Aug 1, 2013 – The last time I was in China, I went on a three-week trek in Tibet around Mount Kailas and Lake Mansarovar. That was 25 years ago. I went back to China to visit Guangzhou, Foshan and Hangzhou. Foshan is incidentally the largest furniture market in the world. To give you a perspective, more than 10 kilometres of shopping malls, which would probably be comparable to having all of India’s shopping malls on one street, sell just one item: furniture. The sheer scale boggles the mind.
In my free time, I went driving into the outskirts of town. There I met her: a proud Chinese farmer, Mrs Jain He of village Dazha. I did not intend it to be a formal interview; just a friendly chat. On my return to India I realized that the conversation was too interesting not to share with our readers. Since it was not formally recorded, I may have got some names a little wrong for which I hope both my readers and interviewee will forgive me.
Jain He farms bass fish and has leased a fish pond, around 4,000 square meters with a depth of two to three metres, from the government for four years at the cost of RMB 25,000 a year (RMB 1 = Rs 10). Every April, she buys 48,000 bass babies to raise. The fish need to be fed four times a day. Being a citrus farmer, I had no idea that fish can be fed fish and was aghast at the very idea of feeding raw chopped fish to the bass. That is the way things are though and one lives and learns. Every trip within the country or overseas is a revelation for me; exciting and enriching.
Each day Jain He buys 22 bags of 20 kgs of frozen fish as feed. The cost of feed (small fish) is 80 cents a kg. The quantity increases as the bass grow in size. The process is simple: she cuts open the sack and pushes the frozen lot through a shredding machine that is similar to what one could use in India for chopping green fodder. The chopped fish is then thrown to the bass.
One is dealing with a very high density of fish in these fresh water ponds, where the water needs to be aerated constantly to increase the oxygen supply in the pond so that the fish stay alive and healthy. Jain He has four machines to do so. The machines basically comprise inverted fan blades that churn the water at the surface of the pond, much like a kitchen mixer. These are simply kept afloat with large sealed empty cans for buoyancy. The machines work round the clock.
The high fish density in the pond also makes them vulnerable to disease and a constant vigil needs to be kept throughout the season. The village has a veterinary doctor from the fisheries department. If a farmer suspects a problem he takes a sample of the pond water to the vet who prescribes medication, if required. Fish, when dead, float on the water and need to be removed immediately lest they spread disease.
The harvesting of fish begins in October and continues for more than four months. Each fish that Jain He sells is about six inches long and weighs between 0.4 to 0.6 kgs. Last year she sold 20,000 kgs of bass at an average price of RMB 18 per kg. She probably earned a profit of RMB 1 lakh. Normally, the family labour suffices but, if required at the time of harvest, she hires workers for RMB 100 to RMB 150 per day. The monthly salaries in Foshan would be RMB 4,000. The same worker would get RMB 5,000 to RMB 7,000 in Guangzhou, a much bigger town just an hour away.
I asked Jain He where she sold the fish. She said that the agents came to buy from her pond site every day. The same fish sold in the market in Foshan at double the price at RMB 40 per kg. The price varies on the size of the harvest; quite consistent with practices in India.
I am relieved for reasons that I do not fathom when I learn that not all fish are bred non-vegetarian. Jain He’s neighbour breeds eel fish, which is fed prepared fishmeal in basket loads lowered in the water in the middle of the pond. Unlike the bass, the eel does not come to where the feed is dropped.
Pollution levels have increased in the rivers due to commercial farming and farmers have been using nets stitched on top open boxes kept afloat with help of empty bottles. This practice is now discouraged.
Jain He’s electricity bill is RMB 2,000 per month and for the full year it is RMB 20,000. The cost of electricity for fish farming is half the cost of power supplied to residential houses in the village. Consistent power supply is available round the clock. China has made enormous investment in infrastructure, which has translated into prosperity and higher GDP growth that appears to be more equitable than in most other countries. On cursory observation, it appears that every house in the village is brick lined. In the city there are no plotted houses at all; only high rise buildings. Dazha has cemented roads, pavements and road dividers that are lush with greenery.
Some farmers use gas bottles for cooking and others use electric stoves. A small family could use a bottle per fortnight. Each gas bottle costs RMB 120. I figured that the cost of cooking is more expensive than in India. Most people boil water before they use it at home.
Jain He lives in a three storey house like most of her peers in the village and has two children; a boy and a girl. She drives an electric scooter. Normally, parents live in the same house with their children in the village. Only when children go to work in the city do they live separately. Even marriages are usually arranged, as in India. Divorce is rare. Children are in junior school till they are 12 years of age. English and maths are compulsory in the middle school though some kindergarten schools also teach English.
Farmers in the village usually live on one floor and supplement their income by leasing other portions to migrant people working in Foshan for around RMB 500 to RMB 1,000, depending on the size of the room. The size of the plots for homes normally varies between 80 square meters and 200 square meters. The cost of land in the village could possibly be RMB 5,000 per square meter and building a home could cost RMB 3,50,000.
We eat in ordinary street restaurants, which are without frills but serve a delicious fare. At places it is difficult to explain why one would not want to eat fish and meat but the staff is courteous and the vegetarian dishes delicious. Sometimes the chefs are requested to prepare dishes mentioned in the menu without the meat or fish ingredients. All menus have photographs of dishes offered. All tables have prepared set of dishes sealed in plastic foil. Once the green tea kettle arrives, we wash our dishes with the tea and pour the contents in a big bowl that is removed from the table later. We then refill our small cups to drink the same tea.
I do not see youngsters loitering around town or villages at any time of the day. I asked about Hollywood movies in town and am told that they are common and the price of a movie ticket is RMB 25 to RMB 30. The nation is, however, perpetually working it appears. The Chinese are meticulous; it is a way of life that would be worth getting used to; a world apart from the comfort of the chaos that prevails on Indian streets.
Jain He has no complaints. This could be out of deference to the fact that I am a foreigner. I have not had the opportunity to visit parts other than south east China but they may not be as developed as the Dazha village. How this nation has developed over the years and how the inclusive growth translates into the creation of a proud, hardworking farmer is an experience worth a life time.
Could Indian policy makers, who head for western countries for their summer breaks, head towards the hinterland of China for a change?