‘We saw shoals of dead fish floating on water’

_MG_8893

“I am a defaulter with Corporation Bank. I borrowed Rs 2,96,000 three or four years ago and I have to pay them around Rs 600,000 today. I lost my permit to cultivate sugarcane a while ago. I have also taken some money from sahukars. Their dalals visit my home almost every day and demand to be paid. They just want their money back and as long as they receive their interest they aren’t bothered about my troubles. They tell me they aren’t responsible for my failed harvest. Tell me, who is?,” asked Maheswara Reddy as he slumped down in his chair.

At first glance, his house was a crooked assemblage of wood and concrete. Reddy’s sister-in-law greeted us with a shy smile as his nephews and nieces stole a few glances from the kitchen. Their friends stood against doorways admiring trails of dust that rose and settled on deserted pathways. Some fumbled with their sprigs and sticks while others held their tyres close to them, staring intently at us.

In the afternoon sun, structures cast their shadows athwart the narrow passages. The momentary intrusion of sun rays amidst crumbling walls created a lattice of light and shade on the ground. As if on cue, the discerning silence of the village was broken by loud clanging of pots and vessels coming from a distance.

Appaji died in an accident in 1992,” said Reddy, “I was studying in ICWAI (Institute of Cost and Works Accountants of India) at that time. I woke up one day and realised I didn’t have a father anymore. We lost the only bread winner of our family. I had to drop out of college to help with running the household. Sometimes, I feel helpless. Farming is a genuine struggle. If I suffer losses with one harvest, it will take me five successful yields to recover the costs. Agricultural labourers too demand Rs 1,200 per tonne of sugarcane whereas I earn Rs 700 per tonne. Where do I get the money from? How do I pay off my debts? I don’t grow sugar cane anymore. I stopped cultivating them a while ago. I couldn’t handle the losses. My only source of income comes from paddy. And, that’s how we are surviving right now.”

He spoke bitterly of government’s reluctance to regularise scientific pricing of crops. For decades, farmers all over the country have been revolting against the centre’s lackadaisical attitude in establishing a system wherein unprecedented rise in cost of cultivation, procurement of raw materials and manual labour should be taken into consideration while deciding fair remunerative pricing for their commodities. “Farmers are always deprived of ‘just’ pricing. We are supposed to operate in loss. We get good rates once in fifteen years. If we were given what we deserve, why would we struggle every year? Fertilisers required for paddy are far more expensive than what we earn from our harvest. I barely make what I spend. We have food and shelter for now but what about our children? Should we stop sending them to better schools? What about unexpected medical expenses? I can’t even afford to buy clothes for our daughters and sons,” he said in a grim tone.

Within moments, Arun walked into the house and suggested we eat something. Reddy asked his sister-in-law to prepare some upma and groundnut chutney. In a corner, his older brother Ranganath laughed at kids running astray playing a game of catch and release. “He is a farmer too,” whispered Maheswara so as not to shatter the spell of the moment, “His life has been extremely difficult like most farmers in these regions. He works so hard. I feel terrible at times and wonder who’s responsible for his plight.”

His entire family has been farming since 1978. Earlier, they grew everything from groundnut, corn, pulses and chilly to even okra and cucumber. They worked towards becoming self-sufficient through small-scale farming. While their ancestors practised intensive subsistence agriculture, over time, industrialisation and irrigation farming replaced traditional methodologies. Today, the entire belt cultivates paddy and sugarcane.

“Cost of living was low back then but we led simple lives. We had enough to survive. With time, our needs increased and we couldn’t cope with rising demands. For instance, if a farmer owns a motorcycle, he spends at least Rs 100 on fuel everyday. His total expenditure adds up to Rs 36,000 per year. If his child is enrolled in a private school, he will shell out Rs 15,000 as fees per annum. We have become completely dependent on supplies from the city. This is the biggest change in our lifestyle in the past ten years. Farming can’t feed us anymore. We are constantly looking for alternate means to make a living. We end up taking more loans and are incapable of paying our debts,” he said.

In conversation, Arun mentioned to us that there are at least 20 landless families residing in the village who have no choice but to rely on fishing or agricultural labour work for their survival. With sugar mills failing to invest in appropriate waste treatment plants, the deliberate contamination of the reservoir and the subsequent degradation of ecology could result in complete loss of livelihood in the near future.

After lunch, we expressed our desire to meet some of the fishermen residing in the village. We walked through narrow alleyways that led us to the main road. As we turned to the east, we chanced upon them once more. Those endless fields. Some plots converged near shallow water bodies and others disintegrating into nameless voids. Even so, every creature on these farmlands lived with purpose, and none an aimless wanderer. For, their co-existence was crucial to their survival. No matter where we looked, we bore witness to their relentless quest to live; in the shuddering panicles, in the determined sight of birds and animals seeking their prey; and in the spirit of mankind that thrived within its soils.

_L4A9161

Across the sea of paddy, where lay farming equipment abandoned by its owners, a path led to a tiny house of migrant labourers. At the gate, stood Nagaraj staring into empty spaces. His teeth were stained red and brown from chewing paan and tobacco. Save lumpy shadows in the hall, we couldn’t see the other inhabitants of his house. Almost instantly, his mother walked out carrying an infant on her hip. Adjusting her veil, she asked us to follow her inside.

A warm breeze wafted the smell of fish in the air. Nagaraj hurriedly emptied some chairs and asked us to be seated. Some young women sat on the floor looking keenly at us wondering why we were there. Arun and Reddy explained to them about the purpose of our visit. They nodded in silence as Nagaraj’s mother recalled the day they left their homes.

“We belong to Haveri. That’s where our home was. We were affected by the worst drought in history. Our farms and wells dried up. There was nothing left for us. We then took everything we could carry on our backs and left our homes in hopes of finding lands where we could settle down; where we didn’t have to starve to death. And, that’s how we reached Davangere. This was fifty years ago. We built this house on our own. We even helped in constructing the Devarabelekere pick up dam. Nagaraj was quite young then. We still have an acre of land in Haveri. We were farmers in our village but here we have no land. So, we tried our luck with fishing,” she said with a shrug.

_MG_8949

They work 365 days a year. They have no choice but to go back to work every single day. We asked Nagaraj about the rising levels of pollution and toxicity in the reservoir. We wanted to understand the implications it had on fishing in the locality. At once, his smile died and the look in his face hardened. His eyes snapped to the ground as he explained in great detail the reason for massive migration of fish from their current unfavourable habitats to larger reservoirs.

“We suffer for three or four months every year due to the sugar mills. The population of aquatic creatures has reduced drastically over time. Last year, we saw shoals of dead fish floating on water. The concentration of toxic waste is relatively higher in summer. There are at least six to eight villages dependent on the reservoir for fishing. What will happen to us once all the fish is gone? We don’t even have lands to grow our own food. I’d rather fish than farm because that’s all I know. More than 44 sites were distributed to landless families in this region. In fact, 30 houses received at least one acre of land from the government but we weren’t eligible for any such schemes. They told us we didn’t belong to the scheduled caste (SC) or scheduled tribe (ST) category. So, we weren’t worthy of any such compensation,” he said in a polite but stern voice.

_L4A9127

Distress migration and displacement owing to drought has seen an exponential rise in rural areas over the past three decades. Apart from prevailing ecological conditions, the strategic combination of poor governance and inadequate response to the critical pleas of our farming community has bolstered the agrarian crisis in India. In fact, we are now on the brink of a large scale humanitarian crisis. Millions of farming refugees are currently streaming into cities or villages in search of better lives. Some survive. Some give up. Some lose all hope and wait for the moment they’d breathe their last…

It was getting late and we had to leave for Davangere. We thanked the family for their generosity and promised them we would visit again. As we drove back, Arun suggested that we stay in his house for the night. After a quick nap, we walked around town for a while, bought some fruits and returned home.

At night, we spent some time with Arun who spoke to us about numerous issues highlighting the situation of agriculture all over the country. “General awareness amongst farmers is quite low,” he said, “Farmer issues and the consequent suppression of their rights have led to catastrophic outcomes in the past few decades. While many strive to fight for their causes, there are still some who haven’t managed to rise above adversity. But we can’t stop fighting. Even though our movement commenced here, people have managed to find a common voice and unite all over the state. We must not lose hope. Whenever farmers unite, good things happen. The only way we can bring about a fundamental change in society is through a collective conscious effort…”

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

Through  ‪#‎RestofMyFamily‬, we will focus on highlighting social issues and human interest stories, documenting the triumphs of the ordinary man despite all the hardships they face constantly, and help these stories reach a larger audience and wherever necessary extend support to the individuals and communities that we write about. We hope to make a direct impact to the lives of those people we meet and find suffering due to various social issues; to connect the ones who need help to the ones who can help….

As a part of the first leg of the project, we have now embarked on a one-year drive (#DriveForChange) through rural India. Find more about the campaign here: http://igg.me/at/restofmyfamily/x/539502

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s