By Madhulika Chaturvedi
Reports in 1995 came out about the overpowering of the chili farmers in Ramnad district and around by P.Sainath. They had been woven into an intricate web of debt and repayment of loans by the moneylenders and ‘tharagar’(commission agents). Little did they know that this cycle of indebtedness would continue to dog the farmers and their generations later?
The moist eyes and unduly wrinkles on their faces mark for the adversity of unpaid debt. Their shaking voice at the thought of meeting the ‘tharagar’ is palpable. It seems as they have never seen the harvest season and the unsettled look with which they pack their stock of chilies, remarks for the hopelessness attached to it.
A ‘unique kind of slavery’ is what the chili crop cultivators have to live with. After 19 years, a visit to the Theriruveli village of Ramnad district flashes people reciting the same stories, retelling the same tale from the pages of “Everybody loves a good drought’ of how their lives have been exploited, and how they see no way of coming out of it.
“10 people open the sack of chilies, check it with their hands, stamp on them and then decide the price. They can do whatever they want and we cannot ask”, says Kaalimuthu, a farmer working on her husband’s land about what happens when they go to sell their sacks of chilies off in the market. The commission agents, buys the crop usually at 6% interest. He loans the farmer some money before he/she sows the chili seeds. Also, some of the commission agents work as traders in the town market. While weighing the sack to be bought, they often resort to rigging of the weighing scale while putting his foot on it which makes it two-three kilograms heavier. Taking away of a kilogram of chilies as ‘sami vathal’, that is, in ‘God’s name’ takes place as well. Also, the ‘towel’ or ‘thundu’ method as talked about previously in ‘Everybody loves a good drought’ where the bidder and the auctioneer, one at a time touch their fingers at specific points under the towel and decide at which price the batch of chilies are to be sold. The highest bidder for the chilies wins. The farmer opens its mouth only to negotiate for the price, seldom he gets his quote, often he is refused.
Ignorant of the exploitation, the farmer gazes at the trader with hopeful eyes and a silent mumble as a prayer to get a fair price on its produce of chilies.
The former President of the Chili Merchant’s Association, R Sridhar sits in his office, perched on a chair and defends the whole process. “We are an association of 70 members. There is no favoritism or rigging involved in appointing the members or President of the association”. All this while, the farmer has no say. The appointed members all belong to the fixed group of people. An outsider does not have any say, the outsider being the farmer himself.
The traders negotiate the price with the commission agents, which is usually Rs. 400-500 per quintal. However, at the time of payment, the price paid to them narrows to a meager amount as the agents deduct transport charge and a commission of 6 per-cent.
“I have incurred a debt of 8 lakhs. My house has not been whitewashed for years. I don’t have any jewelry left. I have pawned all of it”, a teary eyed Mallika says while adjusting the vegetable basket on her head.
The remittance of the debt has resulted in migration to countries like Malaysia. More than 150 people from the villages are working there. The families of the farmers send 25-30 thousand a month, all this for the settlement of the loans.
One of the main cash crops of the Ramnad district, the ‘mundu’ chilly does not have the government involved in its produce as it lacks cold storage facilities and a marketing yard where chilies should be auctioned in the open. This reason, on the other hand proves to be an advantage for the agents and traders as they are the sole managers of handling and ‘mishandling’ the produce.
The illiteracy of the farmer is abused by the whole sellers. However, even the educated ones are unable to break the shackles. They know that the chilies are exported and it is fairly priced in the global market. Yet, they are unable to say a word against the ongoing process.
There are also fixed agents to whom the farmers can sell. Ones who go to other agents from their usual ones to sell to, but here, all the agents have strong communication within themselves. As Sridhar puts it,“if my party goes on to someone else, they deduct my interest from their produce and then pay them off”.
Innumerable appeals, protest and grievances have however resulted in a partial government intervention. The district collector, N Nanthakumar said that,“a cold storage facility of 2500 tonnes and a marketing yard is due in the next eighteen months”.
Meanwhile, it is evening and the market is abuzz with activity. People are rounding up the day’s work. There are traders exchanging currency notes, whole sellers packing bags, commission agents sharing a good laugh and in the corner is a farmer squatting on the ground calculating the debt left unpaid.