Saturday, October 26, 2013

My Interview with Devinder Sharma, food and trade policy analyst

I would like to share with you all the interview I had with Devinder Sharma.  According to the Huffington Post,

“Sharma is a distinguished food and trade policy analyst. An award-winning Indian journalist, writer, thinker, and researcher well-known and respected for his views on food and trade policy. Trained as an agricultural scientist (he holds a Master’s in Plant Breeding & Genetics), Sharma has been with the Indian Express, amongst the largest selling English language dailies in India. And then quit active journalism to research on policy issues concerning sustainable agriculture, biodiversity and intellectual property rights, environment and development, food security and poverty, biotechnology and hunger, and the implications of the free trade paradigm for developing countries.

In his own unique way, he analyses the international developments with local interpretation. Many regard him as singularly responsible for deciphering the complex global treaties and agreements and what it means for the developing countries in a simple and understandable manner.”

He keeps a fantastic blog called Ground Reality ( about the politics and economics of agriculture and hunger, usually within an Indian context.  He’s a prolific writer, extremely articulate and intelligent, and it was another celebrity moment for me in India. I tried to meet Devinder in Punjab, as he is currently based in the capital city of Chandigarh, but unfortunately, we missed each other.  He was nice enough, however, to give me almost an hour of his personal time on a Saturday morning for a Skype interview :D Below is a transcript with my own emphasis added.

Can you tell me about the role of the government in farming and food security in India?

Devinder Sharma: “The government has the responsibility to ensure a) food self-sufficiency to the country; b) food-security at the household level; and c) to ensure that the agriculture is sustainable and economically viable.”

Do you think the government has been successful given the inherent paradox of a large percentage of India’s population still being hungry alongside rotting stockpiles?

Devinder Sharma: “That’s what democracy is all about – you shouldn’t see hungry people in democracies.  Democracy is all over the world, not just in India, and there are still hunger problems.  Hunger is not a priority of democracy; if you look globally, how should it be going with such high level of wastage?  E.g. in America, which champions itself as a democracy but there are still hungry people and why should China see diminishing hunger as a socialist country?  It really shows that there is something wrong with the way we have been placing democracy as the answer.  China followed by Vietnam are both not democracies but hunger is reduced here.  Something wrong with the design and performance of democracy.”

What do you think about the National Food Security Act of 2013?  According to some, “India has become the first nation in the world to make access to food a legal right” in which self-reliance and food self-sufficiency has allowed for sovereignty and also power in foreign policy for India.

Devinder Sharma: “The Food Security Act is most stupid.  After 66 years of independence, we have brought in nothing different from what we could have done in the very first year after independence.  I think we have refugee sentiment.  Whenever they come in, you feed them the essentials.  It’s okay to give 5 kilos to the poor or 7 kilos to the ultra-poor but how long can they go on giving this?  If you want to feed a man for a day, give him a fish; if you want to feed a man for a lifetime, teach him how to fish.  I am appalled at the lack of common sense; the failure of the national advisory council to the government that first started this idiotic bill.  And even civil society has done a shoddy job.  This is not a way to end hunger.”

Should India continue to amass stockpiles of food or improve waste management and distribution?

Devinder Sharma: “This is one thing that should have been a hallmark of the Food Security Bill.  Household food security needs.  The bill should have cut across different sectors to draw out a bigger picture that would have involved the other framework.  For one time, we could have set the house in order.  But that failed miserably, so we will have to continue with the same model we’ve dealt with.  Instead, if we had a bill designed to prioritize local, sustainable production that is also economically viable (e.g. local procurement).  We have around 650,000 villages in this country and 550,000 villages produce food on average – why is it that people can live in hunger in these same villages that produce surplus?  Why can’t we address the hunger issue at the village, block/cluster, or district levels?  This should have been taken care of and is linked with many other policies (e.g. international trade policies) – if you lower your duties to almost 0%, then cheap imports keep coming in and farmers are driven out of agriculture.  Then food security becomes another problem.  So I think what should have been done: international trade policies, science and technology policy, water resources policy, rural development policy, etc. because agriculture (a combined program or act) should reflect all of these.  The other issue is that India should keep on stockpiling food, but it is very unfortunate that they are not distributing food to the poor people.  The difference between America and India is that America also produces a lot of food but first feeds its own population (350 million people) and its cats and dogs (168 million).  And after, food is made available for export.  In India, it’s the opposite, we don’t feed the population, what we collect is basically hunger surplus, which is stockpiled and exported, a completely wrong policy.” 

Agricultural Development

Should agriculture become larger scale?  Are small farms less productive, impractical for mechanization, etc.?  Should we have fewer farmers with larger land holdings (easier to mechanize) and capital/resource intensive (large loans, fossil fuels) agriculture?

Devinder Sharma:  “This is the modern economic thinking taught by textbooks.  The tragedy is that if you look at India (1.25 billion people) and I remember in 1996, I was attending a conference at the Swaminathan Research Foundation in Chennai and the Vice President was affiliated with the World Bank and the CGIAR, which made the statement that “the number of people that the World Bank estimates will be migrating to urban areas from rural areas by 2005 would be equal to twice the combined population of England, France and Germany (200 million).”  It was estimated that 400 million Indians would be migrating to cities.  This wasn’t a warning, the World Bank was actually telling us to do this.  If you read the 2008 World Development Report, it says we have to hasten the migration process and transform into land rental scheme since small farmers are unproductive.  Farmers should be trained as industrial workers.  In the next budget, I found that the last minister had free education for training institutes across the country.  So it’s clear that we have been following the suggestions of the World Bank.  Many people say that modern economics lacks common sense – if 400 million people (more than the whole population of the US) is to move towards urban areas, is this a sound model of development?  The cities are collapsing, urbanization is both a push and pull effect (pushing farmers out of agriculture as large-estate farmers replace small).  I don’t understand how economists say this is the answer to the crisis – there is something really wrong with economic and politics.  I find American economists arguing with me that the U.S. and EU did it like this, thus, so should India.  And then if you look at China, if China was such a wonderful model, look at the land rights and acts: 250 bloody protests happening and populations exploding in urban areas.  And China is the biggest land grabber in the world and bringing resources back to feed their population.  This model of growth is totally nonsensical.”

Can you tell me about the role and inherent paradox of mechanization in agricultural development?  I.e. Mechanization is paradoxical because it both displaces small farmers (adding to unemployment in the cities) and also has the potential to reduce drudgery of agriculture, incentivizing youth to farm.  Appropriate versus modern technology.  Should widespread mechanization be implemented and if so, how?  E.g. private companies or leasing agencies that contract/hire out machines? 

Devinder Sharma: “If you leave mechanization to the corporations, they will destroy farming as well as urban areas because they want to make more profits and see crop prices go up; they’re not concerned with what happens to farmers.  Tractor companies have to show rates of growth, otherwise they get the boot.  Let’s not use this argument to support what you are saying.  I don’t think mechanization is the solution to what you are proposing.  If you leave a society on its own, it will never happen.  But the society and governance.  Mechanization has its role but let’s look at Punjab – when it introduced machines during the Green Revolution, 30 HP tractors came into Punjab, which came in a package with subsidies, credit, inputs etc.  I remember that images of Punjabi farmers with turbans on tractors became a symbol of progress.  But today, that symbol of progress (tractor) has become a symbol of suicide – a tractor needs 10 acres but the average is 2-3 acres, so it is a curse on farmers – they are drawn in by media and still want to go into tractors.  In the 1980s, I was in Cambodia and I remember that the farmers had huge Russian tractors and I came back and wrote that it needs is smaller tractors like India.  But today, smaller tractors can be found in Cambodia and now in Punjab 90-95 HP tractors in Punjab.  Tractor companies are pushing this.  The role of the civil society, government, etc. come in to tell us that this is not the right model.  So what we require is companies that rent out machines.  Now machines are subsidized by the government but there are still expenses.  He employs 80 drivers that are driving tractors, combines etc. – why can’t we have this kind of system for every farmer?  Mechanization can be the answer to help farmers make agriculture more profitable, viable, cooperative etc. but not in the current debate.  These initiatives are not being pushed, but this could make the sale of tractors come down.”

What do you think about the role of agricultural cooperatives (e.g. for access to inputs, credit, shared labor/inputs, and marketing) in Indian farming?

Devinder Sharma: “It’s all there and we know they can play a role.  Cooperatives could do the same job [as the private hire companies] but the corporate/capitalistic model discourages cooperatives and instead promotes private enterprise.  So I don’t think they will thrive because the government and MNCs are killing cooperatives.  Even the dairy coop in Gujarat is suffering.  Why can’t we encourage our own entrepreneurs come up alone like in Fazula in Punjab?

So do you think that increased private capital and entrepreneurship are a solution?

Devinder Sharma: “It is not a solution but these are the options available so we must adopt whatever is good for us.  We cannot go blindly forward, especially in Punjab where every second household has a tractor.  We could call these cooperatives as an enterprise to encourage youth (expensive machines could be shared rather than bought by each and every one) – so you have to draw your own strategies and map for this, rather than going by what the industry says.”

Do you think that post-harvest processing and value addition will be able to help farmers overcome poverty?

Devinder Sharma:Value addition and post-harvest processing – I don’t think this can  work or help the farmers to overcome poverty.  Those who are into value addition will make profit.  If you look at this globally: there are two kinds of agriculture – the kind of existed in developed countries (highly subsidized and mechanized and productive) – if productivity was actually a sign of economic growth, then I don’t think there would be much need for the subsidies.  The high productivity in Europe in America – this model is completely uneconomical, which is why the governments are providing direct income subsidy support.  Other model is that which exists in India – subsistence farming.  On one hand you have subsistence and the other is subsidized.  And have the farmers benefited from value addition in the West?  No.  Subsidies in America – studies show that if you remove these, agriculture collapses.  Value addition only benefits middle men that make the money and farmers will stay poor.  [But what about cooperatives doing value addition themselves and direct self-marketing, eliminating the middle men?] This cannot happen at a large-scale, maybe a farmer here and there.  It has no happened in EU where farmers are more alert, resourceful, educated, etc., so it is unlikely to happen in India.”

There are farmers in Punjab who want to diversify and shift to organic, integrated farming, but claim it’s not viable because of a lack of assured markets and lower yields.  So they feel that they’re not in a position to farm organically.  How do we overcome these limitations?

Devinder Sharma: “I don’t think marketing is important here.  Policy is important. We must understand that the Green Revolution wouldn’t have succeeded if the government had not supported farmers with subsidies and marketing (e.g. seed, machines, fertilizer, pesticides), the GR would have collapsed.  Again these things always come with a package, which has been developed with Minimum Support Price (MSP) and assured markets to cope with excess harvest (government produces surplus so there is no glut in market) – then highly subsidized technology (e.g. fertilizer, so it’s cheaper than organic systems and encourages chemical farming).  With this model (dependent on subsidies) – how do you compare a non-subsidized model (natural)?  Subsidies need to be provided to encourage organic farming (not just doling out money, but designing policies so that there is a booster given to farmers) – needs to be a shift to organic and this is the state’s job, but the state isn’t doing it because the corporations don’t want this (and whatever the corporations want happens); e.g. rice and wheat in Punjab – government has been told to give MSP to farmers (e.g. rice, wheat and maize).  Why can’t we support organic producers with MSP, which would give a boost to organic farmers?  There needs to be the right kind of policies.”

Do you think the Minimum Support Price structure is sustainable?  Farmers are claiming that the MSP is too low and that they need higher prices, whereas others claim that the MSP is too high and is driving up the cost of food, making it too expensive for consumers.

Devinder Sharma: “Some years back when Norman Bourlaug was alive, I would travel with him because I was a journalist with The Indian Express.  He told me a story, which I wrote about.  An anecdote about investigating whether a man in Poland deserved the Nobel Peace Prize – Bourlaug found out that this man was asking for cheaper food for the workers but he wasn’t talking about what would happen to the millions of food producers – so how do you expect farmers to survive if consumers want cheap food?  So Bourlaug said that he didn’t deserve the prize.  So what the economists today are telling us is that if they are giving farmers a higher price for their produce (so consumers get higher price too), so the state should go market friendly with agriculture prices – in this chart, states like Bihar, Uttarakhand and eastern Uttar Pradesh are high – getting more money than farmers in Punjab and states at the bottom of the chart: market economy depends on exploiting the farmers.  Farmer is also a consumer.  If farmers don’t earn anything, what do you expect them to consume?  Commission agents and middle men need to be totally removed.  Direct income support to farmers is much better – India should provide an assured monthly income to farmers based on their yield and the area/location of the farm.  Each state should work out the average income for a farmer monthly.  The average income of a farming family (5 people) is Rs 2,115 per month ($36) – below the poverty line.  Government is Rs 15,000 ($250).  So young people don’t want to go into farming.  So farming needs to become as respectable as government jobs.  India has a lot of money and involves corporations, so we definitely have the money.  If 60% of the population (farmers) had this money in their hands, this would boost the economy.  Why don’t we pump money into this sector instead of depriving it and pushing farmers out of agriculture in urban areas?  This is completely flawed thinking.”

So do you think that subsistence agriculture is preferable over commercial production?

Devinder Sharma: “No, I’m not saying subsistence, but why can’t we make this subsistence agriculture economically viable?  Because policy deliberately keeps the agriculture sector starved of money.  2/3 of the population of India relies on agricultural sector.  Farmers should not be forced to stay in subsistence position; they should make just as much as government.  Then there will be migration back to the countryside.”

In an ideal world, if the government was supporting natural farming in the same way as chemical agriculture, how do we scale up organic farming?  (e.g. overcoming issues of insufficient volumes of manure, labor intensive, decreased yield etc.)

Devinder Sharma: All of these things can be worked out if the intention is there.  We just need to understand the prices of India and what particular sectors we need to focus on.  The moment you focus on organic, these problems will disappear and become high yielding (number of studies show that organic systems are more productive) – so this will all happen because the effort will be in sustainable, not chemical breeding.  Trying to involve high yielding varieties – should shift focus to organic breeding in relation to organic conditions/inputs.  We just need a shift in policy focus.”

Do you think that this would necessitate a better organic certification or labeling system?

Devinder Sharma: “I’m not at all for organic certification – this is only what the west wants and I don’t give a damn about western consumers.  We need to bring about a lifestyle change.  The labeling should be “Chemical” and the rest should be organic (default).  Labeling would add on to the cost of organic production.”

Post –harvest processing  may not be the best route to take, but it may have the potential to address the issue of 30-40% of food on Earth being wasted.  What do you think?

Devinder Sharma: “I don’t think so.  In India, people are saying that 40% of fruits and vegetables rot.  But I disagree; on what studies are you basing this?  We went on saying this again and again but the fact is that we have a study done by the Central Institute For Post-Harvest Technology based in Punjab, which shows that wastage in agriculture (e.g. in cereals is less than 6% and in the highest in vegetables is tomatoes in 20%; guava is around 24%) – this shows that wastage is much less, even when no processing.  In America, with processing – waste is 40-50% less.  If after processing, there is still wastage, what is the point?  Both are not correlated.  Post-harvest processing should not be associated with reducing waste.  Processing is also harmful for human health.  If America had gone into reducing dependence on processed foods and instead focused on raw foods – sickest population – we should not follow this model.  Why do we always follow the systems that have been promoted by Western countries?  I am not defending wastage, it should not happen, but we need to go to the grassroots level and see the reality.  E.g. if you go to an Indian marriage, you find that leftovers are all consumed by dogs and birds – there isn’t much wastage.  Yes, processing has a role, but to process everything with no need for it is flawed.”

Regarding seeds, which do you think is better: traditional seed, open pollinated varieties, hybrid, GMOs etc.?  Some people truly believe that GMOs are the future for their ability to be high yielding, resist pests and disease, and feed the world’s growing population in the context of climate change.

Devinder Sharma: “I have been answering this question at various platforms across the globe and in India.  Those people who support GMOs are basically being supported by institutions and universities funded by MNCs and state.  In 2012, according to the USDA, the total production of food globally is enough to feed 14 billion people (currently population is 7.2 billion, so we are producing food for 2x the population) – if we reduce wastage (which is now estimated at 40%), we could meet the food requirements until the next half century (9 billion by 2050).  We produce food for next century now, so why do we need to raise food production?  People have to shift the focus to reducing food loss but not through just marketing and value addition.  There is no GM crop in the world, after ~25 years research, which increases production – so it’s a myth.  So if you speak a lie 100 times, it becomes a truth.  MNCs are going on lying and lying and scientists today are no different from politicians.  Scientists are much more dangerous than politicians are, propped up by the GM industry through all these years.  Politicians have to respond to society through reelection but scientists are salaried by MNCs and GM industry etc. – so who is advocating for the farmer?  I don’t blame the politicians.  This is where the monopolization of seed is coming from with technology.  I once sat on a CGIAR board for intellectual property rights, and I know what has been going on here.  We want to institute stricter intellectual property right laws and need to go back to seed so that it is not controlled by a few seed companies (those who control seed control entire food chain).  Fortunately, in India, we are very slowly being taken over, compared to other countries, which have been taken over in a much smaller way (e.g. Colombia demanded that farmers destroy their saved seeds).  Luckily, we [India] have been able to resist pressure of WTO.  Seed is still an emotive and sentimental issue in India.  Gradually it is coming in and I think it will take many years for I the complete take over of the Indian seed industry.  Seed Satyagraha takes place and this could empower other people to stand up, but my worry is that by this time, the traditional seed will have have been destroyed.  For a country like India, there is a need to preserve and conserve and at the same time utilize traditional seeds where possible.”

I agree with you that issues of productivity and yield should not be the focus because we produce enough food for everyone, but having conversations with farmers, it is very difficult for them to change their mentality since higher productivity will give them more profit.  There is a large disconnect, so how do we reconcile this within the farming population?

Devinder Sharma:So far the entire propaganda is on increase of productivity, so the farmer will buy into this.  So if there was a policy shift that provided a Minimum Support Price that concerns not just productivity/yield but also environmental benefits and to the society and human health at large, then the focus would shift.  Propaganda needs to shift from productivity to the other side.  Let me give you one example: before dwarf, short duration wheat varieties, the traditional/normal wheat varieties did not have high yield but had high nutrition (e.g. minerals).  What happened then, cross breeding led to increased yield but nutrition went down in an inverse relationship (a 30-40% drop in nutrition).  The one particular trace mineral in the wheat variety was copper and the drop was 80% (very significant, rather than 40-50% in other minerals).  If you map today the growth of the cholesterol problem in the world and map the consumption of high yielding varieties after the Green Revolution you find a correlation.  Because there was a higher copper content in traditional varieties, the cholesterol problem was much less.  But now copper has almost disappeared and the cholesterol problem has boomed.  The point I’m trying to make is that, copper plays a role in cholesterol control and tomorrow, if we tell farmers that lifestyle diseases are so common that they need to shift wheat varieties, even if yield is not high but the nutrition will be higher and fix cholesterol problem, they will move towards traditional varieties.  This is what we need to sell, and there will be a shift in productivity with government support and propaganda.  There are hundreds of such examples; we need to move away from productivity jargon because there is no need to produce that much, as we all know that we grow food for 13.5 billion people (2x population).  We could have a number of such examples, but we need a good leader or a sensible statesman to set the house in order.”

Friday, October 25, 2013

Pune & Discussing Precision Ag. in Phaltan

October 26, 2013 - Western Maharashtra: Sightseeing in Pune and Agriculture in Phaltan

Here are some photos from my side trip to the city of Pune in Western Maharashtra:

Flowers are strung into garland (resembling Hawaiian leis) often for festivals

Selling colored powder for Holi, which isn't until March...?

A beautiful display of pomegranates.  After getting into a bit of a tiff with this man about photographing his display, I ended up way overpaying for a kilo.

A nursery for mango and other fruit trees at the city's botanical gardens

Overlooking Pune

Drinking out of fresh coconuts on the street

Pigs eating trash, cute.

But actually, this was cute.  Small kids building a temple out of mud on the side of the street

Elephant Deity - Ganesha 

Paan (betel leaf wrapped around fennel seeds, cardamom, camphor, and other ingredients) as a breath freshener and digester.  More info about paan here 

I decided to take a bus two hours south of Pune for an overnight trip to a research institute/NGO called NARI.

The co-director of the institute recently wrote an article about precision farming and its role in the future of Indian agriculture.  The full article can be found here.  The gist of precision agriculture, which is found mostly in the US and EU is to maximize the efficiency of agricultural inputs by using advanced technology that can measure where inputs are required and add the exact amounts, reducing waste etc.  One of the critiques of precision farming is that it requires high tech machinery, thus rendering it very expensive.  I was curious to discuss this system that is seemingly incompatible with small low-tech Indian farming.  Below is a combination of his article (quotations are italicized) and my Q+A/interview with him:

In the article, the author writes, “I feel wealth and security of the country comes from its land and hence what is needed is sustainable, high-tech and high productivity agriculture which will be remunerative and help provide both food and energy security.Precision agriculture, which can provide precise inputs like water, fertiliser, insecticides at the right time to crops, can help bring in the next green revolution.”

My question: Is it a positive aspect that PA relies on fertilizer and pesticides/insecticides?  Can natural methods such as biopesticides or cow dung be used in place of synthetic inputs?

His answer: Yes, robots can be designed to replace human labor (e.g. do weeding, prepare compost etc.), so natural methods can remain without the same demand for labor

“India, though one of the biggest producers of agricultural products, has very low farm productivity, with the average only 33 percent of the best farms world over. This needs to be increased so that farmers can get more remuneration from the same piece of land with less labour.”

“Precision agriculture (PA) may provide a way to do it.  Originating in US and European countries where farms are generally big (over 100 hectares), it sees extensive use of Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) for precise mapping of farms and - with appropriate software – informs the farmer about status of his crop and which part of the farm requires inputs like water, fertilizer and pesticide etc.  PA in western countries is also characterized by increased mechanisation with the use of heavy farm machinery (average power 100-200 kW) for all the farm and field operations such as sowing, harvesting, weeding, baling etc.  The machinery runs on fossil fuels and uses about 63 percent of the total energy used in farming - a significant amount.  PA for small farms, on the other hand, can use small farm machinery and robots which may also be amenable to run on renewable fuels like bio oil, compressed biogas and electricity produced on farms by agricultural residues… PA in US and other countries has shown tremendous increase in productivity, lowering of inputs and hence increased remuneration to the farmers. Besides it has helped improve the quality of land with no-till farming and less water usage. Similar things are possible in India with its use.

For small farms, precision agriculture may include sub-surface drip irrigation for precise water and fertilizer application to the crops and robots for no-till sowing, weed removal, harvesting and other farming operations.  Some of these robots are already being used on small farms in US and Europe and with vigorous R&D taking place, it is expected that they may be deployed in large scale in near future.

Similarly drones are being used quite regularly in Japan and US for insecticide application to the crops. Use of drones for agriculture is proverbial "turning swords into ploughs!" Most of these robotic machines and drones are small in size and hence are very suitable and excellent match for small farm applications. Thus small farms size of India is a blessing in disguise and ripe for large scale application of precision agriculture… However, the biggest criticism of mechanised agriculture is that farm machinery is very costly and no farmer, including big ones, can afford it. Since precision agriculture is going to be very dependent on mechanization, this criticism is presently justified.”

My Q: But how do small farmers afford elaborate sub-surface drip irrigation infrastructure when many farmers cannot afford to drill a borehole deep enough to access water and are relying on flood irrigation?  Similar to the mechanization expenses – how do we raise farmer incomes?

His A: Cost of mechanization is going to go down (think about how cheap the iphone is now compared to when it first came out)

"However I feel the mechanisation and PA may give rise in a big way to farm machinery leasing agencies in rural areas. These companies will lease the mechanised equipment, including drip irrigation systems, to the farmers and also provide trained manpower to run these machines.  Such a thing already exists on limited scale in India where few agencies do the wheat harvesting using combines and spraying of crops. They charge the farmers on per hour basis and with the unavailability of farm labour, farmers find this concept economical and attractive."

My Q: Would these farm machinery leasing agencies be government or private sector initiatives?  How do you see cooperatives potentially fitting into PA (e.g. shared implements)?

His A: Definitely private sector because both parties (company and farmer) want to make money and have conveniences

"Critics of mechanisation also contend that by timely sowing of crops and applying proper and recommended water and fertilizer to it, a farmer can easily improve the productivity of crops and his income. However application of inputs at proper time requires timely availability of labour, water and fertilizer - all of which are becoming scarcer and scarcer.  Besides majority of farms are rainfed and with the change of weather patterns, availability of rain water is very unpredictable. Hence the non-availability of inputs and labour on time is the biggest stumbling block to increase productivity of farms and remuneration. PA can help in this matter.

To my mind the ultimate role of a farmer should be to identify better crops, use that seed to propagate it further and hence in effect become a breeder of sorts. Progressive farmers already do that and with more time available to them because of PA they may be able to help Indian agriculture to produce better and higher yielding varieties.

High tech PA therefore can help in bringing next green revolution to India and can produce tremendous rural wealth in a sustainable and environmentally sound way. Farmers and farms are the backbone of any country since they can produce food, fuel (agricultural residues) and wealth from the land. They should be helped by all members of society and developing PA is a step in the right direction.”

My Q: Given the potentially controversial history of Monsanto in India, do you think it’s a problem that the Precision Agriculture company just became a subsidiary of Monsanto?

His A: A large number of companies should implement this – using PA technology but not dealing with Monsanto per se

Other questions I had that we didn't get to discuss:
  • Is it realistic to conceive of millions of small farmers having access to GPS devices, advanced software etc.?  For farmers that don’t have reliable electricity, running water, or proper road infrastructure, this seems like it might be difficult to implement and scale up.
  • What role would the government play in implementing PA?  Or would it be a private corporation led movement?
  • Do you think that PA and traditional/indigenous methods can be integrated?  Do natural/organic farming techniques (e.g. intercropping, crop rotation, mulching, animal dung, biopesticides, etc.) fit into PA?  For instance, once the infrastructure is set up to directly feed the crops the nutrients, can it be adjusted if the crops are rotated?
  • If PA necessitates mechanization and high tech solutions, how will this impact the labor situation and small farmers versus large farmers?  You write that there are labor shortages, but is this because everyone is voluntarily moving to urban areas?  Or are small farmers being driven off their land?  Will large farmers benefit more?
  • Do you think that the expensive nature of PA will be reflected in the market value and further drive up the cost of food for consumers?
  • Is it advantageous for farmers to pursue monoculture under a PA scheme?  Or is polyculture and diversification possible or desirable?
  • Considering the idea of agricultural development, do you think it’s in the interest of Indian farmers to continue to follow the model of the West?  In so many ways, agriculture in the U.S. and the EU is failing (e.g. house of cards, fragile subsidy system; factory farmed meat; huge water pollution and soil degradation) – not saying that PA is doomed to fail, but do you think it would be in the interest of India to pave its own way to a more sustainable farming future?
Something else we discussed briefly was his idea that technology + spirituality = sustainability.  In one of his books, "Nature of Human Thought," he is envisioning and hoping for a new lifestyle based on decentralized development: "it is quite possible that the evolutionary model of society could be rural based.  It will be driven by technologies so that it will be able to feed and create for its inhabitants goods and services from the raw materials available in its geographical area...However all the development models will become untenable if we do not put a cap on our freed for materials, resources, and energy...spirituality can help in keeping our greed in check...As a person progresses on the path of spirituality, his or her priorities in life change.  The focus of life shifts more towards getting personal happiness through mental peace and is less on material needs and desires and more towards also helps us have a compassionate view of nature...Nevertheless, the clock on technology cannot be turned back.  It is an evolutionary process and as we advance technologially, we also become more spiritual, since technology helps us in doing things more efficiently and thus our needs are satisfied with less quantity of materials and energy.  This allows us to think and reflect on higher things in life.  Eventually we will follow nature where all the processes are carried out extremely efficiently with few materials, in minimum number of steps and at room temperatures. Thus, a combination of high technology together with spiritual growth will be a new paradigm of sustainable development."

I don't know how much I agree with his assertion that technology will make us more spiritual - in fact, I feel that those with less material wealth (including technology) are often more spiritual and/or religious since they often look to faith and God to get through difficult times. However, it is an interesting and unique point, since spirituality and "technological fix" are often on separate ends of the spectrum and in also terms of environmental worldviews. 

Here are some of my notes from the NARI tour/visit and my interview with one of the coordinators:
  • Short duration/early maturing varieties are ideal because they utilize soil water content more efficiently because the extra month in a normal/long duration crop requires more water, which is usually unavailable in drought-prone, rain-fed agricultural conditions – so it becomes a waste of time that is also vulnerable to climatic catastrophe such as floods or drought
  • NARI is experimenting with spacing to maximize yield
  • Safflower does not require irrigation to survive, making it ideal for dryland farming
  • Southern and western India is mostly rain-fed/monsoon-dependent agriculture (as compared to Punjab and Haryana which have well developed irrigation schemes and available water)
  • If the soil is good (deep, nutrient rich, can retain water), then going for the normal variety is better, but in most areas, soil quality is low and moisture retention is poor, so short duration is ideal (less water and nutrients required) and moreover, it is not beneficial to increase spacing if there is a lack of water or nutrients
  • Root diseases are a major problem - NARI has developed a hybrid with disease resistance 
  • We should promote contract farming with companies (e.g. to produce oil)
  • Safflower: can use leaf as a vegetable, flower as tea and for medicinal uses, and oil seed – a very multi purpose and dryand suitable crop
Discussion on no till/conservation farming:
  • Has more weeds and insect pests
  • Sowing is difficult – and the no till seeder was not working properly
  • Also difficult to sow if the root system is tough – need to till to mix in residues
  • Small land holdings also make no till impossible – cannot leave plots fallow for 2 years to let decomposition of plant material/cover crop to decompose (but in the US, this is possible because of hundreds of acres)
  • My question: however, no till could be more possible if land holdings were combined/consolidated under a cooperative structure?
  • Guar requires 2-3 hand weedings and still gets weeds; need tilling to kill/remove the weeds OR use copious herbicide
  • In the no till plot, glyphsate was sprayed but still can’t sow seeds here because the weed residues remain
  • Plot needs to be hand weeded, no other choice
  • Weeds are taking up soil resources and incorporation requires tiling
  • Sowing must also be uniform, which is difficult under no till conditions (chaotic landscape)
Other details about the research farm:
  • Apply FYM every 4-5 years and using both chemical fertilizer and compost (every six months)
  • 30 laborers for 50 acres
  • Seed production as high value crop (e.g. fruits and vegetables)
On organic: 
  • "No one is breeding under organic conditions.  Plants do not differentiate between source of nutrients" (e.g. carbon and nitrogen are the same regardless of inorganic chemical fertilizer or cow dung/compost) - to which I would say that there are still environmental ramifications to synthetic and chemical inputs regardless of the fact that the plant cannot differentiate the source; thus, it's apparently impractical to use labour intensive organic practices for breeding
  • There is not enough organic matter to scale up organic to feed the whole country - to which I would say, we need to increase fodder.
  • Organic needs same yield and farmers need support during transition period of low yield (to which I would say that farmers should make the conversion in stages and there are studies that show that organic can in fact produce on par with conventional)
A discussion on seeds:
  • Farmers are not aware of HYV (20-30% yield increase just by changing the variety to HY) – most crops are not available in hybrid (e.g. sorghum) – but more improved Open pollinated varieties (OPVs)
  • Hybrids – have to change seed every year in order to maintain yield performance; requires 2-3 parents and may give a 20-30% yield increase; hybrid vigour v. disease and pest resistance
  • Hybrid development only needs 3-4 years – female parent is crossed with 100 male varieties and only the F1 generation is looked at (with the most promising offspring chosen)
  • In contrast, with OPV, farmers can save each year and have the same yield repeatedly
  • OPV requires breeders to identify parents based on area requirement; cross desired-trait parents; grow the F1 and subsequent generations then select the best ones (should have all the desired properties) – this takes 8-10 years with selection each year (homozygous and uniformity in characteristics and yield – variety will not deteriorate) – farmers have been practicing this traditional breeding forever
  • Molecular breeding has increased in US (lab breeding), less conventional breeding
  • So my question becomes: conventional/traditional breeding is different from hybrid breeding which is different from molecular breeding which is different from genomics and transgenic genetic engineering?
  • BT cotton has led to increases in production (dominant gene), this gene can then be transferred to non BT through crosses
  • If farmers use traditional seed, then they do not require so many inputs
Why rice and wheat?
  • Wheat and rice are secure crops that have few problems with pests and disease, are not as sensitive to timing, and need only water and spraying for weeds; a lower risk crop with an assured market
On sugarcane versus sorghum:
  • Maharashtra moved to sugarcane from wheat and rice because the price is now more attractive (also, there are cooperatives in sugar cane for an assured market and minimum support price)
  • Uttar Pradesh is the largest producer of sugar cane but not enough pressing capacity (state legislation limits mills), whereas Maharashtra has 100% pressing mill capacity
  • Sugar cane harvesting is expensive/labour intensive but otherwise it is low maintenance – a “lazy man’s crop," however, sugarcane requires water and high irrigation – this causes salinization of water by rising salts from arid soils and it doesn’t give grains
  • Instead, sweet sorghum should be introduced to drought-prone areas, which can give fodder, grain (unlike sugarcane), ethanol/biofuel, sugar/jaggery, and fiber (unlike sugarcane) for pulp and paper
  • Sorghum = food, fodder, fuel, and fiber – a dryland crop that doesn’t need irrigation
  • NARI is developing hybrids for commercial ethanol (Biofuels) – the idea is to get the best of both worlds: grain and stalk, which will solve the food versus fuel debate (can have both)
  • In India, people need the grain for food, whereas in the US, people can afford to waste/compromise on the grain
  • Sweet sorghum can be used for ethanol, unlike grain sorghum
  • NARI is working on sweet syrup and ethanol; sweet sorghum contains fermented sugar in the stalk and is better for animal fodder
  • Need to spray every 15-20 days to keep aphids and pests in check because sweet sorghum attracts more pests
  • 2nd generation biofuel – leftover biomass can be used as biofuel (first generation is from the stalk juice in the form of ethanol)
  • Farmers are burning sugarcane leaves and sugarbeet after harvesting and an alternative could be to use it for biofuel generation
  • It is possible to scale up this model but it needs government support and farmer commitment
On farmer suicides:
  • Addition of improved cultivars is contributing to farmer suicides – traditional cultivars did not require expensive inputs
  • Monoculture is causing pest vulnerability
  • BT Cotton hasn’t helped – only vs. bollworm and insect/pest resistance is a result
  • Marginal farmers take loans from landholders and money lenders and go into debt when production is low
  • Also about planting crops that are geographically/agro-climatically unsuitable – e.g. many parts of the country are not suitable for cotton – Eastern Maharashtra is dryland, so they should be growing sorghum and millet
Other things to consider:

  • How do you tell a farmer that we don’t need yield increases when yield is profit?
  • Private companies won’t come with charity, they need financial returns
  • Consumers need to be willing to pay higher price for food
  • The government needs to eliminate middle men who are sucking up profit – yes, but I would ask, aren't MNC’s and corporations just as bad if not worse than middle men?

In a field of sweet sorghum

Sorghum breeding for seeds (netting protects against birds, pests, and cross pollination)

Riding in an improved auto rickshaw that is electric

Seeing this made me even more excited to hopefully meet Dr. MS Swaminathan at the end of November in Chennai

Seed storage

And of course, it wouldn't be traveling or India without something chaotic happening.  My bus back to Pune from Phaltan collided with a tractor, which left this nice dent in the bus door and the vehicle started spewing oil.

Needless to say, everyone had to exit and crowded onto the next passing bus.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Punjab: Green Revolution & Breadbasket of India

October 23, 2013 - Reflecting on Punjab

I find myself on a 28 hour train ride from New Delhi to Pune after a grueling 10 days of interviews and research in the northern western state of Punjab.  Punjab has been called the breadbasket of India, as it is only 1.5% of the geographical area of the country but produces about ½ - 2/3 of the staple food grains, rice and wheat, which go into food store to be distributed through the PDS (public distribution system of subsidized grains) and in times of food shortages.  According to one source, 84% of Punjab’s land is under cultivation (compared to only 42% in the rest of India) and only 4% consists of forest (mostly Eucalyptus plantations).  And although the small farmers of Punjab are providing food for the rest of India, close to 76% of these highly subsidized grains meant for poor families through PDS is diverted to the market (with 13% reaching above-poverty line families).  Punjab (along with the neighboring state of Haryana) is also known as the birthplace of the Green Revolution in India.  The Green Revolution refers to the period during the 1960s and 1970s when chemical pesticides and fertilizers were introduced (mainly by multinational corporations and the US), as well as new hybrid high yielding varieties (HYV) of seeds, improved irrigation, and agricultural machinery.    However, it is widely understood that while the Green Revolution led to a significant boost in production (transforming India from a net food importer to a food secure exporter), it has also wreaked havoc in the form of decreased soil fertility, soil erosion, increased contamination, water shortages, loss of biodiversity, and rampant health problems such as increased rates of cancer.  In addition, stagnating crop prices, rising production/input costs, and declining fertility render the average debt of Punjabi farmers at Rs 41,576 (~$700) compared to national average of Rs 12,585 ($200).  In fact, over the rough time period of 2001-2005, the price of inputs has gone up 72% for diesel, 27% for insecticides, and 12% for fertilizers; whereas the price of food grains has only increased 1.6%.  Increasing debt has led to farmers have to foreclose on their property and in extreme cases, incidents of farmer suicides.

Needless to say, I felt a deep impulse to go to Punjab to meet the farmers who are the face behind India’s food security and also the beneficiaries and victims of the Green Revolution.  Although it was only a short time (10 days from October 13-22, 2013), I felt  like my knowledge and experience were profoundly enriched.  I learned about the complexities of the relationship between the government and farmers.  For instance, the government is the primary buyer of grains from farmers (via commission agents and middle men?), as they provide minimum price support (MSP), which is a procurement price that acts as a sort of insurance policy for farmers – that is, even as the price of wheat and rice fluctuate on the market, farmers are always guaranteed at least X amount MSP from the government.  This gives little incentive for farmers to grow anything else, as there is no assured market.  Many farmers I spoke to seem like they might want to diversify their crops, but this is virtually impossible, generating some discontent and certainly harming local nutrition.

Despite the somewhat tragic nature of agriculture here and the paradox of prosperity and poverty, I’ve decided that I really like Punjab.  The state is mostly Sikh religion, which has been a little strange to get used to because many of the men wear turbans and have long beards.  The food here is divine (also most of the Indian Food in the U.S. is Punjabi) – I’ve been eating yogurt with almost every meal, delicious Punjabi sweets, buttered chapatti, cauliflower/potatoes/other vegetables cooked with Indian spices in a yummy turmeric colored gravy; my host family eats pickled garlic by the clove, which is tangy and sweet; we drink fresh milk and yogurt lassis – these are just a few reasons why I am in food heaven all the time.  And I am officially obsessed with Indian clothes and need to stop buying them – there are a cool type of pants that are originally from Punjab called “Patiala” pants (like Aladdin style balloon pants) and my host family bought me a pair today.  The family I am staying with mostly I founded through the WWOOF network (Worldwide opportunities on organic farms – for volunteering) – there is the father, Kawaljeet, who is the principal and founder of this private school SEABA (Society for Education and Awareness in Backward Areas) his wife who is an administrator at the school, and they have two kids (18 year old daughter in college and 14 year old son – both are national aerobics champions – who’d have thought?).  The father is very interested in organic agriculture and promoting it among his students, so he’s been able to help me connect with local farmers.  He understands my deep need to see everything: both organic and chemical; small and large farmers etc.  He also worked with a Dutch Filmmaker named Tom Deiters who produced a film called “Toxic Tears” about the farmer suicides in southern Punjab.  Tom and another German woman named Sara (who was doing a photography project with the residents of Chotian Village) spent significant amounts of time around Lehragaga in Sangrur District, which I believe helped me join the community here with little difficulty.

I believe that Kawaljeet deserves his own mini-biography.  He is an incredibly honest and hardworking man.  He told me how his father was essentially a child of the Green Revolution and due to its ill effects, his family lost the majority of their land.  Kawaljeet saw how modern chemical farming ravaged his family and he sold the reminder of the land and invested the money to found SEABA school.  He clearly cares for his students and is passionate about spreading knowledge of organic farming among Punjab’s youth.  I hadn’t realized it at the time, but Punjab really is an agricultural success story turned tragedy.  Punjab, which used to be known as the granary or breadbasket of India is now known as the cancer state.  They have a daily “cancer” train that runs to Rajasthan to ferry patients to treatment facilities.  Now more than ever, I understand how work like that of Kawaljeet is important.  Older farming generations in Punjab may be hopeless, as one person said to me, “they have always known abundance and could never imagine anything less,” rendering organic farming impossible statewide, yet in the youth lies hope for change.

Students at SEABA who research soil, water, and biopesticides for agriculture

Youth festival at a nearby college - women celebrating after winning their division in folk dancing

Punjabi/Sikh policemen enjoying the show

With the women of my homestay family, purchasing cloth to be made into garments by a local tailor

Famous Punjabi Jutti shoes, which my homestay insisted that I get, but alas, no room!

During my time here, I interviewed seven farmers (five who are practicing chemical farming, one who has always been natural, and one who is experimenting with organic), two school directors, a village Punchyat (local government) head, a prominent politician, a senior economist and PhD student at the Punjab Agricultural University in Ludhiana, and the farm manger and a trustee of Pingalwara organic farm/NGO in Amrtisar.  I was able to gather information about many topics, though the language barrier proved challenging at times.  With the help of my host, I did have students translating Punjabi for me, but it was still an arduous back and forth process and a lot was lost in translation with many misunderstandings.  I was able to further develop my research questions as I conducted interviews and read literature on different topics including the first and second Green Revolutions, models of agricultural development and solutions for the agrarian crisis in Punjab, and food security and government policy.

I was able to speak with two young girls who lost their fathers to debt-related farmer suicide.  Meet Sandeep, a striking 17-year-old girl whose father committed suicide a decade ago.  She says that she desperately wants to “go foreign” (the Punjabi way of saying move out of India to another country), to be in a place where girls have full freedom and where she can do anything she wants.  Her ultimate dream is to become a pilot, enchanted by the idea of flying around the world freely.  But her father’s suicide and her family’s loss of income is making it really difficult for her to school.  And meet Jaspreet, a twenty year old girl on full scholarship who wants to eventually advocate for women’s rights.  She lost both her uncle and father to suicide and helps researchers and activists gain access to the farmers in her village of Chotian.

My most memorable visit was incidentally my first interview in Punjab.  I spent time with a young farmer (30 years old) named Malwinder and his family.  He is growing on 7.5 acres with about 1.5-2 as chemical free/organic.  He is very progressive but has not yet been able to convert his entire farm to organic.  It’s a difficult transition, I am realizing more and more.  He told me stories of how his neighbors think he’s crazy for growing vegetables (when they just grow rice and wheat with government support).  They laugh at him when he rides his bicycle 11 km to the nearby town to sell at the market.  Even his own mother asks, “why are you doing this rubbish?” (referring to chemical free organic farming).  He doesn’t blame her though and realizes that she is merely a child of the Green Revolution.  I had a really long interview with him, I helped weed his garden, he showed me a combine harvester because it’s rice harvesting season (and I was even able to sit on it! It’s the biggest piece of agricultural machinery I’ve ever seen.  I know we have them in the U.S., but I haven’t actually seen them…).  In addition, he brought me to the local government school where met and talked with the principal and gave a brief presentation to about 100 students ages 7-16 about my research.  Inadvertently, I am working on my public speaking skills, because this is the second speech/presentation I’ve given to students in two days!  My first day in Punjab, the school director I am staying with insisted that I give a presentation to his students.  So in front of 300 high schoolers, grades 10-12, I spoke in English (no need to translate) about my travels, research goals, and interests.  They were really eager to ask questions afterwards and I was happy that I was able to convey my work and hopefully inspire them to set goals and follow their dreams.  Some of the questions they asked were really tough, which caught me off guard, but was also encouraging (e.g. one young girl asked: “how do we grow organic on 50 acres?” which is so relevant, since I am interested in exploring issues of scale; another girl (the daughter of a chemical farmer) said, “why would we grow organic when we can’t get the same yield?”). 

Sun rises over Punjabi fields

Local buffalo and dung cakes drying

My first time seeing a combined harvester

Absurd sight - a huge cargo load of fodder on the back of a truck

Weeding with the boys

Field of cotton

Bedding and fodder

Beautiful grandmother of one of my farming homestays

Village homestay

Ad for genetically modified BT Cotton

Inside my first Gurudwara (Sikh temple)

Where farmers bring their grain to trade to the government and commission agents/middle men

Riding the school bus with Sikh students :)

Another homestay

Punjab, where beds are made from local materials include DAP/artificial fertilizer sacks (depressing)

Jeeva Singh - a village celebrity for his organic farming

More cotton

This man loved getting his photo taken

Nomming on sugar cane with my translator Jaspreet!

Jeeva's family

Spraying chemicals on the fields

Interview with a retired teacher/farmer

Carrying dung cakes - these women have ridiculous strong necks/heads

Agriculture in Punjab feels paradoxical: prosperous and tragic.  Some farmers are producing huge yields (with the help of subsidies and chemicals), while others are stuck in a debt trap and resort to suicide.  The majority of Punjabi farmers feel that they MUST use chemical pesticides and fertilizers in order to generate enough production for a mediocre income.  They are working so hard and are not supported by the government and sometimes even their own family or community.  It is a struggle here and for the most part, organic is merely a dream.  They know about the ill-health effects of chemicals but are willing to take the risk for profit.  And I am deeply confused about the gender dynamic here.  My first three interviews portrayed women as lazy creatures confined to the domestic sphere, while only uncles and fathers worked in the field.  Jaspreet, who seems to do everything around the house including fetching the water from her cousin’s place where they have a purifier to sweeping the compound, said that women definitely participate in farm labor.  My readings have also reflected that women make up the majority of the agricultural workforce in India, performing menial and low-skill labor such as weeding, harvesting etc. and are not formally recognized.  Another important lesson is that there seems to be little knowledge of the connection between farming and climate change and almost no knowledge of what GMOs are, even though most farmers are planting BT Cotton, which to me is sinful.  I have also come to understand the inherent paradox to mechanization: on the one hand, it displaces labor and forces farmers off their land; on the other hand, it relieves farmers from arduous physical labor and thus has the potential to incentivize youth to come back to the land.  Thus agricultural technology has the potential to assist farmers if it is implemented appropriately, which is where the term “appropriate technology” comes in (simple, affordable, easy to use and maintain, small-scale and locally produced).  Again, the importance of farmers’ cooperatives has great potential to uplift marginal farmers.  Because most of them have less than 5 acres, they could pool their land and credit to qualify for loans, share inputs such as tractors and also labor, and go into marketing schemes together. 

Even though my stay was just a little more than a week, I feel like I’ve learned so much and that I am being challenged in all directions.  For better or worse, organic farming is not as simple as it seems.  Malwinder and Jeeva do not have the support of family, community or government.  They are like salmon swimming upstream to spawn – against all odds, trying their best.  Even just weeding for a couple of hours with Malwinder, I can see how it might be tempting for farmers (especially those that have many acres) to simply spray pesticides and herbicides on their fields instead of the backbreaking, monotonous labor that is weeding.  We sat in his garden weeding while his wife, mother, father, and cousins lazily milled about the family compound (something he totally disapproves of).  It must be so frustrating to have people around you that don’t care to help and think that your beliefs and practices are foolish.  Even I was getting annoyed as I realized how much better it is do this kind of labor in a group (especially comparing my experiences farming in Ladakh and Navdanya where there was such an emphasis on cooperation, shared labor, and mutual support).  I think that it is so easy to romanticize organic but it’s just not that easy – labor is expensive, making organic fertilizer and biopesticides is labor and time intensive, the government does not support it, and there are no assured markets.  So I am coming to many realizations here and also trying to push aside my inherent biases and preconceived notions. 

I’m also being challenged personally with learning about realities here such as arranged marriage, dowry (the bride’s parents have to pay the groom’s family thousands of dollars as a “gift” of sorts, basically remunerating them for the new “burden” they are taking on e.g. the daughter), the caste system etc.  I met a young girl, also 22, who is such a funny and sweet person, always cracking jokes, though they were a bit morbid (like “my mother is a bad person” and then would make funny faces and imitating her mother beating her).  She has a boyfriend, which is a total secret, but she is being forced into an arrange marriage next month.  She does not want to get married and is scared, which she admitted, but also maintains a cheerful disposition and makes light of the really intense issue.  Her family is being made to give 2 LAC (200,000 Rs or $3,333 USD) plus 1 LAC 15,000 Rs (~$2,000 USD) worth of furniture to the groom’s family.  The women I’ve spoke to here seem to vehemently disagree with the dowry system, as well as some of the more progressive men who don’t mind if they have daughters.  The girl told me that you are showered with gifts (“a prize”) when you give birth to a boy, but receive just shame when you birth a girl.  Essentially, I can’t imagine living in a society where girls are not wanted and are treated as a burden and the irony of the situation is that this mentality is most likely the reason I was put into an orphanage and adopted. 

And I’ve become somewhat of a celebrity around Lehragaga.  My photo has appeared in the local newspaper twice: once giving a presentation to SEABA school and another with this prominent politician who is planning on running for Chief Minister of Punjab.  

They had me sit next to him on stage while he gave a speech to the community and then they granted me admission into the special press conference where I could personally ask him questions.  This royal treatment is bizarre and doesn’t feel right.  It makes me feel guilty, especially because so many people here are poor.  I want to thank them for their hospitality and generosity but they refuse to take money and keep saying “it’s our pleasure, you are our guest.”  It’s really overwhelming.  And the questions – oh my goodness!  People want to know everything… Is there poverty in America?  What will the result of the government shutdown be on the American education system? How can you grow organic on big farms, 50 acres?  Why would farmers choose to grow organically if the yield and profit is much lower than chemical?  How can Indian students get scholarships to go to American universities?  Does America have the caste or dowry system?  What is agriculture like in the United States?  What country is better: America or India?  Is America a democracy or dictatorship?  Is America in China?  (I think there is confusion because I look Chinese but said I’m American)  What do you think of colonialism? 

And at one farmer’s house, the grandmother raised some thought provoking issues (translated by her granddaughter).  She asked if my family has any pets and when I said cats, she asked how people in America can value animals but just shoo away our blood relations (grandparents) into homes for old people instead of taking care of them as they traditionally do in India with the joint family system.  Especially because grandparents have put so much time and effort into raising their children, devoting their lives to them.  This is very true and made me sad, also making me want to build an in-law apartment for my own parents once I have my own home. 

Being in India has also made me begin to question the authenticity of my experience in Tanzania with respect to money.  In almost every interaction there, money was involved, whether it was Rogath driving me and me paying him petrol.  In retrospect, paying Helen $15 a day to house and feed me was absurdly expensive.  But being my first country, I didn’t really question it.  However in India, people give you so much and are sometimes in worse off states than those people I met in Africa.  Indians are constantly feeding you chai and the most delicious homecooked meals.  And they rarely will accept money or gifts.  Instead, they treat you like royalty, don’t let you help in the kitchen (always saying “take rest”), and even give you gifts (Sandeep gave me two pairs of earrings even though I insisted that I couldn’t take them).  The hospitality, warmth, and generosity here is overwhelming, amongst poverty.  I want to adequately express my gratitude, but saying “Danyavat” (thank you in Hindi) does not seem like enough.

The homestays I did in Sangrur District (with Kawaljeet’s family at SEABA, Jaspreet’s family in Chotian for two nights, one night at Malwinders, a night at Kamalpreet’s) really helped me get into Punjabi culture.  I was humbled sleeping “outside” in a simple cotton made from rope and metal.  The flies here are unbearable, mostly because the livestock (buffalos and cows) share the same living quarters as the people.  This place has two rooms, a veranda likes structure, with a few cots and a double bed, a small kitchen, a washroom/latrine, and the area where the animals stay.  In India, I am under the impression that beds are the communal space – people take their meals on the bed instead of a kitchen table.  At Kamal’s place, I shared a bed with her and her grandmother – the three of us squished into a double with Kamal kicking and putting her arms around me in the night.  The homes here are simple and really dirty by Western standards – people traipsing cow dung in and out, geckos running around the walls, little frogs hopping everywhere, mice, and who knows what else.  But each day, the entire house is swept clean, the “floors” (bricks outside) are washed, and we even sweep the road outside the gate.  I guess it’s all they can do to maintain some level of cleanliness in an environment that will never really be clean.  And at Jaspreet’s home, I have been able to assist with more things than anywhere else.  I think it is because it is just Jaspreet, her mother, and two brothers.  They don’t pay a servant to cook or clean, but do it themselves.  This has allowed me to practice making chapatti, pratah (like chapatti only made with maize flour and consists of bits of onion and cauliflower mixed into the dough, then ghee (oil from milk) is added to the skillet for a light fry), and the dessert Saviyan made with milk, noodles, sugar, almonds and raisins.  I helped sweep the compound and went with her to fetch water at the neighbors place.  It feels good to feel like I am helping, even if it is only a little bit – otherwise, I feel like I am seriously free riding off the families I stay with.

After a failed attempt to meet with a prominent policy analyst and agricultural scientist, Devinder Sharma, in the Punjabi city of Chandigarh, I took a five hour bus ride to Amritsar.  There, I met up with one of Kawaljeet’s friends.  This man was quite the character.  A 28-year-old journalist from a farming family, he has a small belly, wears glasses, has tousled hair when he doesn’t gel it back, and essentially, he resembles the nervous nutty professor type.  He was a bad driver and smoked many cigarettes, even though he claimed that he’s not a chain smoker, he only smokes when he drinks alcohol.  This was not true, but at one moment, he literally was drinking a beer behind the wheel, which was unnerving to say the least.  He brought me to the Golden Temple, to Pingalwara organic farm where he translated my interviews, and then arranged for my trip to Wagah Border to see the daily border closing ceremony with Pakistan.  Everything was late that day – I woke up too late, we took too much time at the Golden Temple, we had to wait at Pingalwara for one of the trustees to do an interview, and I still hadn’t made it to the border.  My autorickshaw driver went fast (only as fast as autos can go) and I made it there at 5:15 (the ceremony supposedly runs from 5-5:15).  He told me I wasn’t allowed to bring bags to the border, so I had to leave everything with him: my computer, wallet and passport etc.  I desperately wanted to see the ceremony, so I put blind faith in him and literally ran.  I made it for the last 10 minutes but unfortunately, my view was largely obstructed by the throngs of Indians chanting “Hindustan.”  I was able to get some photos and video clips from the event by sticking out my arm, which will be my only way to really see the ceremony.  

Covering one's head is a must out of respect

Communal dining hall where people are fed for free. I spent one night staying at the foreigner hostel in the temple and I managed to get at least three meals out of them..ha

Waiting in line to see the Golden Temple shrine

Magical microbial culture that is "Jeev Amrit" (activates existing nutrients in the soil, negating the need for external fertilizer inputs)

Burning of crop residues after harvest, a really environmentally destructive process that releases noxious gases into the atmosphere and wastes valuable green material that could be used as mulch for nutrient recycling

In a field of turmeric

Zero Budget Natural Farming Centre outside Amritsar

People chanting "Hindustan"

What a show of Nationalism!

Seeing into Pakistan

Golden Temple at night is the most beautiful

The next day, I took a train to Ludhiana to meet up with Kawaljeet and speak with some scholars at the Punjab Agricultural University (PAU).  The two fellows my American friend Sara put me in touch with did not ever respond to my emails, so I ended up just meeting with one senior economist and two PhD students.  The interviews were interesting but not as fruitful as I would have liked.  However, the professor’s dissertation work culminated in a document about smallholder farmers leaving agriculture in Punjab, which should be interesting to read.  The professor was a character as well.  I could tell he was a bit scatterbrained, aloof, and also tended to mumble softly in mediocre English, which made it very difficult to understand.  He also seemed like a bit of a Marxist socialist who disapproved of the government, but couldn’t state this too openly because PAU is a government institution.

After my stay in Punjab, I feel more prepared to attend the World Agricultural Forum Conference in Hyderabad, which will focus on small holder farmers and also have the presence of scholars, government officials, and agri-tech firms.  En route to Pune (a 28 hour overnight train), I experienced my first potentially threatening situation in India.  Sure, there were a few moments in Ladakh where older men who befriended me may have gotten the wrong idea, but never felt truly in danger and they seemed harmless.  However, I woke up this morning on the train and there was this man in the compartment just lurking about.  It seemed like he may have been watching me and waiting for me to wake up.  He just stared while I put my contacts in and tried to get my bearings after a disorienting slumber.  We eventually started talking and he seemed perfectly harmless, except he kept brushing up against my leg or arm with his hand.  This was the first red flag.  Then he started showing me photos of his wife and kids, his dogs, his SUVs and motorcycles, his fancy family vacations etc.  He asked about my travel plans in India when I showed him the Lonely Planet book and then said if I ever pass through his city, to call him and welcomed me to stay at his house (I think this must be an Indian thing).  However, then the other man in my compartment got up and left.  I asked where he went and this creep said he “asked him to leave to give us privacy.”  Uhm, excuse me?  Then he asked if he could have a kiss.  I said no and he kept insisting.  He touched my leg several times, squeezing my thigh.  I told him that I have a boyfriend and he has a wife and this is very inappropriate and makes me very uncomfortable, but he kept insisting that it was harmless – “a kiss, it’s nothing” – and for me to “feel comfortable.”  He said, “it’s no problem” and that he is so unhappy and has been “waiting for me.”  I kept saying no, then he said something about how “aren’t relationships open in USA?”  When I refused, he tried for a kiss on the cheek instead, to which I also said no.  He even commented on the tiny bit of bra strap that was sticking out of my cardigan asking about “The strip under my shirt,” talk about invasive.  Eventually he gave up, but he was very persistent and made me feel really uncomfortable.  Foolishly, we exchanged mobile numbers, as I checked my phone and he asked to have my phone number.  I didn’t know what to say, so I gave it to him.  Then he kept insisting we become facebook friends.  I never want to see or speak to this man again and I want to report it to the railway police, but this would probably unfold into a bureaucratic nightmare.  Fortunately, nothing happened but it could have ended very badly.  I feel strongly that if people don’t speak up about these issues, they will just continue to happen in the future.  Men (and women) should know that this is not socially acceptable and will not be tolerated.  So my friend in Delhi called the man, impersonating the Delhi police and said that a woman had filed a complaint about him on the train, asked for his address etc. and said that he was going to pursue the matter with the Railway Police.  This guy was quick to apologize and beg that nothing be done; he called me to apologize and said he meant no harm (haha yeah right), and I curtly thanked him for the call and hung up.  I am so grateful for the assistance of people like my friend who look out for me even though it is certainly not their job.