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August 28th, 2007
The Dying Fields
Fred de Sam Lazaro, Director's Notes

Fred de Sam Lazaro reports from Vidarbha, India

June 2007

Indian cities have enjoyed breakneck economic growth in recent years. Hundreds of multinational and Indian companies are bursting out of the seams of Bangalore, Hyderabad, Bombay and Delhi, cities that now carry well beyond their carrying capacity.

This film was situated in Vidarbha, in the cotton belt. It is an India few foreigners — or Indians in the new urban economy — know or feel connected to, even though it represents more than two thirds of this nation’s one billion people who live in its rural hinterlands.

New technology has indeed come to India’s villages in the form of satellite television, beaming pictures of materialism few people can fathom.   The latest in agricultural technology is also here, aimed here.  The pictures of abundant yields on the seed, fertilizer and pesticide package and in the salesmen’s pitches must sound attractive to farmers who plow and clear (by ox and human hand) some of the sub-continent’s most forbidding rocky terrain.  Yet the pictures may be all many growers understand about the packages of seeds and chemicals, which they’ve likely borrowed heavily to purchase.  Many growers cannot read the package instructions.

For optimal yields, the high-tech (mostly genetically modified) seeds require careful management and watering, especially difficult in a region where most farmers rely on the temperamental rain gods to irrigate their fields. The government, which once provided some shelter from market vagaries, is criticized for launching schemes as far-fetched as they are ineffective, like mass weddings.   At harvest many farmers find themselves confronted by a global cotton market of record low prices-and their lenders.  The latter are not just the government-run banks but also local private entrepreneurs, armed with liens to confiscate land that’s been in the growers’ families for generations.

Its not debt that is killing farmers, says activist Kishor Tiwari, a major character in our film.  “It is humiliation.”

That echoes for this journalist, having also covered the economic changes that swept the American Upper Midwest the 1980s. So many farmers found themselves desperately indebted and socially humiliated.  Hundreds of family farmers in Minnesota, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Iowa took their own lives.  That continues to happen in Vidarbha on an Indian scale-a rate of one cotton farmer every eight hours in 2006.

The offspring of those Midwestern farmers moved on to Minneapolis or Chicago, New York or the West coast and have thrived in an urbanized American economy. That is not a feasible policy option for India, even as millions of rural Indians-driven by despair or drawn by the glamour they see on television–move into cities each year anyway.

It was with indelible awe that we watched farmers here toil in 100+ degree temperatures, for days on end.  Many have endured wrenching personal grief and yet, in a rural land where time moves slowly, there isn’t time to grieve.   There can be very little stamina either.  It was difficult to watch farmers and their beast of burden move tons more rock than earth to prepare their fields — for yet another season of uncertainty.   Through it all, we were received warmly; our hosts could hardly have seen any dividend from the constant presence of a camera crew.  If anything they aroused neighbors’ suspicions, perhaps resentment.  I am deeply grateful for having been allowed to tell their story.

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