A peek into the project

Hello friends, known and unknown to me!

It’s been awhile. I’ve wanted to update this blog for over a month, but the flow of life here in India mixed with the availability of internet and a decent computer to type up a blog post has left me content to wait until the right moment comes to me.

I’ll admit, there were a few opportunities prior to today for me to write. But I was overwhelmed with all of the experiences I’ve had. I didn’t know where to start and how to say all of the things that I want to say in a clear and eloquent way. Or even what all the things that I wanted to say were! Should I try to lay it out linearly…get chronological for you all and start from the very beginning of my time in Mulgavhan — going back to Nagpur and reuniting with Yogini and her family; driving up to Mulgavhan for the first time in 3 years and being greeted by a crowd of kids shouting “Aaron-tai! Aaron-tai!” (Aaron-sister); the highs and lows of reconnecting with the farmers; the challenges and successes of working on an abstract and creative project with them?

And then there was the question of whether or not to include my experiences in the time since solely working on this project. I finished working with the farmers of Mulgavhan back in early November. Since then I’ve visited friends, taken my first Vipassana course, served my first Vipassana course, and done a little bit of sight seeing. Are these experiences relevant? They feel like they are to me, but how to share them in a way that honors the totality of the experience but also connects them to the purpose of this blog, my work with cotton farmers in India?

As an artist, how much of my process do I want to share with my followers? This body of artwork currently evolves and exists in my mind and has yet to be fully realized. How much of a sneak peek am I willing to give you all?

The questions just seemed to multiply and it was easier to just continue putting off the blog writing than it was to try to sort through answering them one by one. I kept waiting for a moment of clarity when I would be swayed by the inspiration goddess within to sit down and write an epic post that laid it all out clearly and with a natural flow. That didn’t happen.

I still don’t know how to write about everything or what exactly to say. I want to share photos. After all, a picture is worth a thousand words, right? Sadly, most of the photos that I’ve taken here I plan on using in this body of artwork and I don’t have the capacity to slap a watermark on them so that the originals are safe and sound with me.

So for now, I’ll sum up my time in Mulgavhan and post a few photos of the process (see end of post). Hopefully this little window into my experience here in India satiates any longing you may have to know what’s up with this project and how I am doing. At least until I have another opportunity to write with more detail and depth about the process.

I went to Mulgavhan with the intention of spending three weeks with cotton farmers coming up with a collaborative creative way to represent the issues that they deal with daily as they put an extraordinary amount of work into making a living as a farmer. I intentionally did not outline what I thought that creative expression might look like, fully aware that I was returning to Mulgavhan after three years, that I didn’t know how busy everyone would be as the harvest season kicked off, and that I didn’t have the slightest clue what types of creative expression would resonate with farmers and what they would want to express and how they would want to do that. I was nervous that three weeks wouldn’t be enough time to bring the project to life. I didn’t know what the dynamics would be between my translator, Shubhada, and myself. I wanted the project to evolve organically, something that proved to be extremely difficult when relying on a translator (only because of the lag in communication…Shubhada was a fantastic partner to work with!). I hadn’t anticipated how challenging it would be to try to explain my thoughts on the value of art and using creative expression to tell a story to farmers who had been working hard in the field all day.

It was super challenging. So much so that half way through my time in Mulgavhan I actually had a conversation with Shubhada about leaving early. I was very skeptical that we would be able to do anything remotely close to what I had had in mind when I set out. Maybe we would be more successful visiting another community and trying there? Maybe it wasn’t worth the time and grant money to stay for another week?

We stayed. And a lot of really fruitful things came of our time there, although I had to let go of the vision of collaborating on a piece of art with the farmers. Instead we ended up doing a photo series that the farmers participated in (more on this later, I promise!). In the last week that we were there, we discovered several farmers’ musical talents and recorded some traditional Gondi songs about farming. They even organized a performance of drumming and dancing and a few songs (although not many related to farming, but still really amazing!). If we had been able to stay a bit longer, I would have liked to work with these musicians to write some contemporary songs about farmers’ struggles. And then perform them for larger groups. And have those groups respond to the songs… Maybe some day… I know I’ll be back!

While I was in Mulgavhan I found that in between conversations with farmers, whether out in their fields or in their homes in the evenings, I had all sorts of free time. After many walks and journaling sessions, I was able to be present and release any trace of self-doubt regarding the project. And like magic, without any major commitments vying for my attention, my mind began to collect all sorts of ideas about how to visually represent the stories of cotton farmers in India. When I return to the US in just over a month, a new sort of adventure will begin — how to bring to life the vision in my head (and now scattered on pages throughout my journal). Stay tuned! Hopefully it won’t be another two months before you hear from me again ;)

 

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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.  

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!

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!

research update!

Namaskar friends!

I don’t have any really specific New Year’s resolutions, but I did tell myself that I want to try to live more honestly and openly. And I promised a blog updating you on my research project’s progress. What could be more honest and open than fulfilling my promise and opening up and sharing about my life?

I had a month long break from my Marathi and finally had a chance to travel a bit. I’ve been seeing posts on Facebook from lots of other Fulbrighters about traveling for research and pleasure and who knows what. When December came around and I had a break, I decided to take full advantage of it. I hit the road for a month.

I had two goals:
1. Set up some of my fieldwork in Nagpur with Ajay and Yogini Dolke
2. See some amazing amigas!

I scheduled a 3 day visit to Nagpur en route to friends in Delhi. Ajay and Yogini Dolke run a non-profit called Society for Rural and Urban Joint Activities in Nagpur (SRUJAN). SRUJAN has numerous health and community development projects in several villages around Nagpur. I met Ajay and Yogini while studying abroad in India in 2007. I stayed in touch with them while researching the Indian cotton economy for a class paper at Sarah Lawrence. As soon as I heard that I got a Fulbright to come back to India I emailed them. They promised to help me with my fieldwork when the time came. So in mid-December I boarded an overnight train to Nagpur. The next morning I said goodbye to my new friend “Boosh” (who invited me to his wedding in Nagpur in early February…I’ll still be here in Pune unfortunately) (ALSO he had a lisp and spoke rapid Marathi so I may be getting his name wrong…).

After some confusion about where to meet, I finally found Yogini at the Nagpur train station. While we drove to the SRUJAN office  in Nagpur we caught up a bit. I let her know that I had set aside the next three days to be available to talk with her and Ajay whenever they were available; I didn’t want to impinge on any of their very important ongoing projects.

Of course Ajay and Yogini had already given a lot of thought to my needs. I sat with Yogini and confirmed my ideas about what type of village I wanted to be placed in (a small one with several small to medium sized farmers) and what my ideal schedule would be (3 weeks in the field, 1 week at the SRUJAN headquarters—a beautiful farm near Pandharkawada, Maharashtra). Within a few hours Yogini had made several calls. The first was to Sangita, a village health-worker who has worked with SRUJAN for over 15 years. Sangita agreed to meet me and discuss hosting me while I do my fieldwork. Yogini also spoke with a Geography professor at LAD College, Nagpur. They had discussed finding a student who might be willing to work with me to translate interviews and conduct research. We made plans to visit the SRUJAN farm and meet the full-time SRUJAN staff and to meet Sangita in her village, Mulghavan (मुळघवाण), about a forty minute drive from the farm. I now refer to my journal.

December 14. Wednesday.
This morning Ajay and I ate breakfast and then went with Sachin, Ajay’s driver, to SRUJAN’s farm. We first stopped in Pandharkawada to order some pillows and mattresses for अजयचे बाबा (Ajay’s father). As Sachin steered us through the crowded streets I looked around, trying to make out signs in Marathi. After Ajay’s business was taken care of we headed to SRUJAN. As we were leaving Pandharkawada I saw several farmers (शेतकरी) driving into town, their bullock carts loaded with cotton. Ajay told me that the government hasn’t yet declared the minimum support price (MSP) for cotton and that these farmers were probably selling to private buyers. Farmers who have to repay their debts often can’t wait until the government declares the MSP. In order to earn money to repay their loans they
 will sell their cotton to private buyers, often earning much less per quintal than the MSP. As we continued on our drive to SRUJAN we passed 5 or 6 ginning factories. Flecks of white gold that had strayed from bullock carts lined the road. 

This processed cotton sits neglected outside of a shop in Pandharkawada. Many farmers in the Yavatmal District come here to sell their cotton and process it at one of many ginning factories.

We ate paratha, potatoes, fried daal. While Ajay spoke with Ganesh about some business I made friends with the resident little one, Gaulib (?). At first he seemed hesitant to come near me, but Durgha proved to be a satisfactory buffer. By the time Ajay declared “चला” the three of us were swinging on the porch and munching on tart little fruits that Gaulib had retrieved from a tree near the kitchen garden. 

Gaulib (?). Fast friends.

I said goodbye, promising to see them all again in February. We headed to Sangita’s house in the small village मुळघवाण. As we drove the 40 minutes of narrow and pot-hole ridden road, Ajay and I spoke about my project. He told me about the area. Yavatmal is one of the 100 poorest districts in India. There is very limited infrastructure and government services are few and far between, especially in this block, Zari-Jamni.

We got to Sangita’s house and she jumped with excitement at the sight of us, scurrying away and saying she would be right back. She quickly returned with her husband, Motiram. We went inside their home.

Ajay and Sachin sat on a bed across from Sangita and I sat in a chair in the middle, perpendicular to their gaze. My head whipped back and forth from Sangita to Ajay as they discussed my potential stay there. The conversation moved from me to Sangita’s scooter needing an oil change to her work for SRUJAN. I was able to follow some of the conversation, but not much. As I sat there lost between the two tongues spitting Marathi back and forth, I imagined what it would be like in a few months when I didn’t have Ajay there to explain in English what was just said. Doubt clouded my mind. Would I be able to do it? It was definitely going to be hard. 

But as we drove away my doubt was lost in the shadows of an overwhelming sense of gratitude and excitement. I turned to Ajay and told him about how I was imagining what experiencing the first rain of the monsoon season would be like after a few months of living in Mulghavan. Language barriers and lifestyle differences suddenly seemed like walls I could scale if that was the experience on the other side. Ajay smiled and agreed. It’s worth it. And now is the time to do it. It was a truly fruitful and fulfilling day!

The next day I met with Radhika, a student from LAD College, Nagpur. She had expressed an interest in doing some fieldwork during her summer break (April to July). We met to see if she’d be up for living in a village with me and helping me conduct interviews and translate recordings. She was very enthusiastic and I’m looking forward to being able to work with her in the upcoming months. Ajay and I came up with a plan for a fellowship for her. It feels weird to suddenly be in a position where, on my fellowship, I am creating a fellowship for someone just a few years younger than myself. Fake it till you make it? I feel like I’m playing “grown-up” a lot these days.

That evening I hopped on another overnight train, this time to for goal #2: visit friends in Delhi. I left Nagpur feeling immensely satisfied with how much I had accomplished with the generous help of Ajay and Yogini and company. I hadn’t expected to have a place to stay and a semi-outlined plan this early on. I left feeling excited to return and keep working.

I spent the next few weeks in Delhi and Nepal, visiting friends, playing tourist, and randomly meeting with a few folks who are working on cotton farming-related issues. With each passing day here in India my list of resources and contacts gets longer and longer. I met a Dam activist who practices Gandhian lifestyle and spins his own cotton. I attended a Christmas party and got a business card from a friend of a friend. I happened upon another friend of a friend who just completed his thesis on Bt cotton and risk in Vidarbha. I discovered that my former professor’s wife is the vice-president of an organization that works with micro-finance institutions all over India. One contact leads to another. Somehow it seems I have met all of the right people. And I continue to do so! Just today I made a connection with Chaitanya, an organization based in Pune that has a group conducting a cash-flow analysis in the Vidarbha region.

I have one more month in Pune—a month already packed full with hours of Marathi study, interviews, meetings, and reading articles before I leave for the village, the गाव (gow). I’ll try to keep up with the blogging during this whirlwind of a month. Time is flying by! Until next time…