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Field trip

A corner of a foreign field

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Areas to where Indian farmers have migrated

Indian farmers are finding newer and cheaper pastures in countries like Georgia.

Vast distances and cultural barriers do not appear to be a deterrent for hardy Indian farmers in search of greener pastures in foreign lands. Cheap farmland and a slew of incentives are now luring many to invest in and till fertile tracts in countries as far afield as Georgia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Madagascar, Bolivia and Uruguay.

Although such immigration isn't a new phenomenon - a number of North Indian farmers headed to North America about eighty years ago, while those from the South went to work on plantations in Malaysia and Burma - the current trend appears to be chiefly driven by a new generation eager to cash in on what appear to be great opportunities to buy and use land in nations lower down the pecking order in terms of agricultural development.

"An acre of good farmland in Punjab can cost $0. 5 million, " points out Swarn Singh Kahlon, author of a recent book on the Sikh diaspora, "so the state's farmers head to new destinations where hundreds of acres can be bought with much less. While many have their eyes on ultimately landing up in North America somehow, these places offer good opportunities for now. " "Besides, " says Kahlon, "owning and farming large tracts of land, and the comparative independence and pride that comes with it, is very different from the usual immigrant experience of holding down a job. This is a big lure, especially for the Sikh. But local sentiments and resistance are bound to come in the way, and could create issues. They could even lead to a change in policies, as it sadly happened with Sikh farmers in Mexico early last century. "

A good instance of how something like this may play out is the current case of Indian farmers in the Eurasian nation of Georgia. Many have headed there over the last few years looking to grow a variety of crops under liberal land use legislation. Satish Kumar, director of the Jalandhar-based Crown Immigration Consultancy, estimates that there are probably about 4, 000 farmers, mostly Sikhs from Punjab, who've invested in farmland in Georgia. "Agriculture was an unattended sector in Georgia so the government encouraged foreigners to come and help develop it, " says Kumar, "and it also does not require the kind of big investment by a farmer needed to move to, say, a developed country like Canada. So with incentives many buy plots or pool together to buy land. "

Felix Gaedtke, a journalist who's reported on the situation from Georgia, says: "From what we saw they grow all kinds of vegetables (potatoes, tomatoes, onions, garlic etc) and are planning to grow wheat next year. Some of them are also planning to start dairy farms. "

Still, enthusiasm may be waning now, admits Kumar, mostly on account of farmers reportedly encountering resistance from locals and most meeting with mixed success there. "About 30 per cent succeed, the rest could be disappointed, " states Kumar, whose firm has offices in Tbilisi, Georgia's capital.

Gaedtke is a bit unsure if the Georgia trend is likely to be sustained. "Competitive market prices make it very difficult to make farming a profitable business in Georgia. So, although there is a need to produce more at home, it's tough to predict whether the business (of farming) will be sustainable or not, " he says. Zurab Katchkatchishvili, Georgia's ambassador to India points out that his small country has limited land potential, and thus limited opportunties. "Many Indians are being lured there by false promises and wrong expectations, and farmers often pay exorbitant sums for services never provided" he says.
Yet, for many an Indian farmer, such foreign fields will always beckon. "Some hard-headed analysis might help our farmers before they set off on such paths, " suggests Kahlon. "But then again, bravado is such an important factor in migration. "

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