In the Land We Trust

For fourteen years after her marriage, my mother labored in the farms, cooked and cleaned alongside her sister-in-laws, and tended to other household duties. She woke up at 4 AM and fed sticks to the crackling morning fire and cleaned up the buffalo droppings from the night before. In the village during that time, most farmers had cow stalls in front of their homes. It was normal to go about day to day activities, cooking, cleaning, as the buffalo out front watched you. At that time, my father’s home had ten water buffalo and 2 oxen. 

My mother picked the droppings, placing them into a metal basin which she then carried on top of her head. Often because there was so much, she took up to ten trips, adding to the growing mound of poop behind the home where a Limbro (curry) tree stood tall. Lili Ba, the wife of my father’s oldest brother, Chota Bapa, often took turns doing certain chores with my mother. One person made breakfast for the rest of the home: chai and rotla, flat bread. Using fresh milk from the buffalo, chai was made in a big pot with masala and sugar tossed in. Rotla was also made from scratch using flour that was ground from corn that was grown on the farm. My mother would take the small ball of dough and slap it between her hands to make a thick, corn rotlo, or bread. Atop the crackling fire, a flat rusty red skillet cooked the rotlo while the other person did the dishes and mopped. Using dirt and water, the pots and pans were cleaned with pieces of grass or hay, a traditional way to scrub and clean the dishes. One person would then wash the clothes, beating them with a wooden stick atop a flat rock so soap and water oozed out. She would then hang them on the clothesline in front of the house. 

After my mother’s morning routine, she walked to the kundor, the bank of the river which was a hilly area close to the family farm, where she picked grass for the animals two to three times a day before and after going to farm. Some mornings she also walked to the kuuo, the water well, with maatla, a clay pot to carry the water. In the mornings and evenings, she walked two or three kilometers each way, with the clay pot on top the saari, which loosely hung over her head, covering part of her face. 

After fetching water, my mother walked the four kilometers along the dirt path towards the farm. Often, she took the neighbor’s lunch, who may have left earlier in the morning. She took her own lunch as well, the rotlo she had just made that morning with a hot pepper and gor (jaggery), all wrapped in a handkerchief. Once she reached the farm each day, she walked towards the Mahuro, a tree known for making the state’s illegal liquor, where she tied her handkerchief and took a short break before starting her work. 

For the almost decade and a half that my mother worked in those fields, she told me there was a magic to working with the soil. Despite what happened at home and the cloudiness or pain she felt after, it all seemed to disappear as she dug her hands into the earth. 

Man did everything manually during this time from farming, grinding flour to fetching water. My mother, up until she left for the United States, witnessed the changes slowly taking place within families, the villages, and farms as outside influence changed even their most basic farming practices.

Work wasn’t easy. There was a common saying, which loosely translated from Gujarati: "we used to die in the fields". Families labored each day, sometimes the elderly, even up until they died. Like the poor today, there was not much thought for the next years or how to get out of the cycle of endless work.  As my parents so poignantly put it – they could only think about the task at hand and how they could provide the best possible life for their future children.

Most of the immigrants in my mother’s generation who left India for the United States often returned to see the machines that farmers began using after they left. They frequently spoke about how much better life is for the current and next generation of India. As the first wave of immigrants left our samaj, community to go abroad in the 1980’s, money flowed in and out of the villages as relatives sent money from the United States. Now, Patels who once labored the land day after day are prosperous, working less, using tractors, and hiring laborers from the “lower caste” to tend to the land. 

Rather than tractors, ox carts once tilled the land. A man stood at the back of the wooden cart on a piece of long wood with spikes underneath, and two white oxen pulled him forward. Tractors were introduced in the 80’s, automating work to just two or three hours that may have originally taken days complete. 

Vegetables were grown without chemicals and pesticides and unlike today, organic wasn’t a common word as most of the food was already naturally grown. The vegetables continued to sprout season after season. Today, seeds are bought from a major supplier which come from the few big agricultural companies. However, during that time, my mother recalled using seeds from the previous season’s crops. She told me that if a neighbor needed to grow a certain vegetable and they didn’t have that seed, they often exchanged with a neighbor or someone else in the village. These seeds that were exchanged were the very seeds that our ancestors had experimented with for thousands of years. These indigenous seeds were kept season after season and it was customary to trade as needed.  

Now 35 years later, many of the vegetables and grains that were grown and eaten by the community when my mother left for the United States, are no longer grown in our fields. They are either grown elsewhere using genetically modified seeds or not eaten at all.  
After the summers I spent in the farms and villages where my parents were raised, I grew intrigued with the ways they had once labored so fiercely on the farms. From the stories I was told, to what I saw during my summers, I felt there was a difference, in just a few decades, of the way villagers earned a living.  

Although the standard of living had increased with a new ease of life, a new set of diseases were introduced to society. Growing up, my father often told me he didn’t even know what a headache was as he had never experienced one before. The chemically induced vegetables and artificial foods that were introduced created a need for new chemicals. Nature-based remedies made of everyday plants grown in front of the home such as curry leaves and the holy basil plant, tulsi, continued to be worshipped. However, people stopped understanding their healing qualities and the reasons why such plants were to be worshipped. 

Natural remedies were primarily used to cure the body, and ailments were at a minimum as people often ate as much as they needed to fill their stomachs for the hard work they did throughout the day. 

Story after story, it was amazing to hear about the massive changes which took place in such a short period of time. 

As I learned more from the works of modern-day farmers and activists, I began to understand, at a macro level, what was at play and how this trickled down to the community and lands my ancestors had once come from. 

Through the changes I witnessed during my summers and into my adult years going back to India, I learned, at a deeper level, what Vandana Shiva so eloquently articulates through research and her writing in Violence of the Green Revolution. 

The indigenous varieties of seeds began to be replaced with other varieties and with this replacement came broad, but a gradual shift to the communities. In the 1950s a man named Norman Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for ‘a new world situation with regard to nutrition…”. Borlaug’s seeds would speed economic growth in developing countries. These seeds were called ‘miracle seeds’ and were a way to create abundance and economic growth in society. They would “solve problems of material scarcity and violence” (19). 

What was soon called “The Green Revolution”, marked a transformation of agriculture in third world countries. What was overlooked, was that the indigenous practices and exchange of seeds may have been far superior to the Green Revolution itself. Punjab state was seen to be one of the successful experiments of the Green Revolution. “Modernization and economic development may, as in the case of Punjab harden ethnic identities and provoke or intensify conflict on the basis of religion, culture, or race”.  

What emerged as abundance and material wealth in Punjab also resulted in scarcity and conflict. While scientific successes were celebrated, the social evolution of genetically modified seeds and forms of farming created rifts in communities. 

“The Green Revolution was based on the assumption that technology is a superior substitute for nature, and hence a means of producing limitless growth, unconstrained by nature’s limits” (Shiva, 24). 

Because of the proposed superiority of science as opposed to the slow abundance which nature brings, there was a reduction of fertile land and genetic diversity of crops. Beyond the ecological level, at a social and economic level, a new pattern of conflict and embedded mindset of a scarcity of resources emerged. Nature's abundance once was reflected in the mindsets of villagers. 

With this new system, villagers began relying on an external network, slowly dissolving the generations of internal networks their ancestors relied upon. Economics became centralized to genetically modified seeds produced by corporations, leading villagers to not rely on each other for economic sustenance. As a result, other practices began falling apart. 

While states like Madhya Pradesh and Punjab were undergoing vast agricultural changes, Gujarat was one of the last to feel these changes. To this day, seeds are still exchanged amongst farmers in villages, but not for economic sustenance. 

In the 1950s Norman Borlaug created the “semi-dwarf high yielding variety of wheat” and by the 1960s India was adjusting its agricultural policies to accommodate and promote the new seeds. It was known as the New Agricultural Strategy" (62). 

Seeds, although many indigenous to the land of India, were imported by India from other countries. Borlaug's strategy included only one crop wheat and by the summer of 1965, India and Pakistan together had ordered 600 tons of wheat seed from Mexico. In 1966 it spent $2.5 million for 18,000 tons of Mexican Wheat seed.

For about 10,000 years, in villages in Gujarat and all over India, “farmers and peasants had produced their own seeds, on their own land, selecting the best seeds, storing them, and replanting them” (73). The farmers had ownership over their seeds and their livelihood, but when plant breeding arose, the self-renewability and genetic diversity of crops were replaced by uniformity. Slowly, exchanging by gift no longer became customary because villages made the transition to purchasing their own seeds. 

With the creation of genetically modified seeds, there was also the creation of new pests. Pesticide use began increasing and because of automation and the influence of industrialization, a new species of disease arose within the first few years these seeds were introduced. 
With new types of rice, wheat, and crops introduced, many farmers were not used to controlling the new pests that came with the genetically modified seeds. 

Using Punjab as an example, as described in The Violence of the Green Revolution, we can see how these changes took place. 

"As the marginal lands and croplands are homogenized, diversity disappears. Genetic diversity in Punjab has been destroyed by the Green Revolution at two other levels – first by the transformation of mixed and rotational cropping of wheat, bajra, jowar, barley, pulses, and oilseeds into monocultures and multicropping of wheat and rice, and second, by the conversion of wheat and rice from diverse native varieties suited to different soil, water, and climatic conditions…"(83)

With the interconnectedness of nature and the interconnected networks the villagers had once operated with, it was only a matter of time that the rest of nature began suffering from the genetically modified plants. As further explained by Shiva, “Large-scale monocultures of exotic varieties of wheat has turned minor diseases such as Karnal Bunt into epidemic proportions” (88). Once a renewable resource, seeds as they became homogenized, were converted to a nonrenewable resource. To drive the point home, Shiva writes:

“…with each variety usable for only one or two years before it gets overtaken by pests. Obsolescence replaces sustainability. As a textbook on high yielding varieties of crops admits, ‘The high yielding varieties and hybrids have three to five-year lifespan in the field. Thereafter, they become susceptible to the new races and biotypes of diseases and pests.’ The vulnerability of rice to new pests and diseases due to monocropping and a narrow genetic base is also very high” (89).

The new seeds demanded more water and different irrigation practices. They also required additional tilling of the land, resulting in damaged soil. Communities began to experience famine and drought, both due to natural causes and these new farming practices. Large dams were created and corporates began to have even more control over the small farmers. 
From the introduction of these seeds, the ownership shifted from the individual to the government to the corporations. With centralization came homogenization. Without a diverse method and nature of seeds and crops, a scarcity of certain crops resulted. 
Although India had just in 1947 became free of colonial British rule, a new form of colonialization emerged.

 

Sources:

Note: Citations embedded in the text are for personal reference for later use when I begin pulling pieces of the book together.