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Fair trade in India

Can an old concept help India's rural farming crisis?

Indian farmer Udham Singh examines his wheat crop in a field on the outskirts of Amritsar on March 9, 2010. (Narinder Nanu/AFP/Getty Images)

AMRAVATI, India — Rajendra Panja Kadu lives with his family in a small, humble home in a farming village in central India. He works three jobs — farming his two acres, milking his water buffalo and working as a laborer on others’ farms — but Kadu, like millions of other Indian farmers, can barely make ends meet.

Kadu earns about 60,000 rupees ($1,300) a year and must rely on government ration cards to help him buy food, he says as he sits on his wooden bed. Mounds of cotton puffs waiting to be sold peek out from under the bed. Large sacks of soybeans lean against one wall. Paintings of Hindu gods adorn another.

When Kadu is low on cash, he must borrow about 10,000 rupees a year from moneylenders, who he says charge him a 5 percent monthly interest rate.

The farmer, who lives in Ghodghwan village in Amravati district, says he continues farming despite the difficulties because he has no better options. “It is my business. It is my job,” he said. “I don’t know anything else.”

Kadu manages, thought not always. Last year he had a motorbike accident and had to borrow 150,000 rupees — more than double his annual earnings — from friends and relatives to pay the medical bills.

A non-profit organization called Shop for Change is trying to improve the lives of Indian farmers like Kadu by supporting and formalizing fair trade practices and giving those farmers better access to a market interested in buying fair-trade products.

Shop for Change, which has created the first fair trade certification label for a domestic Indian market that works with the mainstream supply chain, launched cotton T-shirts with its label in an Indian retailer this January. Other companies adopting the certification standards will offer various types of certified cotton products.

Typically, fair-trade goods like coffee and tea are produced in the developing world and sold to consumers in developed nations. Shop for Change aims to capitalize on a growing market of middle- and upper-class Indians who have the extra disposable income to pay higher prices for goods and who — it hopes — will feel compelled to help farmers struggling just a train ride away, said Shop for Change CEO Seth Petchers.

“This whole concept of fair trade — and also of consumer empowerment to influence the way companies do business and the choices they can make as consumers — is a new concept here,” Petchers said.