Impediments Culture, tradition and government inaction inhibit progress in Indian agriculture
The urbanization of nations is most striking in India where 30 per cent of rural residents have moved to the city in the past 10 years. This has created its own set of challenges, including excessive crowding and the overpowering of existing infrastructure including roads, sewers and schools. The rise in the daily wage to $5 in the city has pulled the young and old from the countryside in search of a better life.
India is a country of contrasts where the hand-sown and harvested crop may be sold on the Internet or from a handcart and city women in traditional saris ride sidesaddle, teetering on weaving motorbikes and talking on cellphones. To the outsider, it is a steaming, chaotic mess that overwhelms the senses (especially the sense of smell). But deep in her fabric is a quiet peace and a farmer who is the backbone of food security and exports that support 1.5 billion people.
In India, farmers are not taxed but the level of income of $1,000 per year or $2.73 per day hardly supports a growing family. The extra few dollars earned in the city may finance that motorbike, a new place to live or cellphone. And most men have taken advantage of the opportunity working their way in town to the trigger point which is $6,000. When a family gets to $6,000 of annual income they can buy a car or travel and their eating habits will dramatically change. The potential growth in the Indian population with this type of disposable income is expected to reach 650 million people by 2015.
This leaves the primary rural workforce of women overworked and underpaid. In the fields, plants and factories, the women were hard pressed to earn more than $2 per day and yet make up 90 per cent of the farming and labour workforce. As India really does not have a culture that is partial to telling time, the work hours are long. Even shopkeepers are open all day and every day if there is a potential customer. Although the women of India feed the nation and contribute to its agricultural exports, they are stuck in their pay group because of caste and the risk of being homeless once within city limits.
When visiting with the women of the slums of New Delhi, nearly 70 per cent had come from farms looking for a new life that eroded into the narrow streets of slum dwelling. And yet all of these women on the farm and in the fields or plants were colourful and immaculate in dress, smart, proud and innovative.
Class struggle for farmers
Growing and selling crops in India is just as complicated as her structure. Within the caste system the farmer is second from the bottom, just above the street cleaner and slightly lower than the tradesman, so they have little say in the marketplace.
Financing and selling of crops always includes an extra step — the village money lender — who is currently charging 26 per cent per annum based on daily interest. The transportation of goods is unreliable as the roads are plugged with everything from elephants, donkeys, horses, goats, sheep, buffalo, monkeys, rickshaws, bicycles, motorbikes, cars, trucks and people on foot. And all traffic does stop dead when the indigenous cow (considered holy) takes to standing in the middle of the highway.
Investors consider the village money lender and the lack of infrastructure to be the main impediments to growing the business of food. Milk sits in canisters in the hot sun, fruit wilts, grain spills and robbery is part of the equation. Farm goods are sold by handcart, road stall, retailer and some in the modern-day supermarket.
To be part of the Indian agricultural scene you have to be able to manoeuvre through the cultural and structural obstacles. This is small in comparison with the political challenges that business faces in India. For example, although there is no major company today in food grains and huge potential to add value to meet the demands of 650 million potential clients, there is also a lack of policy or outcome-based strategy to support investment. Even with ad hoc money for irrigation, rural development and research — no one really knows what it is for or how it is to be used. The result is abandoned irrigation or infrastructure projects, broken processing plants and outright confusion. Even the initiative to introduce toilets into homes (there is currently a toilet for every 1,500 persons) has been done so without the supporting infrastructure of a complimentary sewage system.
Land prices do not reflect the ancient infrastructure that is currently in need of a $200-trillion update. Land in the south around Bangalore sells for $15,000 per hectare and land in the north in the Punjab sells for $30,000 per hectare. All land ownership is limited by law to a maximum of seven hectares. When you add up the complexities of farming compared to making double the wage in the city and having a first-time opportunity to spend that wage, it is easy to see why young men leave the farm for what they perceive as a new future.
The urbanization of India is mirrored in countries around the world, including Canada. And like India, Canadian women are increasingly investing in and working on farms. They have the added fortune of infrastructure and information. Certainly there is emerging opportunity within India and for farmers in Canada to be part of her domestic economic growth. And that may be done — women to women.