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For rural women, land means hope

One man's drive to help India's poor will need help, analysts say

By Marianne Bray
CNN

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Women in rural India need to be trained and given the resources so they can become entrepreneurs, says George.

ON CNN INTERNATIONAL TV

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FACT BOX

•Female workers in rural India can get up to 40 rupees a day, males up to 50.

•500 million Indians live on less than $2 a day, the U.N. says.

•650 million Indians live in 500,000 villages.

•Bureaucracy, red tape and inefficiency mar reform efforts, analysts say.

•An esimated 1 million workers move out of agriculture each year, the World Bank says.

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MUMBAI, India (CNN) -- When Abraham George began looking for a farm in India, he shunned the normal attributes such as fertile land, ample rainfall and roads on which to transport his produce.

Instead, he put down $1 million on 50 acres (20 hectares) of barren land near the villages of Baliganapplai and Deverappalli in Krishnagiri district, one of the poorest areas in India that lies between the technology hub of Bangalore and the port city of Chennai.

"Here, 70 to 80 percent live below the poverty line, the caste system is very strong, there is high female infanticide and not enough rainfall," said the U.S. resident, who spends as many as six months a year in his former homeland of India.

"It was the perfect place to start."

In these red clay soils of Tamil Nadu's Deccan Plateau, there are few schools, health centers or roads. Drainage is poor, communication networks are inadequate and land holdings are fragmented.

But just four years after setting up Baldev farm, and spending another $4 million to buy another 150 acres, George's holding has become the second-largest banana farm in South India, its land value has tripled and it employs 200 families from 17 villages.

Rajamma, who goes by only one name, is the type of person George wanted to cater for when he set up the farm.

The 24-year-old woman is one of 390 million lower caste Indians who live on less than a $1 a day, with little prospect of improving her lot. Her story contrasts with an urban up-and-coming middle class of 250 million people reaping the benefits of globalization.

'Virtual slaves'

"We are not going to solve the problem of poverty without addressing social inequality," says George, who migrated to the United States more than 30 years ago and is now chairman of a medical diagnostic software company called eMedexOnline LLC in New Jersey.

"Our approach is how to empower rural women."

Born in the nearby village of Alur, the illiterate and untrained Rajamma married at age 14 to a 35-year-old laborer. At 19 her husband moved in with another woman, leaving her to care for one daughter and two sons.

Left with no income, she started doing household chores and harvesting for a local landlord, who gave her some grains, vegetables and occasional cash.

To make ends meet, Rajamma borrowed 4,000 rupees ($95) from the landlord and with no other option, bonded her children, so they all became virtual slaves.

At the time her children ranged from six months to four years; it is not uncommon to see children in India working in the fields at age eight, George says.

In 2002, two social workers from the Baldev farm came into Rajamma's village and said they were looking for very poor women to work for them.

They offered Rajamma 40 rupees ($0.95) for 7.5 hours work a day. The farm also would set aside more than 10,000 rupees each year from profits so that she could buy one-third of an acre of cultivable land in less than five years time.

While Rajamma's landlord didn't want her to go, the farm rented a tractor from him so he agreed.

"You cannot help the poor without helping the rich," says George.

Need to make a change

Across India there are pockets of success in helping the rural poor, acknowledges Chetan Ahya, India economist at Morgan Stanley.

But he adds that there is a need for government and a productive public sector to help rural Indians earn money and be schooled.

"We need to make a change in as many people's lives as possible in their lifetime," Ahya says.

"In India there are a large proportion of people who have not seen significant change in their lifetime."

New Delhi has made some muted attempts to help, and is trying to pass a bill in the upper house promising 100 days of work for every rural household, but substantial reform has been slow in coming and is often marred by corruption.

Some NGOs have recorded success. For example, a few groups have given small loans of up to $100 to women to start a business. But some experts say people without meaningful skills, social status and economic power are unable to succeed.

Michigan University management professor C.K. Prahalad has written a book saying business can make huge profits by selling products to the bottom of the pyramid -- people living under $2 a day, and getting them to become entrepreneurs.

But while there is money to be made in rural India, George says, the poor need to have the buying power in the first place.

"First raise the income of the poor so they can buy the toothpaste, but don't tell me how to sell to them, tell me how to increase their income."

Lifted out of poverty

As for Rajamma the working single mother, she learned how to prepare and fertilize the land and sow seeds. In three years she had paid the 4,000 rupees she owed her landlord and was able to get out of bonded labor.

At the same time, Rajamma's children were going to school in Deverappalli, a requirement of working on the farm.

Along with using deep sloughing and drip irrigation and sharing resources, the farm formed a network of buyers throughout Tamil Nadu and Karnataka and now almost every city from Chennai to Pondicherry buys from them.

"The brokers who supply to small shops and sell to middlemen, are notorious for skimming the farmer out, so the foundation will represent the farmers," George says.

The farm could triple the number of bananas it grows and still not meet demand, he says. And if all goes to plan, Rajamma will join the league of landowners in a matter of years.

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