When I chose Wayanad, Kerala as my project site, it was a dream come true for a guy coming from a dusty place like Delhi straight into the lap of the famous Western Ghats of India. The first few days here were like that for any other tourist exploring a place of natural beauty, meeting people of an entirely different ethnic background, having traditional food, etc. Wayanad, where most of the spices are grown, has a lush green environment and there I was trying to do what I have always wanted to do. Slowly, this rosy picture began to fade away as I was faced with the challenges of getting adjusted to local food, living in a jungle like place, surrounded by people who speak an entirely different language.
I started concentrating on my project, which was to focus on developing a value chain for small ginger farmers. Ginger is one of the most important spices used in all kinds of Ayurvedic medicines, food, beverages, perfumes and many other industries. Kerala is one of the largest producers of ginger and yet farmers from Kerala were migrating from here? These were the questions that sent me to Coorg, to meet these farmers.
When we reached the field, everybody was busy working in the field. Both men and women were engaged in removing weeds manually from the field, while others were irrigating the field and instructing labourer’s to do various jobs. One thing was common to all these fields; there was a hut either in the center or in a corner of each field. Observing a few strangers coming to his field, a person came out from one of the huts wearing a dhoti and shirt. My guide spoke to him in Malayalam and a sudden smile lit up his face. He was one of the farmers who had migrated from Meenangadi (Wayanad, Kerala) for doing ginger farming at Coorg. I took out all my assets – diary, pen, recording device in order to quickly record the conversation, which was the reason I was there. On seeing this equipment the smile faded from the farmer’s face and I slowly slipped everything back into my bag. Being unable to understand Malayalam, I was just observing my guide speaking to the farmer, and allowing him to establish a good rapport so that I could speak to him later on about my project.
The farmer invited us to his small hut which had space for a T.V, Kitchen area, bed, chairs, table, storage for farm equipments etc. Everything was accommodated in a very nice and neat fashion as if they had hired an interior decorator to arrange these things inside that small hut. Now I slowly ventured to enter into their conversation, with my guide translating for me. I told them about the purpose of my project and they were happy to know that we were doing something for ginger farming. Actually they were very happy to see people from their homeland, Kerala. They told us that they had migrated to this place because they were facing problems like very low yield from cultivation and many ginger based diseases in Kerala. So they had taken land on lease in Coorg and stayed there for the entire crop cycle, till they sold their ginger and then went back home with the money that they had earned. It reminded me of soldiers, living in very adverse conditions, fighting battles and then going back to their home after the battle.
They served us black tea and Paan, and the conversation went on about various issues related to ginger farming and their tough life in Coorg. I didn’t record anything, as it made them feel uncomfortable. We visited a few more similar farmers.
After four months of my visit to Coorg, I found that the ginger prices have crashed to one third of what it was for the past many years. Many of the farmers suffered huge losses and unable to repay their loans a few committed suicide as well. The newspapers also reported that some of the farmers who had migrated to Coorg from Kerala had also committed suicide. It is very difficult for me to even imagine if they were the same farmers whom I had met; I still remember their smile and wish I could have helped them in some way.
– SBI Youth for India fellow Santosh Choudhary. His project was on ‘Improving the Value Chain of Ginger Cultivation for Marginal Farmers’
Photo: K.K. Mustafah