Migrant workers to migrating farmers

Written by YRK Reddy | Updated: Nov 18 2004, 05:30am hrs
When indentured workers sailed to the Caribbean and Africa, they hoped to get back home in a few years time. This dream failed for many, as they were forced to remain there, not able to afford the passage back for decades. Several died from the shock and grief of the unexpectedly prolonged separation from their loved ones. Hopefully, the current move by the Andhra Pradesh (AP) government to send hundreds of farmers will not be a disaster for the debt-ridden. They would be the first to opt for such migration, which is a better escape route than suicide.

AP has hit the headlines in Africa too. The official version in East Africa is that there is potential foreign investment coming in, to boost their economies. Hence they are agreeable to giving the letters of intent. Contrary to this, the story here is that there is fertile land with abundant water, which is underutilised, primarily due to the lower capabilities of the African farmers, while thousands of capable farmers are idling in AP!

Prominent leaders in the African region, some of whom I met last week, were cautiously positive. They feel a pilot project would be ambitious enough now, as several conditions need greater reckoning. One, the geographical dispersion of populations is such that good wages and expensive logistics are required for getting enough farm labour. Alongside, expensive mechanisation is needed (with which the Punjab farmer is more familiar than the small farmer in AP).

Second, most of the land is not easily connected to the market yards or processing centres, consequent to which there ought to be high investments in infrastructure for better connectivity. Third, the real cause of their problem is the lack of credit and subsidies comparable to the developed world. Thus, it appears rational to import subsidised produce than grow domestically. On the other hand, in sectors like tea, which does not enjoy great subsidies anywhere, Kenyans, for example, are setting a tough chase to competitors from Sri Lanka, and India.

Fourth is related to financing of the cooperatives being planned as vehicles on both sides. If the AP government wishes to provide the money, it must also reckon the complex risks, which might include lack of insurance and inability to enforce creditors rights.

Hopefully, the proposal to send AP farmers to Africa will not be a disaster
The common African is angry with the idea of Indian farmers being imported
Fifth, there is already a concern of illegal farming and occupation of forestland in East Africa by non-resident farmers under the controversial shamba system. Consequently, the environment minister in Kenya, who called this a failed system and a cat-and-mouse game, has now given a deadline for these farmers to move out. He has also announced plans for reforestation with the involvement of local groups. Thus, the environmental concerns may indeed exclude large tracts of land and make available only the arid and the semi-arid than the fertile.

Sixth is the need for culture management, as there is a strong history and glaring evidence that Indians do not integrate at all in Africa. Language and cultural sensitivity are tough hurdles for getting the cooperation required, for this experiment to be successful. Africa has become an angry continent during the last 10-15 years for having been marginalised in every way, and is seeking an African identity and intracontinental cooperation. The new African sentiment needs understanding, respect, and support at the diplomatic levels, and can be saved from projects that threaten it.

The African sentiment may not be articulated aggressively by their leaders but the common African is incensed at the idea of importing Indian farmers. Some comments on the web: Arent there Kenyans who can farm I cannot believe our black folly. Another comment reads, Has Christopher ComeToRobUs just discovered a land and named it East Africa The land has an overwhelming mass of good farmers but a vacationing public sector (government) has left them at the mercy of over-subsidised foreign agriculture. Another comment says: Will the Indian farmers sugar, or cotton, or banana, sell more than ones we produce And yet another reads, This may be another form of slavery in the making.

The odds are, indeed, loaded against this project but who will stop the AP government from learning the hard way