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.

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: babooland 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.

I make my way to where they are, careful to avoid the clumps of wheat stalks in the fields, they are like daggers, dry and sharp, left for the cattle to graze on. The family of seven is working fast – the thresher is expensive at Rs. 500/hour, not to mention the 2 bags of grain they will have to give as additional payment. Threshing has already been delayed a week and market prices are spiralling downward again. Finally, I reach them and the shout over the roar of the thresher, “Ram Ram Khatu Lal ji!” He acknowledges my presence with a lusty Ram Ram and carries on, every minute is precious. I watch them as they work in quiet unison.

The girls pass the bundles up, their faces are covered with their dupattas for the chaff makes breathing difficult. They move fast, for they must keep up with the men ahead and though they make it look easy, I see their palms have gashes where the wheat stalks have pierced into their skin. The men of the family stand on top of the thresher – feeding its ever-hungry mouth with more bundles of wheat. Khatu ji, the aging patriarch, is bent double, his knees are so bow shaped that they would appear comical if not so pathetic. He grimaces with each bale of wheat he feeds into the thresher, and the chaff makes him wheeze. His son, Vimal, moves skilfully. He’s learnt well from his father but he must be careful. Only last year, someone in the village had lost a hand while stuffing wheat into a thresher. Vimal knew well that being a handicap in a farming family was a deadly curse – the ignominy of being an extra mouth to feed without the solace of being a helping hand. Below, collecting the golden grain sits Leela Bai, Vimal’s mother. She’s wearing a pair of very thick glasses, the kind they used to wear after getting a cataract operation. Modern day laser surgery eliminates the need for such glasses but one doesn’t get modern facilities in the free sarkari eye camps. Sitting on her haunches, she deftly collects the wheat as it pours out of the thresher. The glasses magnify her eyes enormously and when she talks to me, it seems as if she is very interested in what I have to say, which of course, I chide myself, cannot be very true. Finally, at the base of the chain, stands little Mohini. She is Vimal’s only child and barely reaches my waist, (but then I am, err, rather Lilliputian). She is dressed in a dirty blue school uniform and is presiding over the full sacks with much authority. Suddenly, she shouts, “Saat.” Seven. Vimal grins at her, and then looks at me pointedly, as if to say, “Did you hear that? She can count!”

Suddenly, the noise dies down. The family is taking a break and I sit down with them. They are keen to talk to me, for they have heard I have been inquiring about the water situation in the village. Leela bai offers me some water from her copper pot – it is still cool and I gulp down some. It is a muddy brown and tastes queer – she looks at me apologetically, “Beta, humare paas yahi paani hai”. (Child, this is the only water we have). Grateful for the water, for I know this supply must last them till dusk, I thank her, starting out on my questions. My eyes look at their sunburnt faces and find myself hoping the wheat will feed all these mouths for a year.

The long summer, has just begun. 

First published in Helter Skelter.

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 twodays), 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.

Then there are the ones who stare at me unflinchingly, taking in my city shoes, the camera and voice recorder in one encompassing glance, recognising that I am not one of them. “No wonder she asks strange questions about things like happiness”, they think. It is their eyes I fear to wander into. Some look me straight in the eye, demanding my attention by rattling off their answers. They seem to have thought this through, the list of things that can make them happy is long and often tinged with an expectant (not to be confused with pleading) tone, “Will this girl with her notepad tick some things off the list? A sanction for a well, a new handpump maybe?”

And then there are those who instantly equate happiness with money, a tragic oversimplification in my eyes. But a researcher must be objective and I remember to be all ears. “If I had money, I could be happy. I could dig a well, buy a tractor. Send my children to the new private school (English medium of course). Yes, money is most important to be happy.” I dutifully write down the answers, “How much money is enough?” my brain counters but I ignore it this time.

 *                                *                                  *

Today I found myself in a particularly poor home. The head of the house was chronically ill; he had been so for ten years now. Two operations and countless prescriptions had left him resigned to his fate, and the household drained of its income. Dhapu Bai, his wife, sat sorting onions. She wore heavy silver anklets but her hands had cheap imitation bangles. She said she had pawned most of her silver to buy medicines for her husband. She told me this in a matter of fact voice, not a hint of regret, just a mild sense of resignation one has when fulfilling duty. Sitting amidst a mound of onions, her actions seemed to be orchestrated by a silent music (but that could be me romanticising the moment). She deftly broke off tender green shoots from the sprouting bulbs, she threw a rotting one away, but not before salvaging some of it to be used for the evening meal. She scraped at the black sooty residue that had grown on some of the onion skins. She explained how they had grown these onions in the rainy season to last the whole year. “We eat onions everyday with our chappatis, especially when no other vegetable is available. With onion prices shooting up every year, we can’t afford to buy them so decided to grow enough in our fields this year. Saves some money for the medicines.” She proudly pointed to a bed of chillies nearby, “This year we will have our own chillies too.”

I looked around the house. The uncharacteristically heavy rains had caused one of the mud walls to cave in and it had been ‘repaired’ by draping a yellow sari to keep the wind out. A torn plastic sheet also hung on half-heartedly, flapping in the breeze. I was told the palm leaf thatch they had made to cover the wall, had been stolen last week.  “We need to repair this soon because once summer starts, hot winds will blow all day.”

     *                                *                                  *

As I come to the end of the interview, I ask The Question. “What do you think one needs to be happy?” At different times in my life, I have asked myself the same thing and though I have known happiness in many of its varied hues, I am yet to come up with a satisfactory answer. The secret to happiness, so intangible, and yet so familiar, remains tantalizingly nebulous to encapsulate in words. As if by the very act of articulation, it shall evaporate. And then, unable to construct an answer that suitably captures all my thoughts, I feel warped by the inadequacies of language as a form of expression. So, whenever I pose the question, a part of me always hopes to hear someone assemble my unwieldy ideas, revealing my answers to myself.

Dhapu Bai, starts off before her husband can say anything. A dilapidated home, an ailing husband, a small plot of land and the uncertain rains. She had enough to complain about and banish happiness from her vocabulary. But she answered, “The person who does not work hard is always unhappy. When you have nothing to do, you focus on what you don’t have. I work hard at home, I work harder in our fields. How can I be unhappy as long as I have work to do? I…”

Mid sentence she collapsed into peals of laughter and I turned to see Rajmal, my translator playing the fool. He had the camera and was clicking away at Dhapu Bai. The whole thing tickled her so much that she carried on laughing, blushing like a school girl and playfully telling Rajmal to stop. I watched her face sparkle with laughter, her husband hit his palm on his leg repeatedly, guffawing. Rajmal carried on his antics; she instructed him to stop in mock anger. The pungent smell of those onions, the sound of the plastic sheet flapping loudly in the wind, that sense of joy that emanates from unadulterated laughter. I couldn’t help but join in.

First posted on Helter Skelter.

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.
         *                                *                                  *
For most of us, opium usually paints a picture of the messy tangle of the narcotics trade, undercover dealings, Afghanistan’s poppy fields and sometimes, a withered Chinese lady smoking a pipe. However, it is quite interesting to know that Pratapgarh is part of the Malwa-Mewar opium belt, the world’s largest legal opium producing area. Here, the government issues strictly monitored licenses (locally known as afeem patta) to farmers to grow the much-maligned opium. Only trusted farmers with adequate land and water resources are issued the coveted licenses. In return, they have to sell their produce, the precious milky latex extracted from the plant’s fruit, back to the government, at a fixed rate. The minimum amount of latex harvested from each unit of land is fixed and if unable to produce the requisite amount, offenders, the farmers ensure me, are not let off easily. Rich in morphine, the dried latex, a yellowish-brown shadow of its former milky white self, goes on to be used to prepare medicines. Seems quite straightforward, I thought.
But growing opium, I learn, is not for the faint-hearted or light-pocketed. Weeding and insecticides alone can cost Rs. 25,000/bigha. Add to that the cost of specialised labour, who have mastered the precise art of slitting the fruits and collecting the precious milky substance, not a drop can be wasted – it is not in vain that it is called white gold. Labour costs for milking the opium pods usually work out to a ridiculously high Rs. 50,000/bigha in a season!  
“What if you are unable to harvest the required amount?”
“There is no relaxation. We have to arrange the shortfall from neighbours or our license is not renewed the next year.”
“And what if the production exceeds the government’s fixed amount?”
“That,” he smiles, “is when the opium begins to make a profit.”

I stop my questioning for the time being for I am treading on dangerous ground now. The farmer has hinted at what is ‘common knowledge’. Every year vigilance agencies catch illegal opium traders, but as in any trade as lucrative as this, even the most stringent of punishments fail to serve as a deterrent. For ten people jailed, you will always find another ten willing to engage in the dangerous trade, willing to gamble on how far their luck will help them get away with it. And with the dried latex selling for at least Rs. 20-30,000/kg, I am not surprised that the farmers, so conditioned to gambling their fate on something as fickle as the weather, choose to take the chance on the dizzying opium market.  
         *                                *                                  *

Once again I bring my attention to the incessant ticking of Time. The verdant landscape is slowly changing its shades. I watch the wheat sway, a sheet of sparkling emerald, keeping in time with the vagaries of the wind. The pods in the chana fields have filled out and I munch a few green gram as I make my way through them. The streams are still gurgling with rain water, this year the wheat won’t whither dry. And against this idyllic setting, I watch poppy heads dance at a distance, their gangly heads resting uneasily on their slim stalks. They nod at me, deceptively innocent in their clothes of white.    

First published on Helter Skelter.

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. 

He sat in a lazy slump in his rotating chair, complete with the mandatory towel that graces every government officer’s throne. Flitting away a fly that was hovering precariously close to his glass of excessively sweetened tea, he looked at me incredulously, “Uh? You’ve come to study about water scarcity issues here? In the Cherrapunji of Rajasthan?” This was followed by a snort, which I’d like to call derisive, but when we talk of government officials, we must be very politically correct. Oh yes, we must not use words like derisive. We must be thick skinned. And under all circumstances, we must be servile. Seeing all the clerks bent over double as they entered the room, servility seemed to be the only thing in good measure in the dilapidated building. Apart from derisive snorts of course.

Shaking off the inauspicious beginning, I sipped at my very own glass of saccharine tea and began again, “Could you tell me about drought occurrence in this area?” He stared towards the door and for a moment he actually fooled me into believing that he was contemplating his answer, carefully choosing between his thoughts, to give a comprehensive reply. After about a minute of silence, I realised that hoping for an answer would not get me anywhere and I began repeating the question. Suddenly, jerking his head towards me, with a strange new spark of interest illuminate his eyes he asked, “What did you say your surname was?”

This conversation was definitely not going the way I wanted it to, but well, you humour the official, get your work done, and slip out as quickly as possible. So I replied, with a tone that I like to think was discouraging, “Singh”. He nodded not quite pleased with the answer, for the surname didn’t give him much fodder for thought. It was like the ubiquitous Kumar that people of various backgrounds used and so he continued, “Where are you belong from?” The emphasis on ‘my place of belonging’ was not lost on me for I had already explained where I came from, academically. This was a way to box me into one of the categories that every Indian must belong to. It was a pastime perfected into an art on long railway journeys and something people liked to indulge in as soon as they made their acquaintance with a stranger. “Uttar Pradesh”, I replied tentatively, wondering whether it would be rude to ask my question again and arrest this utterly irrelevant line of questioning. But mentioning U.P. did wonderful things to Mr. Officer. Lethargy forgotten, the glazed bored look was abandoned with a youthful exuberance I certainly didn’t think he had.

“Arrrre, Why didn’t you mention this earlier? I am from U.P. too. Where in U.P.?”


“Oh! I am from _______. Singh hmm? So you must be a Rajput yes? What kind of Rajput are you?”

“It doesn’t really matter”, is what I wished I had said but I answered his volley of questions mechanically, our roles reversed quite cleverly. Only when his appetite for my entire lineage was satisfied, and he had told me his supposedly superlative caste credentials, did the conversation veer back to drought and the like.

“So, as I was asking, can you tell me about the years drought was declared here and the steps taken by your department as relief work?”

The man just walked over that and after a pause, pounced with, “Why did you come to Pratapgarh of all places? Whoever told you to come here misguided you terribly.  It is a terribly backward place and you will have to work with tribals. Another researcher came to me the other day and I asked her the same question. Who would want to come to Pratapgarh when one could go elsewhere?” And to that he added in a conspiratorial tone, “It’s not even safe, you know the tribals…especially for girls.”

Flabbergasted at his derogatory tone about the very people whose rights he was supposed to ensure, whose ‘backwardness’ he was supposed to address, I tried explaining my apparently foolish idea to base my research in Pratapgarh. I explained to him how because of its inaccessibility and ‘backwardness’, the area had received very low research focus compared to the more visibly water scarce areas of Jodhpur and Jaisalmer, how in spite of the heavy rainfall, people faced water scarcity, especially when the rains were erratic, how caught in unforgiving cycles of debt, households survived on daily wages and their agriculture was at best, enough to feed the family… but he had already lost interest. The glazed look was back and the flies, those poor fellows, were back to being unceremoniously flitted away. After some more questions, I got up to go. “If you need anything, let me know,” he said “after all you are from my area, I will do all I can to help you.”

I looked at him incredulously and walked away disturbed by the way he had, so effortlessly, reinforced the common notion of government officials being apathetic to the situation in the areas they are supposed to ‘govern’.

*                                  *                                  *

The next day, I found myself munching on a hot makke ki roti at Jogi Lal Meena’s house. Yes, the same man with the mittens. His wife, the effervescent Sohan Bai pushed another roti into my hand, and I protested, rather weakly. “These rotis are good for the winter, they will keep you warm”, she says. “I’ll teach you how to make them”, she adds, “and then you can marry my son.” The entire family bursts into laughter at this and I chew on my roti resolutely, refusing to be dragged into more marriage jokes. Then, suddenly serious, dear Sohan Bai added, “Don’t refuse this, it is all I can offer. There is hardly any water in our well, so we have not grown wheat this winter. After a few weeks, I won’t be able to offer you any rotis.” The officer and his flippant generalisations brought a lump to my throat and I quickly swallowed my mouthful and washed it down with some water. 

First published on Helter Skelter.

Jaani\’s Missing Pension: A narrative of corruption eroding financial safety nets

Jaani Meena and Shaitan Singh

When Jaani grins, her warmth is infectious and my face can’t help but mirror hers. She has five front teeth left now – ‘old age has robbed the others’ she tells me very seriously, her eyes threatening to laugh again. Widowed three years ago, she lives with her son and daughter in law and their son, a little chap named, of all things, Shaitan Singh (troublemaker)! 

“How old are you Amma?”
I have to shout so that she can hear me properly. She falls into silence and I am not perturbed by this. I have often found that against the rural landscape, where time takes on another pace, numbers like age have a way of being forgotten. As if, in a place where time is measured by the passing of seasons and the position of the sun in the sky, remembering one’s age is hardly worthwhile. She finally decides to give me an answer, “Sixty or so.” I smile and dutifully note down the answer. My aide, a regular social worker in the area shouts at her affectionately, “Dukariya(old woman) you’ve got one leg in the grave and yet you say you’re only sixty! You must be at least eighty.” She looks back defiantly and I see sparks of the feisty thing she must have been in her youth. “Are you asking the questions or is she? Don’t interrupt us.” That silences him for a while and I carry on.

“So do you avail of the government’s old age pension scheme?”

Her eyes have mucous in them, the greenish yellow residue has collected at the corners. She keeps swatting off a pesky fly that tries to sit on her face. I knew the Rs. 1000/- per month that the scheme provided could be a handy addition to the household income.

‘Yes, my name is on the rolls. I get some money.”

“How much?”

“Some months I get 1000, some months only 500. This time I got 800 for two months. It keeps changing.”

“Changing?” I feared I knew what the answer was but ploughed on, “How so?”

Shaitan Singh, ever eager to join the ‘elders’ in their conversation, quips in, “Post master ji brings us the money. He says that sometimes the government doesn’t send the money and if nothing comes from above, how can he deliver the pension to us?”

My aide whispered, “The post master is famous for pocketing some of the pension. But no one complains against him because they know nothing will happen.” I knew I was just scratching the surface of the canker of corruption that has invaded every system of my country. I turn to Shaitan Singh.
The village school. Deserted and silent. 

“Do you go to school?”


“Which class?”

“Class 2.” He says this in English. Suddenly, realising he is the focus of the conversation, he’s standing straight, in attention, his little hands clenched into fists by his sides, his wide round eyes, attentive. His forehead is creased into a concentrated frown, this is serious business for him.

“So why are you not in school today?”

“I didn’t go because I am in charge of looking after the soyabean crop that has been cut and left in the fields.”

“Did you go yesterday?”

“No, I haven’t gone for the past five days. But it’s ok. Masterji hasn’t been coming either. And if he doesn’t come, what is the use of going? We don’t even get any food then.”

I nod reluctantly, understanding the import of his words. The government funded midday meal scheme provides one meal a day to school children and  serves the double purpose of giving parents an incentive to send their children to school as well as fighting malnutrition by providing a nutritive meal to growing children. The scheme, though well meaning, has been seen as another opportunity to siphon off funds and had a murky history of missing meals, sub-standard provisions, rice with more stones than grain and other such woeful tales. Here, however, Shaitan Singh alluded to the fact that the master was absent from the school when he pleased, and without anyone to distribute the food, the scheme was dysfunctional.

Later, acutely disturbed with the scale at which systems were being routinely subverted, and the normalisation of corruption, I questioned  government official. He smiled at my supposed naivety and explained:

“The benefit that actually reaches a BPL family depends on their relation with the ward member who is elected at the village level. But that is not enough. The ward member must have a voice in the Gram Sabha which must be then presented further in the Panchayat Samiti. All this is a delicate balance of how much power you have, how well you have been oiling the system and of course, how much clout you have. Most of all you have to pray that as the money moves downwards from the centre to the State through the district and block levels to reach the village, enough of it trickles down, without being diverted into ‘other’ channels, if you know what I mean. And of course as the list of BPL families moves up the hierarchical ladder, you must hope that your name makes it all the way. Frankly, it is less your actual depravity and more your networks and how you milk your contacts that get you the ‘free’ seed and fertilizer, or in this case your pension.

It was the answer I knew and yet, I had been hoping to hear something different. For all the money being poured into various poor-oriented schemes, the mechanisms to deliver the benefits were as ill-equipped as earlier. The change we need is not in the amounts being spent but the channels it is flowing through.

I think back to my conversation and Jaani’s nearly toothless grin. Her smile, reflected in Shaitan Singh’s round eyes. I had been asking about the new enikat (small dam) across the village stream and how the rain water collected in it had been used. Holding rainwater for longer periods, the structure was particularly helpful during the lean summer months. It also checked the stream banks from eroding when the monsoons are particularly bountiful. Seeing I was hell bent on knowing all about the enikat, as I was leaving Shaitan Singh shouted out – “Didi! Dekho!” And with a brilliant display of showmanship, he jumped into the pooled water, his little limbs paddling furiously in the water. I laughed, and saw Jaani looking at his youthful mirth wistfully. I knew from my conversation, that, like her pension, water in this land was unreliable. In a few months this pool would be dry.

This was first published on Helter Skelter.

Humble beginnings: What do Jogilal Meena’s mittens have to do with my PhD?

When I started my Ph.D., I thought I had clear ideas. I was going to understand water scarcity and how it affected farmers. I was going to try and figure out why the crores of rupees the Indian government spent on water management programmes across the nation were yielding unsatisfactory results. I had studied about this, worked on this—surely things couldn’t get too cumbersome. And then someone said the word. Epistemology. The science of knowledge. What? I felt discomfort stroke me with its clammy fingers. I get a curious itch in my brain when I don’t understand a word, and this one prodded me incessantly; I couldn’t shake it off, I couldn’t ignore it. It would pop up in conversations and articles. And then came the question: “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”
From that tangential thought, to the project I am embarking on today, I slowly appreciated that to unravel anything, we must first explore our constructions of reality. What qualifies as real and what does not? In the context of my work, is Mrs. Kapoor’s lament that she has no water to grow her potted plants in her fifth floor Gurgaon apartment any less real than Rajnath’s helplessness at having his well in a hamlet near Mathura dry up before he irrigates his crops? Percolating from the perplexing to the practical, I decided to allow my research to be all-ears.

I am going to spend the next year listening to people’s stories. Of how water shapes their lives and how they cope with its ever-changing reality. I am setting foot in rural Rajasthan to talk to farmers facing water shortages and narrate their tales. Here, I attempt to take you along my rustic rambles.

While traversing the length and breadth of our magnificent country, the only rule that seems applicable everywhere is that India is alarming and inspiring, stimulating and disconcerting, all at once. When looking at the map, some names jump at you—the metropolitan cities, proud of the concrete jungles they have grown up to be; smaller, fast growing cities, and other towns, their claim to fame being part of the latest breaking news. Amidst all this chaos that is so characteristic of the Indian landscape, a million other places get waylaid—ignored by the traveller, unknown to the larger consciousness. It is in one of these places I find myself in.
The undulating lush landscape of Pratapgarh, Rajasthan.

Contrary to popular perception, Rajasthan is not all sand dunes and camels. It is also home to large tracts of invigorating forests, replete with wildlife, large water bodies, and most of all, colourful, vibrant people. Pratapgarh is a small, predominantly tribal district in southeast Rajasthan, occupying the area where the Malwa plateau and Aravalli Mountains meet. Carved out of Chittorgarh in 2008, Pratapgarh is the latest district formed in the state. It boasts of a generous average annual rainfall of 850mm, an aberration in a state known for its aridity. However, in spite of all the water Pratapgarh gets, the basalt rocks in the area dissuade water from percolating into the groundwater. With all the rain falling within the monsoon season, it washes away without soaking into the earth. Unable to store this bounty in such a short duration, the people of Pratapgarh dread the summer months which usher in acute water stress.

*            *          *  

Jogilal Meena was bent over his crop, cutting the soyabean stalks industriously. They were stunted, the tallest up to a foot high, while the trifoliate legume I knew from Madhya Pradesh was a luxuriant plant over two-feet high. But it had rained well this monsoon season, surely that was good in this water-scarce region?

“The rains were heavy, almost 1500mm this year! That’s double of the average rainfall we get. But they were untimely. Our maize rotted away. The fields filed up with water and became ponds. The land was so saturated that if you stepped in one place, water oozed out from another place. The soyabean we grew also did not grow too well. Hopefully the Rabi crop will do better because the soil is moist. This year I plan to grow wheat,” he added proudly. “The paatidaar has promised me some hybrid seed.” The hybrid was said with a flourish, as if unveiling a secret weapon.

I watched as he cut at the nearly dry soyabean. His wife, dressed in a bright orange ghagra and yellow odhni

Half-rotten maize plant: another commentary on a farmer\’s constant struggle
with the vagaries of nature and his unflinching will to eke out a living
from the land. 

grinned widely, her unabashed gaze almost welcoming me into her world. Their two sons and one daughter helped too. She jokingly told me to grab a sickle, if I was good, I could choose between the sons. Her laughter, honest and loud, was heartening. Each one of them held a sickle in their right hand and wore a curious looking homemade ‘glove’ on their left hand. It resembled more a mitten, or a sock. Fashioned out of waste cloth, roughly sewn and with a string to tighten the mitten around the wrist, this ingenuous glove was a necessity. The soyabean plant can cut through skin with alarming ease. Thus, as the sickle moved rapidly in the right hand, the left hand, protected in its cloak of cloth, grasped the stalks unhindered.

The family had been up since 5 a.m., cutting and bundling the soyabean stalks, and now, in the early evening, the sun continued its unforgiving trajectory across the sky. Stopping to talk to us and to drink some water, Jogilal pointed to the stalks, “Some of the pods are splitting in the sun. The beans will fall to the ground and then we won’t get anything. We must hurry and harvest everything by sunset. I have rented a thresher tomorrow, an added cost.”

As I walked back over the cracked black soil, I watched the maize plants. Half-rotten cobs were hanging on to the stalks, forgotten and unwanted—another commentary on a farmer’s constant struggle with the vagaries of nature and his unflinching will to eke out a living from the land. Jogilal Meena was already planning to grow wheat this winter. Hopefully that would bring in some money. Then he could buy those strong military gloves he had seen in town. The mittens were no good, the children constantly complained of sores.

First posted on Helter Skelter.

Where again?

Map of Pratapgarh, Rajasthan\’s newest district, carved in 2008 from
neighbouring Udaipur, Chittorgarh, and Banswara in the southeast of
the state.  
It is tough to explain to people where Pratapgarh, the location of my field research is. Traveling from Delhi, Pratapgarh seems to be at the very end of the earth and for once, I am not even exaggerating. You start off in one of the fancy (and pretty impressive) luxury buses that Rajasthan Tourism is (justifiably) proud of. They cater to the more \’touristy\’ parts of Rajasthan, the Jodhpurs and Ajmers, Pushkars and Jaipursfor tourists alone deserve good transportation, general public be damned. When I called the tourism office, they told me I would be in a Volvo-Mercedes bus. I put down the phone suitably impressed and understandably flummoxed. That not one, but two auto giants were gracing my mode of transport would have been flattering if only it was not so absurdly unbelievable.
At some ungodly hour, frantic horn honking and loud voices woke me. \”Chittorgarh, Chittorgarh\” they seemed to be shouting. So much for finishing that dream. The Chittorgarh bus stand at 4am is an eerie place, like a scene out of some alternate world where all the women of the world have (smartly) taken off, leaving all the men, predominantly middle-aged, behind. The bus stop, like most others I have had the mis(fortune) of being at, smelt of pee and I struggled to find a bench free from snoring men all wrapped in something: shawls, newspaper, and some innovative ones, in plastic bags. Finally I plopped myself on one semi-empty bench, and struggled to keep awake for the next few hours.
Buses came and went announcing their arrival with that brash impolite way horns have about them. Suddenly there was a commotion around counter 6. I had been furiously guarding that one – willing it to open so I could buy a ticket. A mass of humanity (all men in this quasi-, semi-stupor-world) stuck their hands into the mouse hole opening – all with exact change for the ticket. I, with my silly big note, was naturally sidelined till enough change was collected. 
Just then, in a display of impressive hooting and a spectacularly large cloud of smoke, the Pratapgarh bus arrived. Oh no, don\’t get me wrong. No bus goes to Pratapgarh to stay there. Pratapgarh, is one of those places no one really goes to, its always on the way to some place more interesting. This bus was actually going to Banswara (Rajasthan\’s southern-most district famous for its bamboo) and Pratapgarh was just another stop.  The bus was rickety and dusty, an epitome of that delightful word khatara. I clambered onto it, jostling for space with sari-tied bundles, sacks that vaguely smelt of my chemistry lab, and a frantic breathing body of humanity. Here, the men having done their job of securing tickets, backed out and the women (now where did they come from?) took over. Bangles clanging and freely abusing, they grabbed seats. I hung onto my \’window seat\’ for dear life, the rucksack suddenly becoming a lifesaver as it deterred many by sheer size alone. After the morning shift of mosquitoes had had a hearty breakfast, the bus took off, hooting at the mirth of having a load of passengers.  
The way to Pratapgarh to Chittorgarh is a sheet of potholes with some road thrown in, just enough to keep alive a spark of hope. But the driver seemed to disagree and flew at a pace that would\’ve shamed many. He zipped – hooting his way past trucks, blaring cars into submission, zooming past motorcyclists and leaving their helmetless heads in a swirl of dust and smoke. \”Take that\”, he honked. His only worthy opponents, other Rajasthan Roadways buses, were few and so the Conquest of the Craters carried on unabated.  Abandoning my grand plans of sleeping, I gave myself up to the bumpety bump. 
Roadways buses in Rajasthan are in(famous) for breaking down and my ramshackle stead lived up to its name. It broke down only once though and a co-passenger informed me that we were lucky. After five hours, we reached Pratapgarh – the dirt and grime that garlands every little town welcomed me. The bus swerved and then all of a sudden came to a halt. Like a slain beast, it suddenly stopped breathing and the whole world seemed a gentler place. I stepped out of the bus, lugging the rucksack with me and parked it on some steps nearby. A cow came towards me, its head bent low, those knobby horns not too inviting. Exhausted and incapable of any meaningful movement, I just let it come. At the last moment, it swerved, rubbing its horns on my faithful rucksack instead. Oh the travails of an itchy head. And the ecstasy of itching an itch. 
I looked about me. Auto rickshaws parked – they were the usual yellow and black and rather large here. The tea stalls were doing brisk business. Flies occupied every available surface. I swatted some away and sat on the steps. A foot away, a pat of dung lay, in that lazy unperturbed way only a pile of shit can. After 17 hours, I have arrived (in Pratapgarh of course). 
So when people ask me where Pratapgarh is, Google maps just doesn\’t cut it. And now you wonder why am I here in the first place? Because

The Commodification of Water Part 2

\”If the wars of this century were fought over oil, the wars of the next century will be fought over water – unless we change our approach to managing this precious and vital resource.\” 

~ Ismail Serageldin, World Bank Vice President, 1995

The importance of water for sustaining life is one of the early lessons we learn. Water is required in every sphere of life whether it is the environment, society or economy. Of the total global water resources present on the planet, 97.5% is salt water found in oceans and seas while 2.24% is fresh water that is inaccessible, either found in polar icecaps (mainly in Greenland and Antarctica), glaciers or deep underground water, mostly too deep to be economically available. This leaves a mere 0.26% available for consumption which is accessible through rivers, streams and reservoirs.
Presently, half a billion people live in water-stressed or water-scarce countries[1], and this number is estimated to increase to three billion by 2025. The region facing severe water scarcity are the Middle East, northern Africa, western United States and large parts of Australia with large parts of India, China, sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America also facing widespread water shortages as a result of population pressure and heavy resource exploitation. Recognizing the gravity of diminishing global water resources, in July 2010, the United Nations made access to safe freshwater a universal human right stressing the importance of water as a resource “that is essential for the full enjoyment of the right to life”. The Millennium Development Goals developed by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) also recognize that one billion people lack access to safe drinking water (Goal 7c). Various factors are contributing to the shrinking of our water resources and they can be divided into supply-side and demand-side pressures. While climate change and environmental degradation are examples of supply-side pressures, demand-side pressures include changes in population growth and distribution and sectoral water demands (industry vs. agriculture vs. domestic).
Growing awareness about the need for sustainable water utilization, increased research interest at a global level and active civil society participation has led to the naming of water as \’blue gold\’ with scientists predicting an age of water wars in the near future, where scarcity of water will trigger civil unrest and battles over this live giving commodity. How does a supposedly free and plentiful resource like water get associated with war and conflict? For this let us explore the highly politicized water economy and look at the example of Cochibamba in Bolivia, Latin America\’s poorest country.

It is a woeful commentary on vested interests if a country\’s government allows its army to open fire on its own civilians to protect the investments of a foreign company. Despite such experiences, water privatization is on the increase with a little more than 10% of global water being in private hands today.
Let us now examine another crucial driver of uncertainty regarding water resources: climate change. With the support of concrete empirical evidence, scientists today are observing and predicting the occurrence of more frequent and severe floods, higher irregularities in precipitation patterns and longer and harsher periods of drought. Such shifts in climatic averages can have grave repercussions on snow fed rivers, wetland ecosystems, agricultural livelihoods, groundwater recharge and plant life, to name a few. The heat wave across Europe in 2003 and 2006 and Pakistan floods in 2010 are recent examples of some such effects. Against the backdrop of this global scenario of water resources, let us now unravel the situation of water resources in India.  
\”If you are to suffer, you should suffer in the interest of the country.\” ~ Nehru, speaking to villagers to be displaced by the Hirakud Dam, 1948

India is one of the most glaring examples of a country plagued with water quality and access issues. The western states of Gujarat and Rajasthan are traditionally recognized as water stressed regions but have a rich history and indigenous knowledge bank of water harvesting and management techniques. This repository of local knowledge is now fast eroding in the face of modernization, urban migration and rapid industrialization. Neighbouring agriculture intensive states of Punjab and Haryana saw an exponential increase in food production following the Green Revolution in the 1960s. However, today the region is suffering from acute water quality issues because of pesticide and fertilizer contamination as well as falling water tables due to overexploitation of groundwater resources. Urban centres like New Delhi, Mumbai, and Bangalore are facing acute water access and quality issues due to an ever increasing population, limited resources and poor water recycling mechanisms. Other regions like Bundelkhand in central India and Andhra Pradesh in the south are also swiftly going through their water resources and moving into water scarcity.
As in other parts of the world, water scarcity and sharing has often led to conflict and legal dispute. Let us examine the issue of water sharing of Kaveri, a perennial rain fed river in south India, between the states of Karnataka (upstream) and Tamil Nadu (downstream). The conflict is regarding two controversial agreements (in 1982 and 1926, see timeline) between the Madras Presidency (Tamil Nadu) and the Princely State of Mysore (Karnataka) which the latter claims is skewed in favour of the former.

In 2002, amidst growing concerns of food security for an ever increasing the need to increase food production, the Government of India proposed the ambitious US$ 120 billion National River Linking Project which proposes large scale inter-basin water transfer by linking 37 Himalayan and Peninsular rivers. The National Water Development Agency foresees that the project is ‘‘one of the most effective ways to increase the irrigation potential for increasing the food grain production, mitigate floods and droughts and reduce regional imbalance” and aims to transfer excess waters from eastern states to the water scarce regions in north and central India. The proposal has been severely criticized by the media, academia and civil society for its potential negative environmental impacts, extremely high costs and disregard for sustainability. 
   “Filthy water cannot be washed.” ~ West African Proverb

Coming to the capital city of Delhi, growing urbanization, ever increasing numbers of migrants into the city, rapid industrialization and unsustainable development of important watersheds like the Delhi Ridge are some of the factors contributing to the increasing gap between water supply and demand as well as serious issues of poor water quality. Indiscriminate exploitation of groundwater resources  is an additional driver of water scarcity in a city infamous for having the nation’s highest per capita water usage of 240 liters per capita per day (the Central Ground Water Board has recorded an average drop of 8m in the last 20 years with some areas seeing a drop of 20-30m!).
The main sources of water in Delhi are surface water from River Yamuna (and Ganga and Bhakra storage), rainfall and groundwater. The Yamuna is one of the city’s main lifelines and plays a critical role in groundwater recharge, water quality enhancement and biodiversity maintenance. Several factors like conversion of fertile floodplains for agriculture, rapid construction and development of areas near the embankments, excessive pollution and poor sewage treatment have led to the deplorable condition of this once healthy river. The agency controlling Delhi’s water and wastewater management is the Delhi Jal Board (DJB), but in 2000, water privatization started making inroads in the capital with the Delhi Government awarding Degremont (a subsidiary of the French water company, Suez) a Rs 2 billion contract with the Delhi Jal Board (DJB) towards a water treatment plant. In 2005, following protests led by social activist Arvind Kejriwal, the contract was revoked. Another alarming facet of the water sector in Delhi is the health of its water bodies and wetlands. The 25 km stretch from Wazirabad to Okhla is one of the most threatened riparian habitats.
However, the picture is not entirely grim. By June 2011, the DJB will finalize its Water Master Plan 2021 for Delhi which proposes to use the expertise of the Japan International Co-operation Agency (JICA) to conduct water audits and assessments. Jairam Ramesh, State Minister for Environment and Forests has been increasing political pressure on the governments of Haryana and Delhi to address water contamination in the Yamuna, threatening action against “persistent polluters” if the  Haryana government failed to penalize industrial polluters discharging untreated waste into the river upstream. Under the Environment Protection Act, he has also prohibited the use of chemical fertilizers near Yamuna. Civil society action, youth participation and political will together, can perhaps rescue the Yamuna and Delhi’s water scenario from complete deterioration.

 “When the well is dry, we know the worth of water.”~ Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790)

Aided by scientific evidence and public participation, the international dialogue on responsible water management has gained momentum in the past decade. Many water experts still believe that our water resources, if used judiciously, can meet the growing demands from industry, agriculture and households. In context of escalating population pressure, rapid development, shrinking forests and a changing climate, the need to protect and revitalize our water resources has never been more acute. We must recognize that a future with lesser water necessitates conscientious action. We must control the amount of water we use and adopt water saving practices in our daily life. We must question our governments about the policies they implement for water recycling and sewage treatment and participate in initiatives to revitalize our water systems. We must take the time out to learn about the watershed we live in and identify ways to preserve its health. We must promote and practice water harvesting and spread awareness regarding the criticality of the health of our water resources. And most of all, we must remember that individual participation is necessary, for as the saying goes, little drops make an ocean.

[1] Water scarcity is a situation where there is insufficient water to satisfy normal human water needs for food, feed, drinking and other uses, implying an excess of water demand over available supply. 

The Commodification of Water: Deconstructing water privatisation

All of us have felt the joy of slaking one\’s thirst with water, washing away the unforgiving heat of a Delhi summer with a cool glass of water. But have you ever paused to think about where we get our water from? How are we using this resource? Is it finite or will be always get clean water, everyday, for all our needs? Today, water quality and access issues are plaguing most countries of the world, with India being one of the most glaring examples. Termed as \’blue gold\’ scientists predict an age of water wars in the near future, where scarcity of water will trigger civil unrest and battles over this live giving commodity.
Traditionally, water has been regulated by local governments. In India, under the Seventh Schedule of the constitution, water finds a place under the State list, giving the state government jurisprudence over resources within its boundaries. On the other hand, the more contentious water flowing from one state to another is regulated by the central government to avoid conflicts. Sometime in the 1990\’s, the World Bank and IMF decided that a comprehensive way to tackle water scarcity and overexploitation of this resource would be to privatise water, treating it as a commodity that could be bought and sold at a price. Privatisation would put the onus of water extraction and delivery on private companies, thus assuring efficiency, while the price would act as a deterrent to wastage and overexploitation. However, the crucial point missed was that private companies are profit-driven enterprises. Providing a resource as vital as water was not a moral obligation for these companies but a prudent business decision. And thus began the era of water privatization.
How does this supposedly distant decision relate to us, as individual consumers of water? Today, water is a $ 400 billion dollar global industry; the third largest behind electricity and oil. Most of the privately owned water in the world is in the hands of four major companies, Suez and Veolia being the largest. To understand the significance of the commodification of water, exploring the Bolivian story may provide pointers (See Box).

Looking at examples closer home, India\’s National Water Policy, 2002, recommends water privatization as a way to address increasing water scarcity. This has led to a thrust on privatising water at the state levels and several projects have sprung up in the last decade. In 1998, a 23-km stretch of Shivanath River in Chhattisgarh was given to Radius Water for a 22-year renewable contract. The aim of the project was to supply water to the Borai industrial area supplying 4 million litres/day at the rate of Rs 12.60/litre to industries, the railway station and a railway colony. With increasing reports of the river drying up and monopolization of a common resource like water over which everyone has a right, the government later declared the scheme constitutionally illegal and revoked the contract.
In 2000, the Delhi Government awarded Degrémont (a subsidiary of the French water company, Suez) a Rs 2 billion contract with the Delhi Jal Board (DJB) towards a water treatment plant in Sonia Vihar. While the company could collect water free of charge from the Upper Ganga canal of the Tehri Dam, it would provide the water to DJB for a cost which will be levied from the consumers, through a possible tariff hike. Interestingly, Degrémont was relieved of revenue collection and was to be compensated for land, electricity, and treatment costs. In 2005, protests led by social activist Arvind Kejriwal, the contract was revoked.
However, in spite of glaring negative impacts on users, water privatisation driven by international agencies and companies is only posed to grow in the coming years. Add to this the pressure of a burgeoning population and overexploitation of our existing resources, and we have a significant problem facing us. As a start, let us begin asking questions. Questions about our water. Where does the water in your house come from? How can you minimise the water you use? Once we begin asking the correct questions, the correct answers will follow. 
For information on water privatisation in Delhi, check Kejriwal\’s talks (Part 1 and Part 2)
To learn more, start with Flow: For the Love of Water (documentary)