‘Poverty is worst enemy of human rights…’

At this time, the roads were deserted. Once more, a silence befell us. With every passing moment, the day grew hotter. In parting shadows, amidst arecanut palms, loitered a troop of women. They disappeared before us.

We imagined their downtrodden eyes looking for shelter beneath trees. There they stood, for minutes perhaps, hoping to catch some sleep while birds sang high above them. But they couldn’t. We imagined them whispering tunes of forgotten lore. The fields remained bare: the way they usually were every afternoon. There was no one in sight: neither birds nor women, just endless specks of trees.

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It was the road to Jagallur, through barren farmlands, where we first caught a glimpse of onion seed farms. “There they are,” exclaimed Arun as we drove past rows of long sprays, “Beside the banana plantation.”

Where withering flowers hid amidst tiny blossoms, we saw bees encircling, inspecting every bud. They were drawn to each other. The flowers quivered in the light breeze. A few bees scrambled through their stalks. In time, they too flew away. A dull hum filled the air, that afternoon. And, we heard it everywhere…

A young farmer looked at them with strange interest as if he were tracing their path with his fingers.

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“They look like dandelions,” we said stepping into the fields.

Arun laughed. “These plants rely on honey bees for pollination,” he explained bending down to examine a stalk up close. “Without them, it is impossible for these plants to flourish. So, farmers invest in bees and release them into the fields. That way the ecology of the landscape too improves considerably. Once the seeds are ready, farmers sell them to appropriate vendors.”

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As we walked back to the main road, Arun pointed at a large weather instrument that stood away from the farms. “These devices were installed to measure variations in weather,” he said, “Maybe it has been of some help to the farmer. One can only hope. Although the weather department keeps farmers informed of the current situation, they are unable to predict climate patterns.”

An old man stumbled across the road. He was a farm labourer. His vest was dotted with holes. He swivelled his head towards the horizon; his eyes searched for something. He soon averted his gaze only to move forward. He didn’t notice us. Squatting down on his haunches, he placed his lunch box at the edge of the fields. The birds had returned. And, there he sat in silence looking at the skies, yet again…

At Jagallur, Kari Basavaiyya decided to part ways. He had a few court proceedings that required his attention. We promised to meet again and set our course for Davangere. As Arun led us through unknown routes, we drove past familiar villages. Scores of them before us, and several behind. Slowly, the paddy fields disappeared. A few miles ago, we had seen their trails: the ones that appeared in convergent paths.

It was long past noon when the fields emerged alongside the road. Some were missing chunks of land. They were filled with water. We came across several such chunks throughout the stretch. Like imaginary companions, they followed us for a while. Invading distant lands, in shadows and reflections, they stood apart. For one thing, they attracted lone wanderers in long summer afternoons. Maybe we could find them. As expectation coursed through us, Arun explained: “This belt, right here, is quite fertile. So, farmers would have transported copious amounts of soil to their own farmlands. You will find such empty spaces everywhere.”

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***
We stopped for some tea at a bus stop. As the stall owner brewed a fresh pot, Arun spotted a middle-aged farmer across the street. Balancing a bag of fresh flowers on his head, he took long strides towards us; exhaustion writ large on his face. His name was Thippeswamy. 

“He grows a variety of flowers. He has done exceedingly well considering the plight of farmers in these regions,” said Arun.

“I live in Mushtugarahalli and I have three acres of land,” said Thippeswamy gingerly placing the plastic bag on the ground. His tall lanky figure hovered over us. “I hope to plant some arecanut trees this year. I grow around 350 kgs of flowers in 5 guntas. But I could harvest only 10 kg this time. I get around Rs 20 per kg for my flowers. We have asked the rates to be revised to Rs 30. I am not sure if they will consider our pleas. They must, though.”

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“I grow tomatoes and corn too. I got 40 bags of corn this year. I earn around Rs 200 per day. And, I managed to earn Rs 200,000 from tomatoes. I have no loans. I make enough to feed my family,” he said with a warm smile.

Thippeswamy’s sons dropped out of school quite young. He seemed disappointed with their decision. “I hoped they’d study well. Perhaps, their lives would have been different. My elder one finished 10th grade while the younger one was in 7th grade when he realised he was unhappy in school. They could have worked in one of those government offices. But they didn’t have any interest in studying at all. They accompany me to my farms everyday. They are good farmers. Both of them. Maybe that’s their destiny.”

His bus was due to arrive any moment. So, he sprang to his feet and left. He asked us to visit him some day. We told him we would. It was when he walked way that we realised his feet were bare. He didn’t stop, not once. Nor did he flinch stepping on those pathways seared by the heat.

***
Upon reaching Davangere, we crossed paths with several parades of election campaigners raising slogans of their respective parties. Each one different from the other. Each one promising for a better tomorrow. Curious onlookers were bemused by their antics. Some laughed. Others joined in. Some just stood away from the crowd.

“Where the road bends hard to the left, take the smaller trail and drive straight,” said Arun after a quick stop for some more tea. “There’s a reservoir up ahead. I spend a lot of time there. There’s a lovely walkway we could take to explore its shores.”

We parked the vehicle beside the reservoir. There was a sign that read ‘A thriving forest is as beautiful as a married woman’s face’. Arun’s face contorted in grief as he led us to a tree nearby. “The proverb implies that a widow’s face is unlucky. Normally, they are forbidden from partaking in auspicious events and sacred rituals simply because they are considered as omens of bad luck. It is still a taboo in many communities.”

We lapsed into silence, and stared at the waters. A tiny water snake floated towards the shore. Arun threw a pebble into the water and said: “No human being deserves to be called unlucky. Who are we to decide that? Why must a woman’s identity be reduced to her marital status? ‘She suffers in silence’, they all say. They always do. But if she raises her voice against such malpractices, we are quick to shun her. Nobody wants to listen anymore.”

Adjusting his green shawl over his shoulders, he stood up at once. Rolling along the dust was a ball of plastic waste. Tilting its way towards the waters, it landed at the shores.It lay there for a while until it floated away.

“Let’s leave. You must be hungry,” said Arun with a smile.

***
At 5:30 pm, Arun suggested we meet Professor S H Patil who is an active member of the Humans Rights Forum in Davangere. “He will be able to tell us exactly where we have gone wrong with respect to addressing the ongoing farming crisis as well as shed light on human rights violations reported within the agro-community over the past decade,” he said climbing down the staircase.

In the car, Arun shook his head ponderously as he struck a conversation with his friend. They spoke of the impending elections. They spoke of troubled times; they spoke about everything. At times, they had nothing to say. Yet, they were content being in each other’s company.

We soon came across a locked gate before which stood a young man. It was quiet inside. We walked towards the front door. Inside the house, a few men were in deep conversation amongst themselves. An old man sat in the centre. Flailing his arms, he guffawed aloud at his friend’s remarks.

“Excuse me, while I wear my ornaments,” he said adjusting his hearing aid. He was 81 years old. Arun explained why we were here. He listened patiently and spoke with staccato phrases: “We should always look at any human problem not just from a single point of view. We need to have an integrated approach. He is a farmer. He is a husband. He belongs to a particular caste. It was the John Mathai committee that first suggested we make credit available to the farmer. For, the lack of it may harm him. But that alone will not solve the problem. And, it didn’t.”

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There are other things that need to be taken into consideration, he says. Aside from cropping pattern and availability of irrigation, adequate marketing facilities and the presence of granaries play a crucial role in ascertaining the current situation of a farmer. “I don’t think a farmer’s problem as they project in the papers is a singular problem. It is a combination of multiple factors. Before we started reforming the agriculturists, there weren’t any instances of farmer suicides. With all these schemes available, why are farmers committing suicides? People seem to think only land is responsible. No. It is not the land that’s important. It is the man that’s important. Human Being…”

His eyes darted towards the kitchen. His daughter stood at the door. “Some tea?” he asked us and fell silent. He soon let out a deep sigh and said, let me tell you something:

To my dismay, I found that in my own village, there were different kinds of interest rates being offered to farmers. You may have established a co-operative society but who is taking advantage of the situation? Mere availability isn’t enough. Can farmers have access to these facilities? That is more important. Can a poor illiterate farmer make use of these co-operative societies? Subsequently, are the facilities/schemes provided by the government made available to them when they require them the most? For instance, it is only during sowing season that they can make use of seeds. Similarly, the demand for manure and fertiliser remains high when the crop is young. What is the point of supplying them after harvest?

Likewise, paddy cultivators are sometimes aghast with certain diseases like blight, blast, etc. It may seem as if the crop has been eaten by fire. It spreads fast and turns white overnight. Can the farmer have advance realisations then and prepare himself? I am always concerned about these things. A structure exists, no doubt, but it isn’t helpful to the individual.

I was a farmer and I cultivated for ten years before I became a professor. I tried all possible options back then including growing Mexican wheat. Oh! What a miracle it was. We were all fascinated with it. It will yield 40 quintals per acre, they told us. The cost of wheat was far greater than jowar or raagi. Almost double. So, in ten acres, on an experimental basis, I did everything that had to be done. Land was levelled and the crop grew beautifully.

I was told I had done a great thing! G V K Rao, a renowned agricultural expert, even visited my farm, one day. My father was elated. He thought his son had achieved something wonderful. However, his elation was short lived. It so happened that when we harvested 10 acres, I procured just 30 quintals of wheat. I was so disappointed and disheartened. That was one of the reasons why I gave up farming.
 
I was furious. So, I went to the Agricultural Research Institute in Delhi. I didn’t go alone. There were about 25 or 26 people with me. I requested for a private meeting with the Vice Chancellor.

What is your problem? he asked. I told him, ‘Sir, I am from Shimoga. Upon the encouragement of the department, I grew Mexican wheat.’ To that he immediately retorted, “Who is the bastard who advised you to do this?”

I was half satisfied with his comment. All the while, I was under the impression that I had gone wrong somewhere. Perhaps, I don’t know how to farm. I was filled with doubts. He said: Mister, all crops are bound by climate not just soil or water. The most favourable weather for wheat is zero degrees. Tillering is done in the cold season. It is not meant for tropical weather…

I pity farmers for they are the worst sufferers. As a farmer, you are not cultivating profitably – which means you suffer losses. Hence, you become poor. If you are poor, you are deprived of your fundamental human rights. Poverty is the worst enemy of human rights. Only if you see and fight it will you understand the kind of damage poverty can do to a human being.

Once upon a time, we were all Marxists or socialists. We came from socialist backgrounds. However, today we have become capitalists. Everyone is striving for that ‘high-end’ lifestyle. People respect those who have more money; those who have amassed wealth through fair or corrupt means. That’s the reality. Man has changed, no doubt. His craving for money knows no end.

Somewhere, we have lost our values. We became increasingly materialistic over time. It is only with education that we can ingrain values. It is a non-violent process that can bring about significant change in our society. We have made extraordinary scientific and technical advancements today. However, we continue to restrict science to laboratory and don’t apply it to society. Science should become our server and not our master.

Throughout history, our agricultural system has been designed in such a manner that it seldom permitted the farmer to progress. It always worked in favour of the middle men and never the producers. The first step towards organising farmers is getting a good leader. When you unite, the Government starts paying attention. Everyone does.

But, how can we unite? He doesn’t belong to my caste! Caste system in India is one of the  fundamental problems that needs to be addressed. At some point in history, you couldn’t own land in this country. For, it was a privilege reserved for the higher caste. Shudras were deemed fit for toiling and labour work. One was forbidden from learning how to read unless he belonged to the upper caste too. And, that constituted our ‘traditional’ Indian system.

Here, a person’s status is decided the moment he or she is born. Nothing more. Just birth. No one can paint a better picture of caste system in India than Ambedkar. Caste system is in the blood of our country, he said. It is an integral part of any Indian’s identity.

All these issues are interconnected. For, life isn’t compartmentalised; it’s one movement.  I am a human being. I am a farmer. I have a family. I belong to a caste. I have provincial affinity. And, all these things matter. We shout slogans claiming we are one but we aren’t. We are never united. Many tried in the past to bring us together. Many succeeded. Eventually, we failed them…

And, it happened over and over again. Some felt it was the weather. Others said it was water. A few cursed the land. A few blamed it on our inability to rise above societal norms. At times, it was hope that failed them. At times, it was humanity. But they all failed consistently year after year — land, water and man…

(to be continued…)

Project ‘Rest of My family‘  is an attempt to connect back, re-discover our relationship with and understand our responsibility towards the larger family that we are a part of — the rest of our human family. Hence, it is titled Rest Of My Family.

Through  ‪#‎RestofMyFamily‬, we will focus on highlighting social issues and human interest stories, documenting the triumphs of the ordinary man despite all the hardships they face constantly, and help these stories reach a larger audience and wherever necessary extend support to the individuals and communities that we write about. We hope to make a direct impact to the lives of those people we meet and find suffering due to various social issues; to connect the ones who need help to the ones who can help…. As a part of the first leg of the project, we have now embarked on a one-year drive (#DriveForChange) through rural India.Find more about the campaign here: http://igg.me/at/restofmyfamily/x/539502
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