Thursday, 2 August 2012

Nero's Guests: A Documentary on the Indian Agrarian Crisis

P. Sainath is the Rural Affairs Editor at The Hindu. After a decade of covering farmer suicides in water-scarce Maharashtra, he has repeatedly witnessed men and women die, trapped by the twin issues of the commodification of the countryside and inadequate policy frameworks. He is, justifiably, an angry man. Nero's Guests is a documentary that follows Sainath as he covers the Indian agrarian crisis. Both powerful and disturbing, it is a must watch.

Follow up reading:
  1. In Praise of P. Sainath: An introduction to Sainath
  2. Sainath, P., 1996. Everybody Loves a Good Drought: Stories from India's Poorest Districts. Penguin Books India, 470 pp.
  3. Sainath: The Anti-Mahatma? A critique of Sainath by Anand Ranganathan (do read the rich debate in the comments section) And another healthy discussion here.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Harvest season: The important of social capital to a farming household

I'm tired. And it’s only 8:00 am. I trudge along the dirt track that leads me to the latest village I have been frequenting. After two bus rides that pulverised my morning meal quite successfully, and a quick zip on a motorcycle, during which I nearly flew, I must complete the last 2 km on foot. This is hardly surprising, considering the village I am going to is infamous for the absence of a proper road, school, primary health centre and crèche. Even the most ardent of visitors, that persevering species called the political campaigner, does not come here.

The famed Indian summer has begun and I swelter under the unforgiving sun. My throat is parched and most of the fields lie empty, thirsty and cracked. The dust-laden track is lined with stunted trees: babool and dhaak, so scrawny by overgrazing, you’d hardly believe they could grow to be majestic trees. A dog, panting heavily and covered in slime, trots past – I know he has been sitting in whatever water is left in the puddle at the bottom of the village pond. Just weeks back, I had watched the wheat graze the wind, a verdant carpet swaying gently, holding the promise of a full granary and if luck would allow it, perhaps some extra cash. Now the stalks are bent with their bounty, the fields are golden, the rich colour of money. And summer. Ahead, a thresher is at work – noisily separating grain from chaff. Khatu Lal Meena’s family is hard at work.

Monday, 12 March 2012

What Makes You Happy? Unravelling well-being and personal satisfaction

Farmer prosperity is closely linked to food security.
One of the questions I am most apprehensive about as well as look forward to most during my interviews with farmers is this: “What, according to you, is necessary for a farmer to be happy?” 
Infamous as a person who drinks less water than a camel (yes, recently I had slipped to an all time low of a glass every two days), my mother says I am the most appropriate person to be researching water scarcity. And as I try to piece together the story of water availability in rural Rajasthan, I have begun appreciating how it weaves together a farmer’s life so completely. Realising this, my interviews range from dull enumerations of tractors and pump sets to softer issues of flows of information regarding water conservation. However, it is when the conversations spill onto other aspects of rural life, that things become interesting.

So yes, one of the questions I ask tentatively is: “What, according to you, is necessary for a farmer to be happy?” The answers range from entertaining to cautious, assured to uncertain. Some laugh off the question self-consciously as if happiness is too unattainable a state to wish for; they look at me quizzically, as if to say, “Happiness? I’m flailing against the vagaries of weather to eke out a living from the land, this year I will have to buy food again. And you ask me of happiness?” Some think the question doesn’t merits their time and mumble a disinterested answer.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

More than what meets the eye: On having opium for dinner

Time has this irritatingly disarming quality of making one get used to anything. In its characteristically flippant manner, it obliterates hesitation, smoothens out initial hiccups, steam-rolling even the most novel experiences into the mundane plateau of routine. And so, after spending an action-packed initial three months in Pratapgarh, the distinctly unheard of district in south-eastern Rajasthan where I have been staying for the past few months, I watch the peaks of novelty fade into a familiar pattern. But listening closely reveals that if I want to, I don’t have to look too hard for the charm of a new thing learnt.

                    *                                *                                  *

Opium (Papaver somniferum) fields ready to be harvested.
“What is for dinner today?” I ask my landlady, partly to make conversation, and partly to drown out the noise my stomach is making. A jolly matronly, she is one of those women who firmly believes that a hot meal can soothe a tired body, mend a broken heart, and fight boredom and lethargy. She delights in feeding me local foods and every meal is an interesting lesson in the gastronomy of southern Rajasthan.

Afeem ka saag aur makke ki roti”, she says, holding her rolling pin in that assured convincing manner only a seasoned chapatti maker can.

Afeem? Did my landlady just tell me that I was going to eat opium for dinner? My innocent dinner, and suddenly life itself, started looking rather interesting. No matter which side of the bed you get off from, or levitate from, if that’s your style, do you expect to hear you’re having opium for dinner. Reading my look of incomprehension, she quickly clarified, “The leaves don’t have any hallucinogenic properties. The farmers pluck the extra plants when they are very young to avoid crowding in the fields.” Aha, so much for my mind’s immediate expectations about dinner unleashing psychedelic hues.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

The Other Side of Tribal Development: An officer's apathy

They say field work is the best part of the at-times-stimulating, many more times aggravating experience of doing a PhD and I couldn’t agree more. Field work is indeed an amazing journey, you witness abstract concepts read in journals being enacted before your eyes, once obscure ideas slowly find meaning through the data you collect, you meet people and for a while, they open their lives to you, allowing you to share their canvas and of course, most importantly, you learn. But what they always forget to mention is that where there is field work, there is often also the unsavoury task of dealing with and extracting data from the alternate universe of the Great Indian Bureaucracy. And as with certain things, this is one place where my preconceived notions are not all that unwarranted. 
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