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A kisan's Harvard moment

RASHEEDA BHAGAT | Updated on February 03, 2011 Published on February 03, 2011

Rajendra Patil at the Harvard symposium.

Bhavarlal Jain, Chairman, Jain Irrigation, with the two farmers.

Hemchandra

They are farmers with their finger on the latest technology, and they travelled all the way from Jalgaon, Maharashtra, to share their success story with an Ivy League audience.

He is appalled when I ask if he managed to catch enough sleep and see some movies on board as this was the first flight he had ever taken in his life, and such a long one at that.

Arrey nahi, picture tau hum kabhi bhi dekh sakte hei (Oh no, I can watch a movie any time). And though I was sleepy I felt I had to collect vital information about the plane and the journey to be shared with other farmers later… That the plane was flying at 1,022 km per hour, at a height of 39,000 ft, and all the countries we crossed before reaching America.”

Meet Rajendra Patil, a banana farmer from Jalgaon district of Maharashtra, who, along with Hemchandra Patil, was recently invited by Harvard Business School to make a presentation at an international symposium on Food Security. Their topic: how improved technology has helped increase their yield and income several-fold.

Both have a story that will inspire small farmers. Rajendra used to work as a private schoolteacher and was devastated when he suddenly lost his job in 1998. But he recalled a lecture given by a Jain sadhvi where she had said: ‘ Suraj nikaltey hi roshni deta hai, phool khiltey hi khusboo deta hei, zindagi mei kuch karne ki tamanna ho dil mei tau zamin tau kya aasman bhi saath deta hei' (Like the sun gives light and flowers fragrance, if there is resolve in you then not just land, even the sky will help you).

“I had 1.5 acres of family land (in Warey, about 90 km from Jalgaon) and I decided to grow bananas on it.” As he had more water than needed by his tiny farm, he leased another 10 acres. In 2005 he read the story of a farmer whose income had gone up by using drip irrigation. “He told me about Jain Irrigation, they guided me on drip irrigation. Next year, I consulted a banana expert in the company and introduced tissue culture plants.” Starting with 10,000, he bought an additional 18,000 in 2007 and “my earnings went up three times by following the Jain technology. This way every farmer can increase his output and income. Unki system itni powerful hei ki zamin me sey sona nikaal saktey hei. (Their system is so powerful that farmers can get gold from their land).

In three years, under his direction, his village had planted 7 lakh tissue-culture banana plants. Ploughing back his earnings into his land, Rajendra today farms on 70 acres, of which he owns seven acres.

Respect for India

Hemchandra, the other farmer from Jalgaon, who grows bananas and onions, is still starry-eyed from his America visit. His main takeaway: “I was amazed to find that Americans have so much respect and affection for Indians… and treat Indian farmers with so much respect.” Also, even though he was allotted only 15 minutes to make his presentation, the international delegates at the seminar had so many questions that his session ran into a good 30 minutes.

On the kind of questions asked, he says “When I mentioned the technological help given to me by Jain Irrigation Systems, I was asked why big industrial houses in India such as Tata, Birla, Reliance, etc, were not doing such schemes for farmers. I said I can't answer this... yeh tau sahi sawal aap galat admi se pooch rahey hei (It's the right question but asked of the wrong man). For that answer I got many compliments… What I did tell them was that Bhau (many farmers use this endearing term for company Chairman Bhavarlal Jain) has been working with farmers for long years, and that has helped not only us but the company too. It's a profitable collaboration for both of us.”

Lawyer-turned-tiller

Hemchandra is a qualified lawyer; his father, Dagaji Patil, is a retired schoolteacher; “we had 24 acres, and in 1977 when we got electricity and the Government gave some money for digging wells, I quit my job and took up farming,” he says.

Even though he knew his son would have to take up farming one day, “I educated him so that he could use modern farming methods.” When the son was ready to take on the mantle, his father had already installed drip irrigation, on “an experimental basis” on three acres. After bringing the entire land under drip irrigation, he bought 26 acres more and today grows bananas, cotton and onions.

When I quip about high onion prices, the farmer grins from ear to ear, even though farmers get only 30 per cent of the market price, and says: “ Har saal tau aise nahi hota” (Every year we don't see such profits).

Anil Dhake, Vice-President (R&D), Jain Irrigation Systems, explains that Hemchandra was chosen for the symposium — Harvard had asked Bhavarlal Jain to recommend two farmers — because he has been a contract farmer with Jain for 10 years, growing white onions to feed its dehydrated-onion producing plant in Jalgaon. “We chose him for his achievement… that a dryland farmer can go up to 18-20 tonnes of onions per acre… India's average is 5-6 tonnes per acre. For 10 years now, he has done hi-tech cultivation using so many different types of irrigation systems — inline, sprinkler, drip and overhead irrigation systems.”

Asked whether he might be harming the interests of small farmers by leasing their land, Rajendra replied: “Certainly not. They didn't have water, so they could not cultivate the land. But I have excess water and by using it on their land I have tripled their yield, so it's a win-win for all of us.”

Hemchandra says they also spent two days in New York and “we were so struck by the cleanliness of the place. We met an organic farmer and found that for organic products they get double or triple the price, which doesn't happen here, so where is the incentive to grow organic products?” Both farmers were amazed by the prosperity of their US counterparts and the kind of support they get from their government. And also, the status they enjoy. “We wanted to meet more farmers, but were told one had to take appointments,” says Hemchandra in awe.

At the symposium both were quizzed on government help not really reaching farmers, as well as farmers' suicides. “But when they asked about corruption, mujhe bahut feel hua (I felt bad).”

On the support the Indian Government gives farmers, he smiles and says: “ Subsidy ke sivay kuch nai! (Except subsidy, nothing).”

But Indian farmers face several problems, such as the vulnerability of crops to newer diseases. He is convinced that technology in agriculture is the only way forward. To keep abreast of the latest in farming practices he has now bought a laptop and regularly surfs the Net using his broadband connection. “I am still learning, but there are some Web sites I see regularly,” he says.

He is also unhappy that the MNREGA scheme has made labourers "alsi aur nishkriya" (lazy and unproductive).

Helping fellow farmers

Rajendra, on the other hand, is all excitement after his America visit. “I now want to own 100 acres to grow banana, ginger, mosambi (sweet lime), sitafal (custard apple), etc, go in for the latest irrigation systems and use the latest technology.” Every three months he wants to organise workshops for farmers, guide them on ways to improve yield through improved farming practices. “In one campus I want to provide models explaining how to plant a crop, look after it… Just as Bhau has done for farmers, I want to follow his example.”

He knows he will hit an “economic roadblock” as the entire project will cost Rs 3 crore. “I have saved some money and will take the rest as loan from NABARD.”

When I express surprise that he lives in a rented house despite such resources at his command, he says: “I've decided not to build a house till this dream is realised. A house is only a building, but your land gives you income once or twice a year.”

Hemchandra's future plans include horticulture and floriculture. He wants to plant pomegranate and exotic vegetables in greenhouses. “I hear that in big hotels and restaurants vegetables such as red and green peppers, gherkins, broccoli, etc are in great demand and that the market will expand. This has strengthened my resolve to go in for value-added farming. Our Government should encourage farmers who opt for hi-tech farming and help us with marketing so that when prices rise, farmers — instead of middlemen, traders and hoarders — can benefit.”

But he is sad that there is little cooperation or unity among Indian farmers. “Because of this, middlemen take away the cream from our earnings. Whenever there is an attempt by farmers to come together, the leader of that movement is invariably sucked into one political party or the other. Just like politicians divide Hindus and Muslims, they divide farmers too. And this is the curse of farmers.”

Response may be sent to rasheeda@thehindu.co.in

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Published on February 03, 2011
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