Letter from India

Good morning all – and a happy new year!

We have just returned from a short study tour in India, part of which included looking into the possibility of establishing an exchange programme between Polish and Indian farmers.

Upon arrival at Delhi international airport, we elected to take a motorised rickshaw to our hotel. The driver of this little brightly painted three wheel scooter (known fondly as a ‘tuk tuk’) charged into the ensuing fray, dodging and weaving his way through the dense traffic, frequently coming within centemitres of hitting one of the hundreds of the similarly engaged vehicles battling their horn blasting way down the worn New Delhi streets. Streets also shared with Brahmin cows and packs of stray dogs. It is a very particular initiation.

India is a land of breathtaking contrasts. Swathes of outstanding beauty, seas of absolute poverty and oasees of unashamed wealth. Agriculturally, India has the second largest farm output in the World. 60% of India’s workforce are engaged in farming, forestry and fishing activities – and agriculture remains the largest economic sector. But maybe not for much longer.

As widely reported in the World’s media, India is currently undergoing a major industrial revolution. New construction is emerging everywhere one looks. Motorbicycles and cars are rapidly replacing bicycles and donkeys. Mobile phones are epidemic and jeans are competing with sarhis.

All eyes are on a rising urban middle class and foreign corporations are queing to capture the export profits fuelled by the combination of rich natural resources and a very cheap labor force.

But a Country of almost 1 billion expectant inhabitants also needs to be able to feed and nourish itself from the fruits of the land – and not just from the profits of it’s exports. From most of what I heard and saw during my one month stay, I fear that the land has been largely forgotten.

The rush to commercialise the industrial and service sector has caused the eye to be taken off the ball in Indian politics. Close to half a billion people survive from working the land, forests and coastal waters of the Indian Continent. Mostly on peasant smallholdings, many of which are no more than 1.5 acres in size. All are heavilly dependent on the anual monsoon rains.

For India to retain the ability to feed her citizens and nourish her work force – an agrarian revolution even more significant than the industrial one, will need to take place on the land.

Ever since the agrichemically fuelled ‘Green Revolution’ usurped traditional low input low output peasant farming techniques, India’s soils have been drying and dying, and food and water quality dramatically declining. Consequently, a potentially tragic scenario is slowly unfolding across vast stretches of the Indian Continent.

Just beneath the surface of an almost triumphal optimism about the economic future, lies a poisoned chalice of neglect for the deteriorating condition of India’s food and water supplies.

Indiscriminate and unregulated overuse of pesticides, including the banned carcinogen DDT, is rife. Fresh fruit and vegetables can contain up to ten times the pesticide levels permitted in Europe, and most farmers apply these toxic poisons without even a mask to protect their mouths and noses.

Only 10% of the 90,000 tons of pesticides used each year – hit their target. The rest land up in the atmosphere or in streams and rivers that constitute the main irrigation and drinking water resource for the nation. Thousands, and possibly millions of children suffer from the effects of acute pesticide poisoning every year; and increasingly, thousands of once well to do farmers, faced by sterile soils and failing crops are falling into debt and many are taking their own lives. Most recently, the wholesale failure of ‘bt’ genetically modified cotton in Uttra Pradesh has triggered hundreds of tragic suicides amongst local farmers.

It is a shocking scenario. Maybe just shocking enough to open the eyes of the World to this unfolding tragedy.

Ironicly, the knowledge and the solutions are all at hand to replenish this great continent’s ailing soils. Even the crucial art of water catchment has been revived and and proved effective in Rajastan and beyond.
But if a huge regenerative effort is not made very soon across the length and breadth of the Indian countryside, the great economic boom will end in an even greater ecological bust.

Is there, given the circumstances, a common thread that would help facilitate the planned exchange between Polish and Indian farmers? I believe there is: Both Countries are simultaneously being subjected to the same underlying pressure to abandon their traditional artisanal knowledge – and embrace the trappings of the corporate bandwagon. In India, the Coca Cola company now has a virtual monopoly on bottled drinking water – and – we were informed “is sucking the Ganges dry.”

If even a small consignement of Polish and Indian farmers could recognise a common bond of resistance to the profit driven juggernaught that threatens to anhialate their common way of life, then such an exchange could give renewed hope to all those who feel isolated in their struggle.

A steadilly expanding worldwide sharing of indigenous, grassroots knowledge is surely the best medicine available for the billions to whom a life on the land not only means survival, but a deep expression of affinity with nature.

Julian Rose
January 2008

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