What to do?

I am currently in Hardoi, which is somewhere in northern India two hours from Lucknow in India, in spell check comes up as ‘hairdo’.

It has been around 43 degrees all week. We are meeting with farmers who are poor and to discuss their problems and aspirations. The room we have been using for our workshops, has no air-conditioning and the power is intermittent so often there are no fans. When the old fans are running the noise is so loud it is almost impossible to have a conversation, when they are off it is like a microwave. Fans on or off, everyone in drenched in sweat. Under these circumstances a of my Indian colleagues, brother Samuel goes in to “screen saver mode” staring into the middle distance, the occasional flutter of something across the screen but only comes back to life if addressed directly. I have some kind of stomach bacterial thing and so feel drained and achy.

We are staying at the Utsar Hotel which is apparently the best hotel in town. But the place is indescribably filthy, the stains of red pan spit on the walls, rubbish in the hallways, plates left around with scraps of food, broken equipment, empty whisky and beer bottles and mouldy fabric in corners. Grime on every surface.

It is 7.30pm Wednesday, thankfully the day is over, I am guessing it is still around 38 degrees. I am lying on my bed feeling ill, the power is off, and without lights it is pitch black, inside no fan and I can’t open the windows because of the mosquitoes. I go out into the passage. No one anywhere, no sounds that resemble, ‘we have to get the generator operating!’ There is only one passable restaurant in town named “Treat” and I go down to look for one of the three drivers we have hired for the week .. I think that anything is better than staying here, so I will go to dinner. The cars are there but the drivers are gone. I have one of my Indian colleagues call them by mobile, “They are taking their dinner sir, they will be here in this thing, 30 minutes only” . The power is still off. I decide to take a shower but find there is no water. I stand forlornly, naked and sweaty in the torch light wondering how my life has led me to this moment. At 9pm one of the drivers emerges and takes me into town.

When I return the power is back on, but I have resolved that I will check out tomorrow and for the next 10 days make the rather hazardous two hour journey each way from Lucknow, rather than spend a fourth night at the Utsar.

Thursday evening and we are heading back to Lucknow at around 6pm. Again a huge TATA truck is heading straight towards us on our side of the road. This time even my Indian colleague is indignant and says “ and he isn’t putting his headlamp on to warn us” . To warn us!! He is overtaking an oncoming truck and cares nothing that we are there and that unless we swerve off the road, we will, as my Peruvian colleague JJ says, “be toast”! Here size definitely matters, everything smaller gives way to you, and you give way to everything bigger. It seems that the protocol is that the driver does not look into the whites of the other drivers eyes, it is as though drivers are pretending that they don’t see each other and so don’t have to give way.

For this reason most accidents happen between vehicles of the same size, truck with truck, car with car etc, as both drivers are consciously looking elsewhere so that they don’t have to give way and then they crash head on. The road is lined with crashed trucks mostly head on. I think that they are like shipwrecks, on the side of the road, straddling the medium strips, some burned out, many tipped over on their sides, cargo spread across the road. Apparently the drivers take pan to stay awake and drink some kind of palm wine. One of my Indian colleagues says that the drivers even stop on the side of the road and climb the palms and drink straight from the sap and can become too intoxicated to get back to the ground. He is serious, but I know he doesn’t really know this is true.

We pass a small car that has hit a cow and then swerved into a tree, must have been recent as the cow still looks fresh in this searing heat, a little further on, a jeep that has had a head on with a bus, impossible that anyone survived in the Jeep which is now just twisted metal. Both vehicles have been left ,still in the middle of the road. Then a fully laden truck that has veered off the road and hit a tree. All look to have happened in the last few hours.

When we reach the hotel three of us decide to share an overpriced bottle of Indian white wine, it was warm so we asked if they could bring us a cold one. “ Yes sir, definitely sir, we have one it is cold already and we will bring”. Ten minutes later the same bottle comes back slightly cooler after 10 minutes in the freezer. We ordered the red wine. But I tell you the truth, the red wine has a slight after taste of cow dung but in spite of that is quite drinkable, and there is something organic and comforting about cow dung anyway. Now, the point is this, partial truths are not an isolated event, but the reality here ……….and when I think about, it so it the after taste of cow dung. But perhaps this is always the case everywhere just more obvious here, truth that is , not cow dung.

I have a moral dilemma for you. The Park Inn Hotel in Lucknow, where I am now staying, charges one hundred Rupees per day for wireless internet use. As I and my colleagues are here on and off for three weeks, we have tried to negotiate that is should be free as part of our package but without success. “That only is the policy sir”. Now the hotel doesn’t seem to change the password, so I can use it every day, further more it is the same password for everyone so one person can get it once and then the three of us can all use it. So on check-out should I tell them the days of use and pay every day ? Or should I pay once and treat it as a loop hole that doesn’t cost anyone anything? After all it is there, wirelessly doing its thing, whether I use it or not? The hotel does make a number of other charges that seem unreasonably, perhaps this provides some balance? Do I share the password with my colleagues when they ask me and leave it to their consciences as to whether they pay? Does the fact that I am working for people who are poor make a difference? Might it be possible that the hotel wants to maintain the policy be but is happy for us to take advantage because they believe it should really be free for us?

The question of what is true reaches an entirely different order of complexity in the field. Consider this:

My work in Hardoi, is to explore ways that small farmers can increase their incomes through growing peppermint and extracting the oil for what seems to be a buoyant pharmaceutical market. The peppermint farmers say that the best time to plant is March between their crops of wheat and rice. The Agricultural Research Institute says that peppermint should be planted in January and will overly deplete the soil if rice is grown after it. The farmers say that they get good results if they use the Russian made DAP fertiliser, but that there is locally made fake DAP on the market and they can’t tell the difference except when their crops fail. The government agency AGRO says that DAP is readily available from government suppliers but that farmers should use the government produced Bio organic fertiliser that is better and cheaper in the long run. The farmers say it works out at 4 times the price. The local Agricultural Research Institute says that it has the capacity to conduct 38,000 soil tests each year and to advise on how to balance the every decreasing soil fertility, they have a mobile van doing soil testing and are continually doing training on planting and crop rotation in the area, but that the farmers aren’t interested. The farmers say they have never seen or heard of an government services like this. They say takes three weeks to get a soil sample done. The Agricultural Research Institute says that soil samples take two to three days. They say what the soil needs is potash to replace the organic carbon in the soil but because there is no demand for potash then no one stocks it. The farmers say that there is no fixed price for the peppermint oil that they produce, but the middle men who collect the oil say there are market prices fixed by the buyers based on international prices. The farmers need fast cash provided by the middle men so that they can pay for the fertiliser and labourers to pick the crop, and what they need is to work cooperatively and to get access to credit. The Agricultural Research Institute says that in this area there were 200 registered collectives established with the support of the government to provide loans and fertilisers to farmers who are poor but that the farmers took the fertiliser and loans and didn’t repay the money and that all but four of the cooperatives went broke. The farmers say they have no access to credit. The regional manager of the Bank of India says that any farmer can get a loan of Rp 50,000 without collateral and that a every area has are recognised bank allocated to it and that as part of a government program the banks have no shortage of money or capacity to make these small loans. The Agricultural Research Institute experts say that the farmers are lethargic and have lost faith in themselves, and that a farmer on an acre of land can earn more money as a labourer at one hundred Rupees per day (around US$2) than it is possible to earn from that acre. And these inconsistencies go on and on. I have been trying to triangulate the information. This is a process when you take a piece of information and then try to validate it with at least two other sources and effectively keep going around the triangle until you achieve consistency. But this isn’t working, as all the information is consistently inconsistent. So what would you do?

Next Tuesday what I am going to do, is to try to get a selection of all these people in the same room and have a conversation. The difficulty is, that the farmers are dirt poor and often illiterate and lack confidence and the bankers and scientists have doctorates and tend to be opinionated. It seems there is not one truth but many. Like looking at a diamond. It is truly a diamond, but it is also truly different depending on which surface you view. And it perplexes me that I am supposed to be an expert with solutions, and I know there is one, I just can’t figure out what it is right now. But whatever emerges it will have to do with everyone recognising that they are part of the same diamond rather than accepting that their surface is all there is. And again I see how important World Visions role is in trying to be the facilitators of that process, and while we can’t take responsibility for the participants we can be there to guide and accompany people who want to take new steps.

Jock Noble; Lucknow India

May 2009

About jocknoble

I have worked in thirty countries with most time spent in India, Kenya, Indonesia, USA , Australia and Armenia. My current role with World Vision International is as a Livelihoods Advisory based in Manila. Before this I spent 4 years based in Armenia leading an economic development learning hub for 10 countries across the Middle East and Eastern Europe. I spent 8 years with World Vision Australia where I founded and lead the Social Entrepreneurship and Economic Development Unit (SEED), a team of economic development specialists,to establish and support innovative initiatives in poor communities from Africa to the Asia Pacific, Senegal to Timor Leste.. I believe the reason people are poor is that they do not have enough money and our challenge is to help instill hope and a genuine sense of self-belief, starting with those of us who somehow work in development. I was the founder and CEO of Diversity@work Australia Inc, a social enterprise developing innovative models, strategies and educational programs to strengthen companies through diversity and inclusion. I hold a Master of Entrepreneurship and Innovation and a Masters of Strategic Foresight from Swinburne University in Melbourne, post-graduate studies in Not for Profit Management at Georgetown University and Negotiation and Conflict Management at Latrobe University Melbourne. I was the Carey Medal winner for 2007 for exceptional and outstanding service to the community. So it goes Published Books: 'Postcards - What am I doing here' (2016) which is a collection of my blogs along with selected photographs, and Stores from the Road - Ten stories for workers in international development (2016)
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