Review: Ramrao; The Story of India’s Farm Crisis by Jaideep Hardikar

Ramrao is a farmer who lives in Hiwara village in Yavatmal district in Vidarbha, Maharashtra. He had a debt of 25 lakh when he tried to take his life. This book tells the story of farming in India through the life of Ramrao
On parched ground: A farmer in Wardha, Maharashtra. (Prasad Gori/HT Photo)
On parched ground: A farmer in Wardha, Maharashtra. (Prasad Gori/HT Photo)
Published on Nov 12, 2021 04:56 PM IST
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ByAparna Karthikeyan

The story of Ramrao, the farmer – and that of India’s farm crisis – begins not in the field, not in a house, but on a hospital bed, “an old, motionless ceiling fan above him, its white blades grimy black with cobwebs and layers of dirt.” Two bottles of pesticide landed him there, enough to cover two acres of brinjal fields. What made him do it? He couldn’t save his wife or educate his daughters or repay his loans and “feared seeing my friends and relatives, asking for their money back when I have none.” He was also caught in the middle of a terrible agrarian crisis across Indian farms: “small, fragmented, non-remunerative, unsustainable and rain fed”. Every year, the author Jaideep Hardikar tells us, “India produces more, yet farmers end up with loans and losses.” Hope, he tells us, “hangs like a mirage”.

(272pp, ₹399; HarperCollins)
(272pp, ₹399; HarperCollins)

In some ways, it is a dangerous opening: starting with possibly the most dramatic event in a farmer’s life. What, it makes you wonder, in the remaining 200+ pages, can be as gripping? You’d be surprised. Much of it has to do with Jaideep’s reporting experience, his clean, easy prose. He breaks down numbers, he writes accessibly about crops and climate change. He excels when he writes about people. Hardikar, the researcher, has a fine eye for detail; the reporter has a finer heart, filled with empathy.

The result is a luminous book about Ramrao’s story of survival. Literally, he survived the attempt to take his own life. Was he lucky, or was the insecticide adulterated? An activist friend tells Jaideep, “The farm-input companies can even sell donkey’s urine as insecticide.” Ramrao suffers more losses; personal and professional. And he asks, “What all do we worry about now? Monsoon, markets, lenders, politicians….and monkeys.”

Ramrao lives in Hiwara village in Yavatmal district in Vidarbha, Maharashtra. He had a debt of 25 lakh when he tried to take his life. Quickly, he decides his life has been saved so that he can pay that off. “I won’t die with unpaid debts.” His faith is steely, but his path is unclear in the months and years just after the incident.

Ramrao, whose story the book tells. (Courtesy Jaideep Hardikar)
Ramrao, whose story the book tells. (Courtesy Jaideep Hardikar)

But he simply does not have a choice: he must farm for a living. To do that, he needs “guts” and at least 1,00,000 to crop his fields; but how can he get the money when he has 25 times that as debt? Jaideep presents us his dilemmas, and interprets his experiments. The farmer tries his hand at over three dozen crops. He is resilient and innovative, but not always successful. There are, after all, too many factors that are not in his control. In 2016, it was demonetisation; 2017, pink bollworm, a pest; this on top of “the old structural problems”, a very long list, growing longer since liberalization, and none of which have a solution anyway. “How do you meet your cash needs every day when income flows occur only once or twice in 365 days? The world’s best economists,” Jaideep says, “should put their minds together to figure that out in a focused conference.” He also asks, on behalf of the farmers, for a “‘New Deal’ for rural India”, “a government that listens and revamped state agricultural departments.”

Throughout, Jaideep’s writing is unexpected – a face is “pentagon shaped”, another has grown “old, tough as betel nut”. It is detailed, with notes on farms that resemble “big splashy portraits,” and bungalows that get their teak doors ready for Diwali, rubbed down with cotton seed oil. The book is also wise; it captures local idioms: “You convert 100 into 60, just to keep your father’s name alive.” And it is witty with dark humour lacing the sharp story: Ramrao wonders if he must sue the insecticide company, after all, even two bottles of their potent stuff didn’t take his life.

Jaideep Hardikar (Courtesy the author)
Jaideep Hardikar (Courtesy the author)

Each time Jaideep visits Ramrao – frequently, over seven years – he gets to know his protagonist closely. Each meeting adds layers and textures to the book. If you care about the history of cotton, the history of the region that sent cotton overseas, you’ll find it all here. If you’re curious about pesticides, you’ve got a mini thesis. There are small things: how is a cotton field with different varieties prepared? There are simple things: why do plants grow in straight lines? (Answer: “That’s how a bullock walks.”) And then there is the agrarian crisis – big, crushing, complex.

Patiently, and carefully, Jaideep unravels that knot. Here he talks about financial inclusion. There he brings up migration. The bewildering interconnectedness of the countryside, the glaring disconnect between the producer and consumer, the farmer’s companions: “loans, losses, loneliness”, farmers who “die standing in queues for every damn thing,” and who die three a day in Vidarbha, one in 30 minutes in India, because they see no point in living…

This book might nudge the government and influence policy. It might also influence and educate the reader. Its success is its simplicity. Elegantly, and with little fuss, it tells you the story of farming, through the life of a farmer. Few have cared to mainstream the problems of the majority of Indians who live outside its great cities. P Sainath did, in his book Everybody Loves a Good Drought. Jaideep too is among that rare breed of journalists who report on everyday rural issues. Fittingly, walking back to the farmer’s house after a programme in the village, Jaideep asks: “What would people do if there were no stories?” And Ramrao smiles and replies “There would no meaning to their lives.” Indeed.

Aparna Karthikeyan is a Chennai based independent journalist & author.

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