April 25, 2012

This is an unfinished, rough version of my thoughts on yesterday’s visit to Wardha to speak with Mr. Atul Sharma. Radhika is my unsuspecting translator/intern…well, she might be suspecting now. Yesterday was our first of many adventures to be had over the next ten weeks. Today we head to SRUJAN’s farm. Saturday morning, back to Mulgavan. And the work begins!!! After a long spell in Nagpur, attending wedding festivities (photos available here) and avoiding the heat, I’m ready to get out and get going! I figured I’d post this, despite it’s unfinished status. It’ll give y’all something to chew on while I add to the list of things I’m learning and adventures I’m having. See you when I get back!

***

It’s a short walk from our house to the bus stop, past meandering cows and children on bikes three times their size. Radhika and I arrive at what we think is the bus stand and when Radhika looks at me with questioning eyes I shrug and suggest that she ask uh, that man there. She shyly inquires if this is the place where we should wait for a bus to Wardha. As she turns to me to explain that the man said we can just wait at that bench there, a bus pulls up. People board it hastily. It starts to drive off and I flag it down quickly. Radhika yells up, “Wardha?” I’m glad she is with me. If I had asked “Wardha” with my foreign accent, they probably wouldn’t have understood me, which would have made the less than one minute interaction of asking and boarding the bus much more awkward. But they understand what Radhika said. The conductor gives us a quick nod and we step up onto the bus. I pull the door shut behind me as the bus begins to move back into the stream of traffic.

Standing room only. And the aisle of the bus is already full. I stand at the top of the steps, holding onto a railing on my right and a railing on my left. We sway back and forth as the bus moves bulkily with the traffic. A few minutes go by. Maybe fifteen. The bus stops. Men grab their bags and make their way towards the door. We crane our necks to see if all of the recently vacated seats have already been claimed. Pushing our way to the middle of the bus we discover that they have indeed been filled.

Radhika reaches above and pulls two leather hand holds towards us. I slip my fingers through the loop and rest my right hand on the seat next to me to steady myself as we jolt forward with each sudden brake and swerve. The left side of the bus drops suddenly off the rough edge of the road. With the right side on the pavement and the left in the dirt we lurch forward as car by car, truck by truck, people leaving Nagpur stop and pay the toll.

As I stand, constantly re-steadying myself, my gaze drifts over the heads of black hair all around me and falls upon glints of bangles on women’s wrists. I remember how surprisingly difficult and painful it was to force my hand to contract in a way that enabled me to squeeze glossy rings of glass over my knuckles and onto my thin wrists, discovering that my right hand is noticeably bigger than my left. My fingers begin to tingle as the tight grip of the leather loop puts them to sleep. I readjust and turn towards a mother and her two daughters. One of the daughters, probably no older than five, meticulously nibbles on Parle G biscuits. When she gets to the last corner of each biscuit she sucks on it till its soggy bits dissolve on the back of her tongue.

We stand for about an hour until a man with a duffle bag looks at us and says, “There are two seats.” He slides past us with his bag and we sit down, finally. I sit in the last row, six of us in the five seat space. We’re launched wildly into the air with every dramatic bump. My butt literally leaves the seat. I want to relax. I know, relax? Yep. I’ve actually gotten to the point where I’m about to relax in the back of a bumpy bus. But I can’t relax; I know that our stop is coming up and I have only been here once before. I watch the scenery intently, waiting for the bus to make a left turn. I remember that I have to get off at a left turn.

We make the transition from surprisingly cushy bus seats to a ramshackle rickshaw with not surprisingly uncomfortable seats. They’re upholstered with a white crocodile pleather that can hardly be classified as white. The ceiling is a ripped, shredded collage of orange tarp and the engine roars loudly. I think, if I had my recorder with me right now, no one would believe this monstrous noise is coming from this tiny rickshaw.

We arrive at Polytechnic and ask for Mr. Sharma’s office. He hasn’t arrived yet but is on his way and has told us to wait for him in his office. A peon turns on the ceiling fan and hands us two glasses of water. There are several desks in the office and I scan the cluttered one in front of us for a clue as to who it belongs to. It’s covered in papers that are being weighted down by various objects so as not to blow away with the breeze of the fan. Gandhi’s Diary 2011. My Village…My Place of Pilgrimage by Anna Hazare. An actual paperweight–one with yellow ribbons of glass waving through its center. A bell. A hole punch. There is no conclusive evidence naming the desk’s owner. I look around the office. A few co-workers arrive and Radhika explains who we are and what we’re doing. I notice some motivational posters tacked up around the room. “No one can do everything but everyone can do something” And, next to a close up of hands molding clay on a potter’s wheel, “Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.”

Mr. Sharma arrives. The agricultural entimologist moves softly towards the desk in front of us, his desk. His graying hair is parted on the left and neatly combed across his head. His salt and pepper mustache moves up and down as he quietly converses with his colleagues. He’s been out of the office due to an illness and spends the first few minutes checking in with everyone. As he settles into his chair, he smiles, folds his hands, and gently peers at me with weary eyes through his thick-lensed round-framed glasses. I notice that his peach dress shirt is frayed along the collar, a sign that perhaps Sharma doesn’t just study Gandhi’s philosophies as his 2011 diary would indicate, but also practices them.

After introducing myself and Radhika, I explain to him that I know very little about the work that he does–only that it is related to cotton and therefore related to my upcoming work. He tells me that for the last fifteen years or so he’s been collaborating with researchers at the Central Institute of Cotton Research and analyzing pests on cotton fields in the districts of Wardha and Yavatmal. The premise of the program is simple. His team advances their research while at the same time helping farmers gain better knowledge of the ecosystems and the natural environment in which they farm. As the saying goes, feed a man a fish and he’s fed for a day. Teach a man to fish and he can feed himself forever.

Sharma emphasizes that his program is a non-material input program. Unlike many other research institutes or Universities that hand out new seeds, fertilizers, or pesticides, to farmers who participate in their research program, Sharma’s team bestows knowledge. They work with 20-30 new farmers every year, spending time on their land and teaching them how to identify bugs and whether or not they are harmless, beneficial, or pests that require some type of intervention for the health of the farmer’s crop.

Seventy per cent of the farmers he’s worked with spray chemical pesticides out of fear. They don’t know the difference between a pest and a bug that might be beneficial by say, eating the larvae of a pest. Better safe then sorry, they feel. But Dr. Sharma tells me that it isn’t actually safer. Heavy spraying of pesticides takes its toll on the health of those spraying the chemicals, the soil being soaked with the chemicals, the bugs that are necessary to maintain a healthy ecosystem, and the pests that eventually develop resistance to the chemicals that are meant to destroy them. “Insects have been around for 20 million years. They are pretty evolved,” Sharma tells me. “We need to understand our limits and try to benefit from controls available within nature. Chemicals should be a last resort.”

“They call the pesticide ‘medicine.’ But it’s not medicine,” Sharma says. “It’s poison.” They should be cautious with it, in selecting it and in using it. But farmers are generally not advised by the likes of Mr. Sharma and his team. Usually they make their decisions based on what shop keepers and chemical companies tell them. These farmers have become absorbed in a free market system. If a seed doesn’t preform well, just discard it. Buy a new version the next year. The shop keeper will tell him what kind. And when a seed seller helps with that decision, other interests come into play.

“I’m not against chemical pesticides,” Sharma assures me. “It can’t be like a pendulum. We can’t just get rid of chemicals completely.” Like when you are really sick, he says, you will take an antibiotic. But only if necessary. And only when your doctor prescribes it. And just like we go to doctors for a prescription, farmers should have someone guiding them when it comes to the health of their crops and their land. Asking advice from the shop keeper who sells the chemical pesticide and the genetically modified seed is like going straight to a pharmaceutical drug company and asking them what drug you should take for your illness. Of course they are going suggest their own name-brand expensive version of the drug.

The technology isn’t bad, he says, it’s the way its being marketed that’s the problem. Which is why technological awareness is most important, why knowledge-based programs can really benefit farmers. They need to have agency when they make a decision. They need to be able to decide what is best for their land and best for their family’s health and financial security. And they shouldn’t be making these decisions on their own. Collaboration is key.

I ask Mr. Sharma if he’s ever come across farmers collaborating with each other to determine the best practices for farming in their village. He says at most, collaboration takes the form of a passing remark. How is your crop this year? Good, bad, etc. It’s not like back in the day before TV, when farmers used to sit together in the evening and discuss their fields, sharing their knowledge, creating a collective wisdom.

“Farming cannot be an individual business,” Sharma tells me, looking up from the glass paperweight that he’s been fidgeting with. “It is a collective effort which is going to benefit. Not an individual activity.” I ask why and he gives me an example that highlights the importance of all farmers harvesting and clearing their land at the same time. If one farmer leaves the stalks of his cotton crop up until the beginning of the next season, he creates a haven for pests. And if the pests are there, waiting for the crop, it won’t matter if the farmer plants Bt cotton or conventional cotton. He’ll be forced to spray toxic pesticides. And, chances are, his neighboring farmers will also have to spray for these pests.

Sharma believes that educational programs like the one at Wardha Polytechnic are essential. With a little bit of information, a farmer can forgo spraying intense amounts of pesticide, saving himself some money and helping his land remain healthy by avoiding unnecessary doses of toxic chemicals.

But even a non-material input program has limitations. Sharma’s team moves to new villages and works with new farmers every year because they want to help as many farmers as possible. But identifying pests and stages of pests is difficult especially when you are working within a living system and there’s no guaranteed that you’ll be dealing with the same insects every year. Last year a few farmers expressed interest in continuing to work with Polytechnic. They even offered to pay for the service. Sharma couldn’t commit to working with only 4 or 5 farmers, so he decided to see how many farmers might be interested. He agreed to allow the small group of farmers to see how many farmers would be interested in this program. They settled on a meager cost of 20 rupees per farmer for consulting with Polytechnic. A few weeks later the farmers turned up with 37,000 rupees. That’s 1,850 farmers agreeing to pay a fee so that they can work with Polytechnic to learn more about their land. The demand is there.

Government support needs to be there too. Sharma’s small team can’t help every farmer in Vidarbha. It’s going to be hard to manage to help the 1800 that have asked them for follow up support in addition to the new farmers that they work with this year.

Sorry for the abrupt ending. I’m literally rushing out the door to start the journey to Pandharkawada. When I get back, I’ll be sure to add my concluding thoughts. Till then you can mull over these unpolished ones. Catch ya later!

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4 thoughts on “April 25, 2012

  1. This is great! I am so excited to “see” what you are doing! I can imagine the bus, the interview, the people. I look forward to reading more!

    I hope others are just as thrilled as I am to read this latest post!

  2. This is really amazing. I love the pictures of the wedding! So colorful and joyous!! I look forward to hearing more about the eventful week and all your adventures!!

  3. Hey! I am from Wardha!

    Know Atul Sharma and his work! It was great to read about Wardha from a non-resident person’s eyes. I could imagine the bus, the ride, and the left turn you talked about…totally nostalgic!

  4. Collaboration and collective wisdom, YES. Thank you for this beautiful, thorough and cogent report.

    Love from Elsah Riverview. Sun

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