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When we had land

By Aparna Pallavi

How do those who have spent their lives on the land see it? What would it mean to go on living on this land that is giving them fewer and fewer returns? What would it mean to lose it? "With our land we have not just lost our income, we have lost the rhythm of our life, our traditions and beliefs have lost their meaning," says Kamlabai Girhe of Shivangaon village on the outskirts of Nagpur

"Land means security for life. A farmer's sons do not have to rush around looking for jobs like city boys. Even 1 acre of land can employ an entire family -- women and children included," says Vasudev Domaji Chaturkar of Shivangaon village located on the outskirts of Nagpur city. For the last few months, the village has been in the news for its agitation against land acquisition for the infamous Cargo Hub project in the city.

In Dorli village, in Wardha district, elderly Manoharrao Jarunde feels the opposite is true: "In the city, even a rickshaw-puller leads a better and more dignified life than a farmer in a village. Land has nothing to offer people anymore." Dorli shot into brief prominence in December 2005 when the village put itself up for sale.

Both Chaturkar and Jarunde are above 60, and both have spent their entire lives as farmers. Yet how is it that they feel so differently about their land? Has it something to do with the situation of the villages?

Shivangaon is an agriculturally successful village whose land is being taken away forcibly, while Dorli has progressively plunged into deeper agricultural crisis with failed crops and piling loans; its residents are desperate for a dignified life free of the insecurities they have been living with.

Still, notwithstanding the vagaries of fortunes and policy, the question remains: What is the lasting value of land in the eyes of those who live and work on it? How, in these days of land stress and land angst brought on by industrial and policy pressures, do those who have spent their entire lives on the land see it? What would it mean to go on living on the land under the present circumstances? What would it mean to lose the land?

"We do not know if it is good or bad to be on the land, because that is the only way we have lived. But we do know that nothing can be worse than losing it," says Shantabai Mahalle of Shivangaon. "When we had land, we used to grow all our food, oilseeds and spices on it. We had enough to eat and enough to spare. We did not need to buy any food except sugar and tea. But now, no amount of money is enough to keep us well fed, let alone (satisfy our) other needs."

Like everyone else in the village, Shantabai's family has, over the last few decades, lost 27 acres of land to successive 'development projects' -- roads, the new city airport, the Indian Air Force's Gajraj project, a dairy development project, a paramilitary camp, and so on. And it is going to lose the remaining 5 acres to the Cargo Hub. "We received Rs 18 lakh in compensation," Shantabai says. "It sounds like a lot. But what is the use of compensation? As soon as money comes, the farmer's married sisters and daughters come to claim their share; brothers and sons who have jobs in cities come to claim their share. Our money was divided up among three brothers and four sisters, and what my husband received was divided among our four children. Today, our three sons are working as labourers."

"Land has a way of sustaining people in ways that are not always obvious," says Baliram Ramaji Ghate. "There are a number of dhabas (eateries) along this road where labourers and vegetable vendors who cart our produce can eat cheaply. But once these farms go, these people will get no work and the dhabas will have no business."

There is more to land than just compensation and livelihood issues. There is a complex pattern of physical, emotional and cultural bonding with land. Says Manjula Chaudhari, whose family lost all of its 35 acres of land to the yet-to-materialise Gajraj project: "They promised jobs to one member from each family, but where are the jobs? And why should we need jobs? When there is land, even a 70-year-old woman has work, and an independent earning. Just by planting a few yards of land with vegetables, just by selling two-three kilos at the roadside, we older women would come back with enough for a square meal for the family. Today I can't even get two rupees for a little supari."

"When we had land, we had such enthusiasm," says septuagenarian Heerabai Jarunde. "We would carry huge baskets of produce on our heads all the way to the airport (about 3 km). Now our feet start aching even if we have to walk from here to the end of the village. There is no will to do anything."

"What can we say? Life has turned upside down for us," says Kamlabai Girhe with a sardonic laugh. "When we had land, younger women with children would stay at home, and older women would work on the land. Since our lands have gone, the older women sit idle at home while the younger women go out to work as domestic servants. And their children run wild all day long. We have not just lost our income, we have lost the rhythm of our life, our traditions and beliefs have lost their meaning. We have lost our entire lives."

In Dorli village, predictably, the initial response is more cut-and-dried. "Oh, of course there is nothing more beautiful than farming," says farmer Yashwant Jarunde, "But you can't depend on it for a livelihood. You should have some other source of income, with farming on the side to provide you with a few thousand rupees or a few home-grown things."

"There was a time when the land fed the people," says elderly Shyamrao Chambhare. "Now, jobs and businesses feed people. We hear of so many companies buying farmers' lands at good prices, but no one seems to want ours."

So, is agriculture best practised only as a hobby? But finally all the food comes from the land, doesn't it? If land does not feed the people, what does?

The men become grave at this poser -- grave and silent. The women, on the other hand, start talking among themselves.

"It is true. Once the land is gone, a person has no roots. Where will we go," asks Shobha Jarunde.

"Everyone will go his own way. Where they find work, people will go. Homes will break up," says Sujata Pandit (since most of the village's population consists of the two clans, Jarunde and Halule, the sense of family and community is strong here).

"The men do say they will keep the village together, but that does not happen. When there is need, people will go wherever they get work. No one stays together in the city," says Durga Jarunde.

There is a long silence. Then Chambhare says: "Who wants to go to the city and become a rickshaw puller? As long as we are on the land we have an identity. Land keeps the family together; land keeps the village together. People who are on the land stand by each other. In the city no one cares for anyone. Even if you die, no one finds out. But if the land can't feed us, how long can we hang on to the land?"

So, has the land failed the farmer?

There is a gush of responses. High input costs. No credit. No electricity. No price for cotton. Bank officials who don't think twice about stripping someone of his dignity. Double-crossing governments... Truths you have heard time and again, truths that have not lost their poignancy from repetition.

Then all of a sudden, an elderly man with a humorous face who has not spoken a word till then, rises as if he has had enough. "Jau dya (let it go)," he declares. "There is no use talking. In our times we used to get a sack of sarki (cotton seed) for Rs 2. For Rs 30 I used to cultivate 10 acres. If someone had asked for that little bag of seed, we would have given it to them for free. Now it costs thousands of rupees."

He won't give his name and Jagnade Buda (old man Jagnade) is the only name the villagers can come up with. "Times have changed," he says querulously as he walks off. "No talk will change it. I had better go and get some work done. What will happen will happen."

The meeting breaks up in a hurry. As I get ready to go, Mohan Halule, an informal village leader says: "You know, sister, a man on the land is like a bullock tied to a cart without wheels. He can't walk with it, and he can't walk away from it." And he sighs deeply, deeply.

(Aparna Pallavi is an independent journalist based in Nagpur.)

InfoChange News & Features, April 2008