• Farmers in India face a myriad of problems from the high cost of seeds, to high production costs and mounting debt.
Almost 270,000 Indian farmers have taken their own lives since 1995 as hardships in the country's agricultural sector continue. Now Fairtrade has turned its attention to India's domestic market to make a difference.
By
Sophie Cousins

UPDATED 6:09 PM - 17 Dec 2013

For almost two decades, Indian farmers have sold products such as cotton and nuts under the Fairtrade tag in international markets, helping to create a burgeoning multi-billion dollar industry around the world.

But with India’s growing middle class and rising disposable income, focus has shifted to the country itself and how Fairtrade goods can be used support small farmers and curb rising inequality among the rich and poor.

Led by local producer groups, the Fairtrade mark in India recently launched, selling Indian-produced Fairtrade-certified products, such as cotton, spices and rice, to consumers in urban centres such as Mumbai and Delhi.

“Consumption is political,” Abhishek Jani, chief executive of Fairtrade India, said.

“There is huge potential for Fairtrade in India. It hasn’t crept into people’s consciousness yet. However, people are increasingly engaging with food products, what they put in their mouth and what pesticides have been used.”

The hardships farmers in India continue to face have been widely documented.

There were almost 14,000 farmer suicides in 2011.  Almost 270,000 farmers have taken their own lives since 1995.

As one activist recently told me: “That is, every two hours, a farmer commits suicide.”

Two-thirds of suicides have occurred in cotton-growing areas, such as Andhra Pradesh, in the country’s southeast.

Farmers in India face a myriad of problems from the high cost of seeds, to high production costs and mounting debt.

They are also feeling the brunt of climate change: unpredictable weather patterns such as heavy rain, drought and cyclones, which have played havoc on crops.

However, Fairtrade farmers in India are, at the same time, at the forefront of developing initiatives to combat such issues in a bid to make farming sustainable and profitable.

Chetna Organic represents more than 15,000 small and marginal organic and Fairtrade-certified farmers across three states in India.

The co-operative aims to ensure farmers have a direct role in decision-making throughout the production and selling processes, founder, Arun Ambatipudi, said.

“Fairtrade empowers people to come together and co-operate to have a greater level of integrity and integration,” he said.

“It gives them a voice to negotiate, not merely to just be recipients, but to be part of the supply chain.”

Mr Ambatipudi said the Fairtrade premium – a sum of money paid on top of the agreed Fairtrade price based on sales for investment in social, environmental or economic development projects– provided an opportunity for farmers’ to co-operate for the greater good of the community.

“Farmers look at Fairtrade as something that is creating empowerment,” he said.

“It helps local groups and ensures money stay in the villages.”

Mr Jani echoed his thoughts.

“With the Fairtrade premium, the producers together decide what they should purchase, from a computer centre in a small village, to buying cattle, it’s about income diversification and enhancing productivity,” he added.

And according to research by the Morarka Rural Research Foundation, the demand for organic food is rising in urban centres. Consumers are also willing to pay 20 per cent more for it.

However, there is still a long way to go. There are only 120,000 Fairtrade farmers in a country of almost 100 million cultivators who said farming was their main occupation.

At the same time there has been a shift away from farming in what many describe as a huge agrarian crisis.

Almost 8 million farmers have left agriculture since 2001, according to the latest census.

But, as Mr Jani emphasised, for Fairtrade to be successful in India, it can’t purely be reliant on sales.

“It’s about creating awareness and engaging with the population, particularly the young, with the issue of rural poverty,” he said.