22 April 2004

Elections 2004: Chili capital not shining bright

22 April 2004
The Times of India

Chili capital not shining bright


BYADGI, Karnataka: The weathered faces and calloused hands of Yelamma and Jamalbee are not the best advertisement for the multi-million dollar global cosmetics industry, but the luscious red that adorns the lips of models around the world begins its journey with their labour here in the chili capital of Karnataka.

Fiery and dark red, the Byadgi chili is prized for its oil which, once extracted and properly processed, forms the base for lipsticks and even colas. Working through buying agents, say local traders, multinational companies purchase the bulk of the crop. Prices are currently running at around Rs 5,000-6,000 per quintal, about Rs 1,500 more than "average" because continuous drought in the Dharwar region.

Jamalbee has two acres of unirrigated land in her native village of Motebennur, some 10 kms away. But since nothing has grown on it for the better part of three years, she is forced to take the bus every day to this market town to clean chillies for a living.

Work is uncertain: some days she will have to return home empty-handed. Neither she nor any of the other women sitting out in the 40 ÂșC heat plucking the tops off a huge mound of chilies has the least bit of enthusiasm for the elections. "We know nothing about the govt and the govt knows nothing about us", says Yelamma from Mallur village.

"I get paid Rs 2.50 per kilo of cleaned chilies and if I work fast, I can make as much as Rs 35 in the day".

Is India shining for them? Jamalbee has never heard the slogan. Is she better off today than she was five years ago? "Three years ago, the rate for cleaning chilies was Rs 1.50 per kilo and we used to make Rs 25 a day", she says. "We are definitely not better off," another woman says angrily. By now, the wholesale merchant who has been watching his employees being interviewed, scolds the women. "What do these poor ladies know about politics," he says.
"Better you come inside and talk to saar."

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