Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Green Thumbs, Greedy Palms & Ganda Bapa

I came to this country when I was four years old and my first trip back to India was when I was eight years old. One of my fondest memories is walking to my grandfathers small - less than 2 acre - farm with him down wet muddy paths wearing his white topi (Nehru style cap) and using his bamboo walking stick. We would walk past many small farms on the way to his little parcel, some bigger, some smaller but all minuscule in comparison to the large farms here in the US. I wore chappals but my feet would be encased in a reddish colored mud within minutes as it was rainy season. There was no pacco rasto (paved road) to the farms and between the large muddy puddles, the ruts cut out by the ox pulled carts, the fresh piles of dung, and the deep tire tracks cut out by the rare tractor, Ganda Bapa and I would follow his trusty walking stick to his precious land - past the almost naked except for loincloth clad laborers making bad quality bricks out of the reddish mud, past wading water buffaloes wading in deep algae filled ponds trying to catch a moment of relief from the blazing midday heat -onward to his little piece of heaven that he still hadn't gambled away yet, we would walk.

On his farm he grew the sweetest chibra's - small Indian cucumbers that still had not had all of their uniqueness bred out of them by more efficient but tasteless hybrid varieties. He also grew small plump eggplants and sometimes rice and sometimes sugarcane and the best okra that any chef in New Orleans would be proud to put in his jambalaya. Around the edge of his property grew large kantola; thorny cactus like plants that kept both wild hogs and unwanted humans away. Today there are canals and irrigation systems available for the few farms that are left in the area where my grandfathers land was; back then in 1976 though, there was only the rain - and sometimes it rained a lot, sometimes little, and sometimes not at all. My cherished memories of the few cherished moments I spent with him probably make his existence sound a lot more romantic than it actually was. What my grandfathers family could not use for food, they sold at market for a pittance... they toiled by hand to seed, plant, hoe and harvest what they grew. The whole town celebrated when one family was finally able to get a bank loan to lease purchase a small tractor that the farmers in the entire mohallo (neighborhood) would pay rent to use. It was a bright fire engine red tractor that the kids in the neighborhood would clean after it came back from a productive day tilling the fields. We would all take turns sitting in the hot vinyl seat and tug on the locked unmoving steering wheel until we got bored and moved on to catching frogs in the open gutter that ran around the neighborhood in coffee cans that we then blew up with the always available fireworks. When the tractor first came it had been blessed and garlanded just like every living thing in India is, and trust me, in India anything of any value is a living thing.

Over the past couple of weeks, the Washington Post has been doing a series of articles - Harvesting Cash about how billions of dollars are being spent by the federal government to subsidize large agribusinesses in the country. We have all heard the stories of how severe droughts have brought small farmers to ruin in the mid-west in the past and how because of overproduction, low prices around the world forces the government to pay many farmers to not farm in order to keep prices artificially high. But now, many farmers have learned to game the system of well meaning subsidies meant to be used in times of need and they benefit by hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayer money by holding their harvested crops until prices fall, collecting the subsidy, then selling their product later at market for full value when the price rises again. Why is this important outside of the fact that it is just another way our government fritters away billions of dollars to vested interests?

The US and the "Group of 8" highly developed economies have been trying for over a couple of years now to sign a new World Trade pact with developing countries in an effort to open up their markets to more American and European products. These are called the "Doha" round of ongoing trade talks. However, this time the developing countries, mainly India, Brazil, and even Australia are fighting back. They have been trying for decades to get the likes of the US, Canada, Japan, and the EU to lower their farm subsidies so their small time poor farmers can better compete with the large farm business of the developed world. How, you ask, do farm subsidies here hurt farmers there. It keeps crop prices here artificially lower than they should be because farmers are also paid subsidies by the government for their crops. "Small farmers" who do not have the volume of large agribusinesses like ADM, Monsanto, or Del Monti, and have no way of competing with the subsidies provided by these rich governments to their other farmers. Any other inefficient business model such as this would fail here today. It may seem a noble enterprise to support farming in ones country; frankly, I truly believe it is. But when a computer scientists job or a programmers job gets outsourced to India or a textile workers job gets outsourced to China, there are no lavish subsidies and no safety nets. There is no respite for workers in the auto industry who face greater overseas competition everyday. One can argue that there should be, but that is a whole other matter. Our trade representatives traipse around the world espousing the benefits of free trade and unrestricted capitalism, and yet we let our governments waste billions in protecting a business which is truly not "mom & pop" here anymore. And farming is one of the few areas where some of these fledgling economies can actually compete with us if given the opportunity.

I actually believe our ideals are correct. More free trade would mean that the best Indian mangoes would be available here in the US and Americas best insurance companies could write policies for that little red tractor in Sunder Mohallo. Unfortunately, that tractor is no more, because the farms are no more. On my grandfathers once fertile land now stands a condominium complex. As more industries pop up around near where I was born, in India, more land is sold away at ever greater prices for housing complexes, movie theaters and shopping malls. And maybe that is as it should be. The earth that sustained my grandfathers existence now supports the dreams and wants of future generations. Poor people in far flung places and middle class people right here close to home are forced to adapt to changing economic realities. The farmers in America will survive in their own way or be forced to do something else. We should only hope that the same market forces that we wish upon others, we would abide by ourselves and together raise the living standards of the entire world.

By the way, Ganda Bapa died when I was in sixth grade of lung cancer he got from smoking hand rolled bidis (unfilterd cigerettes) from fresh tobacco leaves. But up to his deathbed, he would ask my father to bring him and his buddies DUNHILL cigarettes from the London Heathrow Duty Free shops where Air India would stop over before continuing on to India from New York. Being a small time farmer in the dusty old village of Adajan did not keep him from wanting the best of what the world had to offer. I am sure that is true for many a small farmer across the globe.


Anonymous Indigo Bubbles said...

Great post -- you've taken an otherwise 'dry' issue and personalized it. And, you've taken an ordinary memory and substantiated it.

Thursday, July 20, 2006  

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