At around 7.30 am, we heard a knock on our door. “Shall we go to Mallapura today?,” asked Arun as he walked into the room. “Devaraj and his family have been residing there for several years. Farming crisis has peaked in these regions over the last five years. Some of the neighbouring villages suffer from acute water shortage. How will farmers feed their families? Scarcity is a term they are far too familiar with. For them, everything seems to be scarce: water and perhaps even the value of human life,” he said wiping his forehead.
He then stooped over a pile of newspapers and arranged some clippings in order. The entire room was shrouded in dim morning light. A shadow flitted across the window briefly. We heard Arun’s sister-in-law exchanging pleasantries with someone as she hung some clothes on the balcony. Standing upright at once, Arun lunged forward to fetch a book that lay forgotten near the window sill.
After a quick breakfast of crispy benne (butter) dosa and mashed potatoes at a local eatery, we drove straight to Mallapura. Braving the sweltering heat, we spotted many an unsteady feet staggering towards their destinations while some sought shelter near trees.
Across the long fields of gilded brown, that morning, a lingering sense of abandonment set in the air. Water in the farms were down to a trickle. A lone farmer sat in the midst of it all. His sickle lay untouched beside a tree. A strong gust of wind blew against him as he grimaced to observe unknown faces whirring past him. An unsettling moment of speculation crossed our minds as we drove away. Perhaps, he waited for a sign. Perhaps he didn’t. Even so, he lay motionless for a while, unfettered by the rush of the road.
Soon, empty fields gave way to pockets of settlements. In near vicinity, we spotted a giant greenhouse amidst a cluster of barren fields. “Take the detour, up ahead. That should lead us to Devaraj’s farm,” said Arun as he pointed at a few tiny houses. Upon reaching a massive shed, we met Devaraj who greeted us with a warm smile. He then ushered us towards his polyhouse.
“The entire set up costs 20 lakhs,” he said taking long strides away from us. As we entered the structure, we glanced upon capsicum saplings lined in neat rows. Devaraj bent down to examine some of the plants and expressed his concern over soaring temperatures. “Capsicum can fetch me around Rs 20 per kg while production costs are around Rs 15 per kg. I hope for a good harvest this year. I spent Rs 900,000 from my own pocket to install the entire set up. The rest was taken care of by a government scheme. The greenhouse comes with a 25-year warranty. However, the sheets need to be changed every five years. I also plan to put solar panels on the roof to generate electricity,” he added with a hint of pride.
His features turned worrisome as he discussed in great depth the plight of agriculture in the region. Steeped in vulnerability, the life of a farmer is one of great despair. Throughout our journey, there were moments in every tale, those that beckoned us to listen, where souls mired in helplessness sought to liberate themselves from the shackles of drudgery. If only they had chosen a different path, some told us. And, that’s when we first heard it; the bells of regret toll…
“Sometimes, I wonder what keeps them going. At every step, they are met with betrayal and disappointment. And, yet they have strength in their hearts,” said Arun as we walked beside us, “But there are some who find it difficult to break away and continue fighting. They have no reason to live anymore. And, it is our duty to give them hope. It’s the least we could do as human beings.”
Flanked by narrow trails shrouded in dry brown grass, paths beside the polyhouse led to two tiny sheds about forty paces ahead. We heard footsteps, shuffling and pattering, in the enclosures. Within moments, our senses were greeted with the unpleasant odour of chicken waste. Glancing sideways, Devaraj grinned as we followed him to his poultry farm. A flurry of nervous chirping ensued once we entered the cabin. A brood of hens gathered in tandem around the grains while some remained busy quenching their thirst near the water dispenser.
“I raise the American Cobb variety. They take about 45 days to grow and can weigh anywhere between 2 and 2.5 kg. The desi breed on the other hand takes a year to weigh 1.5 kg. It isn’t profitable to raise the local variety. I have 3,500 adult birds in this cabin. In all, they consume around 700 kg of maize everyday. I earn Rs 65 per kg of chicken while I spend Rs 70. So far, I am operating in loss. Giant corporations have destroyed the livelihoods of small scale poultry farmers. Animals are reared in large confinement facilities and sold in bulk. This affects our sale. Factory farming will become the end of us,” he said shrugging as he walked out.
The adjacent structure housed 2,500 chicks that were separated into two different groups based on their age. Some were nine days old. Some were born three days ago. Away from the clamour of the adjoining shelter, an old woman carried a bucket of water towards the young fledglings. She was Devaraj’s mother. “She takes care of both poultry sheds. If it weren’t for Amma, I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing today. Sometimes, I am filled with doubts. I fear my downfall at every step. Those days are the hardest. She gives us strength and hope. She works so hard even at this age. I hope to give her the life she truly deserves, some day,” he said with a smile on his face.
Placing her frail arms gingerly on the ground, she then arranged some containers in order. Her face broke into an instant frown as she turned her attention towards panes of glass rattling in a distance. “Water has to be filled five times a day,” she said addressing our unspoken thoughts, “We don’t wear slippers around the little ones. This eliminates the possibility of infections or diseases. They require a lot of care and attention. You will usually find them huddled in a corner asleep once they have eaten.”
Her younger son, Bharath Bhushan, strutted around the corner near the shed. Occasionally, he’d walk in and inspect the machinery that aided in making food for their cattle and poultry. Behind him, two young boys chased each other into fenced yards of grass. After a short spell of yelling and grinning, their feet scurried towards a pile of dirt where they prodded about for treasures.
Later, Devaraj suggested we walk to the village and meet a few farmers. We strolled along a few side paths tracing the trails leading to farms that turned more barren, with every passing moment. Almost concealed in the crestfallen leaves, were moments of quietude where footprints lasted no longer than a fading memory…
Our reverie was soon broken by a noisy chatter in the distance. Pots clanked. Voices got louder. And, hands were raised in the air. “She broke the line,” we heard a woman cry. Beside her, a large crowd yelled at a middle-aged woman who sought shelter near a stall. She sat in the corner fuming and murmuring to herself while villagers vented their frustration at her. Apparently, she had committed a cardinal sin. She had broken their only rule. “Everyone has to wait their turn to fill water. She cannot just barge in and take whatever she wants. Everyone has needs. Everyone has a family. She isn’t the only one,” said a lady to another as they placed their pots near the hand pump. It was only then we realised that they were quarrelling over water. Every last drop had to be accounted for. Every pot had to be filled. They had to get in there before anyone else did. No one could get any more than they were destined to receive. No one could ask for any more. For, it was a term they were unfamiliar with. More.
(to be continued)
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