Understanding land, livelihood and labour - my internship experience in rural Karnataka
Getting introduced to Punarchith
I did my internship with Punarchith, an organisation that is trying to reconceptualize small farming as potential centres of economic and ecological sustainability. The study aimed at understanding the eroding and contested history of agroecological practices in the semi-arid District of Chamarajanagar, Karnataka. Over the next few months, I was introduced to a variety of topics on Indian agriculture and gained some practical experience in the area. My assignment was to investigate ‘Dry Grain Complexes’, a concept developed by Dr. A.R. Vasavi, my mentor for the internship. The concept derives its name from the dry ecological zone and the types of crops which are a combination of rainfed cereals and pulses/legumes and vegetables that are grown under rainfed conditions and are based on dry cultivation practices and methods.
Angarike Maala – A space for collective experimentation and learning.
Dr. Vasavi introduced me to exciting literature on climate change and agroecology that gave me a much-needed base for the study. I was also given opportunities to sit in at farmer’s meets and many other online conferences. I attended an eye-opening lecture by the Teachers Against Climate Change collective which attempted to reconceptualize climate change in the context of environmental justice. Around this time, I sat in on a public hearing of a farmers collective wherein I got to hear first-hand accounts of farmers who were dispossessed of their land. Later, I travelled to Nagavalli in Chamarajanagar where I stayed for a month in the Punarchith headquarters. Punarchith cultivates a large piece of land called ‘Angarike Maala’. The purpose is to make it a space for community experimentation and learning. Through years of hard work, the team has cultivated chemical-free, organic produce using dryland farming methods. I regularly visited the land, helping the experienced Mr. Badri and Mr. Muthu with the farm work.
I was able to participate in the team’s current projects such as awareness for the upcoming panchayat elections and cultivation demonstrations at Angarike Maala. I was also acquainted with the precise art of soap making by assisting the young and energetic members of Honneru, the youth collective of Punarchith.
I familiarized myself with the rural settings; how people lived with little and worked hard for the little they had. Walks with Dr. Vasavi through the village brought about revelations in my understanding of caste in rural India. Specifically, the relationship of caste to land ownership, and the invisible territorial lines drawn across the village occupancy. This combined with conversations with Dr. Dwijendranath Guru, a core team member at Punarchith, helped me see that dry grain farming was as much about people, as it was about the ecology. Discussions with him allowed me to appreciate the study with new depth. Most days were a combination of field visits, research and formulating how to take the study forward with the new information that came in every day. I conducted detailed interviews to gain insight from various individuals belonging to different castes and classes. Although mainly concentrated in Nagavalli, members from 4 other villages also participated in the study. I learned so much from the interactions I had with team members of Punarchith. Their life stories and views on the world radically differed from my own and helped expand my perspectives.
A newfound respect for work
The experiences that impacted me the most, came from the time I physically spent at Punarchith. Having lived all my life in a metropolitan city, staying in a village revealed the inconsistencies in the world I lived in. Often the urban is taken for granted as a uniformly global culture based on principles of commerce. It was the small things like noticing the differences in language, observing rituals, the connection of land to food, land to livelihood and how diverse communities lived in close quarters. It gave me a glimpse of the roots of India’s people and my own and how they manifest themselves even in modern urban settings. My other learning was a visceral understanding of what constitutes work. When I was at the farm, at one point the cow-pea fields were ready to be harvested. Each of us, some of the team members and I, carried a bucket to the field. Squatting the entire time, it was three hours of grueling effort plucking the mature fruits from the plant. Of course, I speak only on my behalf since the others were racing through rows of crop, talking about their daily ongoings, and village affairs. What I understood however though is how difficult the work really was. To toil this much, produce nutritious food and then be exploited by market forces, either at the point of sale or cultivation, was abysmally unfair. Dragging heavy buckets of water from the happenstance farm pond just to throw a little water on a tree sapling. A sapling that did not promise fruit and had a long way to go before it did. The young trees that needed to be pruned regularly.
The neat meshes of coconut branches had to be coiled around its branches so other animals would not eat its leaves. It became more and more relevant that physical labour involves a lot of skill and knowledge; one might argue much more than what is formally taught to us! Demand and supply seem so logical when processed as an intellectual exercise. However, physical experience says otherwise, overruling the narrow premise of economics. The actual experience, and the personal accounts of farmers, fill in the logical gaps that free-market and tech-based economics leave out. I learned how farmers were accounting for the decreasing fertility of the soil, depleting groundwater levels, and climate change through their practices. Whether it was through efficient use of every piece of biomass on their land for irrigation, natural fertilizer or through a primordial understanding of working within the limits of their ecology that maintained a delicate balance.
An end that marked a beginning
I found the internship to be a deeply enriching experience. It has inspired me to go on and investigate various facets of rural India. Currently, I am pursuing a job that allows me to travel to 60 villages within the Bijapur district. Here I am hoping to uncover the dynamics of social relationships with regards to gender and property. I am sure, as I have learned through this internship, the social is fundamentally intertwined with the economic. Through my experience, I feel more motivated to engage with the agrarian crisis in India.
Joshua Lobo was an intern under the project - ‘Living Farm Incomes: Inequality, Sustainability and Civic Action in India’. He did his Masters in Development Studies from Azim Premji University.