Banks of Ghaghra, Uttar Pradesh - December1995/4pm
As you walk towards the river from the hut I have built in Chulha, it is open, rolling country, cut up by deep monsoon streams, now just interconnected pools of water but raging torrents just 3 months back. Patches of corn, lentils and sugarcane, and a few trees are all that restrict your vision in this awesome landscape. Living here, my eyes adjusted to the distances visible, and I started to distinguish who was coming a kilometre away, count the number of people in a group 3 kilometres away and detect movement on the horizon, 5 kilometres away.
You veer right, keeping the river on your left, 600 metres yonder, and follow the footpath for a kilometre. Buffaloes laze in the otherwise crystal clear pools, now churned into slush, as herders get ready to head back to their respective hamlets. The land dips here a bit and meets a good bank of forest trees, some 2 sq kms in extent, across the shallow valley which measures about 100 acres. The ground here has no trees, just very strong, old growth of Jhow, an insidious weed that lives on the river floodplains, and takes root in any untended land, disseminating its spores by floating them wherever the river reaches.
I am meeting Munne Pradhan here to mark out the land he is proposing I lease from the Gram Panchayat. This is inhospitable country, where river and jungle meet, virgin soil where the river used to flow 10-20 years back and will one day come back here. No one in their right mind will farm here.
No one except I.
Many people have told me how lucky I am to be living the life I am living. Yes, I am lucky, incredibly so, and I am reminded of it every day in so many different ways. But there was a time, not 25 years back, when it seemed like a dream. There was no land in sight, or enough capital, experience and wisdom to go with it–all of them equally important in creating the life you envision. And so I learned.
My aim was to lease a large tract of land for 5 to 10 years. To find such a large, single piece of land at cheap rates for lease is well-nigh impossible, at least in North India where land has been fragmented into tiny plots through inheritance. If you want to buy 2-3 acres as a single piece, you might have to negotiate with 4 different sellers. If just one of them throws a tantrum, the deal doesn't go through.
So I had to keep going further and further to look for land. Here, for once, I felt there was a possibility of securing a large piece of land within my budget, simply because this was such an inhospitable, wild place. No one in their right mind would come here and farm.
For precisely this reason, I chose Peppermint as my crop. The land I was leasing was tailor made for it, except the conditions that made this location ideal for it also exposed it to the possibility of flooding. After all, I was very close to the river.
That was the risk I was taking. It could make or break the whole project. Peppermint's only nemesis is standing water.
Which brings us to an important point: First decide what you want to do and only then go looking for land. I had researched several options before zeroing on Peppermint. There were several reasons for choosing it.
It needs the kind of soil in Uttar Pradesh, especially the kind I was standing on. The land I had chosen to lease was the very best you could ask for. Rich in humus and silt carried by the river and lying unused and virgin. Today, India controls the world market for peppermint and they grow most of it in North India, but back in 1995, I was one of the first who took training at CIMAP for rose and peppermint farming.
Propagated vegetatively through stolons and runners, it is virtually indestructible once established. No cattle or goats eat it and it is a natural pesticide, so very few critters attack it. It is an annual crop, so once sown, you just need to watch and water it and can take two harvests.
The value chain of peppermint can fetch good returns. You need a small lab to distill high value oils such as Limonene and Octonol and given the right storage conditions, you can keep these oils to sell later when prices are higher than having to offload your crop after harvest. This flexibility is key to deriving profit from agriculture. Global trade is designed to screw the grower. Everyone, except the farmer, makes money from farming-unless he can store his produce to sell in high season.
Munne Pradhan had crossed the river to meet me at the site of the land. He pointed out a corner of the valley, lower down in the valley. I explained to him that peppermint I needed to protect the crop from standing water, so a strip higher up will be better. We haggled for a bit and settled on a price. I had chosen a parcel that had the least amount of Jhao, which needed to before I could plant my crop. Less land preparation meant less cost. I also needed a little gradient, so I could water from one corner without too many pipes and drain my fields if it rained excessively.
Munne Pradhan and I arranged to meet in Sitapur town for paperwork and we sealed the deal on the spot. Gram panchayats have extensive rights over the use of land that belong to it and people living in those villages can lease grazing and wastelands. I, however, was an outsider. I needed to correct that by building a home in the village.
There is no single, straightforward way to find and buy land in India. But in the time of no internet or mobile phones, it was many fold difficult, because you had no one to ask about anything. You gathered little bits of information and went about exploring. It was like looking for a needle in a whole field of hay, but there was no other way.
Remember, I was not in the market to buy land, but to lease it. Given the distress in the agricultural sector, every village I went to had several parcels of land which people wanted to lease. This is like walking into a minefield-for several reasons.
First, you don't want to say yes to anyone, but you don't want to say no either. Your aim is to find and meet the Gram Pradhan, an elected official of the village. But someone from the village needs to introduce you to him. For that, you need friends in the village. Indian villagers are naturally hospitable people, and this is not very difficult. The trick is to find that one person in the village who you can hire to be the go between. Everyone in the village is a know-it-all, and you have to exercise your judgement to determine who can deliver.
Second, Indian etiquette forbids hurrying things up or bringing in talk of money into the conversation too early. Break the ice gently, and that often takes time. My technique was to land up in the village in my car-a broken down Fiat on its last legs-and host a party at the house of the person I had selected as my emissary. Good food and drink can go a long way towards making friends.
To be frank, I love spending time with village folk. They are smart in an innocent kind of way. They know there is a possibility of them making a few bucks off you, but what they really want is your respect and acceptance, since you are a city dweller and someone 'educated and well-off' in their eyes. They will go out of their way to make you feel welcome. Some, you can make out, are out-and-out free-loaders-as they are in any other segment of society- but a majority of them are just nice people who want to 'hang-out' with you. An acknowledgement of their person is all they want.
Third, in India, there are various officials involved in the administration of lands at the village level, but no one has the knowledge and control over agricultural lands like the Panchayat office. This is the hub of all information, so once you have made your connections in the village, get introduced to as many people in the Panchayat office as possible. You will introduce yourself as someone who is thinking of starting a farming project in the area and looking for a place to build a house and settle down.
That you intend to live there may not mean all that much, but it is a key differentiator in how well they accept you in the community. The information you seek is with these people-mainly the headman, the Panchayat Development Officer, the Village Accountant, bill collectors and clerks. Each position has a hierarchy, but each Panchayat has its own unique power structure. Find who can help you with information and who can help you get the correct documentation at the registrar.
This takes us to another realm of government control over land without the corresponding accountability of its officials. The Registrar Office in India is the place that issues you a document for a piece of land, but it is your job to figure out whether you in fact own it. Like a lot of archaic systems that we inherited when the British left India, the Land Records Office is still the same-it is like walking into a Merchant-Ivory film.
So let us assume that you have figured out a business plan to sustain yourself financially, off the land, and are ready to make the jump. What next?
We can divide the whole process of finding a piece of land into 3 phases:
Information gathering: Today, online information has opened the floodgates to how people buy and sell, and land is no exception, easily advertised for sale by individuals or companies through portals and social media groups. Both buyers and sellers are available on mobile phones. The challenge is to find the right phone number.
In my day, it was a very different story. Starting in 1990, I traveled all over UP and Himachal Pradesh mountains and my modus operandi developed into a well-honed skill. I would land up at a place, say Ranikhet, with a week in hand and a large-scale map of the area. Every morning, I would head out in a chosen direction, either in a bus or jeep, and get dropped off 30 kms away, in the middle of nowhere.
So by 10 am, I am standing on a road, with a good breakfast inside me and my day-pack on the back, and I walk back. I stop at every tea-shack, grocery shop, or restaurant, order some stuff and start a conversation, which every bored Pahari loves. After some pleasantries and introductions, the talk veers towards why I am here. This is when I enquire about lands around, who grows what, water sources, snow, etc. In a day's walking, covering between 20 and 30 km, I would get 10 leads, which would yield at least one good possibility. In a week, I would have at least a few prospects.
Making connections: Once you know there is a possibility of finding good options in an area, we come to ensuring that what you are buying is legally clean. For that, find a good local lawyer who specialises in real estate. Given the diversity of state level laws that control land ownership and use, a good local lawyer is the only person who can explain and detail the whole set of documents you need to be the legal owner. Once you understand everything, find another lawyer and get a second opinion. These few thousand rupees can save you millions later.
As you zero in on your selected land, you will come in contact the elected and government officials who handle land locally and who will stamp and register the land documents. You will use either your lawyer or some local connections for this. Through experience, I can say that work moves much more smoothly if you grease it with some graft. I am totally against corruption but I have had stubborn government low-bodies make me run for months for some small document because I didn't know who to give money too.
Baksheesh or Nazrana is an old Indian concept, which loosely translates to gift or homage. In the days when the king appointed royal officials, to get anything from the government was a favour sought by the serfs. You lived on the lands because some local ruler or the other, in his pleasure, let you. We Indians still carry this mindset and the officials, who continued to rule the people after the British left, don't let us forget it. So when seeking anything via government agencies, no matter how legal, be liberal with your gifts to all and sundry, up and down the ladder.
Cash works, but the trick is to make deeper connections. As you go along with your search, you will meet some genuine people who just like you-and you like them. Clean of heart and direct these people, once they are on your side, will do pretty much anything for you. These are gems of relationships you gather as you adventure across rural India, but beware-they will pick up fake-ness the moment they see it. So unless you too genuinely feel warmth towards them, it will not work.
This will be crucial not just when you are searching for land but later too when you come to live there. These people will form the core of your support system: Service providers turned into friends-or at least well wishers-who will provide you any and every information or connection you might need at the grassroots level, day-to-day living.
Acquiring land: A few things to consider before you commit money and time to the land. Don't jump in at the first opportunity. Mentally, run through and solve every difficulty you can think of and budget for it. Water, electricity, infrastructure, transport costs, labour rates, financial and ecological sustainability, go over every aspect. You can overcome pretty much any difficulty if you have money, but without it, even the smallest problem can ground you.
Also, do not buy land unless you are sure you can re-monetize it if you change your mind later. Land is a valuable asset in India and its value growth always beats other investments over mid to long periods of time. But if you cannot resell it fairly easily, you may get stuck with a dead investment you cannot cash.
With your local connections and a clean set of documents, you are now ready to start your new journey. Now is the time to take a step back and go over your plans once more.