“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”
- Virginia Wolf
There is nothing as important as eating well. Yet, food is what we usually take for granted.
Do you ever wonder how the food you eat reached you? What hard work goes behind it? Who helps you maintain a continuous supply of food?
Yes, it's the farmers and their hard work.
We often complain about the high price of the crops or vegetables we buy. But hardly do we think about the farmers, their lives, and the conditions they live in.
Let's hear out some of the stories of the farmers of Meghalaya, their worries, and fears as they toil hard to keep us healthy.
1. Price Fluctuations:
It often happens that farmers are informed that there is a market for specific crop and the whole village grows it. But by the time the harvesting season comes, the price drops and there is no market for their produce anymore. In those cases, most of those produce goes waste and farmers suffer huge losses."There were times when usually sell squash at Rs 25 per kg but now the price of squash dropped to Rs 1 per kg. We have worked hard the whole winter. Labor cost is high, the price of manure, seeds are high.
We are very disappointed with the drop in the prices. How can we provide for our family, our kid's education? The sudden drop in price puts us in a dilemma. Even if we must sell it, it does not give us good returns to make up for the cost incurred." - Farmer from Umlynka village.
"This lady lives in a hard-to-reach area not far from Shilllong, India. She sells the fruit from her four pear trees at just 3-4 rupees per kilogram. She could sell them for 150 rupees in the market but is not able to do this for one reason or another. Every year she has to sell at a discount, and she has little or no say at all in the matter as the risk of having to abandon her produce is quite high. Faced with the prospect of spending the money to transport her fruits back home, she has to be content with a 'something is better than nothing' philosophy. Unfortunately, this sad situation is true of most if not all Northeast India farmers, who are always either victims of market volatility or middlemen greed." - Ralph, a resident of Shillong.
"When I first started planting turmeric, I was very optimistic that I would be able to make a good return and so I had no doubts about selling my cow for a paltry sum of Rs 30,000 to cover the cost of post-harvest processing. But it was not to be, and my produce ended up being stored underground for over a year!" - farmer Mawtneng village.
Situations are worse when there are climatic disasters like heavy rains and floods. Farmers are not able to sell, their produce is most likely to get spoiled and wasted, thus rendering them useless.
They have little or no option at all but to sell in small lots of three or four kilos. Every time such a sale concludes, it is only a painful reminder of how less they are getting in return for the huge amount of time, resources and most of all hope, that they invested initially.
2. Inadequate Transport:
Transportation and road connectivity from rural areas to even the nearest market becomes nonviable for the small-scale farmers.
In Meghalaya, 47.02% of villages are still not connected by concrete roads. Road connectivity varies across the districts, from 61% in the South Garo Hills district to 26% in the Jaintia Hills.
"I know a farmer who grows bay leaf, areca nut and a little bit of pepper. He does the farming in a place call Mawdon. You first have to drive about 75 km and then another 45-minute walk to reach this village from Shillong. His farmland is another 30 minutes’ walk from his house. He is a little old now and his three sons do all of the work, including taking the produce to the nearest market in the next village. They would pack the bay leaves in 50 kg gunny bags and walk to Lawbah, the next village. This is more of a straight-up climb, and with this load, it takes them about 45 to 60 minutes from the village." - James Synai, resident of Shillong
"We walked long distances, at times through steep slopes, to bring manure to our fields. The input costs, like the price of seeds, manure etc., are going up. On top of this, the cost of transporting manure and other things add to the input costs and makes it more expensive."
In places where there is bad transportation and connectivity, the farmers cannot carry their produce to the main market and are forced to sell at a lower price if a middleman visits the village for bulk purchases.
3. Dominance of Local Middlemen:
In the absence of a stable market, the farmers become dependent on the local traders and middlemen to sell their farm produce at low prices. These local traders and middlemen dominate the local marketing and trading facility, which directly hampers the farmers.
Farmers become vulnerable and accept the rates decided by them which favour farmers the least.
In Meghalaya the government has already started regulated markets where a system of competitive buying is introduced. These markets help in erasing malpractices and ensuring that the farmers are not exploited.
Though this seems to be a noble venture to tackle one of the biggest challenges faced by the farmers, there are only two secondary regulated markets in the State which makes it nonviable for majority of the farmer population.
"A local trader came in and asked to buy turmeric from me at a very good price and promised to return on the third day. I was excited and started to slice and dry my freshly harvested turmeric. But it has been more than a week now and still no news from the person. Right now, I’m not very sure about selling the turmeric or to keep waiting for the trader. This is not the first time it has happened. We are often offered ridiculously high price but at the actual time of the sale, the money that we get is lower than what was agreed upon initially", said a turmeric farmer from Niawkmai.
4. Next-generation Uninterested in Farming:
Farming is hard work. Even though farmers are the backbone of the economy, the youth are not interested in agriculture as they believe it will not give them the life that they want. Probably seeing their parents living is depravity does not motivate them to carry on the same job.
"I wonder about the future of my field as our children are not interested in being a farmer. I worry about what will happen if our children do not continue our occupation" - farmer from Jaintia Hills.
"What will happen to the people of Shillong if we farmers are not there? From where will they get their food, and who will grow it?" - farmer from Ri Bhoi.
"I want my children to get a good education and I will be happy if one of my kids take up agriculture and continue this occupation handed down by my family."
"During mid-March 2016, I visited Pomlum and Nongkynrih villages with my relatives. During the conversation with the farmers here, I learned that the villagers prefer to choose other professions such as daily wage labourer, working in a shop/bricks industry, teaching, etc. This is mainly because of the inadequate ratio of land to person" - Marbadondor Pohti, Sr. Executive, Chillibreeze.
Is there A Way to Change the Perspective of these Youths?
"If the annual agriculture income is more than a salaried income, youngsters will take the plunge into agriculture. Unlike the adage that agriculture comprises only old people into their 60’s, today the interest among present day educated youth and their dedication towards farming is an encouraging sign that the agriculture scene is going through a renaissance" - Dr.B.J. Pandian, Director & Nodal Officer, Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, Coimbatore.
"Mere theory, oration or advice will never work with today's youth. They need to see and get convinced themselves. Once they get convinced, they will easily pull others into it," sums up Dr. Pandian. Source
5. Lack of Seeds or Planting Materials:
Quality raw material assures sustained growth in agricultural production. This can only be realized if the subsistence and small-scale farmers have access to quality planting materials and organic fertilizers. Lack of quality planting material is a major constraint which leads to the adoption of GMOs, hybrids, and chemical-based fertilizers.
Good quality seeds are out of reach for most farmers. This is especially so for small and marginal farmers because of the exorbitant prices.
But Where to Get Them?
The Department of Agriculture, Meghalaya offers quality planting materials including other inputs with a full package of practices at no cost at all.
So why not leverage this? Is there a criterion?
At present this scheme is available only to farmers possessing land of at least 0.2 hectares. This can be a possible solution as the average size of family farms in Meghalaya is 0.21 hectare.
What is missing? Awareness, the farmers are yet to learn about these various schemes so as to best capitalize on the already available benefits.
I grow turmeric all by myself without any additional labor. I then take my turmeric to Shillong and sell. I know that there are government schemes to help farmers like myself, but I am in the dark. Yet, in spite of this, I am continuing what our ancestors have been doing, and that is growing turmeric” said a 70-year-old lady farmer at Lad Mynksan.
Is There Hope?
To improve the agricultural scenario, we can start with the following-
Subsistence farmers getting inputs or planting materials for free even if they have less than 0.2 hectare of farmland.
Individual farmers can work together in the form of cluster farming and self-help groups so that they may protect their own interests as opposed to being dictated by middlemen.
Establishment of agro-based industries, which will bring better returns to the farmers and will also increase the shelf life of local produce.
The Northeast India farmer is no different from the farmers in the rest of the country. They are doing what they know best and doing it in the most honest, sincere and genuine way one can.
Zizira's aim is to bring to your attention to similar stories so that we can raise awareness about the plight of people who are directly responsible for the food that we all eat.
We hope to play a part in improving returns to the farmers of Northeast of India by promoting their produce and in the process unleashing the potential of family farms in Meghalaya.