Tagore’s dream of freedom’s heaven
- was shattered by bureaucrats, sahibs brown
- who smiled on the rich, and on the poor did frown.
- Five crore people were by projects displaced
- and they wound up in metros whose footpaths they graced
- with their shanties and bodies all day and all night,
- where they cook and they shit and they mate and they fight.

But who cares for slum-dwellers ’til its time to get votes,
- when its time to buy Office with liquor and notes.
- The goonda boss who lives in the slum
- Fixes electoral rolls with his lumpen scum.
- And says, “You’ll bloody well vote for whom I say ‘Yes’.”
- Else I’ll beat you or rape you or kill you unless
- You do as I tell you and do’t with a smile.
- The neta’s elected, and after a while
- he’s forgotten the people whom he promised the earth.
- And they live on in slums where of all things there’s dearth.

So of all this fine verse what’s the bottom line ?
- While India may “grow” or India may “shine”
- It’s Bharat that’s groaning and dying and poor
- While the middle class pursues ends for lucre.
- The rich don’t give a damn for all else but pelf
- And indulge their relatives, friends and self
- with ostentatious, obscene spending and such,
- oblivious of penury, debt and much
- suffering amongst the invisible poor
- who beg on the streets or knock at their door.

All that matters today is GDP growth
- Of ten percent or more (here I mutter an oath).
- Forbes List of two thousand seven, it states
- That thirty-six billionaires are Indians. And dates
- Are announced for SEZs huge
- on farmers’ lands—they’ll then take refuge
- in city slums where they’re subject to crime
- and dirty politics, and hunger and grime.
- Will they see such governance with kindness and smiles?
- Or will they resist and use all their wiles
- to hit back somehow at the powers that be
- that’ve caused injustice and suffering, and yet see
- that being poor’s a crime while black money grows?
- And the minister’s shameless spending shows
- how little he cares for the wretched and poor
- from whom he has wrung his wealth for sure.
- Some are resigned to their fate and some
- Will fight it out whatever may come.
- And then there are those who to violence will turn
- ’til the rich and the powerful do presently learn
- that they need the poor-the poor don’t need them.
- The time’s now right to say, “Amen”.

Major General S.G. Vombatkere joined the Indian Army in 1961 and was commissioned into the Corps of Engineers (Madras Engineer Group). He has seen active combat service in the Sialkot sector during the Indo-Pak conflict of 1965. He has long experience of military service in Ladakh and has earned a place in the Guinness Book of Records for the design and construction of a motorable bridge at the highest altitude (5,603m) in the world near Khardungla in Ladakh, in August 1983. The President of India awarded him the Visishta Seva Medal (VSM) in 1993 for distinguished services rendered. He has held various command, staff and instructional appointments in both combat and technical units and formations. He holds a Ph.D in Structural Engineering from the IIT, Madras. Since his retirement in 1996 he is settled in Mysore where he is engaged in voluntary work in the social, civic and environmental fields. He is also teaching a course on Science, Technology and Sustainable Development for University of Iowa, USA, for the semester in South Asia at Dhvanyaloka Centre for Indian Studies at Mysore.

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