Sidharth Simhadri attends high school in Seattle. At an AID meeting, he expressed interest in learning more about AID projects in his next visit to India. In August 2017, he spent a few days with senior activist PS Ajay Kumar in Anakapalle. Here is what he wrote about his experience.
I contacted AID and got the opportunity to meet Mr. PS Ajay Kumar to visit a village in rural india and document my experience. I refer to Mr. Ajay Kumar as Ajay Kumar Garu which is a respectful way to address elders in this part of India.
P.S. Ajay Kumar is a social activist who works to improve the lives of farmers near Vishakhapatnam, a city in Andhra Pradesh. He grew up in Anakapalle, a small city but moved to the village Achayyapeta to get closer to the farmers he loves to help. His primary concerns are farmers land rights, education and their income. Through AID, I was able to spend a week staying with him and his family to document some of his work and spread awareness on the issues farmers and tribal people face every day.
Ajay Kumar Garu is a busy man. He meets people and works on various issues every single day. I arrived on a Monday morning. On that day, he had two meetings to go to. One was a meeting to organize a protest of middlemen who take a majority of farmers earnings as their cut. The other meeting was about farmers getting scammed out of their land. I went with him on both. He got around on his motorcycle, filling it up with just enough gas for each trip to help him keep track of his money.
The first meeting was in the city, a short 20-minute ride. In those twenty minutes, he explained to me the purpose of this meeting. Farmers in this area typically make about 600 rupees per month, which is equivalent to about 9 dollars, by selling their produce in markets controlled by middle men (brokers). For every 100 rupees of produce sold, a farmer makes only about 20 rupees. The rest of this is a cut to the middle men. These middle men can block the farmers from accessing the only markets where they can sell their produce.
United Nations defines extreme poverty as living on less than $1.25 a day in 2005 prices. These farmers are living on lot less than that. To make ends meet the farmers are constantly selling or mortgaging their lands at high interest rates. The children of these farmers must work at a very young age at a time where they should be going to school. This cycle traps farmers and their families in a cycle of debt.
Once we arrived at the meeting, I was introduced to about 10 more activists just like Ajay Kumar Garu. They were all different ages and some were dressed much better than others. I couldn’t understand some of what they said but the gist of their message was that the public had to know the difficulties a poor farmer faces. They were brainstorming ways to get that message out hoping that the government and the citizens will devise ways to make the plight of farmers better.
That evening I went to another meeting with him. This one was a meeting of members from the surrounding villages, talking about their problems. They didn’t have water, barely ever had electricity, and struggled to be able to afford food. I wasn’t able to understand very much as the language is difficult for me at times, but here is some of what I understood. The attendees were discussing creating and maintaining a local market, where farmers would be able to sell produce directly to consumers with no middle men. They talked about how middle men made significantly more than farmers and how skipping that step would be beneficial to both farmers and consumers.
The next day was a surprise. Me and Ajay Kumar Garu took me on a four hour bus ride through hills and up to a small tribal hub called Paderu. That day was the Santha day. There were people from all the surrounding tribal areas gathered together to buy their groceries, alcohol, and anything else they might need for the week. I went to a ceremony where a local nonprofit was donating books and backpacks to students of the schools run by Ajay Kumar Garu, These local nonprofits were financially supported by international organizations like AID India or ASHA.
The kids were so excited about books and backpacks. These are things I get every few months and lose just as often. The kids were from tribes which didn’t even speak the local language and could only be reached by motorcycle or few hours walk. These kids learnt their skills through games and songs and loved going to schools.
We left back to Achayyapeta the same evening. On the bus ride back down, Ajay Kumar Garu explained how technically there are already teachers in the areas in which he runs the schools, but teachers take their pay and don’t actually go to classes. I was shocked to hear that. He smiled and explained how this was very common in these kinds of areas. The locals don’t have a good way to complain about this behavior and get these truant teachers back to work. After the long bus ride up and down I was so tired I had to take the next day off and sleep.
The day after, I went to the courts. It wasn’t very eventful despite the seriousness of the issues being addressed. On again we spent an hour on the bus to get to the courts. We then waited for five hours sitting on a floor in an overcrowded hallway. Ajay Kumar Garu explained to me how most days nothing gets done and how he had to keep going to the courts every day until his case finally gets heard.
The case we were so desperately waiting for was about a land grabbed from some villagers illegally. Land near the villages close to Achayyapeta is not allowed to be sold to others under certain circumstances such as the income levels of the villagers. The government made this policy to protect the locals from losing their lands to richer people. However, agents make up paper work to show the poor villagers as rich and then pay a pennies to the villagers and force them to sell their land. They often threaten and in many cases hurt villagers who complain.
On my last day we went on rode his motorcycle instead of the bus. We were going to a tribal village which had recently been scammed out of some land. He explained to me how rich people bribed record keepers every day to put the land in their name.
Ajay Kumar Garu talked to me about politics. He said American and Indian politics aren’t that different in many ways. The politicians focus on the wrong issues of course. About half an hour into the ride, we stopped to visit two temples. He told me that they were both built by two competing politicians. Both were identical. In a place where the villagers were struggling to find food to eat, the politicians were one upping each other to build a bigger temple.
We reached the site of the meeting eventually. It was a courtyard crammed with about fifty or so villagers, most of whom looked very old. Ajay Kumar Garu and his daughter explained their rights to them and encouraged them to sign up for identification cards and other things which would help them but they had no way of knowing about. Before we left, we were offered a meal of onions and rice as that was all they could afford to eat. I left that night back to the comfort of my grandparents house but with new knowledge, new friends and lasting memories.