Saturday, November 25, 2006

Red Earth

All the characters and events described below are real. Any resemblance to a fictitious incident is purely coincidental or a failing on the part of the narrator.

Do you know Manohar Kelkar? Chances are that you haven't heard of him. And if you have indeed seen his name somewhere, I don't see any reason why you should remember it. As much as there's a possibility, I would assume it's miniscule that he's one of your kin, collegue, or friend. Anyway, a lot of them who knew Manohar Kelkar aren't alive anymore or are breathing their last. For Manohar kelkar, as I last heard, is a cotton farmer in the arid lands Dahegaon, a tiny village 135km from Nagpur in the Vidarbha region.

Cotton, as you probably know, is not an easy crop to grow. The good thing is that it needs very little water. But the timing is crucial. For good yield, the first few rains in July and August are absolutely essential. They are extremely prone to pests and hence require huge investments in fertilizers. Harvesting it is a nightmare - It can cut your fingers, infest your legs and breed a million insects that can leave you unidentifiable ailments. And in the end of it all, there's nothing much a farmer can do to make sure he gets a good price on his yield. Cotton prices depend on every variable in the world economy and a tremor in some dark, uninhabited corner of the lonely town in the Florida state can cost a thousand farmers their livelihood.

Trivial Statistic #23 - Maharashtra finally has a Rs 60,000-crore (over $13 billion) plan ready for transforming Mumbai into the next Shanghai, with the money earmarked for infrastructure upgrade alone. Plans include starting a metro rail system and giving a facelift to the Dharavi slums.

So, coming back to Manohar Kelkar, he was yet another deprived cotton farmer with bloody hands, infested feet and an extremely emaciated wallet with five mouths to feed [The number of mouths in the family is always inversely proportional to the ability to feed them]. He, like everyone else in the village, was once content growing crops to feed his kin and make a decent living, until cotton came with a promise of the big buck. The first few years were good when the government bought the bales from them for profitable prices. However, soon the profits disappeared, the government prices were way below what he was spending to get the cotton harvested. Of course, what he didn't know was that U.S. farmers buoyed by the government subsidies were exporting cotton for peanut prices and men like him were stripped naked sans any government assistance with their their tons of cotton facing the western wind.

2005 was a crucial year for Kelkar. His daughter, Donu, was turning sixteen and hence had to be married off soon. Every evening, his wife Indira dropped a hint as she served the last laddle of rice, after the children have slept, as to how the wives from the neighbourhood have already starting asking her about Donu's future. With time, her hints grew louder until one night, when they found the youngest one, Vinod, staring at them from behind the yellow flame of the kerosene lamp hanging by the roof. Money was his biggest concern. It wasn't as if he had a son, whose entire marriage could be finished in a couple of thousands (which itself was a big deal these days. He shuddered at the image of Kailash ghade floating in the communal well because he couldn't finance his own wedding. Twenty six years old. Way too young to die). Donu was his daughter. And so he had to worry about the clothes, the hall, the evening snack and the liquor in the night, the embroidered card and the fruits along with it and five lettered fatal monstrosity - Dowry.

Thirty thousand. That's the amount he wanted.

Trivial Statistic #39 - In a survey done with around 25 software engineers, when asked what they would buy for themselves for thirty thousand rupees, the first most common answer was that there was nothing they wanted that they could buy for themselvs worth as less as 30,000. Second, was a long luxury vacation. Third, was gold.

He couldn't go to the bank in the Wadki village. They had chased him out the last time he went there, after he defaulted on the thirty five thousand loan. He hadn't meant to. But there was nothing he could do but stare at the barren land and wait for the rain to come. He had asked for another chance, promised to pay them this time. But they wouldn't listen to him. There was just one choice left - the landlord. A few of the his friends had gone to him during times of need and received a dedhi. They could pay him after the harvest, he said. But the interest rates were steep, One hundred and fifty for every hundred rupees. He could request for a Sawai whereby he could pay one hundred and twenty five for every hundred. Either way, he had to pawn the land, paint his thumb as bunch of aimless lines on a piece of paper (What the landlord didn't tell him was that the land wasn't being pawned, for the risk of being null and void if he committed suicide, but was sold to him for a sum of thirty thousand rupees. What was 'accidentally' missed on paper was that the landlord would return the land once the money is back). Some of his fellow villagers had warned him against the landlord. Said he would stop at nothing to get his money back. But there was not much Kelkar could do. There were no alternatives. The landlord was his only ray of hope - tinted and tainted - but hope nevertheless.

Trivial Statistic #47 - According to statistics published in the beginning of 2006, India’s 40 wealthiest people are together worth a staggering $106bn (and in the pack after mittal and premji, are the Ambani brothers from Maharashtra with a combined net worth of 12.5 billion).

The marriage went well. Everyone in the village had come and wished his daughter well. They held his hand and congratulated him on what a fine marriage he had arranged and then glanced at his second daughter Vijaya who was soon turning fourteen. He couldn't get himself to think of it. Another thirty thousand was what it all translated to. He wondered how long it would take him to pay all these debts back. He didn't want his sons to bear the brunt of all this. School was the first expendable expenditure. But he will teach them real work, he told himself. He would teach them everything he knew in the field so that when they grow up, they would be fine able men who would have their way with life. There was always hope. Something told him that the yield this year will turn out well. They had mild showers in june that took all of them by surprise. Even the wild decidous forests were in full bloom and that was always a good omen. The last time the flowers bloomed, they had a bumper crop. That seemed like a long time go. But now was probably the moment for time to turn a full wheel.

Soon Donu left to live just an arm's lengh away - the closest irrepairable distance that only marriage can take one's daughter. And death.

And a few days later, as he sat in the tea shop listening to the radio, Kelkar knew that the gods have heard his prayers. The Maharashtra government announced the relief package to all the cotton farmers in the Vidarbha region. Word went around that they will increase the procurement price. The cynics said that they have to wait and watch. But no one wanted to listen to them. This is first hint of dawn in their dark barren skies. And they were determined to savour it.

Trivial Statistic #28 - According to the numbers rolled out in the end of 2002, the official revenue of Bollywood was 1.3 billion dollars (6500 crores) and the numbers have surged ahead since then.

The relief package was finally rolled out - There was free electric power for all farmers and reduction of interest rates for loans. A deadened silence fell on the village. It was no use to them. Only a handful of farmers had pumps (92 out of 1000). And in some cases, the MSEB had cut the electricity connection and made them unusable. And interest rates! Whoever got loans from the nationalized banks? These changes meant nothing to the landlord and by then they had even lost track of how much they actually owed him. Some said, there was still a promise of increasing the procurement price. But the words fell hollow on the farmers' ears.

And then they started falling. One by one, drinking pesticides that were bought on debt leaving families alone, deserted, in the middle of the road. Uma's husband was the first one. Her husband had died six years ago because he couldn't handle the doom. They had called him a coward. Promised to support Uma through thick and thin. She was now working in a farm, letting her son live with her in-laws - One disabled and the other blind. Soon, the numbers hit the national television. Reporters would come from everywhere and look at them with pity, conduct sessions to understand and allieviate their problems. Kelkar was clear - He would never do this to his family. He went around dissuading people from suicide. But not many were listening. He was determined to pull this situation around. That was when the landlord banged his door. Threatened to ravage his house, and make his life hell if he didn't get the money within the next few months. Kelkar tried talking to him, telling him about the measures that were planned. The landlord wouldn't listen. He said, if he knew how to make a marriage happen, he knew how to end it too.

Trivial statistic #76 - The latest statistical survey suggests that if outstanding debt increases by Rs 1,000 then the odds that the household is one with a suicide victim increases by 6 per cent.

Kelkar worked harder than ever. But hope was now flickering, facing an open window of doom. He would tell his wife that he had no idea how to get out of this mess. She, as always, reassured him that everything would be ok. Liquor said the same thing. Smoothed the edges of life and made it a continuum till he woke up the next day to face reality again to die every minute in piece meal.

Looking back, one cannot put the finger on exactly when he made up his mind. It was probably when, lying outside in the charpai, he played out Prime minister Manmohan singh's words over and over again in his head. A promise of Rs 3,750 crore as a relief package. Kelkar knew by now where that money would go. Not a word was said about restoring the advance bonus and hike in import duty of US cotton. And that's when he realized nothing's going to change. The tree next to him stood there as a witness, as an absolute like his fate that would watch his every step, loom over his house and stand there immovable and unchangeable as ever.

Do you know Manohar Kelkar? If you haven't met him, you could walk down to the district office of nagpur, open the dusty ledger and see his name as number 732. A statistic. That is what he is now. The 732nd victim who's committed suicide, hanging himself from the tree, because he didn't know how he could pay back thirty thousand rupees that he had borrowed. A life lost for thirty thousand rupees. Take a minute and think that over. Thirty thousand rupees.

Trivial statistic #87 - On 15 Sept 2006, The suicide by debt-ridden farmers in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra touched 253 since July 1 2006. Since June last year, more than 800 cotton farmers have reportedly committed suicide, with nearly 200 doing so in the last eight weeks alone. Translated to frequency, a farmer commits suicide every five hours.


Blogger Goli said...

ritesh a touching post, as any other software engineer am just going to sit here and just put a comment. But I do think that these posts do make me feel wanting to do something, and I do think that once we all are settled into our jobs nicely, each of us will make a difference in the smallest way possible.

10:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I start reading it as just another post

and then suddenly there is an uneasy gulp in my throat

and then after few more lines eyes moisten

and then few lines down the post am able to relate it to people i know back at the village and even here in the Big city

and think of my mom who toil day and night to run her small business

and feel like making it big in public sector and reach WTO negotiating table to save the people of my nation...

*** am sitting at my cushion chair on monday morning and reading this blog at the comfort of my air conditioned office where am supposed to analyse the american way of saving lives to improve it and wondering when I am going to reach the cosy arms of Big Brother***

U still have ur heart at the right place.... kuddos to u

11:25 AM  
Blogger Rathish said...

@goli and anonymous - thank you :) Sometimes the contrast between our lives and theirs is shocking and one can so easily be oblivious to so much pain around us.

3:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

a post like this gets only 2 comments and the chick blogs get 2 digit comments...

ofcourse i wont undermine the noble instincts of the author by discussing abt the comments thats not his intention but a post which shud bring a stir abt in ppl is not reaching them

i wonder if ppl will only respond to unmindly polls on popular "news" channels

Rathish where are v going as a nation

11:40 AM  
Blogger Rathish said...

@Anonymous - Sorry about the delay and thanks for that comment! I wouldn't blame the people Anon. I guess it's more the fault of the medium and what people expect here is some entertainment. I would probably blame myself for not trying hard enough to get this posted in a bigger forum.

But, frankly, if you could pass the word around, please do so. With all humility, I believe that this deserves to be read!

1:57 PM  
Blogger FrozenThoughtzz... said...

heyy rathish....prolly dis post has triggered all of us to bring change arnd us in every lil way we can contribute to dis society in every possible way we can do....rather dan sayin nuthin can change over here!!!!!!

gr88 like dis will be an remainder to all of us.....

3:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

and what do u think i have been doing

passed it around to all my friends and everytime someone reads this i see the haunted look in their eyes and for the next half an hour neither do they think nor do they talk abt anything else

such is the power of ur words Rathish and u make good use of them

this post deserves more that what it is getting here.. please do put it in a better medium and s in my own little way ill pass it around..

2:16 PM  
Anonymous Anupa said...

There are some who come, read, and cast it aside as "too heavy"... Some who read, and are suddenly yanked out of the comfortable cocoon of their own existence and bliss... And then there are others who are so overwhelmed by the enormity of the task you've undertaken...that there just doesn’t remain anything to be said. Call it a shortcoming on my part, or the power of your words... The feeling experienced on reading this post is not something I can express in words...

Anonymous- It’s true that chick blogs attract more comments. But don’t you accept that they deal with issues and problems that the general junta can more easily relate to, and resolve? It is human tendency to ignore that, what he feels is too large for him to handle.. Especially now with all the laziness that has set in and rusted our otherwise brilliant minds! And like I said, let’s not judge the impact that Rathish's writing has on people by the number of comments his post gets.
You’re a doing a great job by spreading the word around. Keep the good work up!

11:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous turned Sakthi said...

Anupa - S i do agree that its too huge for him to handle, in that case its huge for any single person to handle... but i also believe to handle it, it has to be broken into smaller parts which are manageable by a person

and moreover he has jus presented a case here... castin light over a life v don't know and stating soem facts about the life that v know..
at no point does he talk of what is expected out of us..

I believe he had hoped to touch the humane side of us with this post and get us exposed to what v dont know.. and i believe that is his small part in this and he has handled it too well..

S agreed that v shud not judge the impact based on the comments.. how wud be know when both of us are sitting and typing here ... there wud be someone out there doing his/her own smart part after reading this post...

I just felt bad when i saw jus 2 comments on this post ya.. i thought this was a piece that shud be read by alot of people.. else where wud v find ppl to do their small parts...


7:59 PM  
Blogger Priya said...

Hey Rathish,

Well, i always felt the same things about this issue. But something just so well written really sinks in and refreshes those feelings. That is what just happened!
An amazing read...kuods!

4:20 PM  

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