‘The environment that we create around us reflects the kind of conversations we have there.’
That one line, spoken in Hindi, with a gentle ironic smile is the only time that Vijay Jardhariji of Beej Bachao Andolan has ever spoken to me. And I still remember it today. The ‘environment’ there was not a farm, or a seed mela, but an international conference on Biodiversity in Hyderabad in 2012. I had gotten out of the building for a break from the air conditioning. He had too. And both of us were in a common search for tea. Real chai, not the machine affair which had a sickening after-taste and yet was more expensive.
Three years later, in an open letter written by him to the Prime Minister, I find again a mention of the air conditioner (AC), linking it to the artificially constructed environments of our city life :
“About the unseasonal rainfall, drought, excessive rain and floods, our belief was that it is a natural calamity signaling the onset of ‘Kalyug’ but scientific research has opened our eyes. Its real reason is the excessive development or consumeristic culture.
The devastation caused by environmental and climate change doesn’t impact the lives of professional and city persons. He will still get his salary. Business of businessmen will also continue. Yes the city people do feel hot but their solution is refrigerator, AC and cooler. When they feel cold, they switch on heating systems. By using electricity intensively they make the environment correspond to their wishes.”
Mann ki baat
Throughout the ten page letter dated March 17, 2015, Vijayji tries to bring out the connections between our life choices, the chosen path of development in India and the state of a farmer from his own experience of many decades as a one devoted to organic farming and seed conservation. He writes from the vantage point of a mountain farmer who has seen his surrounding environment come under continuous assault. He writes (in March 2015) encouraged by the PM’ use of the phrase ‘Mann ki baat’ which was a political slogan asking farmers to talk about what is in their heart. His letter begins thus:
“Here in the mountains, the climate is far from fine. We are shivering in the month of Chaita. Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri and Yamnotri, along with other hills, are covered with an unseasonal snow. Agriculture and farming is far from fine. While in some places the rabi sowing could not take place because of the drought right after the monsoons. Now there is heavy rainfall and snow.”
The letter, written in Hindi, uses simple and elegant words to tackle a complex issue which otherwise often finds a very technical treatment laden with difficult words (for vagueness perhaps?) in reports of High Level Committees, international bodies and scientific research institutes. To speak about the changes in village life and farming conditions, he evokes the following imagery:
“I remember how 25-30 years ago our country used to have six seasons vasant, grisham, varshat, shishir, hemant and sharad, in a pre-determined sequence. Farmers used to sow seeds at a fixed time, do nirai-gudai and harvest at a fixed time. Wind, water, weather was not an obstruction. The courtyard used to be filled with livestock (cow, calf, ox, buffalo). Our water sources (chaal, khaal, talab, bawadiyaan) were brimming with water. The sweet sound of ringing bells on livestock used to echo in villages. The village forests used to provide sufficient fodder for livestock as well as wood for farming implements. Munshi Premchand’s Heera, Moti and Hori. Aah. The farms, barns and house were filled with cereals, pulses, tilhan, vegetables and greens, eating all of these used to keep people happy and healthy. Disease used to stay away. This is why the Father of the nation, Mahatma Gandhi, used to speak about taking Gram Swaraj forward.
But today, there’s bad news coming from our villages. Neither farm-saved seed remains, nor manure, nor oxen nor diversity in food crops. Instead of the bells of livestock, we hear the cacophony of tractors. Instead of manure and compost, we have chemical fertilizers and oil, making our eyes water. Even apart from the increased weather unpredictability, there is a cascade of troubles on the farmer. You must have heard how more than 3 lakh farmers have committed suicides. But they are only remembered during the elections..”
He describes the change the farmer went through with the Green Revolution, which began with free distribution of hybrid seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides soon turned into an endless debt trap as farmers as now seeds and chemical inputs for farming had to be bought.
Throughout the letter, he brings many important nuances. He questions, for instance, about seed diversity and the present trend of patenting and claiming individual ownerships for seeds:
“Seed is an important element of creation. It hasn’t been made by a scientist or an entrepreneur in a laboratory. Thousands of years ago, ancestors of farmers collected seeds from the forests by picking and choosing, and like their own heirs, propagated different crop varieties. These are the same seeds that scientists have researched on to create new seeds…. How unfair is it that farming is done by farmer but the seed has to be bought from MNCs. This is a huge betrayal of the farmer.”
He brings out the burning issue of provisions in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement for diversion of fertile land of farmers:
“But diversion of fertile land linked directly to farmers’ livelihoods for huge malls, high-tech cities like Lavasa, FDA and SEZ of national and foreign Multi National Companies is not simply an injustice, but a grave one. Representatives of the government argue that farmers will get good compensation. This exchange of land for money reminds one of the saying from the mountains about ‘selling the boat for buying a nose-ring’. Fertile land is an immovable property. How many days will the money be good for? What of our next generation…”
On the presently touted concept of ‘evergreen revolution’ (referring to the introduction of Genetically Modified crop varieties which will be controlled by only a few large companies) he writes:
“the Indian government, under pressure from American companies, is going to introduce GM seeds. As per presently available information, GM technology will be detrimental to the traditional seed and cause contamination of traditional varieties”
In the name of development
Throughout the letter he prods the question of what is responsible for this present state of the farmer of “amdani atthanni, kharcha rupaiyah.”.
“..the truth is that the small clerk has become an officer, the small shopkeeper an industrialist, the small town has become a city, now increasingly having high-technology. But why are the villages going barren? Why are farmers committing suicide? And why is the new generation leaving agriculture and migrating to cities to work as labourers..”
He links this directly with the state of environment and connects it with the path of development we are following. He speaks of the soil losing its fertility, the seed its diversity, the coarse and nourishing grains losing their place of value, the environmental degradation and climate change intensifying, the traditional cattle breeds disappearing, the damage to crops by wild animals intensifying, and the overall denigration of farming as a way of living. Some excerpts that show that:
“The psychology of a farmer’s suicide can be hard to understand but a straight and true reason is that those farmers commit suicide for whom the way of life and culture of farming has been snatched by modern agricultural development. For whom the practice of family based diversity rich farming has been replaced by an input-intensive monocultural commercial farming, pushing him into a debt trap.”
“Our planners have chosen the Western model of industrial, urban development. By choosing the American agricultural model and increasing the yield of wheat and rice, it did win praise, but in turn we lost our biodiversity. We have also lost our food biodiversity, as a consequence of which the common man is suffering from malnutrition and dangerous diseases. How clever are these multinational companies? First they bring chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. When chemicals make us sick with toxic food, they speak about keeping good health with life protecting medicines. In the name of development, government is strengthening their business.”
“The entire balance of seasons has gotten disrupted. The rich developed countries or the people in big cities of our own country disrupt the climate and the negative impacts are borne by poor farmers. Can there be a graver injustice? What court should we go to?”
“the greed of mono-cropping, business and cash cropping has made farming as a way of life, barren. Sometimes it feels like it has been a deliberate trick in the name of agricultural development, for industry to take over farming. The farmer suicides are the consequence of this.”
He doesn’t restrict the letter to analysing what went wrong, and what is going wrong but also tentatively suggests what can be put right. He speaks of the need for incentives and support for millet farming, mixed cropping, conservation of forest commons. At the same time, he speaks of the need to turn back from our present path of destructive development and consumeristic culture.
He finishes his letter with these lines:
“But Honourable sir, remember one thing, please understand that one day the traditional knowledge and traditional biodiversity will be of value. We are hopeful about sustainable farming, nutritious food, clean air and water but worried about the destructive urban development and the oppressive culture which has threatened our old world of dark monsoon clouds and a verdant earth.
We hope that you will understand the feelings of farmers.”
For me, the account given by Vijay Jardhariji in his letter gives an honest, sincere and accurate picture of a farmer’s plea and his ‘mann-ki-baat’. But, is anybody listening?
Shiba Desor is a member of Kalpavriksh, Pune and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org