The sacred cow

January 31, 2007 at 4:00 PM • Filed under India 2007

          Apparently, there is talk in the Indian press about sending a citizen of this country to the moon. And in the papers you can find countless articles about the Indian hi-tech boom that anyone who has called Microsoft customer support is familiar with.
          This is what Lalita Kamble has to say about all that:
          "You cannot eat a computer! And to go to space in rocket, you must have a full stomach!  So you must sit down at the table. And who decorates the table? The farmer."
          Outspoken, thrifty, and committed to the land she farms in central India, Lalita would be a salty New England farmer if she were transplanted to the United States. She would join Rural Vermont, a group that fights for economic justice for farmers. She would freely chastise local politicians upon meeting them on a street corner. And she would raise hell at every town meeting.
          Instead, she lives 20 minutes outside the mid-sized city of Chandrapur with her husband, Prem, and employs a dozen farm laborers from surrounding villages. With the help of a deep well, she has turned dry, dusty land into organic fields teeming with tomatoes, brinjal (eggplant), coriander and other herbs and veggies. She also grows corn and barley for her 40-or-so dairy cows and water buffalo, all of whom she has named and who are the centerpiece of her organic dairy.
          And, as if farming didn't take enough of her energy, the 62-year-old former schoolteacher directs her opinions, quite boldy and freely, to the handful of villagers who live near her five-hectare farm. She scolds them for the garbage they throw on the ground (no less in rural India than in the the cities) and accuses them of laziness. But she just as easily lets out a big belly laugh when she finds something funny, and her wide smile can make your day.
          Last week, after a day in town with Lalita and Prem, we rode back to the farm in their beat-up white van along a very bumpy road. All of a sudden, I saw Lalita roll down her window and shout something to the people gathered outside their homes- nothing more than concoctions of mud and straw. 
          "What did you tell them?" I asked.
          "I said, 'Who is going to clean up the rubbish on this road?  Indira Gandhi?  Sonia Gandhi?'"  (She was referring to India's most famous female politicians.) "One day I am going to get down from this car and collect this rubbish and put it in their houses!" 
          Lalita's main goal may be to clean up the surrounding villages and spark agricutural innovation among its inhabitants, but her more immediate goal is to buy more cows. To her, cows provide the most valuable material for the organic farmer - manure - and with manure, she says, farmers can ditch the expensive fertilizers being sold to them by multi-national corporations. They can then save money and avoid the fate of thousands of Indian farmers who have committed suicide over the past few years. These farmers, after borrowing money to pay for expensive pesticides, fertilizers and genetically-modified seeds from Western corporations, fall into debt and kill themselves to save their wives and children from lives of disgrace and poverty. It is one of India's great moral crises.  
          Lalita points out that cow dung doesn't just provide fertilizer. It also provides the raw material for bio-gas, which she uses to fuel her kitchen stove. She delights in this set-up, which allows her to cook her food even when the power goes out, as it often does in India. 
          And then there's the milk that her cows produce, which she gets a good price for because of the short supply of milk in Chandrapur. With this output she also produces paneer, Indian cheese, which supplments the income she gets from her milk. And to produce all this milk and cheese, without machinery, she hires poor laborers, gives them a good life, pays them well and feels good about how she is helping them. No wonder she considers the cow to be sacred. It's not because she's religious (she isn't).  
          "More cows, more milk, more employment, more manure," she told me. "Round and round we come to the same point: Having more cows is the only solution for everything."
          She would like to have more cows, you can imagine. But one cow costs $300. So to earn some extra money she built the Clay House, a cool, spacious adobe structure where she puts up paying guests at her farm. This is where I stayed for a week, sleeping on a simple bed, washing from a basin of pure water, and listening to the chattering of the farm laborers through the open windows.  Lalita hopes the extra money from this farmstay program will help her expand her dairy. She is just getting started in this venture - I was only her third guest. 
          For myself, I was hoping for a quiet week away from the insanity of Indian cities and a chance to observe organic farming in India. Many of you know that I'd wanted part of my trip to involve research and writing about the farmer suicide crisis I mentioned above. But over the course of last fall, despite great effort, I was unable to secure interviews or assistance from non-profits or activists working on this problem. So, accepting this and trusting that another path may be better, I came to the Clay House.
          It may have been a blessing, as it's been hard enough to travel solo around India as a tourist, let alone as someone doing journalism and research. I may have underestimated the challenges of working and writing in the Third World. (By the way, can anyone give me a better word for 'Third World' or 'developing'?!)  In fact, my admiration for foreign correspondents and photojournalists - particulary my friend Martha Rial from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, who has done such great work in poor countries - has jumped tenfold since being here.
          In essence, if I ever want to return to this part of the world, I will be much better prepared to work here because of this trip. This time, though, I came to the Clay House, and saw firsthand the potential that organic farming holds for rural India. In my next post, I'll share some of my experiences on the farm, some of which were most charming and unexpected.