Saturday, July 26, 2008

Life in a Village Near Pune

Today we had another chance to visit a rural village, this one about an hour’s drive from Pune. We were picked up in the morning by Ashwin Paranjpe, the Principal Coordinator of the Gomukh Centre for Rural Sustainability, an NGO devoted to supporting organic farming among a group of 17 villages nestled in a beautiful valley. When we arrived we were met by the village elders and a swarm of children. The elders ushered us into the spacious Hindu temple off the main plaza of the village that’s also used for town meetings. There we had a chance to hear them talk about their lives as farmers, how the village is structured and governed (the caste system and attempts by the government to overcome the forms of discrimination it sustains are a charged topic in villages like this, we discovered), and to engage in a discussion with them about village life in India and farming in the U.S., a topic they were quite curious to explore. Some of the village children performed songs for us, and the whole group performed a traditional song accompanied by harmonium (which Ted later played) and sitar. This visit was particularly special for me because the elders traditionally welcome groups by presenting a set of gifts to the eldest member of the visiting group. That was me. I was invited up to stand with the group of village elders, and was given a traditional cap and shawl, along with a coconut to symbolize good luck. It was a moving moment for met, and I’ll treasure the gifts. Later we broke up into small groups to have lunch in a village home. Our group had a wonderful meal with a gracious family, a couple, the mother-in-law, and the couple’s two daughters. Language was a bit of a barrier at first but we got past it and had a lot of fun figuring out how to communicate with one another. Indians traditionally sit on the floor to eat, but for us the lunch was spread out on the family bed and we sat in plastic garden chairs. After lunch I asked to see the kitchen and eventually ended up in a little cooking room with an open fire on the floor. There I took a hand at working with the wife and mother-in-law to make roti bread. I failed miserably but had a wonderful time trying. It was amazing to watch the women’s hands at work making the roti. At one point she got to slapping the bread flat on a round little cutting board with a rhythm that got me clapping first, then scat singing. They got quite a kick out of that.

The visit with these people was very special, a chance to sit down with villagers and to talk with them about their lives and how Gandhian principles of self-sustainability are beginning to transform their lives. But they have a long way to go. It is important to remember that the so called “Green Revolution” in the 1980s and early 1990s swept away traditional forms of farming and instituted a whole economy and set of practices based on the use of hybrid seeds, pesticides, and machinery. Though yields go up with this type of farming the cost of transition puts many farmers in debt, the quality of the food produced is low, and worst of all, the environment becomes polluted by pesticides. Organizations like Paranjpe’s are dedicated to helping farmers return to traditional organic methods. Another factor at work here is that traditional crops (grown both for consumption and local sale) have been replaced by sugar cane, a cash crop of now value to the sustenance of local farmers. The transition to sugar cane works like this: large sugar can companies come into an area, build a processing factory, then systematically get each farmer to change their production to sugar can. Soon whole valleys like the one we visited go from producing a variety of vegetables and rice for their own consumption and local sale to the production of sugar cane for the world market.

We had an interesting discussion on a range of topics with Ashwin on our drive to the village. At one point we drove through a bustling commercial district with homes that branched out along streets running off from the main road. We stopped here to buy some bottled water and umbrellas (it rained lightly most of the day). Ashwin commented off handedly that this used to be a very small village but now it was a bustling commercial center, but one that had outgrown the older infrastructure of roads, drains, sewage, etc. that sustained the original village. It was still in place, while the village had grown into a town. I asked him if this growth was evidence of significant economic expansion, and he said that yes, it was, that things really had gotten much better here. The problem is that the village panchyat (like a city council) didn’t have enough revenue or technical expertise to keep up with growth. So, in miniature, this area in some ways represents the India we hear about in the West, a country which, along with China, is supposed to be modernizing rapidly and where economic expansion is roaring along. It often doesn’t look like it as we drive around India, but if we had been in this commercial town 25 years ago we would have seen a small place with little money and few jobs. The expansion here is apparently representative of that taking place in the country at large, but it’s very uneven, and in places like this is happening so fast they can’t keep up with it, so jobs and population growth far outpaces necessary improvements in the infrastructure of the country.

Please click here to see some pictures associated with this post.

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