Nobody Wants To Struggle In The Villages

Nobody Wants To Struggle In The Villages

by Varun Kumar - Monday, June 22, 2015 12:50 PM IST
Nobody Wants To Struggle In The Villages

“I am going to Bali next week”, I told a friend.
“Do stay at Ubud for a day or two”, he said.
“What for”?
“You can stay very close to the paddy fields, close to nature”.
“I came to Singapore to escape the paddy fields and you want to send me back”?

I said it half jokingly. That was the end of the conversation, but it made me think about how some of the urban elite have a romantic view of agrarian life as being “Close to Nature”. I have a feeling that this elite romanticism of land and a life close to nature is what fuels part of political rage towards the Land Acquisition Bill. Of course, the political game of appeasing the voters is at work too.

My life story tells me how pointless this romanticism is. I have some first-hand experiences around the topic. Before coming to Singapore, before attending IIM Calcutta and before going to IIT Roorkee — before all of it, I was born in a small village in the district of Muzaffarnagar. Hospital births weren’t too common back then and I too was born at home. As a side note, the house I was born in, is still exactly the same, after 32 years. So much for the economics of farming.

My father had moved to Roorkee, another small town, known for its aqueduct and IIT Roorkee, for his government job and I used to spend my summer vacations in my native village.

If I were to recall one single, most powerful idea inculcated in me about my future since my childhood, it was this – farming has no future and the only future I would have has to be built through education.

It was not just my parents who had this rather pessimistic view on farming, it was all around me. In some 20-25 villages and hundreds of extended relatives I have visited during my vacations and on other occasions, every single person focussed on the one important thing – how to educate their children and make them move out of farming and out of village.

Most farmers don’t want their children to become farmers. In other words, most farmers don’t see any future in farming. Put that yet another way, farmers should be willing to exit given a fair deal. Interpreting that with pragmatism would mean farmers should not be opposing a properly compensating land bill, if left on their own, away from the political machinations of elite politicians for whom paddy farms is a utopian concept of life close to nature, even if they can’t tell their paddy farm from their wheat farm.

Farmers, like everybody else, have understood the importance of education as a way out of dismal farm economics. A small data point may dispel the doubts: As highlighted by BJP MP Hukum Singh in Lok Sabha, the count of landless laborers has moved from 106mn in 2001 to 144mn in 2011, as per Census data. People wouldn’t become landless labors if farming was such a great vocation. From a personal anecdote, we ourselves have enough land to own two tractors but even with that much land, we have not been able to upgrade those tractors for the last two decades. Consider that again – full twenty years and we could not generate enough surplus to buy a new tractor.

Imagine the plight of very small farmers who are ploughing the field with bullocks and then ask yourself – who would want to remain in this profession?

The desperation to get out through education is seen in numbers. ASER studies for example consistently show dramatic and consistent rise in private schools registrations in rural India.

Imagine people shunning affordable government schools in favor of expensive private schools in rural India — willingness to take that much financial burden itself explains the desperation to get out of the village and to become part of the new economy. I have seen enough and more such private schools who open up 4-5 Km outside a town and cater to villages in 15-20 Km radius through a fleet of school buses. There is ample demand. In my own extended family, all the kids who live(d) in villages have been educated and are getting educated at such schools.

And its not just income that is a problem with the village life. Compared to an urban life, every day is a challenge in the village: even the basic things such as cooking fuel can be a hassle. The earthen chulhas that use wood and cow dung as fuel produce a barrage of smoke everytime one cooks something. Who would trade a clean LPG for a smoke guzzling chulha? Or who would trade a running tap for a laborious handpump? Or a daily market visit to a monthly market visit, that too after a half hour trip either side?

Who wouldn’t want to give up the daily chore of bathing the cattles, milking the cows, feeding them 3 times a day – as many may not appreciate, cows and buffaloes don’t eat on their own when they are tied at home all day. One has to work to give them food. One has to pick up their feces as well, some 5-6 times a day if my memory serves me well. I can count tens of such chores. Who would want this hard working life with little rewards?

Anyone who has seen and lived a village life has no irrational romance for it. I believe it is the elite politicians, who travel to an Ubud to be near paddy farms, who harbor such notions. Make them clean up the cows and buffaloes in a farmers home for a week instead of hosting them for a tasty fish dish and they may realize the real grind.

This grind of a life with little financial rewards is the precise reason I have seen farmers wanting out and educating their children for the purpose. Whoever, including me and my father, has moved out has absolutely no regrets and absolutely no nostalgic longing to go back and plough the fields.

My belief is that farmers do understand the value of industrialization and the opportunities it can create. My relatives in Uttarakhand present interesting a first-hand case study for this idea. Due to the tax-friendly policies of the state government, manufacturing took off really well in the state and I have seen enough and more youth getting employed in semi-skilled roles in these factories. This economic upliftment is for all to see. People do understand that if not for these factories, these youths would have been struggling to make ends meet. Not to mention, factories and peripheral services that come up to serve them – small establishments like colleges, hospitals, banquet halls etc need land and help create wealth for the sellers.

To sum up, from what I have learned from my unique experiences, the average farmer of this country wants to move away from farming and does not see farming as a future for his children. They are looking at education and want to send their sons and daughters to live in the city, to work for private companies and build a bright future for themselves.

They understand the value of industry and have no irrational romance for the land. Let them move ahead, let them realize their potential, let them challenge the world and contribute to it. Don’t keep this mass of people with tremendous potential shackled in a rural world just because some petty politicians can’t see the writing on the wall.

Farmers of this country deserve to move ahead. Empower them. Set them free.

Varun works for Phillip Capital, a financial services firm. The views expressed are personal.
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