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 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.
She hands me a chunk of betel nut
I place it in my mouth.
My teeth test its strength.
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.
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.
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…
[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.
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.