Photography Opening at Left Bank Dance Studio

I recently had the opportunity to select a few photos (out of hundreds!) from my research in India and put together a collection to display at the Left Bank Dance Studio in Alton, IL.  It’s wonderful how these opportunities just keep knocking at my door and I am so grateful for the tangible support of the Arts in the community of Elsah/Alton, IL.

Here are 13 of the 18 photos that are hanging in the beautiful Left Bank Dance Studio. The brick wall is the perfect backdrop for the vibrant colors that I captured with my camera while living in Maharashtra last year. The photos will remain at the studio for several more weeks. Dance on over and take a peek!

Here are 13 of the 18 photos that are hanging in the beautiful Left Bank Dance Studio. The brick wall is the perfect backdrop for the vibrant colors that I captured with my camera while living in Maharashtra last year. The photos will remain at the studio for several more weeks. Dance on over and take a peek!

On Saturday, January 26, I hosted a screening of the film “Bitter Seeds,” the final film in Micha X. Peled’s Globalization Trilogy. Here is the synopsis from their website:

Bitter Seeds follows a season in a village at the epicenter of the crisis, from sowing to harvest. Like most of his neighbors, cotton-farmer Ram Krishna must borrow heavily in order to afford the mounting costs of modern farming. Required by a money-lender to put up his land as collateral, he gambles on everything he has.

When his crop is attacked by pests, Ram Krishna must do whatever he can to avoid losing the family land. Adding to his burden is another duty – his daughter has reached marrying age, and he must find the money for an expensive dowry. Ram Krishna has just become a candidate for joining the ranks of the farmers who commit suicide in despair.

Weaving in and out of Ram Krishna’s story is that of his neighbor’s daughter. Manjusha, a college student, is determined to become a journalist and tell the world about the farmers’ predicament. Her family opposes her plans, which go against village traditions. Manjusha’s ambition is also fueled by her personal history – her father was one of the suicide victims. When a newspaper reporter agrees to look at her writing, Manjusha takes on Ram Krishna’s plight as her first reporting project. Armed with a small camera from the production team, her video becomes part of the film.

The film follows the seeds salesmen from the remote village in the state of Maharashtra to their company’s headquarters. Interviews with seed industry executives (including Monsanto’s) and their critic, Vandana Shiva, flesh out the debate.

Bitter Seeds features compelling characters to tell a deeply moving story from the heart of the worldwide controversy about the future of farming.

“Films like this can change the world.” – Alice Waters

“A tragedy for our times, beautifully told, deeply disturbing.” – Michael Pollan

The film is available on Netflix. If you are interested in purchasing the film, visit the Teddy Bear Films website. I highly recommend seeing it!

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Here I am introducing the film “Bitter Seeds” and briefly explaining what my experience in India was like.

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Watching “Bitter Seeds” at the Left Bank Dance Studio in Alton, IL.

I can’t even begin to explain how neat it was to have that film as a resource for my audience. It was filmed in the region where I did my research about a year before I arrived. Some of the folks interviewed in the film were people that I also met and spoke with while I was in India. It was a great window into the world that I had immersed myself in last year; there were scenes on buses and around towns that felt very familiar to me. As I watched the film with all of the friendly folks that came out to support me and learn more about cotton farming in India, I thought about my friends in India and wondered how their harvest had turned out.

Answering questions about cotton farming in India after the film.

Answering questions about cotton farming in India after the film.

Being able to display my photos, screen this film, and talk with people about my research and my experiences was so gratifying. There were so many good questions about the film and my research. I was thrilled to see a discussion about agriculture in India taking place in the backyard of Monsanto’s headquarters. Here in southern Illinois we are surrounded by farming. Monsanto’s headquarters are just a short drive away in St. Louis, MO. How encouraging, to see people drawing connections from the clothing that they wear to the farmers who grew the cotton a half a world away.

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Mingling and looking at photos before the film.

All photos are for sale and if you are interested in purchasing one, please contact me: amcmullin@gm.slc.edu

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"Afternoon Tea." 5x7 photo with 9x12 mat. $50

“Afternoon Tea.” 5×7 photo with 9×12 white mat. $50

"Waiting for Loan." 5x7 photo with 8x10 mat. $40

“Waiting for Loan.” 5×7 photo with 8×10 white mat. $40

"Distributing the Loan." 4x6 & 8x10 photos with 12x16 mat. $60

“Distributing the Loan.” 4×6 & 8×10 photos with 12×16 white mat. $60

"Playing Cards at the Farm." 4x6 & 8x10 photo with 12x16 mat. $60

“Playing Cards at the Farm.” 4×6 & 8×10 photo with 12×16 white mat. $60

"Buying Cotton Seeds." 8x10 & 5x7 photos with 16x20 mat. $75

“Buying Cotton Seeds.” 8×10 & 5×7 photos with 16×20 white mat. $75

"Blessing the Land for the New Season." 4x4, 5x7, 5x7 & 8x10 photos with 16x20 mat. $75

“Blessing the Land for the New Season.” 4×4, 5×7, 5×7 & 8×10 photos with 16×20 white mat. $75

"Planting 5 Acres of Cotton." 11x14 photo with 16x20 mat. $65

“Planting 5 Acres of Cotton.” 11×14 photo with 16×20 white mat. $65

"Planting Cotton." 5x7 photo with 8x10 mat. $35

“Planting Cotton.” 5×7 photo with 8×10 white mat. $35

"Praying for Rain." 6x8 and 4x6 photos with 12x16 mat. $60

“Praying for Rain.” 6×8 and 4×6 photos with 12×16 white mat. $60

"Lunch Break." 5x7 photo with 8x10 mat. $40

“Lunch Break.” 5×7 photo with 8×10 white mat. $40

"Chemical Fertilizer." 4x4, 5x7, 5x7, & 5x7 photos with 16x20 mat. $75

“Chemical Fertilizer.” 4×4, 5×7, 5×7, & 5×7 photos with 16×20 white mat. $75

"Grinding Jowar." 4x6 & 6x8 photos with 11x14 mat. $60

“Grinding Jowar.” 4×6 & 6×8 photos with 11×14 white mat. $60

"Preparing for Pola - The Festival of the Bulls." 5x5 & 6x8 photos with 12x16 mat. $65

“Preparing for Pola – The Festival of the Bulls.” 5×5 & 6×8 photos with 12×16 white mat. $65

Top: "Dressing up for Pola - Festival of the Bulls." 4 5x7 photos with 16x20 mat. $70Bottom: "Festival of the Bulls - Village Square." 11x14 photo with 16x20 mat. $65

Top: “Dressing up for Pola – Festival of the Bulls.” 4 5×7 photos with 16×20 white mat. $70
Bottom: “Festival of the Bulls – Village Square.” 11×14 photo with 16×20 white mat. $65

Not pictured: “Bollgard Toy Car.” 4×6 and 6×8 on 11×14 white mat. $60

6x8 in "Bollgard Toy Car"

6×8 in “Bollgard Toy Car”

4x6 in "Bollgard Toy Car"

4×6 in “Bollgard Toy Car”

Not pictured: “Making Papad.” 5×7, 4×6, 4×4, & 5×7 photos on 16×20 white mat. $70

5x7, "Making Papad"

5×7, “Making Papad”

4x6, "Making Papad"

4×6, “Making Papad”

4x4, "Making Papad"

4×4, “Making Papad”

5x7, "Making Papad"

5×7, “Making Papad”

Not pictured: “Pola dye.” 11×14 photo on 16×20 white mat.

Ropes were dyed, houses re-painted. This little boy decided he wanted his hands to match the color of his shirt.

“Pola dye.” 11×14 photo on 16×20 white mat. $90

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A big THANK YOU to my family for helping me pull this off! My little sister #1 is really the photographer in the family. Her opinion was crucial in narrowing down my pictures to this final selection. She gave me feedback every step of the way and I couldn’t have done this without her. And thanks to her, I have photos of the event! A HUGE thank you to my mom and dad, the crafter and the Mathematician in the family, who helped me to custom cut all of the mats with multiple photos in them. It actually took 3 pairs of hands sometimes. And a big thanks to little brother #1, the techie in the family. He picked up the projector for the film, set it up, connected the sound, and then returned it after the event. And little brother #2, the athlete in the family, did lots of heavy lifting, helping me to transport all of the frames to the Studio. And little sister #2, thanks for helping all of my guests find the popcorn! ;)

I’m so lucky to have such a talented family on which I can depend!

And of course, thanks again to the Left Bank Dance Studio for offering me its walls and giving me the opportunity to share this work in another small but extraordinarily gratifying way.

Above all, I want to thank the villagers of Mulgavan for opening their homes to a stranger from a foreign land and for humoring me as I stumbled through learning Marathi and kicked off my flip flops to traipse along with them through muddy fields. धन्यवाद!

Two Options

The story of an environmental activist (Dr. Vandana Shiva) and a farmer (Bija Devi) and their fight to preserve heirloom seeds in India amidst great opposition.
Created by: theperennialplate.com
In Partnership with Intrepid Travel: intrepidtravel.com/food/
For more information visit: navdanya.org/
Filmed & edited by:
Daniel Klein ( twitter.com/perennialplate/ )
Mirra Fine ( twitter.com/kaleandcola/)
Music by: The Orange Mighty Trio: orangemightytrio.com/
Filmed on 5d Mark iii w Canon 24-70, 70-200 2.8 L

Pola, festival of the bulls

Farmers adorned their bulls with embroidered blankets, bells, & shiny colored paper. Drumming and hoarse voices passionately yelling and singing filled the air.

Ropes were dyed, houses and horns re-painted. This little boy decided he wanted his hands to match the color of his shirt.

Motiram’s family’s bells.

All that is left to do is glue shiny paper to the horns and drape the blanket over his back. What a fancy stud of a beast.

The worry is all the time

Birds chirp and the breeze seems to have slowed down thanks to the heaviness of the humidity. It hasn’t rained for four days. I think of the seedlings sprouting on the farms surrounding Mulgavan. Are their new roots able to reach out and soak up enough moisture in the soil around them? I hope so. I don’t want to experience the disappointment of crop failure. I don’t want to watch as farmers borrow even more money in order to buy a second round of seeds. I don’t think I need to worry much. But I do.

I’m beginning to understand what Ganpat Shedamake told me a few days ago. “The worry is all the time. Till you sow the seeds. Then you’re a little relieved. Then until the bud forms we are a little worried. Then after that, we are happy.”

Ganpat on the left and Laxmibai in the yellow saree

Ganpat Shedamake and his wife Laxmibai live in a small two-room house. Its walls are made of sticks and branches that are woven together in two layers. These layers are then filled in and covered with a mixture of cow dung, mud, and a very fine lime powder. It’s a mixture that slowly breaks down over time; each year a new layer is smeared over the old layer to fortify both the inside and outside of the house. This is done before the monsoon beats and batters these houses with wind and rain.

I sit on the earthen floor by the open doorway. I need the light from outside in order to take notes; the electricity has been out since Wednesday night when the monsoon announced its definite arrival with the coming of the season’s second rain, accompanied by very heavy winds. As I ask Laxmibai and Ganpat Shedamake questions I notice shafts of light streaming through gaps in the tiles that are arranged above the branches that make the frame of their roof. I ask how their house held up during the storm on Wednesday. The rain had come through into their house there in the main room. I don’t know where they huddled to stay dry; the small kitchen seemed to have just as many lines of light peaking in through broken or poorly arranged tiles. It had rained the whole night.

Laxmibai and Ganpat have 5 acres of land that the government gave them under the Maharashtra Agricultural Lands (Ceiling on Holdings) Act, 1961. “We got it a long time ago. Before we had children,” Ganpat says. Now their 2 daughters are married and have children of their own now. Ganpat and Laxmibai are the only people working the land, their main source of income that is supplemented by collecting and selling leaves used for bidis (locally made small-but-mighty cigarettes–a pack of 25 costs less than 10 rupees). One of their granddaughters, Shital, about 13 years old, lives with them now. She helps as much as she can when she isn’t in school.

“The land is rocky, not good quality,” they tell me, “The yield is not that good. We have to take a little bit of a loan every year.” They grow cotton, tur, and jowar—the three typical crops grown in this region. Cotton is sold and tur and jowar are used at home. Tur is used in daal and a jowar is a grain used in a flat bread. If there is excess tur or jowar, that is sold too.

The Shedamakes haven’t yet bought their seeds. They are waiting for their money from this year’s loan. They borrow money from a group of South Indian moneylenders that come to Mulgavan every year. “We just borrow from them. It’s no use borrowing from other moneylenders. We usually take 5, 6, 7,000 rupees as a loan,” Ganpat tells me. The interest rate on the loans that farmers take from the South Indian moneylenders and most other private moneylenders is 50%. I ask Ganpat if he has ever taken a loan from a bank, a loan that might have a smaller interest rate. “Yes,” he replies, “But I wasn’t able to pay it back. The yield wasn’t good and I couldn’t repay it. Otherwise I’d get a loan from the bank. The first two times I borrowed 5,000 rupees and I repaid the principle balance. The third time I borrowed 7,000 and couldn’t repay it. It’s left. If I had repaid it I could’ve taken a loan for 15,000 rupees.” As I continue to ask questions about the loan from the bank, the principle amount of each loan changes. First it’s 7,000 rupees, then 7,500. Shedamake isn’t sure of the interest rate; he just knows that it is meager. Later, on a follow up visit, Ganpat Shedamake shows me the paperwork from the bank. He borrowed 25,000 from the Central Bank of India, Shibla Branch, in 2005. I’m fairly certain that he was unable to repay the 25,000 and that it is this amount that sits in the bank accruing a meager interest while Shedamake borrows money from private moneylenders in order to finance his farm.

On average, Shedamake plants 2 acres of cotton, with rows of tur interspersed, 1 acre of jowar, and 1 acre of other plants like moong and maize for household consumption. He usually gets a yield of 3-4 quintals of cotton and 4 gunny bags of jowar. That’s if everything goes well. But about half of the time it doesn’t. The Shedamakes are dependent on rainfall for the irrigation of their crops. And the rainfall of the monsoon is erratic. Sometimes it is too much too soon. Sometimes too little too late. And then there is the fact that the Shedamakes cannot afford to pay anyone to help them cultivate their crops. If either one of them is unable to work, the crop suffers. Like last year.

Last year while plowing his field, Ganpat fell on the stick that farmers carry with them while they plow; it’s used it to whack the bulls if necessary. It has a 2 inch metal scraper attached to the bottom of it which the farmers use to scrape off mud that builds up on the plow’s blade. About 1 inch of the metal sliced into his upper thigh. He had to get stitches and was unable to work on the farm for a few months, basically the rest of the season. Laxmibai was left to try to maintain the crop on her own. She wasn’t able to keep up with all of the weeds. Fortunately her sister’s husband helped her harvest the little cotton that had been able to grow. They made just enough money to repay the moneylender.

Shedamake feels pressure to be sure to repay the loan to the moneylender. He can’t buy his seeds without a loan from someone. And if he doesn’t repay the loan one year, the moneylender won’t lend him money the next year. Without a loan from the moneylender how can he buy his seeds? This year he and his wife collected enough betel nut leaves to sell and make 6,000 rupees. With that money they paid for new clothes and this year’s fertilizers. Shedamake explains to me that buying the fertilizers is a priority. The longer you wait, the more expensive they are. The demand for them is great so if you wait too long into the season there might not be enough left. They used all of the money on the fertilizers. He is waiting for the South Indian moneylender to come to town so he can take his loan and go buy seeds.

***

Later that Friday evening the moneylenders arrive in town. They stand out—their gold watches and gold-framed glasses catching the rare bit of sunlight, bragging of wealth and a life free of worry. I want to talk to them, but think it best to let them settle in before bothering them with questions like “Who are you?” and “How have you come to do business in Mulgavan if you are from Andhra Pradesh?” The next day the family I am staying with sows their seeds. I spend the whole day in the field with them. On Sunday I go to the house where the moneylenders are staying to try to talk with them. There are four of them—two older men and two men who look to be in their thirties. The younger men wear pressed business shirts and slacks. For twenty minutes I stand waiting for a chance to talk with them. I want to explain that I am researching cotton farming and many of the farmers that I have spoken with told me they depend on getting loans from the moneylenders—that they don’t have to produce official documents like they do at the bank, so they are able to get loans. The moneylenders ignore me the whole time, not even offering me a chair or some water (a woman nearby yells over to me at one point, “Aren’t your legs tired? Don’t you want to sit down?” She is, apparently, the only one who has noticed).

A farmer from Tembi, a neighboring village, is waiting to get his loan from the South Indians. He talks with me. When I explain that I want to know about the moneylenders he starts to tell me about them. “They are from Andhra Pradesh. They don’t speak much Marathi. They’ve been coming to this area for the last 15-20 years and doing business in villages all over Zuri-Jamni [the block where Mulgavan is located].” I politely interrupt the farmer and explain that many farmers have already told me this information and that I want to speak with the moneylenders directly. Even though they are all sitting there as I have this conversation with the farmer from Tembi, they claim that they are too busy to speak with me at the moment. “Come back in the evening,” they tell me.

I leave, feeling doubtful that I will get to speak with them. They are here to make money after all and answering questions that could reveal how corrupt their business is definitely won’t make them any money. Even though I told them I didn’t work for the government and I wasn’t a reporter, it didn’t seem like they trusted me. I think they overheard me explain to the farmer from Tembi that my research was being funded by the United States’ government and the Indian government. I go back later that evening to talk with them only to discover that they have skipped town. And they didn’t even say goodbye. Suspicious. I hope I run into them when they come back to collect their money in November!

***

Thinking that Ganpat Shedamake has probably gotten his loan from the moneylenders before they left town, I return to ask him if he has bought his cotton seeds. “Did you get your loan from the South Indian moneylenders?” I ask Shedamake. “We were in the farm one day that they were here, so we were a little late to ask them for money. When we went to them the money was finished. That’s why they left. We have to see. We have to look for another moneylender.” No loan, no seeds. I am worried—many farmers sowed their cotton seeds about five days earlier. How long will it take Ganpat Shedamake to find a lender, get the money, buy his seeds, and then plant them? How long can he wait until it affects his crop’s yield? So many farmers have told me that timing is essential with farming.

“Where will you go to find a moneylender? How will you do that?” I ask with a hint of worry in my voice. “I’ll go to Pandharkawada. I’ll have to go to the dalal, the person to whom we sell the cotton,” Shedamake explains. “I’ll have to sell my cotton only to him. He’ll take out the loan amount and then give me the rest of the money.” I ask if he buys the cotton for a fair price. Often when farmers don’t get to choose who to sell their cotton to due to situations like Ganpat Shedamake’s they are forced to sell their cotton at a price lower than the market price declared by the government. “He buys the cotton on market price,” Shedamake tells me. “He takes the loan and the interest and gives the rest of the money back to me.” I’m skeptical. The dalal is a middleman. He buys the cotton from Shedamake and other farmers and then sells it at the cotton mills. If he can buy it for a cheaper-than-market price and then sell it to the cotton mills for market price, he walks away with a profit. I suppose we’ll see if Shedamake’s dalal is an honest one when it comes time for Shedamake to sell his cotton at the end of this season.

“I’ll go tomorrow and get the loan. Then sow the seeds,” Shedamake tells me. “How much will you borrow?” I ask. “5,000 rupees. It’s a small amount but it’s enough to buy seeds. We go for daily wages on other people’s farms. That’s how we pay for our household expenses,” he answers. A day’s work on a farm will earn you a wage of 100-150 rupees. That’s about $1.75-$2.75 USD. When I ask what his annual income is Ganpat Shedamake tells me it is between 10 and 15,000 rupees usually. This means that he and his wife live well under the poverty line (below poverty line is referred to as BPL). They both have a BPL card, which means they get a discount on things like bus tickets and rice and wheat. “Other than that,” Shedamake tells me, “we don’t get any help from the government.”

As I’m leaving, I notice the roof has been patched with a tarp. “We got it on Monday. It was 300 rupees for 6 meters,” says Shedamake. “Was that a lot?” I ask. “For poor people it is expensive but there is no other option. You have to buy it,” Shedamake says, shrugging. As I walk back home I think about how Ganpat Shedamake’s answers are never riddled with worry or sorrow. He speaks very matter-of-factly. I think back to one of the first things he told me—“The worry is all the time, till you sow the seeds. Then you’re a little relieved. Then until the bud forms we are a little worried. After that we are happy.” I wonder what this happiness looks like.

***

Since I first published this post there have been a few developments with the Shedamakes. They were unable to get a loan from the dalal. Instead of searching for someone else to lend him money or begging the dalal and showcasing his vulnerability, Ganpat Shedamake opted to use the rest of his savings from the leaves for bidis in order to purchase one bag of cotton seeds (930 rupees) and one bag of jowar (approximately 375 rupees). They hope that the yield will be enough to pay some of their remaining debt to the moneylender. They will rely on daily wages earned by Laxmibai and Shital (when she doesn’t have school—weekends and holidays). The average wage per day here is 100 rupees.  

Supari

She hands me a chunk of betel nut
“Supari,”

I place it in my mouth.
My teeth test its strength.
Rock hard.

My tongue knocks the nut
across the roof of my mouth
down the inside of my cheek.
Saliva washes over its bitter surface,
slowly softening the outer layer
till its skin peels back
and the next hard layer is revealed.

Bitter, long lasting, slow to dissolve.

“Supari.”

***

I left Mulgavan to talk with a widow who has been sharing her story with me for an upcoming book that the non-profit Voice of Witness is putting out. This is the third time I’ve interviewed her and the first time she tells me she wants to die.

Her husband, a cotton farmer, killed himself two years ago. The pressures of his mounting debt were too much for him to handle. He slowly slipped from being a loving father and ideal husband to an irritated and anxious man, increasingly dependent on loans from private moneylenders. Her son, 15, hates to see his mother so sad. He leaves when I come to talk with her.  He doesn’t want to hear about his father.

Six months ago she slipped and broke her hip. A doctor fixed her up with a metal rod and a screw and told her she can’t work for 2 years. She can barely get across her house–the house that her husband took a loan on in 2007 for his farm. Last month the bank officials came to tell her that if she didn’t pay the loan they would force her out of her house and board it up. Left with no other choice, she pleaded her mother to tell her brothers to give her the 3 lakh rupees (about $5,500 USD) that she needed to pay off the loan. Her brothers did not willingly give her the money. And although things are settled now and she doesn’t have to worry about the house, the tension that she feels she has caused her family adds weight to the burdens she has been bearing for the last 2 years. At least before she could work hard and try her best to support her children. Now she sits in her house, thinking about the things that she has told me, waiting for the day when she’ll be able to walk and work.

***

This work is slow and bitter. Like supari.

120°F

I’m back at SRUJAN.  The upper 90° weather of Pune felt balmy compared to the extreme summer heat of Vidarbha. This week’s average high: 120°F.

Although I’d like to write more, I’m sitting in a dark office on the campus of SRUJAN and don’t know how much longer
a. my computer’s battery will last and,
b. my eyes can stand to stare at a computer screen in the dark.

So this will have to be a short and sweet post, bringing you up to date on my latest adventures in India.

I haven’t posted in awhile, which means you know nothing of the religious ceremonies that I witnessed during my last stay in Mulgavan. Nor have you heard about how I met merchants who were promoting their Bt cotton seeds by walking around Mulgavan and leaving pamphlets and flyers on the steps of farmers’ homes. I recently watched Bitter Seeds, Micha X. Peled’s last installment in a trilogy about globalization. The documentary is about cotton farmer suicides in India. In one scene merchants from the same seed company come to the town that the documentary takes place and hand out a pamphlet that looks almost identical to the one that Radhika and I received from the Ankur seeds representatives. The beauty of living in Mulgavan and doing my fieldwork at all hours of the day and night is that at 7:00p.m. when the light is fading and I’m writing in my journal about the day, seed merchants wander up to me. These are the people who provide farmers in Vidarbha with 99% of the information they have about farming. And guess what? 100% of the time their advice is buy our product. Hmm…

I’ve spoken with nearly a dozen different farmers. Most of them own around 5 acres of land. Every single one of them borrows money in order to buy seeds and all the other necessary inputs for farming. Some of them borrow from local self-help groups. Some of them borrow from banks, private and government. And many of them borrow from private moneylenders. Every farmer who borrows from private moneylenders pays a 50% interest rate on their loan. 50%! (When I mentioned this to the Ankur seed salesmen, they said no, I must be mistaken. The highest interest rate they’ve heard of is 25% (still awful!). As they were leaving, one of them mentioned that his father is a money lender. Figures.)

I made a list of highlights from the field to post on my blog, but I forgot the notebook with said list in my room and in order to retrieve it I’d have to go down two flights of stairs, jump from the building to the ground (about a four foot drop), walk several meters, duck under some barbed wire, and then riffle around in the dark for said notebook. Ah, the adventures that load-shedding (i.e. government power cuts) lead to. Any ways. There are more highlights. But for reasons previously noted, they will remain in my notebook until another time.

Last week I took a break from the field (and the heat!) and visited friends in Pune and Mumbai while also sorting out visa stuff at the Foreign Regional Registration Office. Although I didn’t get an extension for as long as I’d hoped for, I am officially allowed to stay in India until August 31. I’ll be headed back sometime in August to try to get another extension through March 2013. We’ll see.

I’m learning so much about this region and cotton farming. Stepping away from Eastern Maharashtra for a week or two was a great way to remind myself of this. On the train back to Nagpur the evening light illuminated farmers finishing their day’s work in their field, boys playing cricket, cows wandering back home across land that was not nearly as hot and dry as the land where I have been for the last 3 months. Farmland in Western Maharashtra looks happier—greener, more abundant, more dependable. The fields were covered with crops in mid-season or ready for harvest, crops that can’t grow in the dry summer months of Vidarbha save for on a few rare irrigated fields. Corn fields. Sugar cane.

I made it back to Nagpur yesterday morning and this morning took the bus to Pandharkawada. Tomorrow morning Radhika will join me and we’ll head back to Mulgavan. I’m beyond excited. The farmers are busy buying seeds (and borrowing money). The season is beginning! The rains will come in a week or two. Hopefully sooner rather than later. It’s hot. I’m looking forward to the cooler days the rains will bring! Until next time…

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!

Meet Mulgavhan

[February 28, 2012]

Sangita and I drive along the inconsistent stretch of road that lies between Mulgavhan and Mangurda. My hair whips in front of my eyes. As I brush it back I think about how some of my family members probably won’t be too thrilled to learn that I’ve been roving around the Zuri-Jamni district on the back of Sangita’s scooter, sans helmet. I think, Sangita has yet to exceed 40 kilometers per hour. Shrugging, thoughts of helmets disappear as we breeze past fields of wheat, jowari, toor, cotton.

Fields bordering Mulgavan

Today I head back to Mangurda, a small town near Pandharkwada in the Yavatmal District. I first came to this area in 2007 on a study abroad program. Ajay and Yogini Dolke, the husband and wife duo that founded and run the non-profit SRUJAN (Society for Rural and Urban Joint Activities, Nagpur), were a pair of many local coordinators that I met on my trip. It was then that I first learned about cotton farmer suicides and the complexities that people in this community face thanks to the path that agricultural development has taken in India since it gained independence in 1947.

And now, four years later, I’ve come back to write about the lives of cotton farmers. Vidarbha is comprised of 6 districts, one of them Yavatmal (one of India’s 100 poorest districts). Though farmers all across India commit suicide due to the massive amounts of debt that they acquire, it is here in Vidarbha where the rates are highest.

With the help of my friends at SRUJAN, I’ve found a family to live with while I do my research.

Sangita Atram and her family live in Mulgavhan, a village of maybe 1,000 people.

It’s in the Zuri-Jamni block of Yavatmal, one of the poorest blocks in the district. There is a word in Marathi that is used to describe this block of Yavatmal district. Uhsoowidha: lack of infrastructure, inconvenience. Most of the government officials and development officers that I have met so far use a different word. Backward. The term sounds harsh and condescending to me, like leftover jargon from the British Raj.

But I think I’m beginning to understand what is meant by “backward.” Of the 117 schools in this block, only 41 of them go past the 4th standard and all the way up to the 7th standard. Few families send their children away to neighboring villages after their children finish the 4th standard, and even fewer send them to secondary school. Post offices, hospitals, banks, are all few and far between as far as I can tell. The roads are rough and inconsistent in quality. Some are even and recently paved. Most are worn with unfinished seams, their edges roughly dropping several inches off into the dust and rocks that border them. Even the smooth running roads have their pothole ridden patches and occasionally the dirt road detour. But navigating the roads on a scooter is manageable and Sangita is a good driver.

I spent the last week in Mulgavhan, getting to know Sangita and her family and preparing myself for the next 6 months.

 In just a few weeks I’ll be moving to Mulgavhan. Sangita’s husband Motiram and his father, Abhiman, are both farmers and cotton is one of the crops that they cultivate. What better way to understand the life of a cotton farmer than to live with one? How can I understand what the introduction of the latest genetically modified seed or a well for irrigation funded by a government scheme means for a farmer without understanding his and his family’s lifestyle?

***

Mulgavhan. Let me save you the time of looking it up on Google maps; it’s a town so small that it doesn’t make the cut. [That’s where wikimapia.org comes in handy].

My wanderings around town this past week have revealed that there isn’t much here in the way of infrastructure… a school on the right as you enter town, a few small shops where kids buy cold juice and men buy chewing tobacco, the gram panchayat building (local government), and lots of cows and houses.

Despite it’s small size and seeming simplicity, it took me most of the week to mentally map everything out. And judging Mulgavhan by its infrastructure will certainly teach me things, but it is limited in scope.

It’s really hard to know where to start when describing my introduction to village life. I suppose that I just have to get comfortable knowing that while noteworthy things are happening to me everyday, I’ll only get to share a few with you. And which ones do I choose? Do I tell you about the time that I attended a women’s village health worker training and was given a makeover so that I looked like a proper Indian woman?

Do I write about playing “Ushta Chuwa,” a game kind of like “Sorry”? Should I tell you about the numerous TV shows I’m becoming familiar with or how I brush my teeth out on the road in front of our house? Do you want to know about what I eat, where I sleep, if I shower (I do—hot bucket shower every morning so far)?

For now I suppose I’ll stick to the stories that relate directly to cotton farming and my project and then maybe throw in some more general observations and musings.

***

All eyes are on me at all times. Or so it feels. I’ve never experienced being the “other” in such a stark way before. I’m not used to doing almost everything (with the exception of using the squatty potty and showering) in public. Personal space has a very different meaning here. People know that I brush my teeth twice a day, once in the morning and once in the evening. They see me pluck my eyebrows. They notice that my ears aren’t pierced but my nose is and then ask me why.

I’ve been asked a lot of questions that I am unsure how to answer. “What do people eat in America?” and “What do people wear in America?” are common ones. It’s extremely hard to simplify and generalize life in America or even life in small-town Illinois. How do I explain the vast amount of variety and choice we have on a daily basis? In Mulgavhan everyone eats rice, chapati, daal, and some kind of vegetable, usually cauliflower or eggplant. So trying to explain that sometimes I eat pizza, sometimes rice and vegetables, sometimes soup, sometimes salad, sometimes enchiladas (or what an enchilada is), is difficult. Women ask me if I wear my salwar kameez at home. When I say no they ask what I wear instead. Unlike when I ask them what they wear, there is not one straightforward answer that I can give them. Most of the time I just smile and say that America is a very diverse country with people from many cultures and with many different ideas and traditions. We eat lots of different things. We wear lots of different things.

***

As an introvert, it can be exhausting and frustrating to be the center of attention so much. But it’s a price I’m willing to pay. I’m here to observe and so I must be willing to be observed. It’s only fair. I could easily just do day trips to the village a few times a week and avoid a lot of the attention-drawing moments. But I would miss so much.

Is it totally necessary for me to awkwardly sit in front of the entire school, unsure of why I’ve been invited to this “meeting,” not knowing what I should say? Is meeting the local magistrate really an important part of my research? It certainly wasn’t something that I was planning on doing. But now I know that most of the cases that the magistrate sees are agricultural disputes. It’s the unplanned moments that I stumble upon that teach me the most.

For instance, I went out for a walk on Wednesday morning. Planning on mapping out the village a bit, I brought my notebook. Of course I was only able to work for a few minutes before I was beckoned over to a group of women and children. “Ya, ya.” “Come. Come.” One of the women, Archana, asked me if I have a camera. I told her it was at Sangita’s house. She told me to get it and come back to her house. A few minutes later, camera in hand, I walked up to Archana’s house.

We took some pictures of her family and a few of the kids who were about to go to school. It was time for school. As the kids left I sipped some tea that Archana’s mother had made for me. I learned that Archana, her brother, and her mother lived together in this house. I’m not sure where their father is. Right now my observations are really limited by the small amount of Marathi that I understand. I’m sure that I will be piecing things together for months to come. As I sat there talking with Archana, a man on a motorcycle sped by. Her brother yelled something at him and he slowed down and drove down to their house. Archana’s brother went inside and grabbed a sack of cotton. The man took out a scale and hung it from the roof of the porch. The cotton weighed 5 kilos. He paid them 34 rupees, loaded the cotton on his bike, and drove off.

I’m not sure if that was just an initial payment (just one example of how my language skills are limiting. I’ll be able to do follow up research with a translator soon though). Maybe this motorcycle man is going to come back and pay Archana’s family after he sells the cotton on the market. Maybe he has already loaned them some money so he didn’t pay them the full price. I hope that’s the case. I’ve heard about middlemen who buy cotton for disgustingly low prices and then sell it for higher prices, making a pretty decent profit at the expense of small scale farmers who don’t have the means to take their cotton to sell in larger towns like Pandharkwada where the ginning factories are. The Government of India’s minimum support price for medium to long staple cotton is Rs 3,300 per quintal. There are 100 kilos in a quintal. So Archana and her family should have received 33 rupees per kilo. Of course they have to pay the middleman something for transporting their cotton, but I doubt he should be earning 4/5 of what that cotton was worth. A local college student has agreed to spend her summer helping me translate and communicate. When Radhika is with me I’ll be sure to find out what the situation was.

It’s instances like this one, unplanned experiences, that make living in Mulgavhan worthwhile. It’s impossible to predict these events and schedule them into my research. I figure if I am living in Mulgavhan and I’m lucky, I’ll stumble across them while having tea at a new friend’s house.

Farewell Pune

On Monday evening I’m moving to Nagpur/Mangurda/Mulghavan. It’s hard to believe that I am done with my formal Marathi instruction and that I am about to begin my full time research. Friday was my last day at AIIS. It was sad to say goodbye to my teachers and friends at AIIS, but I left with a feeling of accomplishment. Obviously I’m nervous about shifting to a village where I will be the only person who speaks English. I will be relying on my limited Marathi. But as I said my goodbyes on Friday I received word after word of encouragement and promised to keep everyone up to date on how my experience unfolds.

Yesterday I spent the day hopping around Pune doing some last minute errands (like sending home some things that I won’t need while living in a village in the Yavatmal District). As I rode from place to place and passed familiar and favorite places, I realized how comfortable I’ve grown here. I know where I’m going (most of the time). I have favorite places. Looking out of my rickshaw, I felt a fondness for Pune. The weather here has been beautiful the last few days. For some reason when it’s 70 degrees Fahrenheit, sunny, and a bit breezy, the city seems less crowded and a little friendlier. I sat outside eating Pav Bhaji (Pow Bah-gee) and sipping a strawberry milkshake (it’s strawberry season here…YUM!). As I enjoyed the gentle breeze I felt grateful for all of the great times I’ve enjoyed in Pune. It’s been a pleasant farewell weekend. I’ll miss Pune…the lovely weather, the friends I’ve made here,  the variety of delicious food…

So. What lies ahead of me?
Great question. I have a vague idea.
I’ll be here (the little red dot):

On Monday I will take an overnight train to Nagpur. For the next two weeks I’ll focus on coming up with a presentation to give at the Fulbright Conference in Cochin, Kerala at the beginning of March. I’ll probably take a short trip to Sangita’s place (the red dot in both maps) to introduce myself and begin the process of getting to know Mulghavan and it’s citizens. But the research really won’t begin until I get back from the conference.

What exactly will I be doing?

Another good question. The plan is to spend 75% of my time living with Sangita in Mulghavan (the other 25% of the time I’ll spend at Ajay and Yogini’s farm sorting through interviews and evaluating my process). The issue of agricultural development and the adverse effect it has had on many farmers in Eastern Maharashtra is complex. Over the last 4 years I’ve read about genetically modified crops, irrigation schemes, and the lack of access to credit and the troubles that farmers face when it comes to borrowing money from private moneylenders (among many other issues). Amidst all of these articles I was unable to find any substantial information about why farmers continue to grow cotton, even as these negative patterns of crop failure, loss, and debt have persisted over the last 20 years. Why do farmers who don’t benefit from planting cotton (usually an expensive genetically modified variety of cotton), and fall even further into debt because of this—why do they continue to plant cotton year after year? These are the contradictions that have pulled me deep into this issue. This is why I am in India. I figured that since no one has really written about farmers’ driving decision factors and the sociological complexities that play a part in this issue, I will.

So over the next few months I’ll live in Mulghavan, a small village in the Yavatmal District of Maharashtra, and get to know a few different cotton farmers and their families. The cotton season is from June to November or December, depending on the Monsoon season. During this time I’ll try my best to learn about their daily lives and the business of cotton farming. And hopefully, at the end of my time in Yavatmal, I’ll have a collection of stories that will shed some light on this question.

Of course, I’ll be updating the blog with photos and some of these stories.

Keep an eye out for a post related to my presentation for the Kerala Conference in the next couple of weeks.

Until next time friends!