My visit to India a few years ago covered a lot of agricultural ground — a 1,500-kilometre loop starting in Ludhiana and ending in New Delhi.
Our team — nine young agricultural professionals from five countries — experienced a transportation strike, a hit-and-run, watched a car slide off the road and into the jungle, and had an airline go bankrupt — while we were in the plane!
In our travels, we talked to farmers, food processors, factory owners, scientists, labourers, academics, investors, politicians, and economists. The result was a collage of messages that was as busy and unnavigable as India’s streets.
This is a country of two agricultures.
There is the progressive food-processing and export powerhouse that builds large terminals and trading centres — the infrastructure for trade. Then there is the actual farming of the land, largely done by hand. India is the seventh-largest food trader, largest producer of beef, and in the top three of dairy, wheat and rice in the world. Bananas, mulberry, rice, sugar, wheat, turmeric root — you name it and they can grow it. And yet, farmers toil to earn the equivalent of $1,000 per year.
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Although senior economists raved about the future of agriculture in India — claiming a return on investment of 27 per cent — farming remains tough. Destitute from making less than 10 per cent of the retail value of food product, slapped with a degenerating rural infrastructure, and never able to climb out of their caste — millions of Indian farmers have migrated to the city where they can earn up to the equivalent of $5 a day, leaving the countryside desperately short of help.
The fields and factories differ from what we know at home. State regulations dictate that land ownership is limited to approximately seven acres. Millions of tiny farms, most less than two hectares, dot the countryside with their tiny overgrazed yards and crowded homes. The use of technology on site is limited because you literally cannot turn a tractor around. Indian farm equipment is about the size of our larger Canadian garden tractors with different purposed attachments. Gas, diesel and electricity are as intermittent as a winter rain, so buying equipment is the beginning of a problem, not a solution. The result is a continued need for extensive farm labour that is paid $2 a day to hand weed, chop and drop, or process food.
Agriculture in India is a study in constant contrast. Inside the preparation hut, in a dark corner on the floor among the mountains of shells, were women slicing the coconuts on a progressive farm that was exporting oil. We attempted to engage with the women but the owner stopped us. We wanted to know names, ages, dreams. “She has no name. She does not know her birthdate,” was the owner’s forceful explanation.
This exploitation continued in larger factories. Down the road was a global food processor that was packaging baby corn, the vegetable you see in stir-fry Chinese food or summer salads, during our visit. Miraculously there were no children on the floor that day. But the women ranged from very young to very old and stood on platforms for 12 or more hours a day — for $2 a day — while their male “guards” sported designer clothes and cellphones. The hundreds of working women could not leave the compound and shared open-sided sleeping huts with one tap for water.
Even in advanced agricultural facilities such as sugar cane factories, fertilizer factories, clothing factories or the state-of-the-art dairy plant, the majority of the work was done by hand labour. In one of the country’s most advanced dairy factories, women still sat on the floor filling boxes. India may be one of the world’s largest producers of milk, but it still comes in cans from farms with a few cows. The same goes with the state-of-the-art grain terminals. The large grain receptors are filled by both trucks and by farmers with a five-gallon pail.
Regardless, all farmers were creative. On the banana plantations, hot peppers were planted at the base of the tree to ward off bugs. In organic rice fields rouged by hand (to remove off-types and unwanted varieties), the owner used the technology on his cellphone to market crops at a premium. In the sugar cane composting business, the scientists employed were able to turn compost in 11 days and this was returned to the farmers to increase their yields. Chicken farmers were learning the advantages of clean water and dairy farmers were hand cranking silage to improve digestion. The top farmers are nationally recognized and in Ludhiana we joined all 4,000 of that year’s recipients for an official ceremony where they proudly sat for hours (and hours and hours) in their pure-white tunics and colourful turbans.
India has managed to be a world player in food despite her tangled caste system and confusing infrastructure. Farmers suffer low incomes while food processors capture high margins. All of it is based on cheap labour, mostly women, who keep India in the top place for agricultural exports. The people I met, rich or poor, were kind and gentle and deeply respected the visit (as did I).
As Canada ventures into trade agreements with the world’s largest democracy, it may be an opportune time to reinforce food and biosecurity, sanitation, farm safety and human rights as contractual conditions. Perpetual inconsistency may be more pronounced in India, but at the end of the day we are farmers feeding the world — sharing the same earth and the same sky.