Food and farming / INDIA
After two months of searing drought - the worst in 50 years - late rains deluge southern India in mid-October 2002. The hard earth, sealing in months of heat, releases it all at once as a fierce, humid fist. Water pours off surfaces and rudely breaks through the channels dug to contain it. Steam mingles with smoke and rises from the straw roofs of mud houses in the villages.
The rains come too late to save the harvests of millions of Indian farmers, watching the skies anxiously, waiting for the monsoon. Many of the crops they have managed to grow are destroyed in the downpour. Early cotton bolls are matted, soggy and unsellable. Paddy has already failed to germinate and is being fed to scrawny cattle - those that haven't already been sold to feed hungry families.
Since late summer hundreds of thousands of farmers have been pouring into the towns and cities, hungry and desperate. They can be seen in every major Indian city, squatting on the pavements, waiting for daily labouring work at wages that, as the deluge of desperate human beings continues, drop slowly at first and then faster, until they reach a sixth of the minimum wage of $2 per day.
On my way into Chinta Nekonda village, in the Warangal district of northern Andhra Pradesh (AP), I pass paddy fields that are cracked and bare. Thin buffalo are ripping up what remains of the rice crop.
As is customary when a stranger comes, a crowd gathers in the village, with its dusty streets, tiny mud houses, walls plastered with adverts for pesticides and fertilizers. Half the houses here are locked: two-thirds of the villagers have left for the city to look for work.
A farmers' conference rapidly assembles on the porch of the village sarpanch (leader) - who is a woman. Positive-discrimination policies have had some effect - but she is making the tea whilst her husband assumes her powers and directs proceedings. The electricity is off, the crickets chirrup in the night. The only light flickers from a television set run on a generator.
'We don't have any subsistence living. There is full drought,' says one farmer.
'We don't have any wells and tanks, and all of the bore wells have dried up,' adds another.
The farmers aren't above exaggeration - this, after all, is the tradition when officials come from the city. But nothing has quite prepared me for the palpable sense of desperation.
A woman seated behind the sarpanch speaks up: 'How should we live? Tell us!'
It's not just this year, though, or this drought, that is creating enormous pressure on the farming community. Small farmers are increasingly vulnerable to the vagaries not just of the weather - but of commercial markets as well.
This district, Warangal, made the news in 1998 as the centre of a spate of farmer suicides. It has one of the highest levels of pesticide consumption in India. Murali, author of a report on the farmer suicides, Debt and Deep Well, explains to me how a corporate push created a sudden upsurge in commercial, pesticide-intensive cotton grown by small and marginal farmers.
As they got deeper into debt to pay for the seed and pesticides, the cotton harvest failed. Across the state, thousands committed suicide because they could not pay back the moneylenders.
Government subsidies for agriculture have been slashed, pushing up costs even as market rates for crops have been going down. While larger farmers are better able to cope with commercial agriculture, for the 77 per cent of landholders in Andhra Pradesh who are small farmers the cycle of debt and dependency, and the building blocks of a gathering agrarian crisis, seem only to deepen. There's no safety net from drought, nor debt.
Now Murali is worried by the most recent development - genetically modified Bt cotton. He's concerned that it will exacerbate existing trends: 'When farmers are in a desperate situation, it is easy for the market to exploit them.'
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