Apna Nimbu Bazaar Becha

The title credit for this post goes to Pankaj, who has made a great film on much the same issues called Apna Aloo Bazaar Becha. The rant credits go to me and the insight credits to Sonati. 

Yesterday, it came viscerally home to Sonati and me that the Economy Rules OK! 

We have always sympathised with our farmer neighbours about their being trapped in the brokers’ clutches. One memory that stays is Govindraj and his young machan (brother-in-law), barely bigger than Badri Baba at that time, some 12 years ago: he was hawking tomatoes door-to-door at ₹3 a kg; the retail price in Karumandurai was ₹15; and he said that he was not going to get more than ₹1 a kg in Karumandurai. So he spent about three hours a day carrying his day’s pickings around the villages for some six or seven weeks!

I remember Unnamalai from Gundiyapattu pleading with a broker to give her 5 paise per lemon more than he was willing to give: eventually she had to take the offer of ₹20 for 100 lemons. 

Yesterday, I sold lemons for a rupee a piece, and I suspect I got a “good rate” because the broker was Jothi, my vegetable-wallah. Just last week I had heard him say that there was no way he could charge less than ₹5 a lemon because he was buying them for ₹4. 

Till this year we have never sold lemons: We have pickled them, gifted plenty (once even carting a couple of hundred to Bombay to gift away: half my luggage), and generally made merry with Nimbu pani, Lemon cakes and what-not. This year, too, we have gifted lots: it was a real pleasure to see the usually zombie-like Easparan’s face beam when, just as he was diffidently asking me for a few lemons (“My wife told me to ask you”), Sonati emerged with a bagful! 

And of course we have received gifts aplenty throughout our stay here of a variety of things. Pumpkins, coconuts, rice, what-have-you. In fact all these lemons are from trees grown from seed of lemons gifted to us by “Lemon” Annamalai. 

But this year it became a problem of plenty. Brokers started accosting me with offers of 50 paise per lemon (Just imagine, saar: ₹50 for 100). They would of course strip the trees if we let them and then we, who haven’t bought a lemon for many years may have been reduced to even that! A certain sense of entitlement also crept into those who received our lemons: “Anyway, if they are free, why not ask for more?” 

The long and the short of it was that there were a bit too many to handle, so yesterday, when I was going shopping I carried 100 lemons and asked Jothi if he wanted them for his shop. He enthusiastically took them and after having made out my vegetable bill, he finessed any attempt at bargaining (which in any case I never indulge in with him), by saying “It’s OK Anna, the lemons have paid your bill”. 

And it came home to me that I had sold our lemons at ₹1 apiece. Which was quite appalling. 

(An aside: Amma in Salem says that the shop makes more out of her coconuts than she does; Aseem says that Penguin makes more out of his book than he does; Russell says that an agent would make more out of his paintings than he does; only he doesn’t use an agent; and hence makes less money than he would otherwise. But I digress)

 And this is the trap that the farmer falls into. Moreso, if it is a cash crop. I mean, I can gift lemons away almost indefinitely, but any takers for Sugarcane? Tapioca? The system ensures that the buyer calls the shots and the seller has no choice but not to grow Tapioca for the market.

 But that too is a phantom choice. If you grow Ragi for a few years in fields surrounded by tapioca, you will find that all the neighbours’ rats migrate to your ragi-field. And to add insult to injury, when you do finally harvest whatever Ragi the rats have spared, your neigbours will say, “Saar, your rats have come to our fields”. 

Been there, Done that. 

We have seen the landscape change in front of our eyes, literally. When we came here, 14 years ago, 80% of the rainfed fields we saw were food crops: ragi, samai, kambu, nellu…Now no-one grows rainfed food crops. Farmers have moved to the cultivation of Tapioca to the exclusion of virtually everything else. 

The upshot is that since the aim is to make money, all our neighbours’ kids have turned to some form of brokering to add to their income. If you look at the statistics, India’s pulse production is steadily declining (Sunny: Numbers please). Not surprising at all. Anything which requires care throughout the year, is given up for low-maintenance tapioca. The menfolk can then go earn money in Tiruppur, Coimbatore, Kerala (or of course for the gamblers, there is Red-Sanders smuggling in Andhra).

 I can say that here in Thekambattu, at any rate, most of the younger generation have stopped thinking like farmers. And who can blame them? And it is likely that “No longer farmers in the mind” is the rule rather than the exception all over the country. And if we lose our farmers, who will feed us? 

I will end this with a quote from Oliver Goldsmith’s Deserted Village: 

“Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay;
Princes and lords may flourish or may fade;
A breath can make them as a breath has made.
But a bold peasantry, their country’s pride,
When once destroyed, can never be supplied.”

…and an invitation to drop in for some Nimbu paani.

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5 Responses to “Apna Nimbu Bazaar Becha”

  1. Lime Shot | Thekambattu Says:

    […] A week in the life of… Apna Nimbu Bazaar Becha […]

  2. Lina@Word Says:

    Wonderful post Sunder, beautifully written. Nice to see this title in my inbox 🙂 And thanks for the nimbus BB brought; they were really juicy!

  3. russell scott Says:

    sooo lovely thanks

  4. anu krishna Says:

    We face much the same situation here at our village and share the same frustrations as you do. You have captured the scenario so beautifully though. Wonderfully articulated.

  5. Damayanti Bhattacharya Says:

    Given all the land under cultivation it is a bitter irony that more more of the farmers turn to cash crops and we will soon turn to importing all our food. The middle man is the killer, the one who takes away the profits, it is not even the end user. The story is the same even in cash crops, be it cotton, grapes, groundnut you name it. you spend more, poison your land with pesticides, get riddled with debt and then like fate of the cotton farmers commit suicide in the end. I do not know what the solution is but I do not see one in sight any time soon.

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