|1 December 2004
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By F. Merlin Flower
"Farmers are the backbone of the economy," said the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, one of the states in India. But in some aspects the backbone of the economy appears disfigured and even broken.
Almost all the 70 million farmers in India are exploited by middlemen. These middlemen usurp most of the profit earned by the farmer. The lack of proper storage has forced the farmer to sell his product to the middleman at low cost. As the products perish soon, the farmer sells it at the offered price, said Manjunatha Gowda, the secretary of the Karnataka State Youth Farmers association. The co-operative movement in India, formed to protect farmers against these middlemen, has failed badly, admitted Nagarajaiah, secretary of the Karnataka State Farmers Association. In the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu, "Ulavar Chanthai," a market devoid of middlemen, was established four years ago but died with a change in the state government.
Loss of profits to middlemen is just one of the problems faced by Indian farmers. Farmers were not able to get even a rupee (US$0.022) per quintal (100 kg) as profit for pulse crops in the last two months, said Nagarajaiah. At times, the farmer is not able to get even a cent, said Ganghadar, general secretary of another farmer society, Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha.
"In Chitradurga district in Karnataka," said Nagarajaiah, "an average agricultural family has at least two to three lakh as debt," or 200,000-300,000 rupees (US$4400-6600). He continues, "The import liberalization following World Trade Organisation's guidelines has led to this reduction in prices of crops." Rajanna, Additional Director of Agriculture of India's Agricultural Commission, added that according to the Agreements on Agriculture (AOA), countries which are members of WTO have to give specific commitments for market access of agricultural goods into their countries.
"When there is a heavy import of agricultural goods, there is an increase in the supply of these goods in the market. This lowers the prices," said Vanaja Ramprasad, President, Green Foundation.
Such economic straits have contributed to the nearly 10,000 farmers suicides this year alone in India. The issue could be understood better by taking the example of the plight of farmers in Andhra Pradesh. In this state alone, nearly 3,000 farmers committed suicide this year.
The Information Technology (I.T.) revolution took India by storm. There was technological revolution in almost every field, and India was prepared to be the software hub of the world. In fact it is still a leading country in the I.T. field. There were promising figures of soaring export growth and foreign direct investment, painting an enviable and rosy picture of the economy. Andhra Pradesh was in the forefront of this revolution. Hyderabad, the capital of the state, was promoted as the high tech city, and the then Chief Minister was the High-Tech Chief Minister.
In his enthusiasm, and with advice from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), McKinsey & Company, the World Bank and other consultants, the then Chief Minister dismantled many of the support mechanisms enjoyed by the farmers at the grassroots level. Coincidentally, for almost three years the farmers didnít have a good monsoon and suffered a series of crop failures. Instead of relying to age-old and safe methods of water harvesting or sharing of the limited water resources, farmers resorted to digging additional expensive bore wells. Perhaps this would not have happened with a strong Panchayat (Village) system. Seeds, pesticides and fertilizers were bought at high prices. Most of the farmers were tenants and were not eligible for bank loans, as banks give loans only if land can be offered as collateral. As a result they were forced to borrow from money lenders at interest rates reaching a staggering 36 per cent annually. Middlemen occupied center stage in the life of the farmer, and when the crops failed, the deep debts drove them to commit suicide.
Indebtedness, insecurity due to crop failures, and increases in the cost of seeds and fertilizers aggravated the situation. In the United States, cotton was subsidized at $12.9 billion during 1999-2000. Farmers in India were pitted against these highly subsidized imports. Indian products were very costly compared to the US products, and they suffered heavy losses in market share.
The high tech government collapsed in Andhra Pradesh, and the new government has announced compensation packages to the dead farmers. A new and tragic drama unfolded, with many farmers committing suicide to get the compensation amount for their families. The present Chief Minister has set up help lines and has promised to help farmers by bringing 670 megares (6.7 million hectares) under irrigation. The help lines do not have professional counselors and failed to evoke attention in many places. The national government of India, a country which boasts of having satellites and atomic bombs, is also considering how to address the problem. The Finance Minister of India has unfolded a strategy to involve banks in rural credit, which will take time.
By F. Merlin Flower
Rajathii is 12, yet the vigor of youth is missing, replaced by a longing for something more. She has a cherubic face and is very shy, with sad loud eyes. Being an introvert, Rajathii takes time to come out in the open. It is clear that she is incapable of matching the tough standards set by the nasty outer world. But one cannot miss the smile that flashes across her mouth now and then. Rajathii is a child laborer. Estimates of the number of child laborers in India range from 11 million (by the Indian government) to 60-115 million (by Human Rights Watch).
Rajathii resides in one of the many slums in Bangalore, a relatively rich city in India. She was 11 when her father decided to send her to work. She is a rag picker now, a robot to her father's orders. It is not unusual for a child in India to stop studies, following parental orders, the often quoted excuse being poverty. But in Rajathiiís case, it surely was not poverty, as her parents are healthy working people. She goes to work at 6 a.m. and returns late at night. She longs to attend school, study and play with her friends there. She says through a translator, "Itís only eight months since I left school. Even now itís not late to go back." She shies away from strangers and picks rags from isolated places, oblivious to the dangers that lurk there. In nearly every sentence she utters the word "father," whether out of fear or love one cannot identify, though it seems likelier the result of the former.
Suresh too is a rag picker. He is 17 but looks like a seven year old, an apparent case of malnutrition, though his mother vouches that he had taken after his father, who has a small build. He earns around Rs.150 (US$3.30) a day, which is quite high for a 17 year old, and goes to work when he feels like it. He is very confident, speaks three languages and has already visited a foreign country, Sri Lanka. He represented India in one of the workshops for child laborers there. He spoke on the plight of child laborers in his country. Ratna, his mother, said she wondered if this was the same boy who was once scared of the dark. A contributor to this transformation of Suresh from a shy boy to a confident young man was his participation in Bhima Sangha, a non-governmental organisation working for the welfare of child laborers in Bangalore. Suresh is now the regional leader of the organization. Bhima Sangha was established in the early 1980ís to improve not only the lives of working children but also of their families. The organization encourages the children to discuss their lives and the problems they face. It then seeks to remove these problems, by nudging the children to think for themselves. It has schools designed to cater to the needs of these children, most of whom had never been to school. Suresh studies at a Bhima Sangha evening school. He proudly announces, "I taught my mother to read."
These workers never had a voice. The situation is slowly changing, says Suresh. He adds, "We came to know that one of our friends was not being paidÖ. We organized ourselves and were instrumental in getting the due for the boy." The other example he gave involved events outside the work place. The children came to know that a minor girl was being forced into marriage in the neighboring village, and they succeeded in preventing the marriage.
Suresh has two sisters and a brother. His mother is a divorcee, and family circumstances forced her to send all her children to work. They donít have proper breakfast, and the lunch and dinner is blended together and taken at 6 p.m. His favorite food is biriyani, an oily South Indian dish, bought from the nearby shop. Though he works without gloves, he seldom falls ill. He has developed a strong immune system after years of working in the dirt, says his mother.
The child laborers who join Bhima Sangha meet once a week and discuss the problems they face. These children have very quiet and orderly meetings. They raise their hands before talking and are not permitted to argue without reason. Suresh uses the name "Bhima Sangha" in nearly every sentence. He also often touches the head band, a yellow ribbon worn by the members of Bhima Sanga. The organization more than anything has given a sense of belonging to these children. They are happy to be participants in an active reform movement.
Suresh enjoys his economic freedom, which helps illustrate why a ban on child labor doesnít always work. The ban by the Indian government on child labor, if enforced, will make people like Suresh redundant. A child who goes to work in the morning and then goes to school will be robbed of his economic independence. Suresh has reason to dream of his ambition of helping people like him study and face the world. Rajathiiís father has strictly ordered her to keep away from Bhima Sangha. Far from sustaining ambition for her future, Rajathii hardly dreams.
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