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July 2018 Edition of Power Politics is updated.         June 2018 Edition of Power Politics is updated.
Issue:May' 2018

ORGANIC FARMING

“There’s a long battle ahead”

Purnima Sharma

Venkat Iyer Disheartened by the stressful, frenetic pace of his professional life in the IT industry, Venkat Iyer decided to take not just a pause, but a break – and took up organic farming at a village called Peth, near Mumbai. In a chat, the writer of Moong over Microchips talks about his interesting journey at the farm where the joys of seeing the moong seedlings pushing out of the ground, enjoying the smell of mango flowers that fill every corner of the field and his interactions with the simple village folk far outweigh the disappointments that are also part of the game…

Q: You took a decision that many would call tough -- of quitting a lucrative job at IBM in 2003 and moving to a village near Mumbai... Tell us about this journey -- how difficult was it?
A: I was working with IBM as a project manager for about seven years and in the IT industry for 17 years. The job with a MNC was wellpaying with the best work-environment and facilities. Both Meena, my wife, and me like the outdoors and used to often trek in the mountains. We thought that maybe we could buy some land and build a small house and go there in the weekends to get away from the city, which was anyway getting unbearable to live in. We spent almost two years looking for land but never got around to buying anything. My colleagues in IBM who followed our search in earnest even commented that you will never buy land. It is thrill of the search that keeps you going. Around 2003, some of us at IBM were tired and bored of working and doing the same job every day and decided to look for a change. We applied in many places only to find that if you were a good project manager, everyone offered you the same role. What would change would be the office and colleagues -- the role still remained the same. During this time, Meena was working on a book on organic cotton and in the course of her research visited many villages in various parts of the country. She would return with stories of how the farmers lived and seemed to be so happy with their lives. I was fascinated by these tales and would probe her for more information on their lives. One day, I asked her what would happen if we decided to take up farming. She replied that it would be great and, maybe, being educated and technical, I would probably do better than the others. That’s when we started thinking of farming and moving to a village. It was a difficult transition, having lived in the city all my life and moving to a village suddenly. There are many things that we take for granted in a city, like power, services, good infrastructure and markets. In the village, one had to do everything oneself and it is difficult to get help. Besides this, initially the silence and the darkness at night were some things that were difficult to adjust to.

Q: Other than your own self, how difficult was it to convince the people around you -- your family?
A: I had the support of Meena right from the start when we thought of making this shift. My mother was independent and she too, though initially surprised at my decision, did support my move. All my colleagues in IBM, with whom I had discussed this move, were convinced that it was a good decision and something they all wished they could do. When questioned on why they did not do the same if they thought it was such a great move, they all had various reasons like having to pay the EMIs for their new house or an illness In the family or their children’s education etc. Yet they were all sure that what I was planning was the right move.

Q: How did you deal with the question -- why farming? You could have changed professions or even moved to another country?
A: Yes, i could have changed professions, but the charm of living with nature and growing one’s own food drew me to farming. Also more than a change in profession, i was looking for a change in lifestyle. As for moving to another country, i had got many opportunities that I did not pursue even early in my career, since I did not wish to leave my country and migrate to another and live the life of a second citizen.

Q: When you moved, how did the local people at Peth react to you? Was there resentment or were they welcoming to you -- a rank outsider?
A: Initially, most of the villagers thought I was here for a short time. They would talk between themselves saying this guy will last for a couple of years and run back to the city. There was no resentment or ill feelings towards me. They all humoured me when I asked for help or advice. I always tried to be part of all village celebrations, even sponsoring the first prize for the village cricket match one year. When I moved to the village in 2004, I was the only one with a fourwheeler. I made it a point to help anyone who had a medical emergency, ferrying them to the nearest medical centre at any time of the day or night. After my first trip to the hospital, the family of the patient came to the farm offering money as fuel cost for helping them out. I refused to take a penny and was embarrassed when they said that they thought city people never did anything for free. Once they were convinced after a couple of years, that I was not returning to the city, they started treating me like one of them -- even inviting me for their village meetings, weddings and other social events.

Q: What was the first instance when you felt you had taken the correct decision and were on the right track?
A: Even before the land was transferred in my name and the paper work had been done, our broker Moru Valvi had insisted that we sow moong on the land as it was the right time for it. A couple of months later, we got a bumper crop of moong that too without using any chemicals or inputs. That gave us the confidence that it is possible to grow food organically and we knew we were on the right track.

Q: There must have also been times when you regretted taking the decision of becoming a farmer? Would you like to share some of the most challenging instances?
A: The first year after the bumper crop of moong I had a disastrous rice harvest and a failed tur (pigeon pea) crop. I went into depression blaming myself for the bad decision taken and the fact that nothing was working well. I would hardly speak to anyone and matters got so bad that Meena had to pin me down and ask what the matter was. I broke down and told her what I was going through. After a long and meaningful discussion, she convinced me that I was panicking too early. It was just our first year and we had not lost anything. The land was still ours and we just had to learn from our mistakes and do better the next season. Soon enough, I was back at the farm putting the past behind and looking forward to our next groundnut crop which incidentally, was a bumper crop. I have never regretted my decision since.

Q: Tell us about some of your most joyous instances?
A: Every day at the farm is a joyous day. Be it the moong seedlings pushing out of the ground or the smell of mango flowers which fill every corner of the field or the joy of seeing two rat snakes mating or the hen hatching tiny golden chicks or the wood spider trapping its prey, Every incident is filled with excitement and the miracle of nature can never end. Right from the early morning chirping of the birds to the calling of the geckos at night as they go about hunting, each moment is a treasured memory.

Q: How did your experience in the IT industry help you here -- in your new profession?
A: My technical skill in IT is not of much use at the farm. But my experience as a project manager has been of great help in running it. Resource management, time management, planning and scheduling, risk mitigation and financial management are some of the things that I use daily at the farm.

Q: Being the educated one in the village here, did you become the go-to guy for most of the people when they encountered problems?
A: Once the villagers accepted and started trusting me, they would come to me for help. It is mostly to do with bank work or to fill forms that they do not understand. Some of them do consult me before they take any major decisions, checking with me if they are doing anything wrong or if there was some loophole that they could not see. They do come for advice when someone is seriously ill but as a rule, I do not give any medical advice and just ask them to go to the nearest hospital.

Q: How do you friends react when they visit you at Peth?
A: They all love to come to the farm, especially the children who love the open skies and the river flowing next to the farm. Some do mention that they wish to do something like this but are not able to for various reasons. They all want to buy land close to the farm so they have the advantage of having me nearby to set it up.

Q: Do you think more and more educated people around farmers will help bring down suicide rates among them, as they would not just empathize but also be a voice for their problems with the powers that be?
A: The farmers’ distress is due to lack of easy access to credit, poor infrastructure, no access to the markets, erratic weather and the growing importance of cash as compared to food. Yes, voicing their problems can help but it is a long battle before things improve in the farming community. There will have to be major policy changes and better pricing before the farmers stop thinking of suicide.

Q: Since there would be many people wanting to do what you did, what would be your advice to them? What are some of the basic guideline, in your opinion, they must follow...
A: To do something different and chase your dreams, I feel you need the 5Cs Courage .. To break away from the comfort of the cocoon and venture into the worlds unknown Commitment.. Put in all the efforts to follow your passion Conviction.. Be convinced that the path you have chosen is the right one, no matter what Co-operation.. From family and friends to give you the moral support in the initial years Capital.. A little cash will make the journey easier. Besides, one needs a tremendous amount of patience and persistence to see things through and make it happen. I also feel that one needs to plan before plunging into any new activity.