Invisible Hands: Voices from the Global Economy

I am thrilled to announce that in a little over three weeks Voice of Witness (VOW) will publish it’s latest book, Invisible Hands: Voices from the Global Economy and my name will be on the title page.

To pre-order "Invisible Hands" click on the photo. “The men and women in Invisible Hands reveal the human rights abuses occurring behind the scenes of the global economy. These narrators—including phone manufacturers in China, copper miners in Zambia, garment workers in Bangladesh, and farmers around the world—reveal the secret history of the things we buy, including lives and communities devastated by low wages, environmental degradation, and political repression. Sweeping in scope and rich in detail, these stories capture the interconnectivity of all people struggling to support themselves and their families. ” To read more about the collection visit http://voiceofwitness.org/labor/.

I first learned of Voice of Witness in 2010 while I was on a road trip with several of my best friends that I had studied abroad with in college. We stopped off in San Francisco in December and found out that Peter Orner and Annie Holmes were speaking about VOW’s latest book Hope Deferred: Narratives of Zimbabwean Lives. Already interested in checking it out, we discovered that the event was to be held at 826 Valencia – San Francisco’s only independent Pirate supply store (also a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting students with their writing skills, and to helping teachers inspire their students to write). So naturally we had to go.

Peter and Annie’s stories of working on the book were incredible and moving. I had just submitted my Fulbright application about a month earlier and as I listened to them talk about how oral history is a powerful way to address human rights issues I had a moment of clarity. I felt, with almost uncomfortable certainty, that I wanted to do something similar with my work in India. I approached Peter and Annie after their talk and nervously told them about my hopes about getting the research grant to go study cotton farming in India. I asked with some trepidation how they got involved with VOW and what had led them to working on this book. Could random, inexperienced folks such as myself suggest book topics? Was it crazy to wonder if I could ever work on a book on cotton farmer suicides with VOW? I was filled with adrenaline and a curiously potent mix of nervous confidence.

But one step at a time. I had to get to India first. I had just submitted my application and it would be months before I would hear if I had received the grant and was going to India.

By the time I finally found out that I was going to India it was April, 4 months since I’d first heard of VOW and met Peter and Annie at 826 Valencia. I was so overcome with relief and excitement that I had gotten the Fulbright that I didn’t think of Voice of Witness until a year later when I was in Kochi at a conference for Fulbright researchers and scholars to present their work. I was speaking with a friend and he asked if I had ever heard of Voice of Witness. Yes. Mmmhmm. I had. He suggested that I get in touch with them; they were compiling narratives on human rights and the global economy.

So a few weeks later I emailed Corinne Goria, the editor of this collection, and told her who I was, where I was, and what I was doing, trying to be professional about how desperately I wanted to get involved with the book. After a Skype interview to discuss how I could contribute to the book, I set off to see if I could find a widow of a cotton farmer who would be willing to be interviewed by me for several hours on several different occasions. The timing couldn’t have been better. I was poised to attend a gathering for widows in the area that weekend. Subhag, my friend and translator, was able to come with me and we mingled with the widows during their lunch at the event. I had to find someone who could answer questions with great detail, who would talk about her childhood, who could give me enough material to shape into a rich narrative. At the very end of the day Pournima and her son came up to Subhag and asked who I was.

Over the next 6 months I visited Pournima every few weeks. At first I only visited her for the interviews. But after the third interview it was clear that she was very depressed and overwhelmed by her situation. I also felt overwhelmed and unsure of how I could help to ease her situation so she could feel peace and regain a sense of hope for her children and herself. You may remember this – I wrote about it in the post “Supari.”

I shared my fears with Corinne and with Ajay and Yogini Dolke, a couple that runs the non-profit SRUJAN, and who were instrumental in helping me with my research while I was in India. Corinne encouraged me to keep visiting Pournima without interviewing her to show her I cared for her well-being. Ajay and Yogini were inspired to reach out to their network of colleagues, friends, and family to raise money to purchase a sewing machine for Pournima. For more about how we were able to help Pournima, see the “Donate to Pournima” page.

My 25th birthday party at Pournima's house

My 25th birthday party at Pournima’s house

I became friends with Pournima and her son and daughter (whose names I have omitted to honor Pournima’s wish for privacy and protection). I traveled with Pournima to the village where she grew up. I met her mother, father, sisters, brothers, nieces, and nephews. I saw her father’s cotton fields, where she spent much of her childhood. That same week Pournima found out it was my birthday and insisted that I come to her home and celebrate with her family and her neighbors. We filled ourselves with fried treats and sweets and filled the neighborhood with music and laughter.

Pournima never ceased to amaze me with her generosity. Every time I came to see her, whether or not I was coming to interview her, she fed me, gave me tea, and made sure I was healthy and happy. “You look skinny. Are they taking care of you in Mulgavan?” she would often ask.

It was hard to explain to her why I wanted to share her story with the world. “People do not know about the struggle of cotton farmers in India. It is important that they hear your story. We have to raise awareness,” I would tell her. And as soon as I would say this I would wonder how much of a difference her story could make. While she shared her story and I edited it and prepared it for the book, thousands of farmers were still killing themselves. One farmer every 30 minutes. How could this book improve this situation?

It’s a question I still live with every day – one that I am revisiting more frequently now that the book is almost available in print. I am, however, so honored to have been able to be a part of the process of helping Pournima share her story, and in that process, helping her to overcome her devastating past and start living a brighter, more hopeful life. Being a widow in India is not easy, but Pournima is strong. She is resilient. Perhaps her story can give others the strength that they need to overcome tragedy. I know her story is inspiring, and I am looking forward to see how that inspiration is manifested as more and more people get to read her words.

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Meet Mulgavan

[February 28, 2012]

Sangita and I drive along the inconsistent stretch of road that lies between Mulgavan 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 Mulgavan, 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 Mulgavan, 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 Mulgavan. Sangita’s husband Motiram and his father, Uhbiman, 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 with out understanding his and his family’s lifestyle?

***

Mulgavan. 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 Mulgavan by its infrastructure will certainly teach me things, but it is limited 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 Mulgavan 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 Mulgavan worthwhile. It’s impossible to predict these events and schedule them into my research. I figure if I am living in Mulgavan and I’m lucky, I’ll stumble across them while having tea at a new friend’s house.

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…