“I haven’t filled a pot yet. How can I survive without water?” asked the lady in red as she walked to the hand pump. Her frail features were shrouded in unfathomable expressions. She raised her fists at no one in particular. She muttered curses under her breath, at no one in particular. Perhaps, her anger was misguided. Perhaps, it wasn’t. We couldn’t tell. She dragged her feet away from us towards towering trees that swayed ruefully in sudden gusts…
In 2002, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) (a body of 18 independent experts that monitors the implementation of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights) acknowledged that ‘the human right to water is indispensable for leading a life with human dignity. It is a prerequisite for the realisation of other human rights.’ A prerequisite.
There were many like her, the lady in red, lurking in hidden corners; those who hadn’t the faintest clue of what constituted a prerequisite for human rights or dignity. In time, their frowns turned scornful. Some, however, maintained a calm demeanour. Arguments over their right to take water ensued as we approached the group. Amidst the commotion, a few stepped in to resolve the situation at hand.
As the crowd dispersed, we followed Devaraj into a narrow lane. “Most of us rely on farming for survival, “he explained, “And, lack of water will further destroy our chances of having a decent produce. We have enough now but the levels are reducing every year. Some fear there might be nothing left in few years. What will we do then?”
A tiny house situated to the left amidst other structures gleamed in the morning sun. Withered remnants of bricks lay carelessly tossed beside the courtyard. Against the door, stood a young girl. She threw a towel over her shoulder and greeted us with a warm smile. “Banni Banni,” she said inviting us in.
Her name was Shilpa. She had just completed her Diploma in Education (D.Ed) from a university in Hadadi. However, she was still working as an honorary and was yet to secure a professional job. She hasn’t earned a rupee yet and that worried her. Her mother Basavamma stood behind her. Clutching her veil in her arms, she adjusted the thin fabric over her head. Her lips quivered as she heard her daughter speak. She was the only farmer left in the family.
“Her father passed away six years ago,” she said gazing at the wall, “Since then, I have been trying my best to take care of the household. We grow mekke jola (corn), raagi and a few other crops native to this region. Most of these vegetables are grown for self-consumption and sale. We have a borewell that’s still functional. So, we have water, for now. But we’ve had a disappointing yield this year. We could harvest just 30 quintals of corn and six bags of betel leaves in all. Rains no longer come as they used to. Everything has changed. 2014 was a good year. We had a great harvest that year, I remember. There’s been a wave of disappointment, ever since. A little more every year than last. I am not sure how long will this go on. I worry there will be nothing left for the little ones.”
She has accumulated debts over the years from both banks and private money lenders so that her children could go to school. Though her sons help her as much as they can, they aren’t as skilled as Basavamma. Her gaunt features were worn with worry. Sometimes, she gave a brittle laugh and turned away. But, in her laughter, there lay turmoil. And, it could no longer be concealed within the creases of her brow.
At the furthest end of the hallway, lay a room shrouded in shade save the pale light seeping through its crevices. Wisps of smoke rose from the kitchen twirling into corners and dissipating before our eyes. Above the roar of afternoon winds, we dimly heard the sound of roosters crow.
“We received Rs 20,000 as grant from government to build our home. This was years ago. These days, people get Rs 150,000. The entire village is categorised under SC/ST. One of the biggest threats looming in this region is water. There’s a small lake situated about 6 km from our village. But we are fully aware that we might run out soon. Will farming exist then? I am not sure. These areas are prone to unprecedented droughts. The government has been unable to provide us with any long term solution. Sometimes, I feel they are waiting till we hit a catastrophic situation. Electricity is supplied for barely two hours at night in order to run our pumps for irrigation. How can we keep our farms sustained? How can you not expect our crops to shrivel and die?” she asked.
According to Devaraj, every household in this village owns at least 0.5 to 10 acres of farmland. However, 90% of the farmers have resorted to labour work owing to poor yields procured in the past three years. What they reap isn’t enough to feed their families. Most of the children have dropped out of schools in fifth or sixth grade.
“Their families can’t afford to send them to school. And, even if they do, they lose an extra hand that could help them keep their stoves lit at night. There are at least 50 children who have had to give up their dreams of earning a degree. They aren’t interested in going to school in anymore. Some are naive and hope that farming will earn them enough; enough to keep them happy,” said Devaraj.
Amidst whispers of the continuous yet futile tussle between farmers and the state, we caught frenzied strains of voices discussing the impact of importing 500,000 tonnes of maize on the agrarian industry. Following continuous bouts of drought for three decades and complying with the rising demands of starch, poultry and animal feed industry, numerous reports in 2015 suggested that a zero duty concession on overseas purchase of non genetically modified maize would be implemented in order to aggrandise the domestic supply. Moreover, state run traders such as Projects & Equipment Corporation of India Ltd (PEC), a subsidiary of the State Trading Corporation of India Ltd would be allowed to facilitate the international trade, a first of its kind in 16 years. However, in March 2016, a tender to import 240,000 tonnes was cancelled for the Indian government gauged successful production prospects within the local farming communities this summer.
“Maize is grown extensively in Davangere. And, a massive import will cause an unwarranted dip in prices. Fluctuating rates spell doom for small scale farmers and I fear they may not recover from another major loss. It doesn’t matter now, does it?. When have we ever considered their problems as our own?” said Devaraj.
They sat around, and spoke of troubled times. Of happier times. And, we partook in them all; in stories of one another. In scattered noises and quarrelsome banters. In silence. As we left the house, we turned to the east and strode along trails that took us away from those disgruntled sighs and patterned walls; away from the familiarity of pitiful eyes and broken promises.
Up ahead paths swerved into lanes where strung across their lengths where tangled thickets that rose with the winds. Settlements turned dense at once as Devaraj invited us to his home. His mother offered us some lemon juice while he conferred with us the perils of debts and various fraudulent ‘micro-financing’ schemes imposed on naive villagers.
“If you borrow Rs 10,000, you are supposed to pay Rs 1,000 every week. The sanctioned ‘dalaals’ stand outside your home every day at 6 am even before the villagers rise. The only way we can clear our dues is by borrowing some more money. Even if we discourage villagers from taking loans from these people, they refuse to listen to us. Some get upset and ask us if we would be willing to lend them money instead. The more enslaved we are to debts and usury, the better it is for the entire system. That way, we will be entangled in this vicious cycle forever,” said Devaraj pounding his fists on the chair.
In moments, he suggested we pay a visit to some of the landless families residing in the village. Most of them were agricultural labourers while many contemplated migrating into towns and cities in search of better jobs. We soon walked past narrow roads that converged into farmlands.
Seated on his tiny porch, Jagallurappa stared at the skies. Neither grim nor shy, his features bore a stark resemblance to a drift-less soul staying afloat in a sea of forgotten memories. His wrinkled fingers fiddled with threads and specks of lint gathered on his legs. They had tilled many a soils, a lifetime ago.
“We all have BPL (Below Poverty Line) cards. None of my children are educated. I couldn’t afford to send them to school. Today, we are all farmers without farms. So, we till fields that belong to someone else. The land will continue to feed us. I have faith. But sometimes, I can’t help but worry about our future. Everything is turning dry before our eyes — the lands, the water, the sky. Everything,” he said.
His grandchildren yelped in delight when they spotted him. One tried to climb onto his lap while another wailed in the arms of her mother. The oldest one was eight years old. “She is educated,” he said with a hint of pride pointing at his daughter-in-law, “She has finished high school.”
Her name was Ashamma. She had undergone training in sewing and tailoring. Therefore, she earned some money on a regular basis. She charged Rs 60 per blouse and would get a minimum order of two to three blouses per day. Orders often poured in from neighbouring villages too.
“I will ensure they get a decent education,” she said smiling warmly at her little ones, “I am certain it will transform their lives. They are quite young now but I would like to send them to a good university some day. I am not sure if we will be able to support them financially but that’s my dream. And, I hope it’s theirs too. We are content with what we have so far. It’s neither much nor little but we will make it work. We have to…”
(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.