In random conversations with farmers

He tells me with a glower, ‘Labour­ers in Coorg don’t come cheap ever since men and women star­ted demand­ing the same price.’ I am in con­ver­sa­tion with a farm­er who owns acres of rice fields and has just har­ves­ted his corn cobs.

As I drove out to the coun­tryside this week and spent time talk­ing to farm­ers, there was a lot to learn, a little to pon­der and a host of gen­er­al chit chat. Some stood to show urb­an ignor­ance, most stood to show rur­al back­ward­ness — in thought as much as in amen­it­ies. But the drive itself was worth my while and I hope to do it again, prob­ably head­ing in a dif­fer­ent dir­ec­tion.

The farm­er was talk­ing about farm labour­ers. Most farm­ers these days, con­trary to the pic­ture drawn every­where, do not till their own lands. They hire labour­ers instead, and this prac­tice has been going on for quite some time. I am no expert, so take this with a grain of salt: this could simply be viewed as a form of feud­al­ism where farm­ers own the land and, instead of also own­ing farm­hands, they hire them as needed.

In addi­tion, while we push for equal pay for men and women, here is a man who com­plains. But he is not alone; oth­ers tell the same tale. Farm­hands used to come cheap and worked long hours. And they worked by hand. Now they use machines, work faster, for short­er dur­a­tions, and charge more. But most landown­ers got around this by hir­ing women labour­ers because the women still came cheap, but not any­more — at least not in this region of south­west­ern Karnataka. So, instead of giv­ing them­selves a pat on their backs for being one of a hand­ful of (espe­cially rur­al) regions to enforce gender – unbiased pay­ing schemes, they curse it because it means farm­hands, man or woman, no longer come cheap.

Con­sider the corn farm­er who poin­ted to his heap of nearly 15 quintals of plucked cob. ‘I’ve kept it here till the mar­ket prices rise,’ he says. I give him a ques­tion­ing look: I know farm­ers (like in any oth­er arrange­ment with middle­men) make far too less a per­cent­age from the price con­sumers pay for their goods, but was it worth hold­ing on to 15 quintals of it?

The price dif­fer­ence is far less than the ques­tion of per­cent­ages, as he explains to me. ‘If I deliv­er it to the city mar­ket myself,’ he says, ‘I get Rs 1,500. If I tell them I have a plucked yield ready to sell, they’ll send in a machine to shred the cobs, extract the seeds and pack and weigh it and even trans­port it them­selves. Then they give me Rs 300.’

The shock­ing Rs 1,200 price dif­fer­ence is not the worst part. The nearest city where he can hope to sell his yield is about 20km away. Lor­ries do not come cheap, espe­cially not to short dis­tances like this. ‘It does not work out’, he adds. And he is right: a single corn on the cob weighs about 150g and at the time of writ­ing this, two corn cobs (300g) cost Rs 50. So a kilo­gram of corn costs roughly Rs 150. That puts a quintal at Rs 15,000. The farm­er gets a mere 10% of this (exclud­ing his con­sid­er­able trans­port costs to reach a city).

Paddy is a whole oth­er prob­lem, as anoth­er farm­er tells me. ‘Labour­ers are lazy nowadays.’ He’s an old – timer, but he might as well be say­ing the same thing about the young­sters around him — they own the farm, com­plain about expenses, yet choose to hire farm­hands to work rather than work­ing them­selves. He waves his hand in the air as he leads me from one end to anoth­er of his green and yel­low car­peted paddy fields, lined with teak and Mahogany (ಹೊನ್ನೆ in Kan­nada) trees, which also provide him sub­stan­tial income on a dec­ade basis.

They used to work from sev­en to one, lunch, and then work from two to six again’, he recalls. ‘But now they come at nine, ten in the morn­ing, break for two hours for lunch, and work from two to six.’ Anoth­er farm­er from the neigh­bour­ing fields cor­rects him: ‘three to five,’ he says, ‘but some­times they even insist on leav­ing at four.’ But there is a good reas­on for this — machines. A lot of yield used to be plucked by hand before — an ardu­ous, back – break­ing task — but machines take care of it now.

Labour­ers are, quite lit­er­ally, people push­ing but­tons and ensur­ing machines do their jobs. It is no won­der then that they take less time to fin­ish their jobs — not only few­er hours a day, but few­er days as well. They over­charge because they have to earn back their invest­ment in machines. Machines are costly and farm­ers often can­not buy them; in addi­tion, it makes little sense to buy large machines when most farms in India, thanks to famili­al divi­sion (father’s land halves between two broth­ers, quar­ters between their two kids and so on), are not that vast after all. On the long run, there­fore, it does work prof­it­ably to hire and out­source the machine work, but it is still not as prof­it­able as tak­ing time (and put­ting in the effort) to pluck yields by hand.

The mon­et­ary prob­lems with this new prac­tice of hir­ing farm­ing machines, as it turns out, is as much polit­ic­al as it is tem­por­al. ‘Most of the people who own machines are from Tamil Nadu,’ one farm­er declares, not impressed with the neigh­bour­ing state. (I have no source or census to cite this as (in)accurate.)

How­ever, he is not alone in this belief; oth­ers chime in with facts and opin­ions: ‘They come in dur­ing the reap­ing sea­son, offer their machines, work, over­charge and go back to Tamil Nadu.’ Says anoth­er, ‘I don’t under­stand why people of Karnataka can’t do this. Are they lazy?’ While he should have said ‘Are we lazy?’ because he is from Karnataka him­self, he does have a point. If their obser­va­tion of most machine own­ers com­ing in annu­ally from a neigh­bour­ing state is true, then why do the people of this state not serve them­selves? Clearly, it does work out for the people of Tamil Nadu. Or does it work out because most of Karnataka is on their cus­tom­er roll? Would too many people try­ing their hand at this busi­ness devalue it?

Field of wheat.

Of course the last con­ver­sa­tion we had had to do with cows des­pite hav­ing a lot of those in India. (Talk­ing about cows is akin to talk­ing about the weath­er.) Appar­ently cows in these parts only eat green grass unlike cows near the city which also eat twigs because green grass is hard to come by. ‘How often do you come towards the city?’ I ask him curi­ously. ‘Oh,’ he smiles, ‘I nev­er do.’ (For the record, there is plenty of green grass in the city; most Indi­an cit­ies are not con­crete jungles yet.) Appar­ently the cattle here also eat leftover corn husk, so almost no part of their corn yield goes waste, and their smiles tell me they like that. They wish oth­er crops were just as use­ful.

I got back to urban­ity even­tu­ally, pon­der­ing over these dis­cus­sions. (And oth­ers such as, ‘We have thir­teen cows and four goats includ­ing the ones graz­ing there and there and, hey, there are only ten!’ — we found it wan­der­ing nearby in the field belong­ing to the vil­lage school, which, envi­ably, has a whop­ping six stu­dents and three teach­ers.) I plan to make such a trip again, it can be rather eye – open­ing.

Done reading?