Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Supreme Court strictures against Vilasrao a blot on the Govt

The Supreme Court’s strictures against Vilasrao Deshmukh for interfering in the enforcement of a law that regulates private money lending while he was the chief minister of Maharashtra are not only a blot on the DF government in the state, but also a reminder of an unabated exploitation of the peasantry.

The strongly worded verdict that imposes a fine of Rs 10 lakh on the state government also comes as a major embarrassment to an already troubled UPA government, and particularly the Congress party, as Deshmukh is currently a union minister (for heavy industries) in the Manmohan Singh-cabinet.

The case, which highlights a victim peasant’s indomitable grit to take on the powers-that-be despite risk to his life, also brings to fore the political patronage private usurers enjoy, maiming the debt-trapped peasantry. The development is bound to raise a storm in the ongoing winter session of the legislature in Nagpur, though no immediate reaction was forthcoming on Tuesday from the Sena-BJP opposition.

It all began in 2006 with a letter that Shangdhar Singh Chavan, a 54 year-old victim peasant, wrote to the Nagpur bench of the Bombay high court on behalf of the 55 debt-ridden farmers.

The beleaguered farmers said in the letter that neither the Buldana Superintendent of Police nor the collector was paying any heed to their complaints against Gulabchand Sananda, the usurer father of the Congress MLA from Khamgaon (Buldana district), Dilip Sananda. The farmers had alleged in their complaint that the Sanandas had usurped their farmland against the money they borrowed.

The high court suo motto converted the farmer’s letter into a writ petition. In March 2009, delivering its verdict, the high court flayed the then chief minister, Vilasrao Deshmukh, for “the gross abuse of power” and directed the state government to pay Rs 25,000 to the petitioners as the cost of petition.

Deshmukh's then personal secretary had asked the police not to register a FIR on the complaint of the farmers, an instruction that got recorded in the police diary. Subsequently, he had instructed the district collector that he’d personally look into the matter before any action was taken against the Sanandas.

Chavan’s letter to the high court actually epitomized hundreds of farmers’ grievances against the private usurers across the crisis-ridden Vidarbha, particularly the ones indebted to the Sanandas. The Congress MLA’s family is alleged to be big moneylenders in Khamgaon, with a reign of terror in the region.

Elated by the SC verdict Chavan told DNA from Khamgaon over telephone, the government must help complainant-farmers get back the land from the clutches of the Sanandas. He said he lost 14-and-a-half acres of land in his native village Hingnakadegaon, near Khamgaon, to the Sanandas against the loans he took from them in 1993 and subsequently in 1995. He’s managed to keep three acres in his possession.

While the government reckons it needs to bring in stringent laws to reign in the private money lenders the amendment to the existing legislation has been pending. The government essentially wants to bring in 12 rules to monitor the private usury violating the laws and give relief to the trapped peasants. There are stricter punitive clauses, the draft Bill that has been referred to a joint select committee suggests.

The number of farmers who sought recourse to private lenders despite the loan waiver package rose to 574,046 (2008-09) in Maharashtra compared to 423,213, the previous year.

“It’s a political conspiracy against me,” a defiant Dilip Sananda told reporters in Khamgaon. “There is no mention of my name in the police records, and there was never any pressure from me or the then CM,” he maintained. He refused to comment on the Supreme Court verdict, saying “I am yet to read it.”

“The chief minister had no business to interfere in the functioning of the 1946 Act to regulate money lending in the state,” the Supreme Court said while dismissing the Maharashtra government's appeal challenging the Bombay High Court order and enhancing the cost of petition to Rs 10 lakh.

“This is historic decision,” Kishor Tiwari of the Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti, a farmers’ movement, said in a statement, urging the prime minister to sack Vilasrao and take legal action against the legislator.

Monday, December 06, 2010

The 1K-crore aid is peanuts

Nagpur, December 5:

There are many ways to read into any government bonanza.

Look, for instance, at the thousand crore aid that the Maharashtra government announced on Saturday for farmers, hit by the untimely rains.

Plain arithmetic shows that the aid would come to roughly Rs 20,000 a hectare, since the preliminary estimates are of losses over 5.4 lakh hectares.

Weigh it with past figures, and one thinks the government has really been more liberal in helping the peasants than the previous years. As the new chief minister, Prithviraj Chavan, and his deputy, Ajit Pawar, put it: The compensation has been increased three-fold over the average assistance of Rs 350 crore the government has been giving every year to the losses-torn farmers of the state since 2004.

But when demystified, the huge amount looks more of a pain than relief to the peasants, whose losses this year stand anywhere around Rs 10,000 crore.

Given this year’s phenomenal increase in the production cost, particularly for the rain-dependent farms of the state, the loss of harvest due to an extended 60-day post-monsoon period comes as a rude shock, since the peasant’s farming risks have risen manifold with cash crops, price volatility, and natural calamities.

So how do the Rs 1000 crore get distributed?

The amount includes of the burden of interest on grape growers’ loans that the government has decided to bear for the next two years. This, when desegregated, will include of three components, top officials say: this year’s losses, interests on commercial loans and the loans taken under the National Horticulture Mission.

Together it amounts to about Rs 250 crore, and since the interest waiver is for two years, the benefit to the grape growers in Nashik and Pune would eat into almost half the package amount. The government has made it clear that it would bear the entire interest burden (without upper limit or land size restriction) so that the grape growers, whose losses are unprecedented, rebuild their vineyards.

The losses borne by other traditional agriculture crops: paddy, soybeans, pulses, cotton, and sugarcane, would get compensated from the remaining amount, and within the ambit of the existing norms: that is compensation up to two hectares, unless the government decides to treat 2010 as a special case. In any case each of the beneficiaries, reliable sources say, won’t get more than Rs 5000, or Rs 1000 per acre. The details would be anyway available by December 14-15.

That, for the kind of losses paddy, soybean, sugarcane and cotton farmers have borne this year, is peanuts, according to the agriculture experts and peasants.
The other promise of restoration of power supply to agriculture pumps favuors the irrigated farms, and ignores majority rain-dependent peasants.

More tragic is the flaw the government continues to persist with since 1997 in its policy to compensate the peasants for losses due to nature’s vagaries.

The Panchanamas, or the spot verification, is intended to compensate individuals and not the entire village. Which is strange. If untimely rains cause losses on one field in a village, how can other fields be left untouched by their impact!

The 5.4 lakh hectare agriculture land where crop losses are more than 50 per cent would be eligible for the compensation doles. This area is scattered over 33 districts. On the ground, the actual acre of farmland wrecked by untimely rains is no short of a million hectares. May be more.

Who will the Rs 1K crore provide relief to and in what way is therefore a million dollar question.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Rumblings after Ashok-Parva

By Jaideep Hardikar

The ‘Ashok Parva’ is over. Its aftershocks aren’t.

Here’s another trouble brewing up for the axed chief minister Ashok Chavan, and this one might actually be worse than the Adarsh society scam that saw him lose his throne.

While the Prithviraj Chavan cabinet is likely to take oath, the former CM would on Friday be defending his 2009 election to the legislative assembly when the Election Commission of India (EC) holds the next and what is likely to be the final hearing of a petition that seeks his disqualification for allegedly fudging his poll expenses, including the unaccounted spending on what has come to be known as paid news.

The Ex-CM is defending a notice served on him earlier this year by the EC to explain why he should not be disqualified under the relevant sections of the Representation of the People Act, 1951, this – after his rival Madhav Kinhalar petitioned the EC following a series of reports that embroiled Chavhan in the paid news controversy. More than a dozen newspapers, some of them leading ones in the state, had in the run up to the polls published several pages in Chavan’s praise. The petitioner’s argument has been that one, the published content (dozens of pages virtually praising Chavhan) qualifies as “paid news” and, if accounted for, they would have cost crores of rupees breaching the Rs 10 lakh poll expenditure limit. In his official submission to the retuning officer of his Bhokar constituency, Nanded, Chavhan showed his expenditure to be Rs 7 lakh on his entire campaign, and a mere Rs 5,379 on newspaper advertisements.

That included of Rs 4400 he spent on the rally where Bollywood star Salman Khan was an attraction. And a meager Rs 200 on the pandal, Rs 1000 on setting up of the stage, Rs 40 for the cloth to cover it, and Rs 200 on the sofa-rentals. The rent of the meeting venue, added to the expenditure sheet later: Rs 500.

Kinhalkar holds that the very fact that EC sent notices to Chavan means that it is convinced that there’s prima facie a case against him and that there’s some violation. In his submissions before the EC, Chavan has denied any wrongdoing. Senior Congress leader, Abhishek Manu Singhvi, is said to be his counsel.

The BJP’s Kirit Somaiyya, who is intervener/petitioner on the issue, would also get an hour to plead his point of view before the EC, through his counsel and Rajya Sabha member, Ram Jethmalani.

The voluminous material evidence and other advertisements that were not accounted for in Chavhan’s election expenditure statement now form part of the EC hearings on the complaint.

The complaint against Chavhan and successive hearings over it hold significance, given that the EC, keen to clean up the malaise of paid news, has now set up a special cell, just before the Bihar assembly polls, to generally keep tab on paid news that favour some candidates and black out others in elections. The EC, sources in the know said, has this year issued circulars describing what according to it would qualify as paid news – content that is paid for but published under the garb of news.

In the previous hearing on November 12, the petitioner completed his arguments. The EC set November 19 as the date for next hearing, when Chavhan would get to explain his side of the story.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Dancing to the Official Tune

Pendhri, Gadchiroli:

The shadow of gun was inescapable, the contrast sharp.

As a motley group of adivasis danced to the enigmatic rhythm of the traditional ‘Rela’ drum-beat in the heat and dust, Pendhri village felt the tension and unease.

Tens of eyes stared at each other, as the armed troops in the olive green fatigues manned every nook and corner of this small village on Thursday, 75 km from the district headquarters of Gadchiroli in the thickly forested tribal hinterland, about 250 km away from the bustling urban trappings of Nagpur.

But when the police are holding a Jan-Jagaran Melawa, or the public awareness rally, in the strong Maoist-reigned area, the contrast is only natural if somewhat ironic.

This rally, the police said, was held against the backdrop of a strong Maoist threat. Only days ahead of the event, the armed rebels had threatened to foil it, warning the tribal villagers to desist from going to the venue. But as the crowds poured in, either under the police duress or on their own volition, officials smiled with a sense of relief. Holding it looked like a statement. What did it achieve, hardly mattered.

Originally designed to be the police propaganda and later converted into all-department information fair for the villagers, the ‘Jan-Jagaran Mewalas’ in naxal-prone Gadchiroli are resuming after a long lull.

The previous one was held in the month of March in hinterland of Laheri, where Maoists had killed 19 policemen in October, last. But the police said that one was a much-subdued event.

“Idea is to reach out to the people,” district superintendent of police S Veeresh Prabhu said. “It’s like breaking the ice with the people, and saying we are here for you.”

Several stalls put up by the various government departments meant that the district administration got a chance to meet the tribal people they are supposed to serve.

The stalls displayed information in Marathi, the volunteers explained the government schemes to the visitors, but the belying message was: shun supporting the Maoists if you want progress in your area. The stall that drew most attention was once where the police had on display the names and pictures of the top Maoist leaders and the list of violent incidents in the district over the past decade.

It’s an area where people hardly ever speak for fear of retribution, said an intelligence officer. “There is obviously some pressure from the police to attend the rally,” he said. “But it is for their good.”

Maoists don’t believe it. They describe the Jan-Jagran rallies as a “propaganda” ploy against them.

The state government though has persisted with the rallies as a means to hold dialogue with the people, in the absence of any political process. “We know it won’t yield immediate results,” said an officer, “but it is important that we engage with the people and reach the benefits of the government programmes.”

Gadchiroli Zilla Parishad CEO Amit Saini told the gathering: “Unless you participate in the Gram Sabha, how will you know where and how the government funds are being spent by your representatives.” He asked the villagers to ask their panchayat representatives how they were spending the village funds.

The rally also provides a rare opportunity to the villagers to get their work done on the spot: whether it is related to the revenue or agriculture or tribal welfare department.

An aging Chamaru Bai Atla came from an interior village to apply for the Sanjay Gandhi Niradhar Yojana, seeking the old age pension at Pendhri rally. Many others quietly glanced through the schemes offered by the agriculture, animal husbandry, tribal welfare or health departments.

Holding a Jan-Jagaran Melawa in the Maoist territory isn’t easy though.

“We postponed the event twice last month due to the Maoist threat,” the SP said. “It took us some time to re-plan it.” For a month, he said, his men undertook the area domination exercises to keep the rebels at bay and convince the villagers to attend the rally. On Thursday, tens of armed commandoes and CRPF jawans guarded the road that led to Pendhri through the thickly forested belt of Chatgaon.

Yet, the outcome may not always be as desired.

“It’s hard not only to convince people to come to the fair since they fear retribution from the Maoists,” said a police officer on the condition of anonymity, “but also the administration and other offices.”

Among the most backward districts in the country, Gadchiroli is also among the lowest in the human development index, with high infant mortality and hunger. It’s also a district where both the police and the government officials refuse to serve. Many a post lie vacant in the police and other departments.

The district police say they look to hold such rallies regularly now – at least once every two months. “This will allow the district administration to have a dialogue with the people living cut off from the world in the interior,” Prabhu said.

Pendhri was closed for all other activities though. The weekly market was shut for the afternoon, shops closed, and the armed troops kept an eye on incomers. As the poor adivasis poured in at the venue, been forced, prodded, or coerced by the police, the day long rally served one purpose: That a strong Maoist threat did not deter them to hold the event, seen as an important government initiative.

Despite a stern warning from the Maoists, the turnout was good, given that the fair coincided with the weekly market where villagers from the neigbouring 40-odd hamlets come to buy their groceries. It provides them with a reason to come to the rally; otherwise they face the wrath of the naxalites, one officer said.

Cultural dances, a discourse by Nilkanth Maharaj on the government schemes and the development issues, and a group skit on the Maoist-problem, marked the event.

What do the tribals gain out of such an exercise? As a tribal youth, Anil Usendi, of the neighbouring village put it diplomatically: “Those who can make a sense of it will know. It really depends on the individual.”

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Farm widows protest Obama's visit

On the eve of US President Barack Obama’s much-anticipated three-day visit to India, in a non-descript village of Vidarbha’s cotton bowl, farm widows on Friday staged a quiet candle light protest, saying that the American agriculture policies and huge subsidies were among the main reasons for their grave conditions.
Coinciding with the occasion of Laxmi Puja during the festivities of Diwali, the symbolic protest of the widows held under the aegis of the Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti at village Hiwra Barsa in south Yavatmal, sought to draw Obama’s attention to the plight of farmers, who, they said, bore the brunt of huge US farm subsidies.
“We do not want to spoil Obama’s visit or hurt the government’s feelings,” the VJAS convenor Kishor Tiwari said in a statement. “But when our government talks agriculture with Obama, the farmers and their families who face the outcome of their policies should not be lost sight of.” The US subsidies, he said, are killing the farmers in India.
Reports are that high on Obama’s agenda is the demand for India to open up the FDI in retail and food processing, push for the GM seeds’ adoption, reinvigorate the Indo-US knowledge initiative started in 2006 during the former president George Bush’ visit, open the market access further to the US agribusiness corporations through further cuts in the import tariffs on commodities, and push for settlement of WTO talks by the next year.
A farm widow from the village, Babytai Bais, lit a candle and led a collective prayer that was attended by the widows of the farmers who took their own lives in the region. India has seen more than 200,000 farmers’ suicides between 1997 and 2008. Maharashtra saw over 40,000 farmers’ suicides during that period, with Vidarbha being the worst hit.
In roughly the same period between 1995 and 2009, the US government paid a quarter of a trillion dollars or a staggering Rs1250000 crore in farm subsidies to its farmers.
According to the report on US federal subsidy published earlier this year by the Washington-based research organization, the Environment Working Group (EWG), the American tax payers shelled out $245.2 billion in farm subsidies during 1995-2009, which works out to an average of $15 billion or Rs75000 crore per year.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Fever, fear, plague Amravati--II

Fifty-year-old Nirmala Pawar is fatigued, anemic, and tired of sickness over the last fortnight. “For a week,” she says, “I am unable to work on farms.” Which in turn means her husband has to work extra or hire a hand for Rs 120 daily, given this year’s un-abating rains. “For three months, it’s been work, work and work.”

In Surali village of Amravati’s Warud tehsil, Nirmalabai is taking a typhoid dose intra-venous at a private clinic run in his home by Dr Rajesh Fate. Alongside is a 60-year-old Ramkisan Kadu, who, like her, looks tired, and wrought in tension.

“It’s a double blow,” Kadu, a farmer from the neighbouring Kurali village with suspected typhoid, says. Farm expenses shot up three fold this year. Now come the health expenses. He says the families like him are mortgaging gold and silver to buy health care. He has done it. “I am old, but can’ stop working,” he says.

By the evening, both of them will return home, to come here the next morning to take another dose of medicines.

“What to do!” he doctor says. “There is no room at the rural hospital at Warud.”
The 30-bed hospital in the tehsil town is overflowing with patients; waiting list is growing with every passing day; and the daily OPD (out patient department) has swollen to 500. Private hospitals in this small town are choc a bloc with patients.

Rural Amravati, the home district of President Pratibha Patil, is exploding with a deadly combination of viral infections and influenza. Rains have taken a break, but humid weather has unleashed a wave of health exigencies unseen before. At least 45 patients from a cluster of 15 villages in the orange county of Warud have died in a month, even as the rural hospital and the primary health centers lacked medicines.

Now, after the damage is done, the health machinery has woken up.

At least ten of these deaths were due to swine flu, health officials say. In Warud, a separate 10-bed ward has been set for the suspected swine flu (H1N1) patients. As reported by DNA earlier, medicine paucity only aggravated the problem – a fact admitted by health minister Suresh Shetty on his visit here last Saturday. On the night before his visit, Warud rural hospital got two trucks load of medicines, enough to see through the next several months, when infections will have died.

Tens of patients queue up for medicines at the rural hospital’s pharmacy. Some of them are waiting to be admitted, but there’s no space.

But why small infections are proving fatal? The health machinery is still studying the cases and the pattern of flu. Rural doctors say poor nutrition and a declining immunity is turning peasants and labourers vulnerable to viral fever.

“Most patients have poor nutrition standards,” says Dr Poddar. “Viral fever can’t be so deadly, but if the patients’ immune system is weak it could become fatal.” This year, he says, many of those who fell sick worked in double shifts. Demand for farm hands spiraled with pest and weed infestations due to incessant rains.

What has foxed the health machinery is that all 45 deaths are of adults. Children along with pregnant women are among the risk groups.

Neither the government hospitals nor the private ones record patients’ weight, a key to calculate the body mass index that could give significant insight into their nutrition standards. But as Dr Poddar suggests rural adults are eating lesser.

In Surali, Dr Fate agrees. “I see a constant decline in nutrition standards among the villagers, particularly women,” he says. “I have never seen such an outbreak in this part in the 20 years of my practice,” he says. “Most patients come late to us,” he says. They’ll try home remedies; then take analgesics, and when nothing works, come to them, he says. “Most of them pay no heed to their fever because their farms need more attention.” Like Nirmalabai, who says, she had fever for a fortnight, but she had no time to see a doctor, until she collapsed two days ago.

Fever, fear, plague Amravati

September 17:

An outbreak of viral fever, including the swine flu, has claimed in a month about 35 lives at Warud, an orange producing belt hundred km from here in Amravati district.

Seven of these deaths have occurred in 24 hours, rattling the sluggish rural health system grappling with a heavy rush of patients and acute medicine shortage rooted in recent policy changes.

At least eight deaths, health officials confirm, are due to Type A-H1N1 virus or swine flu, which the World Health Organization (WHO) says is in its post-pandemic period. Significantly most of the deceased are adults.

“There is always a brisk flow of patients during this season,” Dr Pramod Poddar, who heads the Warud rural hospital, said. “But this year due to a combination of factors, the mortality has shot up.”

The 30-bed rural hospital is thrown out of gear, with a sudden increase in its Out Patient Department. “We are operating a daily OPD of 400-500 patients,” Dr Poddar said. The scene at the private clinics is no different. Late diagnosis in some cases, where patients came late to the hospital in the advance stage of fever with adult respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), resulted in some deaths, he said.

Heavy rains this year have triggered outbreaks of viral fever and water-borne illnesses across Vidarbha. More than 25 patients admitted from various parts of the central India, including neighbouring districts of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, the government medical college and hospital (GMCH) at Nagpur have died of swine flu since the beginning of monsoon, authorities said. But Warud is the latest hotspot.

The outbreak of viral fever is compounded by a severe paucity of medicines, local MLA Dr Anil Bonde, an MD in Medicine himself, said. “The situation was avoidable,” he said.

The medicine crunch reported at the rural hospitals and primary health centers in at least 14 districts in Maharashtra has arisen out of the changes in drug purchase rules earlier this year.

The government terminated its earlier decentralized purchase policy citing corruption, but did not place orders for procurement of the essential drugs in the past four months, pushing the PHCs and rural hospitals into a state of coma.

“The rural hospital did not have even Paracetamol (the commonly available anti-pyretic analgesic,” Dr Bonde said. “We had to provide all the essential drugs from the funds we raised,” he said.

Officials said they had been begging for medicine supply in view of the steady increase in the number of patients this year particularly due to heavy rains. “In some cases, paucity of medicines was fatal.”

The health minister, Suresh Shetty, had reportedly instructed the chief surgeon of Amravati to go for local procurement of medicines. The chief surgeon denies having any written orders for local purchase. The district collector was instructed to release Rs 20 lakh from the district plan for the health exigency. But sources in the know at Amravati said it took him a month to get the technical clearance.

Even as the rural patients continued to pour in, the union of Warud journalists ran a campaign to raise collections and self-contributed to that fund. A few days ago, the district guardian minister Rajendra Darda, who holds the industries portfolio in the Ashok Chavan-cabinet, visited Warud and promised help but the structural problems have not yet been fixed, health authorities said.

The medicines to the rural hospital are being bought from the Rs 3.5 lakh collected from the people of Warud and public representatives, local MLA, Dr Anil Bonde, said. An MD in medicine himself, Dr Bonde said the fund is also supporting the ambulance service.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Birth of a new American farmer

(Last year, I wrote this story at the end of my six months of Alfred Friendly Press Fellowship program during which I worked at the Sun Sentinel newspaper in South Florida. The piece remains unpublished, but I thought it makes a good blog post. For, a year on, that trend is fast catching up with a lot of urban Americans, who are re-discovering their roots in the soil)
Grow nothing that you can’t eat.
Andre and Sharon Fletcher last year learned their first basic lesson in farming, when their ornamental fish business tanked with economy. “We switched to edible fish,” said the Jamaican-born couple in rural Homestead area of South Florida. “It worked.”
The couple, who took to fish farming barely three years ago without any background or knowledge, discovered Tilapias had a big market right in their neighborhoods. Soon the revenues picked up. There was no looking back.
Self-learning though was fraught with problems and losses.
Once, they over-medicated fish in the tank and saw it die one by one. “It was not a good sight,” said Andre, tall, well-built former U.S. Navy employee.
Until three years ago, Andre, 51, and Sharon, 46, were typical urban Americans. They knew only one thing about fish. “It tasted great.”
Then, as the economy nosedived his small construction business hit rock bottom. And she got laid off last year after working 21 years with a cruise line company.
The two-acre farm that also houses their home helped them overcome recession worries and pay off debts.
Today, Andre and Sharon can pretty much educate aspiring fish farmers. On their small fish farm – their primary occupation today – they are scripting a success story.
The Fletchers are South Florida’s emerging neo-farmers, part of a U.S.-wide movement that shows urban Americans – cutting across all ages, professions and strata – are falling back on the world’s oldest vocation: farming.
More than 300 new small farms started operation in Homestead between 2002 and 2007 agriculture census, said David Paynes, county extension director with the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agriculture Sciences (UF-IFAS). “They come from diverse professional background, and are the first-time farmers,” he said.
More than 60 per cent of the 300-plus respondents in the first ever survey of small farms in Florida were first-generation farmers, said Bob Hochmuth, small farms coordinator with IFAS and someone who’s followed the sector for six years.
Take for instance, Hani Khouri, a 55-year-old Lebanese American. An MBA in international business with a rich professional experience, he switched to goat farming five years ago and is member of an organic farmers’ group.
Every weekend, Khouri could be seen at the Homestead farmers market selling goat-cheese. “I am,” he said, “also a certified organic cook.”
Take another, Darrin and Jodi Swank, a couple in its early forties, who took to farming six years ago and run a successful commercial operation in South Florida. “I never saw myself doing this,” said Jodi, who gave up her career as a travel consultant to join her husband’s dream of farming hydroponically – in a shade-net shade, without soil.
Tens of thousands of young and middle-aged urban Americans want to farm and spend rest of their lives in typical rural setting.
“We,” said Andre, “wanted to reconnect with our roots.”
A vast majority of people are going back to farms as a hobby or lifestyle, Hochmuth said. “But at least a third of them are in with a serious commitment.”
One of their major problems is training. With farm extension services in peril like that in India and university research being taken over by food corporate, the new farmers are finding it hard to self-train themselves in the vocation that demands some skills.
So in some states, like Iowa in mid-west, a new trend is unfolding: it’s called farm matchmaking. A young enthusiast is tied up with ageing traditional farmer in a way that the former helps the latter in farming in return for hands-on training.
This is farm matchmaking, a down payment on the future of rural America.
The idea is being tried as farmers are getting older and working longer: The average age rose to 57 (from 55) and the ranks of the 75-and-up set increased by 20 percent from 2002 to 2007; the number of farmers, younger than 25, dropped by a third.
With problems at both ends, the matchmaking program pairs the two generations. Aspiring young farmers then don’t have to go into deep debt to launch their farm careers and can hook up with a farmer in his 50s, 60s, or 70s.
Lawyers, factory workers, insurance adjusters, even accountants and dentists have applied to a special Iowa program that tries to link aspiring farmers with seasoned landowners looking to retire. The young aspirants, mostly in their 20s and 30s, all have their reasons: a love of the outdoors, a yearning for independence or fond memories of riding a tractor with a grandfather long ago. Recession too is playing a part.
Contrast this with Indian scenario: The past two decades have seen a massive exodus of farmers from agriculture as rural economy suffered a neglect. A biting agrarian crisis has pushed thousands of farmers to the brink of penury and even suicide.
Rural and agriculture employment rate in India, studies show, is decelerating. More than 50 per cent farmers, a National Sample Survey Organization (NSSO) survey in 2006-07 showed, wanted to give up farming if they had an option.
The new small American farmer stands a wealthy paradox to India’s distraught small and marginal farmers. However, within the context of American farming, the policies are heavily against the small farm operations.
“Stiff regulatory climate drive us out of the game,” said Margie Pikarsky, who heads a loose cooperative of organic farmers in Homestead. “We want the government to change some of the regulatory climate.” Consumers too want that.
India is following American model – high-cost, high-energy intensive and mechanized farming. Here, things are beginning to reverse for a low-cost sustainable model.
“It’s happening one person at a time,” according to John Ikerd, author of ‘Sustainable Capitalism’ and Professor Emeritus, Agricultural Economics, University of Missouri.
“Our industrial and corporate agriculture is energy-intensive, heavily subsidized and highly unsustainable,” said Ikerd, a leading expert. “This model is not to be emulated”.
Monopoly of seed, farms and food markets is fundamentally flawed, he said. “It will have to change.” The pace of change will be slow. “But new farmers, many of whom are women, will bring about this change over the next three to four decades,” Ikerd said.
America has a little over 2.2 million farms – a fraction of India’s farms and dependent population. About 125,000 farms in big acreages control 80 percent of sales value, while the remaining small and mid-size operations together account for 20 percent sales.
The 2007 Agriculture census found a 4 per cent rise in the number of farms in America, first time since the World War II. That’s because the definition of farms includes of any venture that sells produce worth $1000. The census shows a rise in the small backyard farm operations and concentration of large and corporate farms. Actually, more than 45,000 mid-sized family farms (an average 400 acres) perished between 2002 and 2007.
Yet new very, very small farms were born in the same period – in significant numbers. A good one third of them are women operators or owners.
The face of a new farmer – better educated, net-savvy, enterprising and innovative – is beginning to surface all over the United States to the extent that there is a general acknowledgement of this trend even at the federal level.
“Small farms are bouncing back,” said an emphatic Florida agriculture commissioner Charles Bronson at the inaugural Florida small farms and enterprises conference in August. “Small operations are going to importance once again.”
The new farms are building alliances – among themselves, directly with consumers or restaurants and hotels. They are demanding changes in regulatory climate.
“The current game is heavily lopsided in favour of big corporations – subsidies, market, seeds, inputs, government support, and processing rules, everything,” said Gabrielle Marewski, owner of a five-acre certified organic farm in South Florida. “Together we can seek some changes at local, state and federal level,” she said.
Policies, said Ikerd, will have to change eventually in favour of sustainable farming. “It has a bearing on the health of people,” he said. “We have to change.”
Ikerd said these new farms will “re-invigorate our local food system”. “In 2050, today’s time will seem like a historic period that witnessed historic processes.”
“You will see more of such farms popping up,” said Andre, who’s adding lobsters and a couple of other fish varieties to his product range. “People in his country now want to eat fresh food and not something that is transported from miles away.”
His customers drive miles to pick their weekly quota of fresh fish. Every month, Andre cleans his fish tanks to keep the fish happy, and growing.
The fish farm is really a chain of small and big circular tanks, with fresh water being pumped through the pipes round the clock. He’s switching to solar power to operate his farm to save on the energy costs. The U.S. government has recently introduced a program that supports small farms to make transition to renewable energy.
“All I do is to keep the fish alive and then they keep us alive,” said Andre, cleaning a fish tank he just emptied.” It’s a lot of work, he said, but also a lot of fun.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Sowing the seeds of change via S-M-S

By Jaideep Hardikar

It is 8 am and on a cloudy day in June Sunita Bhajipale is anxiously awaiting a message on her cell phone -- quite unusual for a female farmer in village Jhilmili in Vidarbha’s Gondia district. As the ringtone on her handset buzzes, Mrs Bhajipale smiles, and checks the message. “Not a good time to start sowing yet.”

The s-m-s is today’s ‘weather advisory’ from Reuters Market light (RML), a professional content service for farmers from the Thomson Reuters group. “RML is my friend,” she says, as she informs her husband that it was not the right time for sowing. She encodes the message: 95% chance of rains, 2 mm rain. It might rain today, she explains, but not enough to commence sowing. “Let’s wait for two days.”

Among the progressive big farmers, the Bhajipales are pool in their entire family land – 100 acres all put together among several brothers and cousins – to introduce new cost-effective farming techniques and new crops – from grains to vegetables to fruits. RML, they say, has augmented their income.

Four text messages a day at an annual subscription of Rs 850, Mrs Bhajipale says, is not bad. “We get all information about weather, crop, commodity prices at different markets, and future projections.” In one year that the Bhajipales have subscribed to the RML, the daily text messages, she says, have helped jack up their profits by at least a lakh rupees. “Until last year, we sold our bananas to traders at Bhandara or Gondia at a price they quoted; now we show them RML message, if they quote less,” she says. “It helps us in making considered decisions,” she says. “Like: should we sell our produce today; or wait.”

Welcome to the ICT-enabled farming – where a complex web of activities are revolutionizing on the one hand, the way content is generated, tailor-made, and disseminated, and on the other, the way peasants use this information to do smart farming, and make considered choices: which crop to sow; when to sell the produce, and where to sell it. “Information,” Mrs Bhajipale says, “gives us an edge and confidence.”

RML – an idea born in Stanford, California, US; incubated in London; and tested in Vidarbha – is making a silent but deeper penetration among peasants in India’s vast rural landscape. From a couple of thousand subscribers who received it free during the test-run in 2007, RML today reaches 250,000 peasants in 13 states, signaling a staggering growth driven by greater rural consumer interest. Also factor this: A farmer who subscribes to RML on his cell-phone invariably shares the information with his fellow-villagers.

“What we do is manage the risks at one level and try to maximize farmers’ gains at another,” says RML vice president (operations) Ranjit Pawar. “We give them information and leave the decisions to them.”

RML’s USP: It’s affordable; easily accessible, and customized for the needs of an individual farmer. If you choose to get information on soybeans and cotton, two major globally-traded crops of Vidarbha, you’ll get it. At any stage, if you intend to change your choices, you could, by dialing a toll-free number.

“When the idea got coined, we said, we now have the device that makes it possible, workable,” the RML managing director, Amit Mehra, says. “It only had to be affordable and accessible for farmers.”

It is simple, and user-driven. All that you do is dial, 18002708090, a toll free number to enquire about RML. Buy a scratch card available at retail shops and Krishi Gramin Bank branches, and in a couple of simple steps activate the service. What makes RML spread fast is it can be accessed from any handset and mobile operator. No language barrier too; one can choose to get messages in regional language.

Conceived at Stanford in the Reuters Digital Vision program by Mans Olof-Oars, a Reuters’ employee, the idea got selected for the Reuters Innovation Program, and backed by funds.

When the idea originated, Mans had emerging markets in sight, Mehra says. India – where two out of every three new mobile subscribers came from rural India – emerged a natural choice.

For, the country’s mobile telephony was booming and economy was expanding at a rapid pace, RML Vice President (Operations) Ranjit Pawar says. Plus, India has 150 million farming households, largest in the world. To top it all, Bangalore is the hub of the Reuters global data operations that the project think tank thought would naturally aid the project in accessing technology and tackling the initial hiccups.

The Reuters innovation foundation formed a team that looked at the potential test field. Maharashtra, Vidarbha in particular, emerged as a choice, driven by several factors: a significant farming population; deeper rural penetration of mobile; marketable surplus of commodities; and internal assessment.

The first year (2006), Pawar says, went into a lot of field research and consumer feedback. “We engaged research agencies to know the top-most information needs of the Indian farmers,” he says.

The research assumptions were obvious: That there was an information asymmetry; farmers did not get timely crop and weather advisories; and the information about schemes and government programs was hardly easily accessible. When consumer surveys were analysed, the assumptions stood vindicated.

Why Mrs Bhajipale subscribed to the service when she first heard of it at a farmers’ convention in the district, is, as she puts it, “I needed this information.” Her need, in essence, is what creates the RML’s business opportunity. This one’s a new segment of customers; and new area for content generation.

In highly volatile global markets, getting accurate market intelligence and a picture of futures trend is crucial to farmers, who had no access to such specific information, says RML editorial head Sunil Tambe.

The RML subscribers benefited immensely last year, when markets were bearish, in contrast to the long term experience. “Our analysis showed that soybean prices would collapse later, because of the bumper crop in Agrentina and South Africa, when usually the soya prices start to climb at a later stage. The RML subscribers told us they sold the crop early and averted the losses. In cotton, our advisories suggested a rising trend in global prices at a later stage, so the farmers decided to take long position with cotton.”

“Content has evolved and been shaped by the subscribers over the time,” Tambe says. “For instance, we equip farmers with market intelligence, and prices of different markets which helps them understand broader current trends and future projections,” he says. “Now farmers growing soybeans in Vidarbha, want to know the plant delivery prices; meaning the procurement price at soya oil extraction plants. This information gives them an idea of the global trends: is the market going up; or down!

Based on the farmer-subscribers’ feedback, RML synthesized prototypes of text messages and sent it to some farmers in Maharashtra, particularly Vidarbha. “They liked what they saw”, Pawar says.

In 2007, the pilot product was launched.

Instead of providing the product on the java-enabled mobile hand-sets RML team chose to provide text services to the universally used handsets; the technological change was from applications based to text messaging, the latter mode making it easier for the farmers to receive and understand the content.

“We could have tested in two-three states,” Mehra says. “But we decided to test it first at a small scale in Maharashtra before scaling up the operations in 13 other states with farming families.”

Having validated that the product is replicable and full-proof now, the RML is ready to go beyond Indian shores. “We are gearing up to introduce the product in other countries of the developing world,” Mehra says. “That’s the reason why we scaled it up in India because it’s a model that works accurately.”

Accuracy of information and credibility, Mehra says, are the RML’s soul. “The fact that we are part of the broader Reuters network brings in the integration of best human resource, content, and technology.”

The value chain, Pawar says, is equally important. The Thomson Reuters does everything on its own: It sources the content; manages it; disseminates it on its own; looks after the billing and sales (it is its own pre-paid vouchers); and also handles customer care and support.

The whole of market intelligence is available for farmers, for whom it reads like a simple text message.

But it’s the synthesis of a complex set of fast-paced global activities: from collecting data, deciphering it and disseminating in a way easy to be read and understood even by illiterate peasant-subscribers.

Global market intelligence and information is sourced from various market reports and analyzed by experts. Granular information and intelligence is collected by market reporters posted at APMC markets.

It’s 2.30 pm, and a motley group of traders begin the auction of local and hybrid gram that has arrived at the grain auction yard number 7 in Nagpur’s sprawling 125-acre Kalamna market campus.

Standing attentively in one corner, Sarang Pimpale, 24, jots down the price at which the buyer closes his deal. “Rs 2160,” he notes, and moves on to the next auction site. At 4 pm, after three different auctions of gram and soybeans in a typical off-season when the arrivals are sluggish he texts a report on his cell.

The first year BA student is a farmer’s son, and RML’s market correspondent. “He’s our eyes and ear at local mandi,” says Shrinivas Pande, chief market reporter. Every day, between 11 am and 5 pm, Sarang taps on the prices at this market of 20 different commodities – from fruits to grains to vegetables.

After cross-checking his message, Sanrang shoots it to a system’s unique short code, after which it gets structured at the Reuters’ data-centre in Bangalore, before appearing in minutes on an internal prices application portal. Sitting in his Nagpur office, Pande surfs through the messages on his laptop, when he taps on Sarang’s entry. It reads: Soybean- Maximum price-2024, Minimum price-1951, Average price-1975, Arrival at Kalamna market-800 quintals, Wheat- Maximum price-1199, Minimum price-1176, No average (since only two auctions took place that particular day), Arrival-700 quintals…”

Pande clicks on “approved”. The message heads for the production desk and is ready for dissemination, within no time, among the subscribers as per their market and commodity preferences.

The content-spread is mind-boggling. It covers 250 crops; 1000 markets and 3000 weather locations.

Just look at the size of operations: 300 people in 13 states source information at granular levels; another 13 editors source information from global markets, and keep tab on global commodity trends, activities at the Chicago Board of Trade (CBOT), and dozens of advisories issued by governments worldwide.

RML sources about 5500 data points, of which 680 are in Maharashtra. For instance, soybean prices at Nagpur market forms one data point. Local level market reporter is the primary source, and foundation of the Market Light product. The Reuters editorial network and its premium services are its backbone.

Weather forecast, Pawar says, is one of the top 4 information needs of a farmer.

Subscribers’ information consumption behavior is changing, Pande says. “Earlier,” he says, “They expected a message once in 3-4 days; now they want it few times a day, particularly in harvest season.” Some farmers call RML reporters any time, curious to know more about crop and market situation, and new government schemes that have been recently launched.

“It can play a big role in extension,” Gondia sub divisional agriculture officer Rajratan Kumbhare says. “I see a qualitative change in the way RML subscribers in our area farm, aided with information.”

RML is evoking curiosity among the researchers. The Oxford University is studying the impact of market light product on the farmers, who use it, to differentiate with those who don’t.

A research paper by ICRIER last year on the “Impact of Mobile phones on Agriculture Productivity” found “evidence that mobiles are being used in ways which contribute to productivity.”

The ICRIER researchers found the RML model – of some other non-commercial parallels – most suitable to the farmers given its customized nature and easy access. A number of subscribers reported that the RML advisories helped them avert potential losses by reacting quickly to weather and pest information, which in turn “generated positive economic benefits”.

Take for instance, Ravindra Lindal, a marginal farmer in Beed’s Rohtalgaon village. Two years since he subscribed to RML, Lindal has preserved every single advisory he received on his cell phone. Last season, he says, he could add Rs 64,000 to his profits, thanks to one particular RML market advisory.

“One s-m-s advisory suggested the soybean prices would drop in a week’s time, and I decided to sell my produce immediately,” he said. “I would not have sold it otherwise. Prices did drop. I was saved.”

Some farmers, like Sarjerao Sahebrao Kharwade, a five-acre rain-fed farmer in Beed’s Gevrai tehsil, are clubbing their age-old wisdom with RML service. “I’m able to sell my produce at an appropriate time due to this information,” he acknowledges. “I am persisting with it, since it’s giving me dividends.” No wonder, in his sleepy village, Kharwade’s now a rising star and one-stop guide to his fellow villagers.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

The buck starts and stops with a Jawan

Bastar, Chhattisgarh:

If he was not injured last month, Aman Singh says he could well be among the martyrs in the Chintalnar attack.

Recuperating from a bullet wound in his leg at a Jagdalpur hospital, the CRPF trooper wonders if the two previous encounters at the same spot were a training drill for the rebels ahead of the April 6 attack that wiped out his entire company.

“They ambushed us on March 1,” Singh recounts. They struck again on March 10, in which he suffered bullet injury. “On both the occasions the rebel fighters were not in big numbers.” In the third assault, Maoists struck in big formation when the CRPF Company – divided in five sections – was returning after a long search operation to Chintalnar camp, which serves as a launch pad for the forces to carry out area domination exercise in the heartland of Dantewada.

Caught in the plains with thin tree cover amid two small hillocks about 500 metres off the kuccha road to Chintalnar from Chintagupha, the CRPF jawans could not break the Maoist cordon from any side, even as they faced a rain of bullets fired from temporary bunkers tucked atop the hillocks. The only way left open was a pathway toward the road to Chintalnar, but it was blocked with pressure mines that, injured jawans say, blew off as they tried to run for a cover.

The attack that claimed 76 security personnel has a stamp of precision planning of several months. The paramilitary forces knew they were watched; the rebels avoided major confrontation with the troopers for three months – a deliberate lull that, as a police officer in Dantewada put it, was disturbingly misleading.

The outlawed ambushed the security men twice in the same area, but not with big intensity or strength. A small error in calculations and the troopers walked into the trap third time following a false alarm pertaining to the movement of a large number of Maoists in the vicinity. The rebels had merely thrown the bait.

“The troopers failed to read a multi-layered ambush point,” Chhattisgarh DGP Vishwa Ranjan said in Jagdalpur on Thursday, even as he vowed to hit back in the heart of the Maoists. Scanning the ambush points is one of the major aims of the ongoing operations in both south Bastar and north Bastar regions.

While this was not the first and won’t be the last incident in a protracted fight to regain control over the 40,000 square km territory of the size of Kerala, the major multi-state anti-Maoist operations are being reviewed after Chintalnar in the face of challenges.

“We’ll intensify the area domination exercise, carry out more surgical strikes and launch more complex formation operations,” Ranjan says. “It’s going to be a long haul,” he says, sounding resolute in cracking the backbone of rebels.

Green hunt and joint ops

After he took over in 2008, Ranjan changed the training modules, raised new forces and gave state-of-the-art equipment to his men, even as the Raman Singh-government launched operation Green Hunt in Bastar after a series of setbacks.

Serving and retired army personnel trained and reoriented the troops in guerilla warfare strategies and special operations, like Andhra’s Grey Hounds force.

The idea of the new strategy in south Bastar, a strategic stronghold of Maoists, is to search, study, hit and come back. “Surprise is the best element; don’t follow the routine,” is what he says he has told his men after a series of earlier setbacks.

Ranjan says the state police operation’s objectives are four-pronged: Large scale removal of land mines; identifying ambush points where troops were frequently attacked; intelligence-based operations to dismantle the camps where Maoists train new recruits; and hold Jan-Jagran or public awareness drives to reach out to the villagers. The strategy saw a nearly 80 percent drop in police casualties in 2009 and a steep rise in the arrest of a lot of Maoist cadres and leaders.

The Centre-sponsored multi-state joint operations are in the peripheral areas of Bastar, while Green Hunt operations are in the areas like Chintalnar, the tribal hinterland of Dantewada-Bijapur, bordering Andhra, Orissa and Maharashtra.

The seven-phase central offensive launched in November 2009 on the Maharashtra-Chhattisgarh border has now spread almost in seven states. OA-1 involves moving along a north-south axis from Kanker and Rajnandgaon in Chhattisgarh, and on an east-west axis from Gadchiroli in Maharashtra along the periphery of Abujh Marh. Aim is to squeeze the naxal territory and their area of domination, Ranjan says.

The joint operations in north Bastar aims to pack small areas with large-scale deployment to clear those areas of Maoists and create a secure environment for the administration to start development process.

The new ploy, Ranjan says, aims at keeping the Maoists on the move, rarely give them time to settle down in one area. It expects the forces to penetrate deeper in big formations. “We are living off the bases now for two to three days on the trot,” Sanjay Sharma, DSP (Operations), Dantewada, says. This was never the case earlier. The special police forces would patrol areas in isolation; now they say they do it in coordination with both, the troops from other districts and the newly deployed paramilitary forces, hunting for top rebel cadres.

Ground Challenges:

Ground challenges are massive though: One it’s a territory of 40,000 square km, which includes Abujh Marh, an uncharted territory considered to be a Maoist rest zone where the police and administration never venture. Two, forces face local hostility that stems from years of oppression and poverty. And three, difficulty in transporting supplies.

The current deployments are in accordance with the state police strategy and in places that are beyond the administrative and police control.

Ranjan says it’s mandatory for every trooper to get training at the Kanker-based counter-terrorism and jungle warfare school to increase endurance before being deployed. Serving junior commandant officers of the army train all personnel.

The adoption of the army’s platoon and company level tactics was initially slow but has made some difference, Ranjan says. But experts say all these strategies grossly undermine the Maoists’ tactics and intent, as the April 6 attack showed, and the odds faced by security forces, particularly paramilitary not used to local conditions.

“Weapons are not the problem,” a CRPF deputy commandant in Dantewada says. “We face shortages of medicines and ration in our base camps; we are yet to fix how to treat our men who fall sick in the camps from malaria or diarrhea; we get no doctors here.”

Chintalnar camp, like many other base camps tucked inside the forests in the densely forested Bastar region faces water scarcity and ration shortages. In the scorching summer in the forests, scarcity of food and water means half the battle lost, he says.

For all the television strategists sitting in New Delhi and Raipur, says a senior officer in Dantewada after the Chintalnar attack with sarcasm, ground realities are beyond any comprehension. A CRPF deputy commandant on ground zero echoes that. “Give us medicines, water and food,” he says. “We have enough weaponry.”

The Maoists and their highly spirited local militia groups know these weaknesses of the security forces. They hammer at those at their will.

A CRPF Jawan explains: “They mine the forests to restrict our movement; they poison the water bodies so that we do not get to drink water.” That, in turn restricts, their living off the bases in the unfamiliar forest territory for longer periods, he says.

On top of all this, with no medical aid anywhere in Bastar, the troopers are shifted first to Jagdalpur and then to Raipur in case of emergencies.

The latest attack also bared the big hole in intelligence gathering, without which the infantry can’t fight a faceless guerilla. The police considered the silence in Bastar as a retreat by the rebel commanders. That construct proved wrong. The Maoists were very much holding the ground, waiting and studying to surprise the forces to turn their own ploy on its heat. And they did it with lethal precision in their chosen area.

In the aftermath of Chintalnar, an angry force is hunting for Maoists vowing revenge, but the faces of all those who executed the assault remain elusive.

“Now the forces will pick local villagers and beat them, and Maoists will later exploit that as an anti-people oppression; it’s the same old story,” says a Jagdalpur-based reporter with years of experience in covering the naxal-insurgency.

No dialogue with locals

Central and state troopers say identifying naxalites in villages is a major operational challenge, particularly when the charges of fake encounters and SPOs killing innocent villagers fly against them even more vociferously. The line they tread is thin. Chances of mistaking an innocent impoverished tribal for a naxalite or sympathizer are high, as some cases pending before the Supreme Court point out. Several human rights organizations have brought to light the rising cases of individual killings what they call “genocide,” a charge both the state police and central paramilitary forces deny.

With the accounts of recently arrested and surrendered Maoist cadres all over the country, the security agencies have pieced together sketches of senior Maoist leaders for the ground-level forces with the help of professional artists.

The forces are relying heavily on ex-Maoists and SPOs to crack the Sangam and Jan Militia members, PLGA’s two external cordons that protect the core groups and their movement in the tribal hamlets and villages scattered over a vast expanse.

“Unless we break their militia network, we won’t get the quality kills,” Dantewada SP, Amresh Mishra, said. “So far,” he says, “we could not lay our hands on top leaders.”

In fact, police officials admit that the Maoist information network is far superior to that of the forces and it stems from the trust that the tribal villagers have in them.

That’s where the role of local politicians and administration is important. Across Bastar the Raman Singh-government seems to have handed over every single responsibility to the police. Even the routine dialogue between the administration-polity and the locals has been long broken, says a former legislator from Konta, who’s a tribal himself.

After the latest incident, top police and paramilitary officials went to the spot for an inspection and meeting with demoralized personnel, but not a single political leader from across the state even attempted to reach there. Police officials say they haven’t seen any administration or political effort to open a dialogue with villagers.

No one is asking what’s happening to the villagers in and around that area. Twelve families have left Chintalnar in last one year, according to one of the villagers. “I am also thinking of leaving,” he says. “There is no point in living here in constant fear.”

The state says winning regaining control is a top priority. Control over what -- land or an impoverished people? Will only the gun-trotting troops hunting for elusive Maoist cadres who are killing them with an audacious frequency be able to do that alone? One doubts. In Chintalnar, the security personnel from far away states did not seem to have any rapport with local villagers, a key to get intelligence through trust-building.

The state has little room for error and any silly mistake would only distance itself from the impoverished tribals, who are frankly not on their side in this vexed battle.

A strong political and bureaucratic will is a precursor to conflict resolution. Idea of India can’t be left only to the forces to defend.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Women Up and Rising in Bihar

Bodh-Gaya, Bihar:

“Self-respect” – that’s her most important earning in two years, quips Sanju Devi Jadhab, 33, after a studied pause, standing in the middle of her two-bigha wheat farm. “We now have an identity.”

Holding her two-year-old daughter Sneha in her arms, the marginal farm woman basks in her new-found confidence that dwarfs the odds confronting poor villagers like her: poverty is just one among plenty.

A lower caste poor, whose husband works as a daily wager, Sanju Devi is member of a village self-help-group (SHG) and resource person (VRP) in Jeevika, a popular name for the World Bank-aided Bihar Rural Livelihoods Project (BRLP) that is steering a slow but certain change in eight impoverished districts. It’ll be a while before her village Navadih, she says, realized that the change was there to stay. By the time her daughter grows up, she believes, her village would have a future. Her optimism, itself, is the change.

“Jeevika is generating self respecting and confident women from the villages,” Budhabhatti Kartikeya, an IAS probationer and assistant collector of Gaya district, said. “The project is creating space for the poor.’

Implemented through an autonomous society – Bihar Rural Livelihoods Promotion Society, Jeevika had by February 2010 formed 17,044 SHGs with 196,000 members spanned across the eight pilot districts of Muzaffarpur, Madhubani, Supaul, Madhepura, Purnia, Khagaria, Nalanda and Gaya. By 2012, when it is over, the project would have reached 600,000 poorest of poor families living in 4000 villages through a range of livelihood interventions. The Rs 306 crore-project, first to be funded in Bihar by the World Bank after a gap of 20 years, would eventually be scaled up to 18 districts, the officials of the Society say.

The 2009-12 strategy document of the Bank says it would devote more resources – primarily low-interest International Development Association (IDA) credits among other things -- for low-income states including Bihar, with focus on poverty reduction.

The aim is to enhance the income standards and livelihood options for the poor. Bihar’s average annual per capita income is about Rs 7500, or a fourth of the national average. Eighty-nine per cent of its 83 million people live in rural areas with poor service delivery, rigid caste hierarchy and limited economic opportunities. Of the 36 million poor marginal farming households, nearly 2.3 million have large debts.

Two years ago, Sanju Devi learnt about Jeevika being implemented in Sekhwara village, a few km from her own, and decided to volunteer for it. “I sensed an opportunity,” she says, “to come out of poverty.” All she needed was to take initiative with some courage, the short but hard-working woman says. In a feudal and rabidly male-dominated society, she says, it wasn’t easy to break free from the veil.

More than 500 VRCs like Sanju Devi, Jeevika officials in Patna say, are today steering the project that aims on the one hand to augment farm productivity in this rain-fed area through a roots intensification system, and on the other create SHGs (or micro-enterprises) that get access to institutional finance.

Sanju Devi is both, user and expert trainer, a job that fetches her monthly honorarium of Rs 1000. All that you need is a drive and initiative to become a village resource person, Jeevika officials say.

“It’s effective when villagers talk to other villagers about the project benefits,” says Mukesh Chandra Sharan, Jeevika state project manager (Micro Finance). “It removes any doubts villagers may have.”

After the initial skepticism among the targeted villagers faded (like what if you fled with our money or how can we spare ten rupees when we don’t have anything to eat), Jeevika took roots.

“The project is about to take off, now that the institutional structures are really solid,” says the World Bank consultant on the project Vinay Kumar. “The next level is about economic integration.”

Navadih adopted the system of rice and wheat intensification – called as SRI and SWI – in 2008 and the marginal farmers have got an enhanced yield – and income -- even in this year’s drought, officials say.

The roots intensification technique, adopted from Madagascar in Mexico, focuses on better root growth as it feeds the plant, according to Jeevika’s Debaraj Behera. He boasts of dramatic rise in the yields with this technique on the 22,000-plus paddy and wheat farmers in the pilot districts across the state.

Farmers, according to Jeevika officials, have clocked an average yield of 7-10 tons per hectare over two years – that’s roughly twice the yield before the introduction of this technology.

“If we take care of the roots,” Behera says, “the roots take care of the plant.”

The pitfall is that the system though not input-intensive requires more labour than in traditional way. It needs farmers to rinse the seeds in warm water before treating it with vermin-compost, cow urine and jaggery in a bucket. The germinated seeds are then transplanted maintaining the specified space.

“Though the technique is giving excellent results on the small holdings in Bihar, we will need to evaluate and assess the technique before scaling it up,” says Biswajit Sen, Senior Rural Development Specialist at the World Bank. The WB, he says, would in few months be doing a mid-term assessment of Jeevika.

Jeevika’s soul is the women’s groups. Ten to 15 individuals form a self help group; around 8-15 SHGs form a village organization; around 25-35 VOs form a Block Level Federation. There are currently a hundred such federations in eight districts. Alongside, the SHG members form a producers group as first step of building institutional capacity for an economic activity. A critical number of producer groups form a cluster; clusters join hands for producers’ organization that are then integrated with commercial sector, cooperatives, banks and service sector. The principle is that the community takes decisions and prioritizes its needs for lending and borrowing. The pyramid structure forges unity and individual skills.

Baijayanti Devi, a vocal resource person, and others burst into giggles and a sense of pride when they recount how their unity forced a local muscleman-cum-contractor to build a village road as per the locals’ instruction – a road that had been sanctioned seven years ago but remained un-constructed.

Jeevika is steering other interventions too; such as a play-school for the children of the lower caste Musahars in Marha village, about 20 km from the sacred city of Bodh Gaya. Languishing at the bottom of the caste hierarchy, the landless Musahar community had no access to education. This is the first time that the 40-odd children attend a pre-school under the drum-stick tree around one corner of the village.

Others, like Bank Mitra Rinki Kumar, 20, helps the Sahdeokhap villagers do banking – she fills out forms to withdraw or deposit money, apply for loans or explain the various schemes the bank runs.

“She’s an important interface between the illiterate villagers and the bank,” says Sunil Narain, the manager of the Sahdeokhap branch of the Bank of India. All praise for the project, he says, Jeevika made a major difference in the lives of poor villagers. “Its major achievement,” he says, “has been that people now have access to institutional finance which has in turn broken the stranglehold of moneylenders.”

Jeevika members echo his sentiment. Kunti Devi of Sekhwara village, for instance, managed to pay the mortgage money to an upper-caste money lender to free her one-acre land after coming into the formal credit net. In the first two years, says Vinay Kumar, much of the lending borrowing business within the SHGs has been to free the mortgaged lands and pay the health bills; two very pressing urgencies.

Typically, private loans come at a monthly 10 percent interest, while the bank loans at nine percent per annum with no collateral. Narain says SHGs’ repayments are very good and timely. The SHGs are using the money to buy livestock, agricultural inputs or setting up small shops, all income generating.

An increased access to bank has seen a decline in the number of money-lenders, says Baijayanti Devi. “The Sahukars are now a dying breed,” she says, as her SHG colleagues sing the Jeevika song. One of the women, Ramrati Devi, butts in to say with a chuckle: “We have now learnt to speak for ourselves.”

Sunday, March 07, 2010


After a long break, I am re-working the blog. This time around, I would be penning the stories on the move. From the rural parts of Vidarbha, which is once again staring a scarcity of incomprehensible proportion. A grueling summer is in the offing.