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India comes together for farmers
By Rachna Arora Verma



Kisan Swaraj Yatra, after 71-day long bus tour would be reaching its last stop at Rajghat (Delhi) on December 11, 2010. The Yatra, as the travelling farmers and activists found, received enthusiastic response from people all over the country. One of them shares her experiences as the Yatra concludes.

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Frantic phone calls, notes, files, documents, responsibilities, discussions, delegations, and disagreements; it could have been any meeting in a state-of-the-art conference room in a towering building of a multinational corporation. Except - it wasn't one.

Another round of hot, sweetened tea was passed around from the tiny kitchen of the open-air cafeteria at the Gujarat Vidyapeeth. Sitting under a tree, I observed the fascinating mix of people in the meeting; a greying Sikh with a long-beard, a rustic woman, her head covered with a colorful Odhni, a young lad in Woodland boots, an aging farmer with long mutinous eyebrows. Nehru cap, worn out dhotis, lined faces, potlis, lap-tops, anklets, Patiala shalwaars, trendy denims, worn-out smiles, glimmering hope.

It was past eight in the evening, and the variegated group had been in meeting for many hours; despite the long travel most of them had undertaken to congregate that day at Ahmedabad; despite the unusually hot October evening and despite the mosquitoes that now descended in large numbers.

The participants from Punjab, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Delhi, Haryana, Maharashtra, Orissa, Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka huddled together and laboriously worked out the last minute details of the ambitious 71 day bus journey involving thousands of participants, 20 states and a journey of over 15,000 kilometers. The event being planned was unlike any, independent India had ever seen - The nationwide ‘Kisan Swaraj Yatra’ to be flagged off the next morning.

The Flag off

On October 2, 2010, as the world was celebreting Gandhi Jayanti, organic farmer and leader Bhaskar Bhai Save flagged off the Yatra at the Sabarmati Ashram from the very spot where Mahatma Gandhi had started off on the historical Dandi March eighty years ago.

“The Kisan Swaraj Yatra is not just a protest. It is a reminder to all Indians of our hard-won Independence which the agro-business corporations are trying to take away”, said the veteran leader. He urged the gathering to shake the government out of its complacency and declared that the Yatra was a wake-up call for the anti-farmer policy makers.

Anupam Mishra from the Gandhi Peace Foundation, Kapil Shah of ‘Jatan’, Kavitha Kuruganti of ‘Kheti Virasat Mission’ and Dr Kammu Bhai from “Mahua Kheti Nirma Andolan also addressed the gathering to standing ovations. The enthusiasm in the auditorium was very palpable and infectious.

The logistics of organising a 71 day tour covering over 15,000 Kilometres of strikingly heterogeneous terrain, climate and languages are phenomenal. The challenge of the yatra is that there is no one leader propelling it. It is a collective resistance of hundreds of organisations volunteering and sharing the numerous responsibilities. Website updates, travel, boarding and lodging arrangements, posters, local language slogans, handbills, donation boxes, petitions, badges, translators, formalities and protocols to list a few. Along with managing the mechanics of such magnitude, the Yatris are also making a lot of effort to keep the yatra environmental friendly and plastic free. The Swaraj Yatra planning group has been working day and night, coordinating efforts to improve and sharpen the outreach, readjusting, rectifying and improvising as they go along.

Generosity

Amongst many things that stood out, one of them was the hospitality of villagers, which was without exceptions, sincere and effusive, whether, it was Mehsana, Edapal, Odugunkutti, Tiruvannamalai or Sarangi. The receptions were different, with singing children, traditional dances, vegetable garlands, earthy bouquets, Rakhis and the ubiquitous ‘Tilak’ ceremonies.

Donations big and small trickled in, at times, from almost empty purses of magnanimous tribals and farmers. The Yatra even received contributions from police officers and government officials. The RTO officials at Chhattisgarh waved off the road tax completely! Why were these people opening their hearts and wallets for the Yatra? Was it a sign of solidarity, agreement and support to the messages and the demands of the Yatra?

Delights

Stunning drives along rivers, sea, ghats, green and golden fields, through wildlife reserves and via national parks delighted us. The breath taking sunrises on river banks, chirping of birds, nights lit by a thousand stars, ancient temples and hidden natural treasures enraptured us. But, Mother Nature is being eroded in a hurry, and these sights might be replaced by a mine, a new chemical factory or a tall building before we plan another trip.

The variety and heterogeneity in landscape was matched by the diversity in the food that was served. As the guests of the village and representatives of the Yatra, the food we were served were the best samples of the local food grains and the traditional varieties, being laboriously conserved by handful of local organic farmers.

These were not just meals; these were demonstrations of magnanimity of the farmers who have been denied the reverence due to them in Independent India. The farmers, who till the soil in spite of their hungry stomach, filled me up, a leachy consumer, with self reproach. I was filled with remorse, as I thought back of the numerous occasions, when I had just turned over the pages ignoring the news articles about rural hunger and farmer suicides.

Enthusiastic participation

Where ever we went, people united in their demand for safe food; the people in the streets joined in eagerly. There were no signs of the so called north-south divide and no language barrier to keep them away.


The students of TRK Higher Secondary School, Vaniamkulam welcomed the Yatra

Thousands signed the Petition to UPA head Sonia Gandhi. The students of the TRK Higher Secondary School at Vaniamkulam, in Kerala had taken the initiative of conducting a petition drive in the school and the neighbouring areas even before the Yatra reached the state! Scores of people volunteered to take the drive forward even after the Yatra left their state. The support banners saw numerous messages and signatures by consumers, farmers and local leaders.

The energetic slogans almost always concluded the meetings and drew in keen participation. The slogan “Gyarah December Yaad Rahe, Dilli Chalo, Dilli Chalo’’ was phrased impromptu at many places. There were scores of confirmations of farmers willing to join the Yatra in Delhi.

The Desperation

A large agricultural belt in Gujrat is under BT cotton cultivation and we crossed long stretches of flowering BT Cotton fields. Gujrat produces about half of the country’s cotton. Where were the signs of prosperity that was promised with BT cotton? The villages were reverberating with the slogans of “Bt Brinjal kya karegaa, Desh ka satyanash karega.” Why were the villagers welcoming the Yaris with such expectancy?

The bus rolled through the hot green land of Saurashtra, passing sugarcane, barley, corn and cotton fields. More meetings followed. Some planned some impromptu. In Dhabas, temples, schools; in courtyards, fields and in panchayat grounds. Every time there were numerous questions. How to make organic khaaad (manure)? What to grow? How to use Castor to protect against pests? The organic farmers travelling with the Yatra always found themselves inundated with enquiries!! Even a metro-based consumer like me, who had little know-how to share, except for what I had picked up in the earlier meetings and even that was eagerly lapped up.

In Sajhivar, interactions continued till about 10 pm under a sky lit with stars and a few lanterns. I reflected on the questions raised during the day and the allegations against BT Cotton as I tried to sleep to the music of the ‘Manjiras’ and ‘Bhajans’. There weren’t enough beds for the guests in the hutment, so some farmers had given up their cots for us. “The Kirtan was an indigenous solution to spend the night”, said Rukhi ben, our hostess, as she broke the hot bajra roti into small pieces for our breakfast.

“The land is becoming sterile, the crop is drying up in the field this year”, said Sagam bhai of Village Lafavadar of the Taluta Panchayat area. “I don’t have money to buy more fertilizers. We switched because all the leading farmers and the sahib log told us that it was better seed. We were told that the Bt seed was being distributed by the government. Now we don’t have any seed of our own.”

The young farmers at Vijapur in Mehsana district emphatically shared their dissatisfaction and disappointment with BT Cotton. They had no idea about the process of genetic modification and assumed that some poison had been applied over the seed.

Raju bhai, sarpanch of village Moehra said that earlier they needed one kilogram urea per acre of land but now even three bags were not enough to get the same yield of 5 quintal per acre. Further, the latest BT seeds, named B2 seeds, were sterile, he informed.

Over 150 farmers had collected in the Panchayat grounds of village Son Pipaliya, and only one farmer was saving his own seed. All others were completely dependent on the market for procuring seeds.

At village Lafavdar, Sagarbhai and his wife Jaya Ben offered to help the farmers with their seeds. Suddenly there were many who willingly vowed to switch at least a part of their holdings to organic agriculture. The non-availability of seeds is the only reason why we are stuck with BT Cotton, said one of them. Villagers of Bhoanda after long discussions with the Yatris and amongst themselves vowed to discontinue using BT seeds immediately.

Women farmers were a concerned and often very inspired. At Madsana Kumpa, the women shared information on the various initiatives - tree planting, the community run milk farm and the propensity towards organic agriculture.

In Tamil Nadu, farmers and yatris collected funds and donations for Tamil Nadu Agricultural University. The university is working on various collaborative projects with corporates like Monsanto and Rasi seeds. It proudly displays the contributions made by such organizations. It has even named its conference halls and meeting rooms after its benefactors. There was a lot of discontent and unrest as the acting Vice Chancellor refused to accept the donations of the farmers and walked out of the ‘Rasi Seeds conference hall’. This hullaboo attracted a lot of media interest.


Plaque at Tamil Nadu Agricultural University showing contributions from corporates

The Resolve

“Over two lakh farmers have committed suicide in the last ten years. The investigations of the suicides have been mere lip service and the concerned minister and officials have been playing putty in the hands of corporates” accused Kishan Chaurasiya from Madhya Pradesh.

Often shared during the Yatra was the story of the seed conservation by poor farmers despite drought. They didnot consume the seeds even when their survival was at stake. Curious officials were later told by the farmers that by eating seeds they could not destroy the future of their children preserved in the biggest asset, seeds. The yatris and farmers rued over the fact that this very revered asset was being systematically destroyed by small and big corporations.

The energy at the meetings frequently shifted between expectant celebrations, dejected silence, shame, inspirational singing and courageous resolves. Many villagers came forward with their formal resolutions and some even went into details of how they will work towards it.

The farmers at Madasana Cumpa vowed to keep GM foods away. It’s not the food and seed sovereignty, but the independence of the country which is at stake they claimed.

The Sarpanch of village Sarangi, in MP, a middle aged lady, promised that the panchayat will try to find alternatives for the farmers. “The non availability of resources and lack of know-how is a major deterrent but it is not surmountable” she said.

Love for their land was very overt, especially in tribal areas and in most meetings. In spite of farm crisis, tribals affirmed their intention to continue with agriculture. Occasional dissent was also visible, at places, where young farmers, showed signs of exhaustion, and expressed their willingness to forsake agriculture.

Facts and learnings

The sustainable ecological farming model is being practiced by many, in their limited capacity. Some of them participated in the Yatra to encourage other farmers.

The stories of non farmers like bus driver Maram Karunanidhi, who has planted thousands of saplings; Badri Narayana a sweet shop owner who is also an organic farmer in Thiruvannamalai were also very refreshing.

We visited various organic and zero input farms and many farmers shared their high-return-low-input models of agriculture with us.

Bhaskar Bhai Save is one of the most prominent one among them. He has been practicing ecological agriculture for decades in his chikoo and coconut orchard, Kalpavraksha in Gujarat and getting as much as 400% returns from his farm.

At Sonkatch, Baghelji talked to the yatris about rain harvesting, mulching and multi cropping. Even farmers were impressed by the heaven he has created in the Choubara village and that too without using any chemicals. Young orange plants heavy with fruit, inter cropping of papaya, pumpkin, nitrogen fixing lentils, drumsticks and clean water bodies, all this on an erstwhile barren hillock!

The farmers might not be scientists, but they are very scientific in approach, I have learnt from this Yatra. It was useful to know that organic systems of Rice and Wheat intensification are systematically pursued by Jan Swasthya Sahyog, Bilaspur to address the malnutrition issues. The JSS is religiously protecting and conserving over 150 traditional varieties. These varieties are sturdier and taller as compared to any hybrid rice thus yielding more fodder for the livestock.

Natabara Sarangi, in Orissa has been growing more than 350 varieties of traditional rice. In Jagdalpur, organic farmers like Bhagturam & Rathiram Kashyap have evolved a new weeder for SRI cultivation. Khondra village near Bilaspur has become a completely organic village with the local efforts only!

We were told that in Chengalpet near Chennai, 9 tons of paddy could be harvested per hectare pre-colonial times. Even during the Green Revolution, the scientists have not been able to match these yields.


A farmer signs the petition to the policy makers

In HD Kote near Mysore, a fact reemerged that organic seed was no longer available to the farmers who wanted to switch back from BT cotton. Vivek Cariappa, an agriculture expert, revealed that he had information from UAS-Dharwad, to believe that even the parental lines for DCH-32 hybrid cotton seed were also contaminated.

We also learnt that the native breeds of livestock survived better than the allegedly, high yielding breeds in certain climatic conditions.

It was pointed out that many agro-development projects grossly miscalculate the thousands of hectares of unregularised land being cultivated by the poorest on lease. The promotion of cash crops like Rajma and coffee by the government is causing a lot of stress for the tribals due to faulty Minimum Sale Prices.

The health impacts caused by reduced dietary diversity were shared by local medical experts. The farmers are unable to get diverse and balanced food. The adivsis are increasingly becoming dependent on the few grains available via PDS.

We were introduced to CG Net Swara, a communication system being used in numerous villages in Gujarat and MP to broadcast information and messages.

These recordings are played to anyone who dials the CG netswara number and opts to hear the messages. It was heartening to know the reach and potency of the farmer community centric medium.

The inherent interest of the universities partnering with the bio-tech industry in field trials and research also got highlighted. At TNAU, the questions ranged from the need of BT Brinjal, the accountability of the university for the farmer distress, the need for transparency in corporate funding, the continuation of GM Maize trials despite the resistance of the farmer organisations etc. The acting Vice Chancellor showed little seriousness or interest in the questions. He categorically refused to accept the donation from commoners or to have anything to do with the farmers from other states.

14,000 tribals in Panchmahals, Vadodara, Sabarkantha and Banaskantha districts of Gujrat, who have for centuries practiced traditional agriculture are being given free fertilizers and Monsanto’s hybrid seeds for Maize cultivation by the government to plant on the chemical virgin land under PROJECT SUNSHINE. The fragile eco-system is being violated without due consideration to issues like the abilities of the tribals to invest in input intensive agriculture. The tribal welfare department decided to procure seeds from Monsanto. It did not follow any tendering process for such a huge investment of public funds. It is proffered that the Gujrat State seeds corporation could have provided the seeds at a price of Rs. 40 a kg vis-à-vis Rs. 800 a kg charged by Monsanto. The intent and interest of the decision makers was obvious. 40 Crores is being spent to distribute the hybrid corn seeds, 150 Kg of fertilizers and 1kg of seeds are being handed out per acre. This translates to an additional 65 crores being spent on the fertilizer subsidy, totalling to a staggering 105 crores of the Indian tax payers money to help an agri-corporate expand its market base.

Not only the laal makka (red corn) needs more water and fertilizers, it is also difficult to intercrop and has contaminated the traditional varieties which are also producing orange hybrid maize, we were told at Vangad village.

Some farmers from Fatehpura Taluka shared that they were given free seeds and fertilizers by the local NGO for the two years but this time they had to shell out over a thousand rupees per acre for the same. Some of the seeds had failed completely and the farmers had no crop. Though they had actually paid money for the seed but had no clue that they could actually file case against the village mitra from the NGO that was supplying them the rogue seeds.

Petlawad, Jhabua, Meghnagar shocked even the farmers of Punjab. The farmers in their desperation are using huge quantities of fertilizers and pesticides. The local moneylenders and agro-product retailers encourage the ignorant farmers to use more chemicals without offering any technical know how. Even poor ‘Bhils’ (local tribals), who have negligible resources to pay back the loans are encouraged to borrow money and to move towards intensive agriculture!

Demands

The Yatra is highlighting the urgent need to revisit and revamp the anti farmer and pro-corporate agricultural polices. The need to invest in an ecological and sustainable agriculture model, issues of seed and food sovereignty, the fall out of chemical farming and green revolution, the hazards of GM technology and the need to implement labelling laws for GMOs.


Kavitha Kuruganti addressing a public meeting in Coimbatore.

The Haritha Sena took the demands of food and seed sovereignty one step forward by demanding ‘Arogya Swaraj’. Saroj Mohanty, a seed breeder and farmer from Orissa questioned the investment of Rs. 400 crores on the proposed Eastern India Green Revolution. We need to learn from the horrific nightmare of the people of Punjab. “The agenda of corporate houses and politicians in food and agriculture needs to be closely, scrutinized and questioned”, demanded Kavitha Kuruganti of Kheti Virasat Mission.

Many area specific demands were also raised, like the scrapping of Project Golden Days in Orissa and Project Sunshine in Gujarat, the demand to reject the Tamil Nadu State Agricultural Council Act of 2009 that gives more control to corporate organisations. Vidarbha Farm Widows Association demanded a change in loan policies. In Jalna, the yatris lit a bonfire of GM seeds to assert the demand for seed sovereignty. Farmers from Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha burnt down the crop in the field trials of transgenic crops near Bangalore due to fears of contamination.

Along with the lighting of candles and Bonfires the yatra’s demands were marked by demonstrations and assertions in the form of ‘Yagya’, book releases etc.

The discontent with the Agriculture minister was apparent throughout the nation. The Sharad Pawar Sadbudhi Yagya at Bhopal attracted huge crowds and jibes at the minister. "Deshi Beej, Namaha", "Deshi Khaad, Namaha", "Mote anaaj, Namaha" were followed by Ahutis’ to the chanting of "GM seeds, Swaaha",, "WTO, Swaaha" and, "Monsanto, Swaaha". The parody “Raghupati Raghava Rajaram, Sharad Pawar ko akal de Seetaram" delighted the audience and the media alike.

Another such Yagya was performed for the sadbudhi of UAS-D at Dharwad, in the presence of the registrar of the University!

The Yatra released two detailed survey reports related to performance of BT Cotton in Maharashtra and Karnataka. These reports conclude that BT Cotton has been a failure in terms of yield, water and chemical consumption. A book called ‘The Vision of Natural Farming’ by Bharat Mansata was released by Bhaskar Save in Mumbai. Natbara Sarangi, a seed conserver and Prof. Radhamohan, a proponent of organic farming released a booklet titled “Monsanto-ising Indian Agriculture” in Bhubaneshwar amongst others.

Achievements

In addition to the book releases and publication of reports, Yatra has achieved some noticeable outcomes. The memorandums to President, Prime Minister, various ministers, district collectors and government officials were signed in thousands.


Petitions signed by farmers were sent to policy makers

Puducherry which has maintained a stoic silence on the subject of GM showed some thawing. Lt. Governor Dr. Iqbal Singh, hosted a breakfast for the Yatris at the Raj Bhavan and felicitated them. He endorsed the need for policies to promote ecological arming and to oppose all erosive technologies in Puducherry via a press release.

Dr Ramakrishna Kusmariya, farmers welfare and agriculture development minister of Madhya Pradesh, issued a statement endorsing the messages of the Kisan Swaraj Yatra. He declared that MP will show the way to the rest of the country on how to save farmers and their farming.

The Kerala government’s firm stand on Endosulfan was reiterated and shared by Mullakara Ratnakaran, minister of agriculture via a phone message in the Pallakad meeting.

Following protests by Yatris and local farmers, Dr Prabhu Malkarnekar assured the rally that the Krishi Vigyan Kendra at Bangalore will not undertake any more transgenic field trials.

University of Agriculture, Bangalore had taken up the field trials of Du Pont’s GM rice secretly at Doddaballapur, about 40 kms from Bangalore without even intimating the Gram Panchayats.

The Yatra received encouragement and blessings of religious leaders too. It saw active participation from cinematographers, poets, writers, journalists, teachers, doctors, scientists, local politicians and the common people. It has succeeded in uniting the farmer bodies, environment activists, scientists, consumers and community leaders like never before. The meetings have seen turnouts running into thousands like the one in Bhubaneshwar on 16th November.

The Yatra has received copious support. Some of it worth mentioning would be the endorsements from celebrities like Aamir Khan, Justice M B Shah from Delhi, freedom fighters Dr Shanti Patel and Dr G G Parikh from Mumbai, Journalist Rabi Das from Orissa, film maker Sudhir Patnaik, K Srinivas, editor of Andhra Jyothy etc.

The Yatra has been covered widely by the national and local media. In Khapatnam, Andhra Pradesh, the arrival of the Yatra was marked by a show on the "Future of Farming", where the state agriculture minister and representatives of various political parties were posed questions on live TV!!.

The going gets tough

This report would not be complete without the mention of the hardships being faced by the Yatris. Long walks to unmotorable villages, flat tyres during over-night travel, unending waits at road side garages, the confiscation of the bus once by the transport officers, umbrella protests under incessant rains, bad roads, traffic jams, little sleep, infectious flu and a fracture, the Yatris endured it all. Packed meals and midnight dinners were normal and so were nights on cold jute mats and lodgings in cramped offices. Sharing toilets, often choked or leaking necessitated the 4 am wake up calls for those who wanted to bathe before 5 am departures, often without having a cup of tea.

Still, the enthusiasm of the Yatris was infectious. They often joined the hosts in the singing and dancing with abandon. Each success, each partnership and each day was applauded and cheered on by gentle waiving of arms raised in the air, with the palms forming a blooming flower! The celebratory salute was picked up from some tribal children in MP.

The worn-out patience was frequently tested. Yet, I saw them bouncing back with sprightly slogan shouting every time the bus passed a marketplace or a stretch of road with a possible audience. I often witnessed the renewed determination after an impromptu singing of a prayer like ‘Itni shakti hame dena data, man ka vishwaas kamzor ho na’ (Oh God! Please strengthen our resolve and give us the courage so that we don’t surrender to adversities) or the poignant ‘Ab andhera jeet lenge log mere gaon ke’ (This dark phase will end, and my village folks will be victorious)!

Bapu still lives and so does hope

“Ugaane Waale Kee Jai, Khaana Banaane Wale kee jai”. The 20 odd girls sang in chorous for us in the airy classroom of Sampark Residential School in Madhya Pradesh. They have been singing the message of the Yatra in their prayer every morning for years! “Desi Beej Rakhna Hai, Gulaami Se Bachna Hai”, “Desi beej bachana hai, kisan ko bachana hai”. Bhagwat Singh, a tribal farmer from Madhya Pradesh remarked that the children had infused him with hope that our future could still be salvaged.

I remember the last day of October in Mallapuram where the vigorous rendition of the immortal ‘Varika Varika Sahja Re’ by Dr. Jacob fired up the yatris, students and the dignitaries alike. That day as I joined in the resolute singing, clapping and dancing, in hope for justice, and a better world; I became a part of history or so it seemed.

Rachna Arora Verma

Rachna Arora Verma is a commentator on food and environment issues.

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 Other Articles by Rachna Arora Verma in
Political Development  > Duties and Rights > Economic and Social Rights

National awakening on farm crisis
Friday, November 26, 2010

Kisan Swaraj Yatra, a nationwide mobilization effort to draw attention to the widening agricultural crisis and to campaign for the need for a sustainable agriculture model, began from Sabarmati Gandhi Ashram on October 2 and will culminate at Rajghat on December 11, 2010. After accompanying the Yatra for weeks, a participant shares her experiences.
 
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The shocking revelation is that the health and education sectors haven't remained untouched by this phenomenon. With 5th and 6th positions respectively for these sectors on the public perception chart on corruption, corruption has crept insidiously into these sectors of hope for the masses. With bureaucracy being fourth in the list of corrupt institutions in the country, corruption seems to have been non-formally institutionalized with little hope if public services would ever be effective in the country. With economic growth having literally institutionalized corruption, are we now expecting corrupt to be socially responsible - a different CSR.

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Not giving 'aid' to India is one thing but calling it 'rich' is quite another. If one in three of the world's malnourished children live in India, what does average daily income of $3 indicate? It perhaps means that there is a relative decline in poverty - people are 'less poor' than what they used to be in the past. But having crossed the World Bank arbitrary threshold of $2 a day does not absolve the 'developed' countries of their obligation to part with 0.7 per cent of their Gross National Income in development aid. Should this three-decade old figure not be revised?  

An interesting debate in UK's House of Commons delved on future of development assistance by the British Government. While prioritizing limited resources has been a concern, there has been no denying the fact that development aid must be guided towards tangible gains over a short period of time to start with. There are difficult choices for elected governments to make - should they invest in long-term primary education or in short-term university scholarships? Which of these will bring gains and trigger long-term transformation in the society. As politicians continue to be divided on the matter, poverty persists!!   

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