Village farmers struggle to make ends meet

A farmer in Rampur Mathura uses a pair of oxen to plow a field before the rain sets in | Photo by Matthew Masin

A farmer attempts to hitch two oxen to a plow and simultaneously answer his ringing cell phone, trilling a pitchy, electronic Bollywood beat.

The farmers in Rampur-Mathura, a village two hours from Lucknow, India, are subsistence farmers. They own the land and not much else. Having oxen to help pull plows and other pieces of equipment is considered a luxury as they cost more than 17,000 rupee or less than $400.

In India, especially the province of Uttar Pradesh, programs have been created to aid struggling farmers. But because of corrupt officials, little of the allotted money ever gets to the people, said Sateyndra Singh, a village leader in Rampur-Mathura.

One program promises a fixed price for wheat, while another promises 100 days of labor during the rainy season when farming is impossible and still another guarantees a fixed price for synthetic fertilizer.

According to the farmers of Rampur-Mathura, the government’s program for guaranteeing the fixed price of wheat is particularly corrupt.

The going rate for 100 kg of wheat is 1,175 rupees, or a little more than $25.

“If you take in 100 kg of grain, the person at the scale will take out three kilos, and say ‘This is my commission.’ Then they will take out another 2 kilos because they say there is mud in it. Then they will take out one kilo, because they say that is how it works here. If you don’t like it you can take your truck and go,” Singh said.

“The government that is trying to make it fair is stealing. The government is in itself, corrupt,” continued Singh.

The farmers, as a result, can’t make a profit.

Wheat prices are supposed to be standardized but are not. Payments for sugar cane are often doled out six months after the harvest has been completed. And rice is sold through a middleman.

The farmers in this area live off less than 100 rupees a day, or about $2.25. To survive, they grow their own food. If they were to try to move to Lucknow for labor work, they would have a harder time surviving because of food costs.

People in this area don’t save, not in the American sense of the word. They don’t have bank accounts, or 401K’s, or mutual accounts. Retirement is non-existent in this part of the world.

Instead, money is put away coffee-can-style for future expenses and is generally accounted for before it is even received.

“You can’t save by earning. You can only save by saving,” Singh said.

At the end of the day, farmers, their families and their hired hands will go to their houses in the village and wake up the next morning as poor as yesterday, with no ability to break the cycle, and no government aid to help them.

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Mint oil distilleries add diversity to Indian agriculture

Story by Ashley Burns

India’s diverse agriculture lends itself to interesting industries, such as the distilling of mint oil.

Behind a shed and past a field, currently planted in corn is what looks like an incomplete moonshine distillery. It consists of a huge vat, with several pipes coming off of it and expelling a sweet, yet slightly musty smell.

This however, unlike a moonshine distillery this is a legal operation. Menthol oil distilling is yet another source of income for farmers in this area.

In a good year farmers can get three crops of mint and process it into menthol oil, most years though they are more likely to only get two.

Sathendra Singh, the village leader, explains that the farmers who raise mint can get 4000 rupee per crop, which makes a significant impact on the farmers otherwise meager budget.

Mint distiller is interesting and unique piece of equipment. It consists of a huge metal tank with several plastic hoses coming off of it near the bottom. Mint leaves are put in the pot with plenty of water and a fire is started beneath the tank.

The water is boiled, steam rises off of the mass of mint leaves. The leaves secrete an oil which sinks to the bottom and is then siphoned off through one of the hoses.

The finished product smells like unadulterated cough ointment and is strong enough to burn sensitive skin.

When all the oil has been removed, the remaining leaves are spread out to dry, explains Singh, this waste product will then be used as fuel for the next batch of mint leaves to be processed.

Like most agriculture in this area, the entire process is a cycle, Singh explains.

When all the oil has been extracted it will be shipped to another processor to be made into menthol crystals.

Near urban Delhi, villagers farm public land

The Singh's carrot field stands just outside the edge of rapidly expanding Delhi. | Photo by Christina Condreay

Story by Ashley Burns

The heat index soars over one hundred degrees and the humidity approaches 100 percent as Supal and Riki Singh work bent double in a small field outside of Noida.

This area of Delhi, called Chilla village, is owned by the government and serves as a source of income for many farmers like the Singhs and other small time entrepreneurs.

The people who work out here are not allowed to live on the land, only farm it. Most of the farmers who work this area live in the slum about nine miles away.

Out here the air is moist and hot. The constant drone of bugs and the persistent chug-chug of a diesel engine running an irrigation well sets the rhythm of the Singhs’ work.

Farmers still use hand-tools here, like a square blade that looks like a shovel and that is bent at a 45 degree angle to the handle. They are too poor to buy tractors or even oxen, so they rent these from the farmers who can afford them. This can cost upwards of 800 rupees, about $18,  an hour.

The Singhs are one of these farming families. They have been working this land for more than 30 years. This season is white carrots. Supal is a sinewy man with sunken eyes. He doesn’t like to take breaks during his work day.

Supal Singh explains how his fields flood each year. The floods leave Singh without crops and without a means to support his family. | Photo by Christina Condreay

Singh doesn’t remember when he started working these fields. He simply says, “Since birth.”

His son Riki, though, talks animatedly. He wades through the water that irrigates the fields and plucks a carrot out of the ground.

In America, these carrots would be grown as a heritage variety and retail for several dollars per pound in specialty markets. But here in India, they bring only pennies. Singh says that on a really good day he can get 15 rupees per pound, or about 33 cents.

Singh and his family walk here every day.

Food vendors come here to sell food to the farmers and other agricultural workers.

In the near 100 percent humidity and the blistering heat, they labor over hot oil instead of shovels and spades in the fields.

Food vendor fries jelebi, a sweet Indian street food, for urban famers at Chilla Village on the outskirts of urban Delhi. | Photo by Ashley Burns

Others are business people like Gyan Chand, who runs a wholesale nursery business.

Chand is rail-thin with black hair and a sparse goatee. He has the same deep sunken eyes the people around him share as a common trait. He has a long face and pointed chin. In the heat he rolls his shirt up to his chest to keep cool.

He spends his day crouched over, potting plants and pruning the evergreen trees to shape them. He pulls off small branches to encourage the tree to branch out and not up.

There are no greenhouses here. Instead, huge plastic tarps and PVC pipe are used to form a structure that serves as a greenhouse.

Chand says that he employs five men to work in the nursery as well. He pays them $160 a month.

Though still poor, he is better off than many of the farmers who work these fields. And although he still uses many of the traditional practices, Chand also embraces several more modern ideas for plant propagating including using a rooting hormone to start new plants from cuttings of existing plants.

Chand tends and prunes his plants to keep them looking healthy. | Photo by Christina Condreay

Supal Singh will eventually take this batch of carrots to markets in Delhi. And Chand will sell his plants. But the work will never end for either of these two or their families.

These people are poor but this is the life that they know. Few of them have other trade skills.

Gritty urban Noida serves as a backdrop for this pastoral slice of time. Multi-story buildings and a hazy sky rise above the green of the fields. Supal Singh continues his work, using his hand to pull weeds from around his carrots.

Farmland to be returned to villagers

India is a rapidly developing country, often those who do not embrace the change are left behind and others are pushed out. Some of these people who are being forced out are farmers who have worked the agricultural land on the outskirts of these 21st century cities for innumerable generations. Recently Greater Noida, near the capital city of New Delhi, has fallen under scrutiny after unscrupulous business people forcibly bought up large tracts of farmland at far below market prices. Now the Supreme Court of India has ruled that this act by several large businesses in the area was a wrongful act and has awarded the land back to the farmers. Read full story here