Home > Story of SVYM > (71) Learning agriculture marketing the hard way!

(71) Learning agriculture marketing the hard way!

March 21, 2012

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.


Categories: Story of SVYM
  1. Govind Pai
    March 23, 2012 at 8:27 am

    Also found this an excellent case study, Balu, on the perils and pitfalls of going into a project with the focus only on production efficiencies without considering the marketing and finance aspects (maybe Amul should be the case study for a street smart way of going about such projects?). I had found your article on “FDI in retail and Ratnamma” very moving. Do you believe that FDI in retail will break the stranglehold of these monopolistic and unethical traders only to create bigger and more monopolistic and unethical retail giants? Or is it possible to create an act which gives room for competition (such as simultaneously starting farmers’ markets where farmers and first-line intermediaries like Ratnamma can make a living and market fresh produce which the big players will not be able to do)? The present system with the small margin for farmers and large ones for traders also gives absolutely no incentive to prevent wastage (I read that more than 30% of produce in India is wasted in transit and because of dumping due to prices being unviable). Would FDI in retail change the equations, creating stable supplier consumer relationships where it is advantageous to make sure that the supplier is adequately reimbursed and wastage is minimized? Don’t know much about this area, but do know that the truth is always complex.

    • Balu
      March 23, 2012 at 6:09 pm

      The present attitude and market dynamics tend to move towards creating a more structured monopoly. The small trader will only get replaced by a larger network of traders promoted and unleashed by the larger retail chains. We only need to look at the Pepsico and other examples in Punjab and Haryana to see this happening. We need to explore alternatives of creating a market with a relatively larger role for the producer, as in the case of Amul. Enlightened and empowered farmer’s cooperatives may be the first step in this direction.

  2. Govind Pai
    March 22, 2012 at 9:02 pm

    Don’t know if I agree totally with your perspective, Balu. Certainly, Kempaiah’s insight into the spiritual value of work in itself is something we would all do well to remember. But forgetting the material aspect of it will amount to the kind of other-worldliness and fatalism that have been our bane as a nation. Isn’t this the fine balance that Swami Vivekananda was trying to impress on us? Reminded of the prayer of the German theologian Reinhold Niebuhr “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” Anyway, you are the activist and know this much better than any of us theoreticians.

    • Balu
      March 23, 2012 at 6:07 pm

      Thank you for your perspectives. While i agree with you that we need to balance the secular with the demands of the spiritual, we need to also look at Kempaiah’s view from the paradigm of our own attitudes and how we deal with what happens around us. I am not trying to make a case that we need to be fatalist in our approach or views, but am only trying to say that we should not let what happens around us affect us. We need to keep the spiritual perspective towards the events around us. Every incident can teach us so much and we need to be ready to see and learn from them. While one can get drawn and weighed down by the negative, i am trying to get a different and a much larger and enriching perspective to this.

      • Govind Pai
        March 23, 2012 at 8:39 pm

        Thanks for that, Balu. I certainly find your articles moving and thought provoking. I tend to be in tune with your more spiritual philosophy, which is why I find it necessary to question it ! (Karl Popper the philosopher of science believed that the only real way to prove anything scientifically was to do your utmost to disprove it,and keep failing. Yet to meet a scientist who does this with his own ideas, though!)

  3. B.Gurudatt Kamath
    March 21, 2012 at 2:23 pm

    Really nice blog sir so much to learn from these people who see the nature as God.

  4. Swaminath G
    March 21, 2012 at 9:32 am

    Very deceptive story with a profound message. Shows the frustration of those who had put in effort, Mohan’s logic in at least trying to recover diesel money, but Kempaiah’s belief that work on land is more sacred than economic benefit puts things in a different perspective. It is almost like Krishna’s Geetha message. The explanation is better, about seeing the unfolding of God’s work. Touched me and ‘awoke’ me (Sorry to use such a grandiose word). Thanks Balu.

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