A Missive from India
By Aparajita Sengupta
Response to “The Progressive Urban Consumption Complex” by Danny Mayer
Since last year, our family of three has been living in a village, growing most of our own food on two acres of land using natural farming methods. We have no full-time employees, no external funding from anywhere, and our business plan, if we must call it so, is to lower our spending, sell our excess locally, host volunteers and share the little we know. I guess people see us as the new generation of back-to-landers in India, typically upper-middle class, upper-caste professionals who got fed up with their high-paying corporate jobs, and decided to come back to the land with their savings from said corporate jobs.
Although we get a lot of praise for “giving it all up,” it is also true that we have to be defensive about our choice to nearly everyone under the sun. The chemical farmer thinks we are not real farmers, and we would survive on the savings we already have even if we didn’t farm; our old friends from the city congratulate us on this “entrepreneurial venture” in the hot new field of organics, and express hope that we will soon earn as much as we did in our old jobs; our friends in politics possibly think we have chosen to chicken out of real politics; NGOs look at us suspiciously because we reject the idea of external funding; organic farmers are suspicious of our choice to keep prices low; large organic businesses seem confused when we refuse to transport our products long distance or attend “farmers’ markets” in five-star hotels; our parents cannot figure out this belated teen age where we do not seem to be thinking about our child’s future.
I must agree that I had not foreseen that our decision to grow our own food would meet so much suspicion and misunderstanding, but it appears that our political faith in the system that we practice and envision for the world has been strong enough to deal with the critique of our choices. Overall, I think that we have been very happy about making this transition from being wage-earners to custodians of the land and food.
There is nothing much we can do about our shameful ancestry, but given the circumstances, I think we made a wonderful choice, one that represents the cross-section of our political convictions, passions, personal happiness, closeness to nature, and challenges to our creativity. If the criticism was surprising, the range of things that natural farming in a rural setup has offered us was even more surprising, and instead of trying to address the criticism, I would like to talk about the opportunities we have chanced upon, and the lessons we have arrived at in trying to practice our philosophy, including a new understanding of education for children.
Looking for Self-Sufficiency
Although our farm is small even by farmers’ standards, we have wholesome, chemical-free food, clean water to drink, and clear air to breathe—three things that the majority of the world’s population does not have access to these days. We have enough physical labor to keep us healthy, but we work fewer hours than most people. We have freedom to decide how and where to work, and our conscience is not weighed down by the destructive acts of corporate employers. We have time for leisure and to spend with our child. We even have time to engage with the children of our immediate community, a low-income low-caste Hindu neighborhood where most parents do not have basic reading or writing skills. We have time to read books, and to write a bit. We live in a very comfortable mud house that usually stays five to seven degrees cooler than the outside in the summer.
Most importantly, however, we have time to think. We arrived here realizing that both capitalism and the system of electoral politics we hail are running up against their limits, and knowing that we were looking for self-sufficiency, beginning with food and possibly extending to all other aspects of life for ourselves, and for our immediate community. We saw that chemical farming of monocrops pushed as the only option by the government and chemical corporations has lead to the complete collapse of ecosystems, local economies, nutrition, and livelihoods in general, and we wanted to provide a model where farmers grow more varieties of crops for their own families, have to buy less, and can sell either their excess or something else they are skilled at locally and possibly directly. The inspiration for local farmers is not supposed to come through projects or external funding, but through a constant, slow process of real-life example.
Indian Politics of Poverty and Education
Growing our own food and living in the village has mostly strengthened these beliefs, but the other idea that has steadily emerged is that of education. I do not speak about formal education or even literacy, but about a form of education that facilitates ties to nature, speaks about the future of the planet and community building, an understanding of fairness and ethics, real-life skills and the capacity to become independent and self-sufficient (as opposed to wage-earning). Without this foundation, the movement for a sustainable and equitable human society will be diverted to make way for profit-seekers to establish that, in the context of a rapidly declining natural environment, pure food, water, or air are commodities for the consumption of the elite.
There is no doubt that public education has failed us miserably in India, even if we were to consider the state’s goal of basic literacy. Basic understanding of legal systems or democratic processes, for example, is completely absent. Right after the recent state elections of 2016, I spoke with a number of our neighbors to realize that they have no idea that the NOTA (none of the above) option exists in our current electoral system, or that the officials and agents present in the polling room have no way of knowing who they are voting for when they finally press the button on the EVM.
Private educational institutes, the magic niche that saves the urban and middle classes from the maws of Sarva Siksha, are effective appendages of private corporations, and merely provide the labor for the service of those corporations. Needless to say that education regarding the legal system, financial systems including banks, government policies on food, water, or the environment have intentionally been omitted from systems of formal education, public and private, to the extent that the average urban person with two university degrees now steps into life-long cycles of debt as willingly as the farmer.
We live in a neighborhood where people get by; incomes from farming are gradually dwindling, thanks to rising need and costs of chemicals and an unstable market, and nutrition is impaired due to monoculture diets of rice and potatoes. Some foraged food is still available, as are earnings from agricultural labor, but the disappearance of forests and commons and the appearance of agricultural machines such as combined harvesters will soon present serious threats to these avenues of nutrition or earning.
The children of our neighborhood are in particular dilemma. They go to school sometimes, when the mood strikes or when there is nothing else to do. The free meal at school, or midday meal as it is called here, hailed as an effective stratagem to draw children from low-income groups to school, seldom dictates a child’s intention to go to school in reality. Anganbari or pre-school lunch is often brought home in containers, so that kids do not need to be in school in order to have lunch. Their parents might or might not look up from field work to ask the children to go to school.
The “Becoming” of Formal Education
Most parents, however, do not want their kids to farm. There are vague and strange ambitions floating in the air about some kind of “higher work,” hopefully not entailing manual labor. Children of this generation are discouraged from helping with farming, the general idea being that they will find some sort of a job. What these jobs will be remains unclear, especially since these children belong to the very bottom of formal education structures, and even if they excel, they will join the fiercely competitive job market from very disadvantageous positions. The boys will sometimes express their dreams, the most common being becoming a “mistri,” a senior workman in bricklaying/masonry. Girls smile vacantly if asked about their ambitions. I have gradually figured out that it is a very cruel question to ask in a place where women do the major part of the work, but never get to “become” anything.
Having lived the myth of “becoming something” ourselves, and witnessing instances where poor people are giving their lives’ savings as bribes to get their children government or other well-paying jobs, we have come to question the kind of “becoming” that formal education supports. In the current context of extreme climate change and agricultural crisis, it also seems bizarre that we might want to “educate” kids so that they leave the village and choose an existence where they are immediately insulated from the real problems of the planet—the crisis of pure food, finding stable livelihoods that offer diverse nutrition, species extinction, and depletion of vital resources.
Right at this moment, the biggest challenge is to find a form of education that addresses the current condition of the planet and human society. Basic education tied to nature, food, air, water, and real, creative livelihoods is a must for urban and rural children alike, and will determine the future of the movement for a calmer, sustainable, and equitable world more than anything else. We do not know if such a world will ever rise out of this devastated planet, but we do know we have to keep planting the seeds.
Editor: Beth Connors-Manke
Copyediting by Emily Cottingham
Featured Image: “The Day’s Prices” by Brian Connors Manke