I am a farmer. I wasn’t one until 8 months ago. I have been working in cities and travelling across countries- and I knew nothing of cows and cow dung, grass and trees, potatoes and paddy.
I still can’t plough the field or milk the cow. I don’t think my cow likes me. I would cut my finger before I cut a doko of grass. It’s something my neighbors still smirk about. But the experience of growing paddy and vegetables and fruits and rearing cattle has made me a different person and today, I realise I am happy when I work in my own farm. I think it’s in my blood. Ten years ago, while appearing for my first job interview in Hyderabad in India during the IT boom, my interviewer asked me where I see myself in ten years. I had said I wanted to have my own IT firm or become a CEO or something at that level of fancy. Ask me today, I’ll tell you I want to become a farmer.
We are a rice people. Our festivals, our holidays, even our political movements are dictated by the cycle of growth of paddy. (By us, I mean people in my region; I intend no political exclusion of my fellow countrymen whose staple diet is not rice) And yet, we import rice. We import dal, we import vegetables and just about everything we eat or drink. The only consumable we barely import is cigarettes. Yet, when I look around me, it is clear that we don’t need to. So many people in my village and everywhere else in the country have quit farming in search of foreign labour. They send remittance to their families, who in turn, buy imported food from the market, sending that money out again. How is this beneficial? How is it possible that a country of farmers today has the land, better variants of crops, organic fertilisers and farm implements and yet cannot grow the food to feed itself?
Because farming is not lucrative! Our method of farming requires intense physical labour and the only produce we get is food. In the consumerist, globalised world of today, we need more than food. Clothes, electronics, housing material, Johnny Walker Red Label, LPG and a lot of other things that city people have and we don’t- our needs are many, but farming gives us only food.
Here comes the first problem- our agriculture is sustenance- based. We don’t grow to sell. Not even today. The jackfruits on my tree rot and fall: one jackfruit is as much as a family can eat in days, and entire colony of bats grow fat over a few fruits, and yet, dozens are still left on the tree. 25 kilometers away, people in Birtamod buy a jackfruit imported from Kolkata at more than a hundred rupees. It’s the same story with mangoes, with brinjal, okra, bitter gourd, turmeric and ginger.
The root cause of all this is transport. Or rather, the lack of it. If I could get my produce to the towns and cities, I could sell it for a rate lesser than the imported food and make a good profit. But to get my produce to the market, I need a vehicle. Four buses run from my village to Kakarbhitta, the nearest town. The bus stops a kilometer away from my house. I have no way of taking ten crates of tomatoes or a sack of cabbages that far. A Mahindra Maxx jeep, that costs 4 lacs in India, costs 14.75 lacs in Nepal. If an Indian farmer wants to buy a pick up truck or farm vehicle, he/she has to take a loan and pay it back in a few years as the returns come in. If I buy the same pick up truck in Nepal, I have to sell a kidney, pledge the other, mortage my land and probably promise to give my testicles and colon for cancer research. By the time that 14 odd lacs are recovered by transporting the vegetables to the town, three generations will have grown up, China will have made flying cars and farms in the sky and Nai Nabhannu La part 25 will be running in theatres. In short, that money cannot be recovered. The only people who can afford a car in Nepal are the landowners of yesterday, people who go abroad and come back, employees of international companies or those who use vehicles commercially. Farmers cannot own transport. It’s the same story with my neighbors, people in the next village, and the next one after that; it’s the same story with just about every farmer from Jhapa to Kailali, Taplejung to Darchula.
The reason I am comparing vehicles rates to that in India is because I live in a border village. Three kilometers away, I see farmers having electricity, motorbikes, TATA Magic to transport their goods. Milkmen come from Naxalbari on motorbikes, take our milk and go back across the river. Milkmen from our village are still using bicycles, and they have to tear their muscles cycling uphill. Why? Because a motorcycle costs upwards of INR 30,000 in India. In Nepal it starts at around 1,20,000. Selling one kidney is barely enough.
Is there a solution? Yes. But let me list out the problems first.
Our farming techniques are outdated. Nature-friendly but outdated. At some point of time, we will have to switch to modern equipment. Something as simple as cutting grass is a hazardous activity. In my village elephants rampage through paddy fields and cornfields just as we are ready for harvest. But for modern equipment- from sirens to drive away elephants to motors, pruning scissors to water sprinklers everything has to be bought, which automatically means imported, and getting them to the farms is something nobody will bother themselves with.
Lastly, there are no incentives to being a farmer. Earlier this year, the forest department offered to provide tree saplings to us. Excitedly, I ordered for over a 1000 saplings- teak, paulenia, khamari, masala, as did everyone else in the village. Some got ready to dig the holes and lay manure into them. Until we learnt that the trees would belong to the forest department, we couldn’t take their timber or produce and when they finally felled the trees, they would give us a percentage. Am I going to break my back planting the saplings and caring for them if they are going to belong to someone else? Perhaps not.
There are no community farms, I don’t have a market for my produce and I don’t get subsidies on farm implements.
More importantly, I have no insurance. If the rains fail, I am fucked. If 80 elephants- cows, calves and bulls, rampage through my farm and shit over everything- I am fucked. The VDC pledges around Rs.10,000 compensation; that will come by the next planting season and that is peanuts. We want rice, not peanuts. If pests infest my vegetables and bats eat my fruits, I am fucked.
Lastly, electricity. I want to use motors to run the kuti kaatne machine. I need motors to draw water from the wells, I want to use water sprinklers on my vegetable gardens, I want to use sirens to drive away the elephants. I can’t light a candle to do all this if there’s no electricity. So why do I want to become a farmer, then? My cousins think I should apply for a DV or go to the US through my relatives. A friend of mine asked me what was the point of studying so much and getting two masters degrees if all I had to do was farm. Perhaps I am crazy. Five years ago, when I was abroad as were my sisters, my parents, especially my dad, wanted to sell the house in the town and move to the village and rear a cow- we thought he was crazy. Today, I am glad they did.
I have seen through a terribly hot summer, a bad monsoon and one national tragedy after another. But today, when I stand and look out at the green paddy fields, their tops turning gold, and I drive through the gravel road from the highway to my village and I see parrots and sparrows swooping down and flying away, and I see a sea of green touching the orange of the sunset, and when I reach home and breathe no dust, walk around on the cool grass and see trees around me instead of buildings- I tell myself I will not exchange this for anything. As do so many farmers who have not given up on farming to work at the airport in Malaysia or construction sites in Qatar.
The government can help make things easier for us. We don’t want free grants; we don’t even want subsidies. What we want is for the government to not make things hard for us so we can farm. And if we farm well, we will not need to import food crops; we can survive ten blockades like this.
Firstly, do not tax farm vehicles and electric vehicles: pick-up trucks, tractors, utes. Or at least reduce the taxes. A farmer has to take a sack of dhan to the mill on a bicycle to get the rice. He can do it one sack at a time. An electric driven “city-safari” makes the job ten times easier for him. A city-safari costs between 60,000 to a lac in India. Here it starts at 2.5 lacs. Selling one kidney and having a surrogate child for a foreigner is not enough to buy that.
Secondly, get done with those electric projects, FFS! Even when there is no load shedding, we used to get a voltage of around 160-180V. We had to turn the fan with a broom before it started turning and picked up speed. All this until the people in the village got together, contributed and got a transformer and laid out a “four-phase” line. At the least, provide subsidies (or remove taxes) to small farmers on solar panels and batteries. One electric bulb can help get rid of so many insects and pests in a vegetable garden. But I can’t light the bulb, why? Because my world’s-second-richest-in-water-resources country has no electricity.
Thirdly, devise some sort of insurance scheme. Why do you want to take on the responsibility of compensating farmers when your own resources are limited? If my entire farm burns down, you would probably give Rs. 10,000- after one year, in a public function where the VDC chairman or my CA elect will hand me a cheque in front of the camera. Fuck that. Let farmers pay a small premium. Droughts do not usually happen all around the country, neither do floods. One part of the country can support another. Fields that are destroyed by herds of elephants can be compensated for from this fund. In Kenya, they are insuring cows because they are so important to the lives of herders. In cities, people have health insurance and life insurance and insurance for cars and bikes. Does it not make sense to insure my farm produce? Clearly it is more important to insure something that I have worked so hard for instead of a cholesterol deposit that I got by not working at all?
We are an industrious people. We have survived decades of stagnant, non-producing economy, civil war, earthquakes, terrible films and bad TV reporters with resilience. Wherever the government has built roads, people have started growing, trading and expanding on their ownsomething I have seen in places from Panchthar to Mustang, Kapilvastu to Kaski. All the government has to do is to not make lives harder for us. But why should the government do this? Why should it help us?
Because this country needs farmers. More of us. Because we want to be self-reliant and self-sufficient. If not in fancy electronics, at least in food. Because for every family that leaves its farm and moves to the city, for every family that gives up its field for plotting and sells it to apartment builders, another must farm in its place and produce enough not just to feed itself but the one that quit farming, too.