It was the year 1997. We had just started implementing the Community Farming project for tribals (subsequently christened as Ganga Kalyana Yojana by the State Government). The energy levels were high and Mohan was in-charge of the program. Mohan was a young engineering graduate from IIT Kharagpur. He had joined SVYM as a member some years ago and had subsequently quit his job at L & T and joined our team on a full-time basis in 1995. He was a workaholic and putting in nearly 14-16 hours each day into this. The tribal youth had to be trained, the Yajamanas had to be kept motivated and the tribal farmers participating in the program needed to get the inputs and technology on time. Added to this was the uncertainty of the weather. The Government was supporting us to the fullest and SK Das, the then social welfare secretary was keen to ensure the success of this innovative program. While all this was something that we could do and reasonably manage, little could be done about the marauding elephants. The entire work was being undertaken on the banks of the Kabini, which was considered as one of Asia’s largest elephant corridors. To neutralize this problem, the tribals decided that they would try growing a crop that the elephants had not got used to. We decided on ‘cabbage’ and cultivated it in more than 20 acres of land. As we neared the harvest of the crop, i went to Mysore to enquire about the market prices. The cost of 1 kg of cabbage in the market was around Rs 6. I came back and told Mohan that our experiment could be a success. The elephants had not raided the cabbage fields and we began the harvest. We harvested nearly 3 tons of the crop and started dreaming of the money that we could get if we sold our produce at Rs 4 per kg.
Mohan got the crop loaded onto our truck and decided to drive it down to the Agriculture Produce Marketing Committee (APMC) yard where the vegetables could be sold. The market operated under its own peculiar laws and was most active for buying from the farmers between 3 and 7 am. Mohan reached the market around 2 am and started looking around for buyers. His ignorance and naivety was quickly shattered when he learnt that we could sell the crop to only one agent who specialized in buying cabbage. Apparently, the divisions were clear amongst the agents. If one focused on potato, the other stuck to onions and so on. The onion man would not buy your potato crop nor could you get to sell your cabbage to anybody except the cabbage agent. These were unwritten rules that everyone respected but the agents benefited from the most. They ensured that a rigid monopoly existed which gave them an undue and unfair negotiation advantage. The cabbage agent was determined not to give us more than 30 paise per kg. Mohan was both disappointed and angry. He knew that the retail rate in the market was Rs 6 per kg. Any amount of reasoning or appealing to the man’s sense of fairness did not work. The tribals who had accompanied Mohan were disappointed. Some of them wanted to dump the entire crop by the wayside and return. The more benevolent of them felt that they could simply donate the vegetables to an orphanage or an old-age home and come back. Mohan finally decided to sell the vegetables at the agent’s price with the hope that it would atleast cover the cost of diesel that was used to transport the crop.
They returned in the middle of the day very disappointed and crestfallen. I was shattered to learn that all the efforts of our tribal brethren were futile. How could we get them to move up the economic ladder if society constantly conspired to keep them out of it? I soon learnt that this was the fate of most of our farmers. They are completely at the mercy of the rain gods, the money lenders and the traders. One felt so helpless and impotent in this system. It was then that Kempaiah, the Yajamana of Kempanahadi came calling. I always used to look forward to our conversations and he always had some wise experience to share with me. He had learnt about this recent catastrophic adventure of ours. He wanted to console and encourage me on. I narrated how unfair the treatment towards our tribal farmers had been. I told him that after all the effort, sleepless nights guarding the crop and the dreams that our people had, this was something that i had not bargained for. What he told me was something that changed the way in which i was interpreting and seeing this whole incident. He asked me to stop measuring the efforts and hard work of the tribals in terms of the money that society could give us. He said it was stupid to even consider measuring something as sacred as working on the land by the narrow scale of money and economics. He said that farming was a spiritual activity which took you as close to God as you can get. He said farming makes a person complete, humble and gives him the knowledge of how small and insignificant we are in this grand cosmic drama. He said it gives a person the perspective and opportunity to understand true selfless work. He said i needed to learn to measure life from this context and from the perspective of the fulfillment and enrichment that the tribals got by cultivating the cabbage crop. Seeing the crop unfold in front of our very own eyes is watching God in action and nothing could match this. Money, he said, was inadequate to even come close enough.
Kempaiah’s words left me speechless and wonder-struck. How much wisdom this old pan-chewing tribal had! It was fascinating to understand how much he had learnt from the nature around him and how evolved these people were. How i wish all those who believe that earning money is the only thing to live for, learn from Kempaiah and his wisdom.