I had never doubted the truth of the newspaper reports or TV documentaries in Germany about genetically modified crops etc, although it was rather abstract for me. But to see the reality of how Monsanto has actually advanced into the most remote and poorest parts of the world in order to turn honest working farmers into chemical slaves was a shock for me.
On the surface all appears to be well with the world when you drive around the countryside in Andhra Pradesh. You can see women in brightly-coloured saris walking along the road carrying things on their head, a boy or elderly person looking after a small herd of goats, farmers having something to eat while their animals rest in the shadow of a large tree. I enjoy looking out of the car window when we’re on our way to the villages. We’re overtaking oxcarts all the time. Sometimes you can see old paintings and wood carvings. The oxen have small bells on their horns that jingle with each step.
We reach the first village and the first family. “We” being Prof. K. Venkat Narayana, Mr. Ramreddy and me. The Professor and I have known each other since our first project together helping victims of the microloan industry. You can see the report on this first aid initiative in the 2012 Report.
Left picture: Prof. K. Venkat Narayana, Right picture: In the foreground: Mr. Ramreddy
Through our work together a real friendship has developed between us, and also with his family. This time Mr Ramreddy is also with us throughout the whole project and day after day he drives us to the remote villages at his own expense.
Visit to the villages
Three plastic chairs are usually sitting there ready for us and half the village has usually assembled. Our visit is something special. How often does a stranger come to the village? Many have never even seen a westerner. They talk, journalists make notes and take photos, and I take photos too. Prof. V.N. and Mr Ramreddy lead the discussion and translate for me.
The reports of the tragic events often have similarities. In one family, the husband hanged himself in his house; in another, the man attached a heavy rock to his foot and jumped into the well; and other drank pesticide and was found dead in a field. Various factors usually lead to this desperate end: two or three crop failures in a row, genetically-modified seed which is no longer fertile, fake seeds, pesticide and fertilizer – all delivered by Monsanto. They determine the price. Things are exacerbated by drought. During dry periods, generators are used to pump water out of the ground, thus reducing the water table year by year. During these periods, power cuts mean that the whole harvest dries up. Monsanto now wants to buy the water licences …
You can hardly sense outrage from the farmers any more – they are resigned. Pure despair, hopelessness, fear of the future – what will become of our children? Questions like this come up.
Would you like a cow?
I want to make it clear that they are free, and are free to say what would help them the most. Our visit is not a test where you have to say the right thing. The fact that the head of the family has taken his life is enough to be selected for our initiative. They are amazed that they have found someone in their small village, hours from the nearest town, where strangers would otherwise not come.
After the death of her husband, the young widow is left – with a distraught mother-in-law, father-in-law, brothers, children … Who is going to run the farm now? What about the loans? Question after question. The widow’s parents-in-law are usually not much older than me, and are often worn out and exhausted. Everyone – we too – seem to be overwhelmed by the situation. How can you comfort people like this, what can you say to them?
We’re back in the car and on our way to the next village. “Maybe we should just visit families where the death was at least six months ago. The relatives may have a better idea what to do next …?!”, I suggest. Prof. Venkat Narayana moves his finger down the list a few lines – no problem – there is a big choice. 250,000 farmers have already taken their lives in India.
I despondently look out of the car window. It’s completely hopeless. What am I doing here?
During a conversation with a small group, I ask, “Why is it that some farmers can cope and others not”. “Well, these days the farmers have to be business people and managers. And most of them aren’t. The ones that don’t cope are usually simple, honest people, and many are illiterate”. “Why doesn’t the government simply drive Monsanto out of the country, like it did with the microloan banks?” “The government is Monsanto!”, it was explained to me. “What?” I had to hear the sentence three times: “Yes, the government is paid by Monsanto. They want them to stay!” Corruption is a widespread problem in India.
Half an hour later we’re sitting with the next widow. I start crying and can’t compose myself, and I get photographed. I take photos of the journalists. The journalists take photos of us. We share out bananas before we leave and I’m photographed with a banana. I’m supposed to peel a banana and hold it out for the widow for a photo. I refuse. I take photos of the widow and the children and we get into the car and leave. The goat herder also gets in and he shows us the way to the next family. I think he’s probably never been in a car before. He’s totally happy!
Why an association?
… a few of my friends have asked, and I can well understand the question! Unfortunately this bureaucratic step had to be taken – from a financial point of view I have to justify all incomings and outgoings. Additionally I can now issue donation receipts. The regulatory process with the associated paperwork is daunting, but is the best proof that I want to continue my community involvement in India. But don’t worry, the project will remain transparent, and for everyone that has donated money, it will all remain accountable. I consider myself a type of ambassador and want to guarantee that every cent donated will reach the people who need it, and without any expenses being deducted. Sankranti e.V. is a small non-profit association. Everyone in India knows the word “Sankranti” – it is the farmers’ harvest festival. It signifies a new beginning.
During Sankranti, people welcome God into their homes by decorating the entrances. The centre of the “rangolis” are often adorned with cow dung.
The money and the plan
Up to the end of January 2013, a total of 5,704.13 € had been donated and I can account for it all. The exchange rate was between 71.1 and 71.6 rupees for 1 €. 13 families received support through the initiative, and each received the same sum of 28,000 -rps, plus 2,500 -rps in cash.
Two families were able to buy a cow and a calf with the money. Another family purchased a small herd of eight sheep. The other ten families chose have the money deposited in the DENA Bank for five years (same idea as the previous year). It generates 9.5% interest, which can be paid out every six months. The money is intended to be used for their children’s education or their daughters’ dowry/wedding. Using donation funds, I also paid for 14 saris and food for those that arrived on the day the cheques were presented.
The photos were taken by journalists. The new cow owners proudly presented me with the photos on the day of the cheque presentation.
This family was able to buy a small herd of eight sheep. The small boy and his grandmother will look after the sheep. The young man on the next photo has only one leg. He has lost his father. He now sells water at the railway station.
Day of the cheque presentation
As with the first project, we want to present the cheques in a ceremonial context. Invited guests include members from women’s self-help groups, journalists, village mayors, the families themselves and their relatives. The Academy of Arts in Warangal made a hall available for this event for free.
It was a long way for the farmers to come to Warangal, so we wanted to welcome them with a communal meal. We were expecting 100 people.
After the meal we end up standing around in the inner courtyard near the entrance to the hall, not really knowing what to do. University life carries on as normal. Students look at us enquiringly. Journalists are at the ready. We wait … we women sit down on a small round area of grass surrounded by a boxwood hedge. We’re now sitting there, looking at each other, happy to recognise one another again in amongst all this commotion. The men are standing around. A woman approaches me, beaming. I recognise her. “We’ve already had three litres of milk from the cow today”. She smiles broadly. That’s a pretty good amount for an Indian Water Buffalo. We’re both delighted. A few women and their daughters come over, sit down and start crying. I start crying too, as we remain sitting on the grass in the Academy of Arts courtyard.
All the honorary speakers that Prof. Venkat Narayana had invited are credible and well-known figures in the district who are standing for the rights of the farmers, and are highly respected by the people. Many journalists and television crews are also present. Eventually it was my turn to make a speech. Everyone, including those who had almost fallen asleep, were now looking at me, spellbound. What would they say? What on earth should I say? And everything in English. Two days earlier I had written out my speech and rehearsed it … it ended up in the bin.
I looked at all the faces – I knew almost everyone. We had seen each other in the villages or at the women’s self-help group meetings. What should I say to them? They were looking at me as if I was going to provide some kind of salvation. I said that I’m quite sure that God loves them, even if they are not able to believe it, and that it’s HIS will that they receive help. Amongst other things, I explained that in the west, we’re very well informed via the media about the farmers’ problems in India. And that they’re not alone. People in Germany and Switzerland have solidarity with them and had donated money to them through love and compassion. I called on them to help each other, help the widows and their families, and not to get disheartened. I would come back and see how they are getting on – next year!
After the speeches each family was called up. They received cheques, money and the women a sari. The girls got scarves, the children a tennis ball and other bits and pieces. A lot of the widows hugged me, we hid our faces behind the sari, they sobbed and many couldn’t stop. I whispered in their ear “You can do it! You can do it!” The new sari with have a special significance for every widow – she will be able to put it on when she’s sad and will remember this day.
We’ve made a clear statement with this initiative. I can hardly describe the atmosphere in the hall. The people were filled with a sense of solidarity – they never otherwise get together as a group. They have seen that people from a completely different part of the world have taken notice of them in their small village, and that they are not alone with their destiny. In the context of the ceremony they have received respect, and the speakers have given them encouragement. Journalists have shown interest in their problems and several television crews have conducted interviews. The journalists have been highly motivated to write about the government’s unacceptable conduct. At least 15 regional and national newspapers have reported on the subject and there has been a 20 minute television documentary about farmers’ situation and our initiative.
There was a tremendous feeling of belongingness. Many tears were shed. How many times have I heard “Thank you, thank you, thank you!” I can only pass on the thanks to you from the bottom of my heart. It was you! Thanks to your compassion, you’ve lastingly changed the lives of these people! I’m quite sure about that.