Meet Venkat Iyer, the farmer who quit IBM

Hailing from a remote village in Maharashtra, what makes Venkat Iyer stand out from the rest is that he left his successful IT career to become a farmer. SOUNAK MUKHERJEE tries to find out how the man thinks

How often do you come across a farmer who is an ex IBM employee? Not every day. How would you react when you get to know that the man was at the peak of his IT career, when he decided to quit and start farming as his livelihood? Venkat Iyer has given a detailed account of his journey in his book, Moong Over Microchips. Read on to find out what the man himself feels about the agricultural situation of India, farmers’ plight and living his dream and more…

Let’s start with the ending phrase of your book: “A scary thought.” How do you see the future of agriculture in India?

Agriculture will continue to be the mainstay in our country, though it may no longer be the profession of choice. Many farmers are selling land and some are becoming daily wagers, or seeking jobs and this is likely to continue. Farming could undergo changes and there could be more corporate and private intrusions, and contract farming which is already happening. There is a little political will to help farmers and unless there are major policy changes with increased credit availability, better pricing and improved rural infrastructure, farmers will struggle.

Do you miss your corporate life?

No, I do not miss my corporate life. When I decided on the transition, I had already reconciled with the fact that my lifestyle would change. And, after I got over the initial pangs of leaving my corporate job, I never thought of it again.

You have safe-guarded your personal life in the book. You merely describe incidents. Why so?

Exactly why it’s ‘safely-guarded’ as you say – it’s my personal life. However, in the initial manuscript, I had included a few chapters on my childhood and marriage, but some publishers I got in touch with felt that it was straying away from the essence of the book, which was my transition, and so I decided to remove several personal details from the book.

You have refused to give in to the pressure of corruption. You fought with every corrupt individual. How much of it is possible for an ordinary farmer?

To fight corruption at every level requires a lot of patience and persistence. Also, there is a financial angle to be able to make repeated trips to the authorities which is why it makes it difficult for an ordinary farmer to fight the system. Most people prefer to just pay up and get the work done which seems logical under the circumstances.

Many dream of living a life driven by passion. But, not everyone manages to do that. What worked in your case?

In order to chase your dream and passion, I feel one needs the 5 C’s. Courage to leave the comfort zone you are in and look at new options. Commitment to put in 100% of your energy to chase your dream. Conviction that what you are planning to do is what you want. Co-operation from family and friends. Capital, you always need some money to start. I suppose in my case all the 5 C’s just came together, though obviously it is not easy as it sounds. There are a lot of doubts, difficulties and obstacles along the way and they have to be dealt with rationally and of course with patience and a belief that things take time. You are also up against every trying circumstances – that’s how people live in villages – bad roads, poor power supply, little access to decent health care. There are many things we take for granted in our cities. Nevertheless, you learn along the way from how they cope, and that has helped me a lot.

You became a true villager the day you started believing in the ‘curse’. Do you think there is some kind of a justification in the so-called superstitious practices in rural India?

I still do not believe in superstitions, and it was difficult for me to accept this of course. Yet, in the rural areas there are many such practices and cures for them. I do not have clear answers to whether the ‘curse’ did work or the mumbo jumbo of undoing it worked. I have just shared my experience and leave it to the readers to draw their own conclusions.

What do we need to survive in an Indian village, in case we decide to settle over there?

That depends on if you are merely ‘settling’ which I presume means living there, or if you are going to farm the land and trying to live off the produce. If you are growing most of your calorie requirement, the money needed to survive in a village is very less. Many people have settled in villages and find it quite a refreshing change, provided one is willing to deal with the situation as it comes.

What are your thoughts about the farmers who marched to Mumbai for their rights?

For decades, farmers have been battling erratic weather, high input costs and low returns in the country. Almost 50% of farming household are indebted and average family incomes of farmers nationally are Rs 6,000 odd a month, according to the government’s own data. In a situation where they are floundering without state support, they have everything to gain by a public show of strength. Farmers have been protesting in several states, and those are completely justified. At least these protests have brought the farmers’ plight into the mainstream, however briefly. But, it remains to be seen if it can move policy makers to do something to improve their condition.

How do you feel about the ‘fan mails’ you get on a regular basis? Do you remember any special encounter?

I do get a lot of mails, most of them either congratulating me or asking for advice on how to start a farm. It was really nice to get a mail from Nitish Raikar whose 11-year-old daughter Nidhi was reading the book and liking it. We do get a lot of visitors. But, a few days back, a 90-year-old Kanu Bhai with his son-in-law Mukesh and his retired teacher friend Jyoti landed up at the farm. They set out from Mumbai, with a vague idea where I lived, armed with just a copy of the Gujarati magazine Chitralekha that had carried a cover story on me. It was amazing that they got to the farm after searching for a few hours, showing people my pictures in the magazine along the way.

Where would you have been, if you did not have the courage to quit your job?

I would probably be in the senior management of some company, with a huge salary, living in the city, accumulating frequent flyer points, complaining of traffic snarls, tough clients, strict deadlines, tight budgets and poor increments.

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