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More observations from Tihi et al

a small update from me. when the previous post was written, i was in the middle of the itc project — living in two villages, studying the impact this agribusiness was having on village india. that project is over now. i am back in starvation gully looking for a job. needless to say, the village stint was magnificient. cannot tell you how much i learnt. (note to regular readers. yes, all three of you. give me a shout whenever you are in delhi. we will get a beer. i will get my laptop along and show you the village snaps, tell you about the people i met, the friends i made, the new confusions in my brain…).

in the meantime, i thought i would paste some of my village notes on the blog. take a look. this is a fairly random list of jottings. but might make for an interesting read.


a pastiche of memories

a government intervention to empower lower classes – rotating the post of village headman among marginalised communities, women and then the general category – had fallen to the law of unintended consequences. the first reservation sarpanch was meant to be an adivasi (tribal). in tihi, consensus was that he had been “guided” by moolchand seth (mukesh sen).

reconstructing how the elections worked, however, throws up more nuanced conclusions. the adivasi who stood for elections was the brother of narmada prasad, the village chowkidar. i suspect it is partly because as chowkidar, narmada prasad gets to know the government’s policies and plans for the village before any one else. and, as a govt servant, he has developed the ability to spot the advantages lying within these more than the others. on hearing about the new law, he got his brother to nominate himself. and, since there were no caps on gender, nominated his wife as well. both of them stood from the congress (narmada prasad is a ‘congressi’).

and then, another women from the adivasi basti, kamla bi, nominated herselves as well. or, as is more likely, got nominated as well. around this time, narmada prasad withdrew his wife’s application. “a woman can barely sit with the menfolk and talk about what the village wants anyway.” (narmada prasad) with that, the elections became a contest between a woman and a man. and the village, predictably, voted for the man.

by the time the next elections, this time for a woman sarpanch, came around, the village bjp unit had gotten its act together. the bjp elders met leeladhar chowdhury, told him that he must contest, and so, he nominated his wife (leeladhar chowdhury). similarly, moolchand seth nominated his wife. the former won. since then, she has not been seen in public. it is the sarpanchpati who takes all the decisions. it is a shame. life is tough for the womenfolk of the village. girls get married at 15. despite the existence of a water tank, there are no pipes to bring that water to the homes. and now, despite having a woman sarpanch, nothing had changed for them. a real shame. because the village will get another woman sarpanch only another 20 years later


there is the complicated arithmetic that precedes sowing. and i cannot do better that quote david mosse on this question. “every season presents a complex scenario in which households have to feed themselves and earn income, meet fodder needs and maintain the fertility of the soil. they have to judge the likelihood of rain, the availability of credit, the capital of social obligations yielding labour and support on which they can draw, and in the light of this choose the combination of crops to grow and how to fertilise the soil. each field involves a complex ecological and social reckoning not easily put into words.” (from cultivating development)


if you have read my previous post on tihi, you will know that the village was facing a huge water crisis. in tubewell capitalism, navroz dubash talks about a gujarati village that evolved its own groundwater market. in this village, large farmers jointly invested in diesel pumps, and began using this infrastructure to partly irrigate their own fields, and partly to supply water to smaller farmers in return for a part of their yield. it was not an egalitarian system. for one, the partnerships were always between dominant caste farmers. they could bring cash and land to the table. the lowers could not.

for the same reason, the lower castes could not float a similar partnership of their own. and so, a new dependancy got created. imagine the consequences. if there is a water shortage, the partnering farmers might have to choose among customers – which might be along caste lines, or along crop lines (the more valuable one gets the water). not supplying water to the lower castes can eventually force them to sell land and become labour, or migrate. reading about it. i could not help wondering how the water situation in tihi would evolve. the cost of accessing groundwater is certainly climbing steeply. (dubash, navroz k. tubewell capitalism: groundwater development and agrarian change in gujarat. 2002. oxford university press).


one evening in january, shortly after moving into the village, i walked down the new highway looking for schoolteacher amrit lal patel amongst his fields. i could not find him, but was hailed by four men sitting on the two metre high, twenty metre wide and kilometres-long waste of compacted soil that was the bombay-agra highway taking shape. it is an evening i can call up in my mind without much trouble. those were early days in research mode. and this interloper in the village was a subject of some curiosity and anxiety. why was i in tihi? what would i tell the company? how would the company make use of all this information? at my end, i was slowly coming to grips with the realities of agriculture in tihi.

that evening, i asked rayees, chintaman chowdhury, ashok bairagi and ashok maheshwari about soya. how much money did someone with, say, five acres make on the oilseed? and now, sitting in this delhi room, far away from tihi, i look at my notes and again feel like i am lightyears away – in terms of kilometres, in terms of human development indices. five acres will yield 20-25 sacks of soya. five acres need 2 bags of seeds (rs 3,000), 3 bags of fertilizer (rs 1,500), pesticide (rs 1,500), labour for weeding (rs 1,500), labour for sowing (rs 1,500), labour for harvesting (rs 2,000), labour for threshing, at rs 50 per bag (rs 1,000). add all that up and you get rs 12,000. at rs 1500 for every sack and 25 sacks, the farmer will make rs 37,500. take out the costs. and you are left with 25,000. or, rs 5,000 per acre.

let us problematise this further. one. tihi is a two crop village. no more than 10-15% farmers plant a third crop. and that too, given the acute shortage of water by then, on a few bighas. two. most farmers plant wheat as their second crop. its yields range between 18-20 sacks per acre. each sack fetches between rs 1,100-1,200. that, in a best case scenario, is gross income per acre of rs 24,000. costs range between rs 12,000-14,000. so, say, a net income of rs 12,000 per acre. add earnings from soya to this, and you have farmers making rs 17,000 per acre per year. three, in tihi, 25 farmers have less than one acre. 75 farmers have between 1-2 acres. another 180 have between 2-5 acres. 20 have between 5-7 acres. just 5-7 farmers have over 7 acres of land. it doesn’t paint a very affluent picture. and four. all that is without factoring risk in.

marginal existence appeared to be the objective reality at tihi. take prakash ‘dewana’ chowdhury (he acquired that nickname because he used to dance like amitabh bachchan in that film. looking at his tired, lined face now, it was hard to imagine anything of the kind). one of the smaller farmers in tihi, dewana has three bighas. three bighas spread over six parts of the village. imagining what that means for him in terms of irrigation was daunting. given that electricity is released to farmers at night, he spends his nights walking from one field to the next, checking if they are being watered properly.

for all that work, his annual income from agriculture works out to rs 60,000. now, every month, he spends rs 400 on gas. 4,800. 300 on electricity. 3,600. 2,000 on hh goods. 24,000. then, there are annual expenses. pump maintenance is 10,000. agri-inputs cost about 10,000. the electricity bill is 3,500 for the one season in which he uses his pump. 4,800 + 3,600 + 24,000 + 10,000 + 10,000 + 3,500. 55,700. that left him with rs 4,300 for the year.

to make his ends meet, he supplements agricultural income by working at pithampur between april and october (till the soya harvest comes in). he makes rs 90 a day, readying bus chassis so that bodies can be bolted onto them. he was working very hard, pulling rs 1,500 in overtime every month, and so making rs 4,200 a month for 6 months in a year. that is another rs 25,200 a year for him. or rs 29,000 for the year.

or take lakshminarayan sharma at deokhajuri. i met him one evening when i was sitting in the village’s chowdhury mohalla. near where we sat, a bore was being drilled, a handpump was being engaged by women and kids, another couple of farmers sitting outside the house across the courtyard, some more people walking up the path to the square. pastoral idyllicism. and i was there, listening to the elders’ stories of the village in ye olde days. which is when sharmaji joined us. a sharecropper, that evening, he spoke about the economics of his agriculture, but left some questions unanswered. and so, some days later, i went over in the morning and buttonholed him.

he takes 10 bigha of land on rent. the rates are rs 3,000 for gehri (land where water will stands). and rs 3,350/3,500 for padua (where it doesn’t). his costs? say, rs 33,000 for land. tilling the land with rented tractors, at the rate of rs 1,000 for every tilling (rs 3000). seeds (rs 5,000). fertilizers (rs 2,000). weedicides and pesticides (rs 2,000). harvesting with manual labour (rs 3,500). all that works out to a total cost of rs 15,500.

and now, look at the yield side. soya yields in deokhajuri were ranging between 1.5-3 quintals per bigha. a smaller farmer, he was unable to invest as much as his larger counterparts, and so his yield was closer to 2 quintals per bigha. about 20 sacks. which nets him about rs 25,000. after settling his dues, he is left with rs 10,000 as net income post kharif. which brings us to crop two. tilling, thrice (rs 3,000). seeds (rs 5,500). fertiliser (rs 2,500). harvesting (rs 3,000). total costs, rs 14,000. he will get eight sacks of wheat off every bigha of land. so, 80 sacks. which, he said, works to about rs 80,000. from here, he will take out the cost of the field. so, that is rs 33,000. followed by the rs 14,000 incurred as expenditure for the rabi. not to mention the cost of transporting his harvest to the mandi. rs 2,000. which leaves him with rs 31,000. that and the 10,000 left over from soya are his earnings for the year. rs 41,000.

observations. by this calculation, a farmer with his own 10 bighas would make one lakh a year. at deokhajuri, 10-12 farmers had between 50-60 bighas. another 50 had between 30-50 bighas. thirty farmers had between 20-30 bighas. over 200 had between 10-20 bighas. and, finally, about 25-30 farmers had less than ten bighas. on the whole, the village appeared to be more affluent than tihi. but, even here, there are problems. the soil at deokhajuri gets water-logged, turns swampy all too easily. most years, both crops do not work out. if it rains too well, the fields get waterlogged and the soya rots in the fields. if it doesn’t rain well, the dam doesn’t fill and the rabi crop parches in the field. that is the reason why landholdings in this region are larger than at tihi. tihi gets two crops a year off its land. deokhajuri, depending on the rains, can all too easily slump to just one crop in the year. rs 41,000 was something of a best case scenario for sharmaji.

at tihi, i would stand on the rooftop of the house where i stayed and survey the houses clustering tightly all around. 300-odd families. about 25-30 houses made entirely of cement. the rest? the usual amalgam of brick walls and asbestos roofs. of the pucca houses, some belonged to the large farmers. the rest belonged to either those who had diversified beyond agriculture (teaching, transport…) or had no land to begin with (like the barber family i stayed with). the rest, all people with land, are leading lives of quiet poverty.

this poverty is qualitatively new. while the jajmani system denied people opportunity, it also protected them from vulnerability. today, even as farmers enjoy far greater freedom than before, the commercialisation of the agrarian economy has seen traditional cohesiveness erode. at tihi, as that dependency of the lower castes upon the higher castes reduced, the latter narrowed their zone of concern as well. it is now limited only to those dependent on them. maybe just their family. maybe just the clan.


reflections on cohesiveness. in a paper called “the closed community and its friends”, pitt-rivers discusses the mechanisms that governed this traditional cohesiveness of communities. he starts by making a distinction between open and closed societies, and proceeds to identify the factors affecting the degree of closure or openness in a peasant community. he finds “two parametric conditions to be necessary for the continued existence of a largely closed community. one, members must have habitual personal contact, which implies living in the same place. and two, members must share a homogeneity of culture and values. given these two conditions, the other repeatedly noted characteristics of the closed peasant community would seem to follow: the emphasis on strict cultural conformity as an absolute prerequisite to community acceptance: the intense degree of ingroup solidarity and identification vis:a:vis the others, the marked tendency towards egalitarianism, particularly on the ideological level, but to some degree on the socio-economic as well… in his paper, set in europe, he sees most of this changing now. formerly closed peasant communities are “opening up,” owing to improved transport, communications, and the like, with the result that allegiances are coming to be defined not only not only, or even mainly, in terms of local attachment, but occupationally, politically, religiously or whatever. the distinctiveness and homogeneity of the culture of the closed community is engulfed by generalised homogeneity of the national culture, and the “we-villagers-against-the-world’ pattern of social solidarity dissolves into local factionalism: traditionalists against modernists, agriculturalists against non-agriculturalists, young against old.”


one of my strongest memories from this period is an evening spent at the fields of amrit lal patel. it was april. i would soon be leaving the village. and this would be the last of several chats we had had at patel sir’s fields in the evening, sitting on the furrows, first eating roasted grams and then, when the gram harvest ended and the potato season began, potatoes roasted in small fires originally lit to stay warm. that evening, we were sitting under the tree that stands to the west of his fields, our feet dangling over the water channel, chatting about tihi, its urbanisation, my ruralification. at some point during that conversation, i forget precisely when, he said, “yeh ek achcha gaon huva karta tha.” i don’t know how to convey what i felt at that moment. ‘shocking’, ‘sad’ and ‘poignant’, all sound too literary, too fake. but, imagine, the schoolteacher was one of the few farmers hellbent on not selling his land. and now, he was referring to the village in the past tense!


how do people survive if agri incomes will be so low? create jobs in industry, the answer goes. tihi does have a lot of people like dewana working in the local industrial cluster of pithampur. but the jobs here were grim. reminded me of upton sinclair’s the jungle. about five years ago, to clamp down on unions, industry here switched to contract labour. since then, the resulting structure of employment has lacked any social security, offered hardly any long term prospects, and like most unprotected industrial jobs, affected the health of the workers.

one day, while travelling from indore to tihi, i found myself sitting next to a labour supervisor at pithampur. am reproducing my notes from that conversation. read it. it will help understand what a depeasantised life can be like. he works in a company that makes inspection equipment for maruti udyog. equipment that goes to the company’s service stations and such. before coming out here about ten years ago, he used to work on the family farm near jabalpur. six brothers. seven acres. seems he had asked his brother for travelling money. got rebuffed. and that is when he decided to leave farming and come over to pithampur. he is on a good wicket at the cluster. like most people who began working here ten or so years ago, he was hired by the company. said he was quite happy with the move. the salary has increased. gets benefits et al.

his job involves supervising the contract labour that works in his company. his company hires about 400-500 workers on contract. all of them come from one contractor who has 1,000-1,200 people on his rolls. half of them work at pithampur. the other half at dewas. the company pays these guys @ rs 135 a day. of which the contractor pays them rs 120, and keeps the rs 15. that is rs 15,000-18,000 a day!

of the contract labour in his company, about 150 are below 20/22 years. another 200/250 will be between 22-30 years. another 40/50 are over thirty. no one over 40 is employed in the factory. wages fall as years mount. one starts working at rs 4,000. and the contract to work with the company gets renewed every six or so months. this is to ensure that the worker has no legal claim on the company. they work for some years, then get replaced by someone younger, and so join the pools of the slightly older, all milling around for a jobs in a town that wants young bodies. and so, the next job they get will be at a slightly lower pay. say, rs 3,500 or so. it is a vicious process. what happens is that youngsters work for a couple of years, figure they are doing well, get married (around 20 or 22, if tihi is anything to go by), have a couple of kids and, just around the time they are thinking of putting the kids in school, they hit 28 or so, and get progressively bumped down the salary ladder.

it is not hard to imagine the prospect of bribery here. desperate men bribing the contractor’s men to get onto a list of workers identified for a company.

the lives of the migrant labour are not easy either. companies routinely charge rs 800 or so for the boarding/food they provide. either that, or most of these guys take a sharing room in the cluster. that way, they can save on travel money. the downside of that is health. like all industrial towns, pithampur is badly polluted. the gentleman i was talking to had lived in pithampur. that took a toll on his health. he developed breathing trouble. initially, he would flee to his village every six months for a break. he doesn’t do that any longer. instead, he has taken a house in bhesalai (a village about 10 km off pithampur) and commutes every day. don’t think the migrant workers, trying to send some money home, see that as an option.”


among the youth in the village where i lived, pithampur has created a call-centre like dynamic. kids in the school look at their seniors working at pithampur, their faded jeans and jackets, their mobile phones, and want to be like them. they were looking down on agriculture, unable to accept the hard work it demanded, the meagre earnings it yielded. the cluster, on the other hand, offered a steady income; better yet, a steady income that was higher than what their fathers made and seemed good enough to afford the good things in life; and all this after working just eight hours a day. (amrit lal patel).

three out of four kids, i would be told by one of the older students in the schook, do not want to be in agri. the elders were less thrilled with pithampur. and it showed in how they insisted on regarding themselves despite their partially depeasantised lives. villagers, at least those with a little bit of land, insisted on thinking of themselves are primarily farmers. industry work was seen as something that they did only on a parttime basis. who wants to be known as a mazdoor? sharif mohammed would ask me.


one weekend, i tagged along with a dear friend to attend a gram sabha. she was working with an ngo specialising on natural resource management in a tribal district of madhya pradesh. in this gram sabha, she hoped to convince the villagers to let her ngo partner wth them. this was under the aegis of the national rural employment guarentee scheme. it is being used by villagers, by ngos like the one my friend works for, to build ponds, rainwater hervesting structures et al in villages.

a few observations were made during the four hours that the sabha lasted. it began slow. initially, there were 10 men. and four old women who seemed to just sit in. they made no contribution. slept thru the bit. or looked bored. that was the first thought. had the gram sabha been considered important, wouldn’t everyone have turned up on time, instead of straggling in slowly? later, another explanation would emerge.

i found the notion of a gram sabhas itself to be very intriguing. the idea is that it will be a purely village level body. it will create proposals and put them up to the panchayat which will then deliberate on these. not just let the panchayat decide policies and so on. this is a problematic idea. the fact that all you need is a quorum in a gram sabha to pass a plan means that the system can be manipulated. what if the dominant caste troops in, creates a quorum and passes a plan which suggests that a pond be built in a location favourable to them? and then puts it upto the panchayat?

the panches, then, will have to adjudicate. if they are the elite as well, or beholden to them, the plan will go thru. that is one unresolved question for me. the other thing is the samitis. the idea here seems that every village will create these specialised samitis. with stakeholders getting together to model the village’s development strategy. these will then be put up before the gram sabha, which will then approve and put up to the panchayat. and you know. i still do not get it. the panchayat is democratically elected. why would it not take these decisions directly? maybe there is some justification when the panchayat is overseeing more than one village. but what about the other cases? what value does the gram sabha add?

anyway, process stuff. my friend introduced her ngo at the sabha. saying that it could help the villagers with good agri practices, better crop varieties, gobar gas, smokeless chulhas, irrigation and so on. right at the beginning of the process, sahu, the most voluble of the villagers, and the one who seemed to be speaking for the rest, had suggested that one intervention could be the village checkdam.

built on the course of a stream, it was leaching water, proving useless to the villagers. previous attempts to fix this dam, while costing rs 11 lakh, had not delivered. and this needed to be fixed. that said, this dam is situated to one side of the village fields. later enquiry would suggest that most villagers did not have their fields in this part of the village, but further upstream. that a chkdam built there would be more beneficial. and that mr sahu was one of the villagers, one of 10-15 farmers who has his fields near the current site. this was evident from the map. but the suggestion was initially accepted prima facie.

look at the forces and compulsions at work here. an ngo trying to sell itself to the villagers. for it needs their approval before it can come in and work. all sorts of organisational and personal imperatives hinge on getting that approval. that might mean that the ngo will be willing to work with anyone who can get it that permission. even the local elite. and, if there was indeed elite capture on water, that might explain why the rest of the villagers were sitting quiet. or were insisting that the intervention needed in this village practising rainfed agriculture was not a pond, but tarring the local dirt track. was that because they felt any intervention on water runs the risk of only benefitting a few. and so, are trying to suggest stuff which will necessarily benefit the whole village. a sort of weapons of the weak moment here.

but, on the whole, there was a fairly good interaction. at least sahu and a couple others and the ngo team were talking like equals. that changed once the state government-dfid bureaucrats dropped in to attend the gram sabha as well. they came in late. became aggressive when the delay was mentioned. began lecturing the villagers on their need to have an agenda for the meeting. on how they should stop relying on the govt for everything. that the villagers should plant palas on the bunds between their fields. on how they should create a central pool of cash, rs 10 or so per family, and lend that out to whoever needs cash. that will reduce dependance on the moneylenders and so on.

coming from a development practitioner, that is a shocking view of village life! who sees a village as a unified entity? also, what makes these guys come down to the village and so freely dole out ignorant homilies and recipes on how to improve the village? and all this from a team so ignorant they had to ask the villagers about the population of that hamlet. what is the pathology of all this? why are the govt guys getting away with all this preaching? why are they preaching anyway? how do they view the villagers in this part of the country? like idiot children? it would be fascinating to sit with the government guys and try and understand their view of their job. what it is that they think they do? and why they think that the current mode of working is the way to do it? also, if it is a job that they enjoy? cannot be easy, having to move around in the hinterland. is that something which fills them with resentment? for his part, sahu is being very polite, qualifying his comments self deprecatingly now, not wanting to upset the boffins. a diff dynamic from what he had with the ngo-folks.

the whole thing made one feel very hopeless about development. look at the actors. the govt, the ngos and now, the corporate sector, each primarily accountable internally. not to the community they claim to be serving. instead, one could go so far so as to say that they might be regarding the local community as the entity that stymies the efforts of the govt, the ngos and the corporates to improve their lot. can development work like this?


the next day, i had a chat with dinesh barmaiya, who runs a handicrafts shop outside kanha tiger reserve. among the things he mentioned was the annual calendar of the baigas. it begins with mahua collection three months before the rains. that lasts for a month. this is followed by tendu collection for two months. the money is good here. one person can collect 5,000 leaves if working all day. this will fetch them about a hundred or two hundred rupees. that lasts for two months.

and then, when the rains come, all that stops. and they switch to agri. that goes on for four months. what they grow are coarse cereals. a function of the bad soil here. very rocky. and so, no soya or anything. no one has tried it. don’t think it can work on such soil. outputs are low. i forget the number but recall them saying that there is very little to take to the market. that said, there is some surplus which is kept home and liquidated as and when needed. even so, the surplus is rarely great. especially since they also have to keep some home for special functions and so on.

and then, at the end of the agri cycle, the villagers seem to leave their homes in large numbers, as many as 75 or every hundred, and leave for mazdoori somewhere. a few lucky ones get work close to their village. the rest migrate to nearby towns and so on. a lot seem to go towards the mining belt.