Five years ago the road leading to Nunglamubarik village in western Uttar Pradesh, some 150 km from Delhi, was lined with sugarcane crops. Poplar tree cultivation was just picking up in this farmers’ village which we had visited in March 2010. The tall, pointy trees that used to be planted on the circumference of the agricultural fields now cover the entire field. Sugarcanes are a rare sight.
Back then, we had come here to report on how the aam aadmi was coping with the run-away inflation in food items – something that was making headlines, and was going to be a prime reason for the Congress’s debacle in polls. A rising opposition leader, Narendra Modi, was soon going to promise ‘achchhe din’, beating inflation and corruption.
In five years, the village has seen a lot of changes, even if, as they say, the more it changes, the more it has remained the same.
Pramod Kumar’s house, which we had visited, has been divided. The brothers have separated and their wives cook their meals on separate chulhas now. In the second house we had visited, Harbir Singh lost his mother to old age and married off three of the girls from his joint family. In the third home, Sunil found a match for his daughter Pooja but his lone valmiki house in the village still struggles to make ends meet. The same old metal gates guard Pramod’s and Harbir’s houses and Sunil’s house still doesn’t have a door.
But one thing remains a constant in all their houses – pulses, which were a rarity then, are now completely out of the food basket, probably forever.
The prices of pulses have more than doubled in the last five years. The farm inputs have increased and outputs are uncertain. The direct impact of rising costs of living and diminishing incomes is on the food basket of families here. Potatoes have replaced pulses in many households.
At Pramod Kumar’s home
Pramod’s wife Suman greets us with her same old smile, her black hair now greying though. A waist band indicates an injury. She slipped and fell near the hand-pump in her house. “I broke three ribs,” she describes the severity of the accident and the high cost of treatment. Her one hospital visit costs not less than Rs1,400. She has made five trips so far.
As Pramod and his brother Sanjeev settle on the khat in the verandah, Suman hides her face with her dupatta and runs inside. Her daughter-in-law Anita peeks from the adjacent room. The conversation moves from broken ribs to failed crops, subsidies, and what Modi has done for farmers.
“Modi promised Rs 50 bonus to sugarcane farmers. We calculated profits this time, but the bonus went to the mills instead,” quips Sanjeev. The farmers tell us that they were promised Rs 280 per quintal for their sugarcanes but they actually receive only about Rs 240; Rs 40 will be given to them later. “Our money is pending at the mills. Imagine the kind of interest the mills are earning by holding back farmers’ money,” says Pramod, lighting one bidi after another, an old habit.
“What kind of government is this that doesn’t even listen to courts?” wonders Sanjeev. “The court has asked the mill owners to pay interest to farmers, but no one is paying any heed to that,” he adds.
“Modi’s foreign trips are fine, but he has done nothing for farmers,” Pramod complains. “Only big industrialists are benefitting with the Modi government’s policies and Modi himself is only interested in wearing expensive suits,” Promod’s nephew Anu adds.
Rice, for which they were getting Rs 2,800 per quintal till last year, fell to Rs 1,600 this year. The price of diesel used for water pumps increased by Rs 10 for a litre and poplar trees that promised good returns now fetch only about Rs 300 per quintal as it became so popular that everyone started cultivating it. “There was excessive supply in the market and the prices fell,” Pramod informs.
But the simple demand-supply theory doesn’t convince him. “The price of the finished product from poplar [trees] – the ply – keeps rising steadily. But the rate at which the raw material – the poplar wood – is bought from us has been falling,” he says, feeling cheated.
Pramod and Sanjeev have lost all hope of any profits in farming. The returns they receive at the end of the harvest season after all the hard labour barely matches their original input costs. The only profitable crop at the moment is urad dal. One bigha of cultivation yields one quintal of urad. One quintal of urad is sold for about Rs 3,500-4,000, against an investment of only about Rs 1,700. But Pramod would not invest in it. “Monkeys and nilgais destroy the crops. They are such a nuisance but you can’t kill them,” he says.
Pramod can’t remember when this pulse was last cooked at his own home. Five years ago, the family used to cook urad dal for guests as it was available for Rs 90 a kg. Back then, he had told us, “We have stopped buying urad dal. We used to eat it every day. A five kg packet used to cost Rs 90. Now we get only one kg for the same price.”
But the price has crossed Rs 200 a kg now, and for Pramod, purchasing it even for rare occasions is out of question.
“Even moong dal, which is fit only for patients, is for Rs 220 per kilo in the market,” says Pramod. “If all start eating it, it will cost Rs 1,000 per kilo,” he adds. Raw onions for salad are a strict no-no, though half an onion is used with jeera to cook vegetables.
Suman and Anita return as the men vacate the verandah. They are the ones who milk one cow and two buffalos and earn some money from selling it to a dairy. It is this income – between Rs 2,000 and Rs 3,000 a month – which keeps the household running when farm incomes are dwindling. Money saved is also money earned and they prefer to use cow dung to light the chulha. Some of it is spread in the fields as manure to save on costly chemical fertilisers.
An LPG cylinder is standing neatly in a corner of the verandah with a few vessels needed for making tea. The bigger vessels and the pans are next to the chulha. The subsidy for cooking gas now comes in their bank accounts once every two to three months. The cash subsidy is welcome, but gas is used only to make tea. It’s an old saying in this village that a chulha should be burning in the house, explains Anarkali, Pramod’s mother, it is a sign of prosperity, of life. The chulha is not lighted only when there is a tragedy in the family or when you do not have anything to cook. “Gas is ok, but chulha should burn every day in the house,” she stresses. The importance they attach to the humble chulha is in stark contrast to Modi’s subsidy-give-it-up appeal to the better-off, in which he portrays the poor households desperate to move on to the cooking gas.
At Harbir’s home
Harbir Singh recently lost his harvest of potatoes – all 100 sacks which he had stored in a private cold storage dried up so much that they all had to be thrown away. “It was a harvest of seven bighas of land, in rupees, it is a loss of Rs 50,000,” he calculates. Add to that the money he paid for storing the produce, Rs 100 per jute bag for the period of three to four months.
As if his bad luck didn’t end there, he could sell the peas he grew only for Rs 5 per kilo. For the total produce he made only Rs 1,500 though he had spent Rs 40,000 on inputs. Rain played spoilsport.
In his joint family of 22, three girls were married and a son was born. Harbir’s mother passed away two months after we visited them in 2010. “Calculate how many people are in my family now,” he says. “Add to that the two servants. Their share of food also comes from the household ration,” adds Anita, Harbir’s aunt.
The family is visibly agitated. Income from farming has been meagre in the last few years and they feel the government’s efforts mean nothing. Their ration card only brings them kerosene; education for their children is not free and their sons cannot bank on securing government jobs as they are not from scheduled castes or scheduled tribes.
Two boys in the family have completed BSc but are jobless. “They say they will only work in offices,” says Harbir, slapping his nephew on the back. The nephew, embarrassed, turns and leaves the room briefly. Another boy is studying to become a compounder, just like Pramod’s son.
“Reservation brings jobs for harijan children. When jat children go looking for jobs, they are asked to pay bribes,” says Tejo, Harbir’s aunt, who starts counting how much the family spends on school fees, new uniforms and textbooks.
“Modi promised achchhe din only to win votes. What has he done? Who has benefitted?” says Harbir, stretching on the khat. “Urad dal and moong dal are Rs 200 a kilo. Is that development?” he adds. Like Pramod’s family, pulses are out of their kitchen as well. His family is also in the same boat: back in 2010, he had told us, “We do not buy vegetables.” A mention of pulses had led to sad laughter from the women of the house, and Anita had said, “We don’t eat pulses either.”
The LPG cylinder is meant only for tea. “If we use it for cooking everything in the kitchen, it will be over in one week,” says Anita.
The government has been asking people to give up subsidy, Harbir comments sarcastically, “They want us to give up subsidy so that they can give it somebody poorer than us. The government is not pooling in any money of its own. It is only taking it from one family and giving it to another.”
As we get up to leave, the kids return from school. The chulha has gone cold but the food will be cooked soon – without onions and without pulses, of course. “If we use onions in food, how will we pay for our children’s education?” comments Tejo.
At Sunil’s home
As we jump the clogged drain to enter the compound of Sunil’s house, there is a sense of déjà vu. Not a brick has moved from the heap in a corner. The half-broken wall remains as it was. The neighbour’s kids are running around aimlessly. The khats are placed in the verandah in the same order as they were laid five years ago.
Unlike last time, though, Sunil is lucky today and he has got his daily wager work. It is one of the four days in a week when he finds work and earns between Rs 150 and 250 per day. He left home at 5 am on an empty stomach and has not returned yet at 1.30 pm. The worry on his daughter’s face is apparent. Back then, it was Pooja, Sunil’s elder daughter, who worried for the family’s hardships. Four years after she was married, Arti, the younger one, has taken up that role. She gave up her studies after completing class 10; money is scarce in this family, and there are four younger siblings who must at least finish primary school.
Sunil has borrowed “several thousand rupees” to tide over the hard times, and money was used for Pooja’s wedding and an uncle’s surgery apart from routine household expenses. Sunil’s wife, Jasbeeri Devi, works as domestic help in jat households. She also gives a hand when the crop is harvested, for which she is paid in kind. “Some people hand me wheat or whatever they harvest,” she says.
The family gets some wheat, rice and sugar from the fair price shop but goes slow on other food items, for example, onions and pulses. These are unaffordable, so potato is what they cook most frequently.
“Sometimes we feel we should have migrated to a city like other valmiki families in the village,” regrets Jasbeeri. “Some families have done so much better for themselves,” she adds. Her young girls talk of how upper-caste families humiliate them using caste pejoratives, and think they could be spared from it if they lived in a city. But the family knows there will be no respite from the rising prices and no matter where they shift they are not likely to get two square meals a day. Arti adds, “We have heard cities are very expensive, schools even more so.”
(The story appears in the November 1-15, 2015 issue)