I drive to Palia Kalan, in the vicinity of Dudhwa National Park, to be with friends who farm. The area was a favourite destination for hunting expeditions in days of the Raj with a railway line laid for the crown prince’s hunting party. The famous Tiger Camps was a private enterprise organizing these hunts. Its owners have shut shop now and shifted to the more lucrative business of politics.
In the first decade of the last century, while the Wright brothers were experimenting with their first flight, an enterprising entrepreneur in Palia Kalan, Bam Bahadur Shah, purchased land from the siblings of the protégé’s of the erstwhile Awadh nawabs. This area formed a part of the Khairgarh state, so named after the khair forest. Khair tree leaves are what yields catechu (kaththa) used in paan.
When the British were forced to concede Independence, they partitioned the Indian subcontinent. Tormented and displaced, migrant Sikh farmers from Pakistan started to arrive in Palia Kalan. Almost every family coming to Palia bought land from the Shah family. Life was tough, the area full of swamps and wildlife. Movement was restricted in the rainy reason. Probably every farmer family lost a member to malaria in these swampy parts.
Till around 1980 one had to cross the Sharda river by a ferry to reach the farm lands. Earlier, the richer landlords crossed the river and swamps on elephant back in the rainy season. All that changed after 1980, when bridges got built and infrastructure was developed. Productivity increases started thereafter. Electricity was available even before proper roads were built. Samarth Bahadur Shah tells me that electricity supply has improved from the earlier four to six hours to 16 hours per day now. A commendable feat, he says. I also meet Pradeep Singh whose family arrived in 1950. He talks of days of the yesteryears when “Powerline”, the all metal wheel tractor, was popular.
The paddy yield is normally 25 quintals per acre and the wheat yield is 20 quintals per acre. It is the paddy harvest season and harvesting is on full swing. It would be a delightful sight in Punjab and Haryana. While economists constantly harp about
stopping Minimum Support Price (MSP) purchases and farmer organizations talk of increasing MSP, to Palia farmers this is a redundant issue, rarely having had the fortune of getting MSP. They have actually sold at the stipulated MSP only once, around 2008. This is the law of another kind of jungle!
This is not east Uttar Pradesh where the crises is recognized. It is western U.P. just seven hours from Delhi. Clearly the system has failed. When I discussed the issue in Delhi, I was told by government officials, on conditions of anonymity, that private traders and companies pay for procurement not to start. I was aghast at the audacity of the private sector commodity firms and the conniving officials.
Since government agencies do not procure paddy or wheat at the promised MSP, private ricemillers and private companies have a big presence exploiting farmers who need to sell their produce, whatever the cost. This is all about crony capitalism. Thus paddy sells for `950 per quintal instead of `1,520, which is the MSP available to farmers in Punjab and Haryana.
Worse, farmers here are compelled to transport their produce to far-off places like Karnal in Haryana at `130 per quintal or to Ludhiana in Punjab at `150 per quintal. Even when they manage to reach the mandis in other states, the commission agents do not give them the MSP rates but only about `1,350 per quintal. Subsidies for farming are well nigh impossible to get and most farmers prefer not to tap state or central government programmes that supposedly benefit farmers. Corn yields 40 quintals per acre and is the new crop in the area even though farmers do not expect any MSP for maize. In fact, many do not even know that maize has an MSP.
Small farmers tell me that forestry is the ideal crop for the area but being close to the forest means that permissions from the many government departments, including the forest department, police, transport department and state government, are difficult to get. The bribes go up to `40,000 per acre! Those who do venture to plant trees prefer to plant poplar instead of eucalyptus because eucalyptus is also a produce of the forest.
Large swathes of land are under sugarcane plantation. It is the best crop; yielding about 250 quintals per acre on an average, that could be improved with better practices. The quality was better earlier and the crop less disease infected;
same varieties could be replanted for many years. Today the need for fertilizer has increased and the immunity from pests and disease seems to have decreased. Extension and research have failed to build on the initial momentum of the green. This is precisely why the Green Revolution itself is being questioned now.
There are six sugar mills in the area. Bajaj Hindustan is the oldest and the biggest with a 110 million tonnes. capacity. The Cane Commissioner is an important person; the face of the state, whose writ runs large over all stakeholders. Till two years
ago the mill was a good paymaster but the last three years have been bad. Various governments over the last decade have left no stone un turned to destroy the sugar industry and the farmers are suffering the consequences.
The other important crop in the region is bananas. It is also a new crop of the last decade but facing marketing challenges now. Only progressive farmers with capital have been able to take advantage of the crop.
Pradeep Singh is a descendent of a family that settled here. He fondly recalls the Chaudhary Charan Singh days. They then got the best ever rates for sugarcane. For the first time, farmers experienced real prosperity and saved considerable sums. Those days are long gone. Gloom has settled in just as smog settles over the National Capital Region of Delhi.
One major problem is that wild animals like the wild boar devastate the crops. Pretty parrots inflect the maximum damage. Avian looks deceive, just as the government does. The wildlife enthusiasts should actually visit the farmers to hear their sorrows. Farmers insist on being compensated for their loss as they are not permitted to kill the wild animals.
The local people, the ‘Tharu’ come from the forest to work as labour and their plight continues to be sad. The many programmes for their wellbeing and to mainstream them do not seem to be delivering. The few amongst them or their leaders
have manipulated the benefits for themselves. I meet people who nostalgically think the rule of the Raj was better. Of course, those claiming this absurdity were born after India gained Independence.
History has a way of distorting perceptions. It is the same as in China where Mao is fondly remembered even though his policies led to millions of Chinese dying as he destroyed agriculture during the Long March. I regret not having written about their plight but I have to leave it for another time.
Returning to China, history enthusiast Samarth feels that had India focused on the food processing industry in rural areas like China did, it would have fared much better. Bad policy at the centre is to blame, he adds. Even for him, there is the lingering doubt about whether Independence has not been as fruitful for farmers as it has been for other sections of society. He is not alone in his belief.
Walking on the streets, I get to meet ordinary folks who complain that progress has created more problems than it has solved. There is electricity, TV, roads, rudimentary medical facilities and people have the power to elect or remove a government
in power but they feel deprived of pleasures of life. The local youth is migrating out and even looking for jobs in distant Andhra Pradesh. Jobs and improved livelihoods have not followed progress.
There is also the question of alcoholism that I raise and the response answer hits me hard. As much as 75 per cent of the youth is alcoholic. I ask what the definition of youth is. Anyone above the age of 14, I am told. There is no restriction on
teenage purchase of alcohol; alcoholism is rampant here. One wonders if Nitish Kumar is right in banning liquor sales in Bihar. The local hooch manufacture will negate any such ban, the youth tell me. The local brew is not only more potent and
healthy but is cheaper too, I am informed.
My last trip to Palia some time back was in the general compartment of a train with no sitting space. It is necessary to experience such realities to remain grounded. Leaders fail to understand the frustrations and needs of the deprived sections of society. The ‘Garibi Hatao’ slogan of Indira Gandhi still rings hollow here; acts such as nationalization of banks
or land ceilings have not yielded the desired results. Palia can be a case study. The inequality in society is increasing sharply again and resentment is on the rise.
I hire a taxi to take me to the railway station of Shahjahanpur. To my horror, the train is running 14 hours late. I have commitments in Delhi so the driver finds me a bus on the highway. The bus has sleeper berths! I wonder if the transport authority has allowed berths/beds on buses. There seems to be a safety issue without seat belts though I am thrilled to get a ride home. It is a ride to remember. A berth at the last row of the bus is a night long rollercoaster ride. It has shaken every atom in my body by the time I am back in Delhi.
I enter Delhi that is enveloped in a layer of smog and find the state government and the populace blaming farmers for it. Air knows no politics; the polluted Delhi air pollutes the countryside for 365 days a year; Delhi has to deal with pollution caused by the burning of crop stubble in the neighbouring states for about three weeks in a year. With that thought I continue to my farm and, ‘No’, I am not burning my stubble