Archive for December, 2011

“One day, as the Buddha sat in deep thought about the world and ways of instilling goodness in human beings, he was approached by one of his disciples.

The disciple said humbly, “Oh teacher! You are so concerned about the rest of the world! Why don’t you also look into the welfare and needs of your own disciples?”

 The Buddha: “Tell me, how can I help you?”

Disciple: “Master! My attire is worn out beyond the limits of decency. Could I get a new one, please?”

The Buddha looked at him closely and found that the robe did, indeed, appear to be in bad condition and needing of replacement. He asked the store-keeper to give the disciple a new robe. The disciple thanked the Buddha and retired to his own room. A little while later, the Buddha visited his disciple and asked him if his new clothes were comfortable and whether there was anything else that he needed.

Disciple: “Thank you, Master. The new robe is indeed very comfortable. I need nothing more.”

The Buddha: “Having got a new one, what did you do with your old robe?”

Disciple: “I have begun using it as my bedspread.”

The Buddha: “I hope, then, that you have disposed of your old bedspread?”

Disciple: ” No, no, Master. I am now using my old bedspread as my window curtain.”

The Buddha: ” And what about your old curtain?”

Disciple: “That is being used to handle hot utensils in the kitchen.”

The Buddha: “Oh, I see. Could you tell me what they did with the old cloths they were already using in kitchen?”

Disciple: “Those are being used to mop the floor.”

The Buddha:” Then… the old rug that was being used to mop the floor…?”

Disciple: “Master, since the rug was already tattered, we could not find any better use for it but as a source of wicks for the oil lamp which is right now lighting up your study ….”

The Buddha smiled in contentment and walked out of the disciple’s room.


The Buddha’s approach to conservation may sound extreme to the present ‘buy-use-discard-buy’ generation living in an era of rapid innovation and even more frenetic consumerism. But this approach of using things to the last thread, so to say, rings a bell with me, as I am sure it does with many of my generation in India, wedged as we were into the tail-end of a pre-industrial culture during our childhood and growing up years. Needless to say, it was one of my friends of my generation who sent me this story.

Reading it brought back to me that my earliest and most vivid childhood memories of recycling and conservation was watching my mother. We didn’t use words like “recycling” and “conservation” then. It was simply everyday behaviour. And through ordinary practice, it got communicated across the generational divide.

My mother never wasted anything. Nor did she hoard things that were not useful to her. From time to time she gave away a lot of things to known and unknown people. Relatives, families of her domestic staff, institutions and causes that worked in the name of the poor and needy, such as jumble sales, earthquake or flood relief efforts etc. The things she gave away were always in good shape, the kind of stuff that could be immediately put to use, the kind of stuff that she would readily use for herself. One of her mottos was, when you give things away let them be from the best that you have; if you cannot bear to do that, it is better not to give at all.

Which meant that whatever became old or torn was not given away but stood around forever in our house, asking to be dealt with. Every loft and cupboard in the house had at least one or more bundles of what she dramatically labelled “RAGS” in bold letters… Stuff for recycling. Discarded pillow cases became dusters. Old towels became floor mops. The sturdy hems of discarded sari petticoats or cast-off window curtains, became string for tying up bundles of stuff (anything that needed to be bundled would be first neatly wrapped in a discarded sari length and then tied with these adapted “strings”). My father’s torn dhotis (white sarongs worn by men) were cut into squares and folded away neatly to serve as polishing cloths for silver and brass objets d’art, and to shine glassware to a high gloss. And the tornest bits of torn material became use-once-and-dispose rags for cleaning the oil lamps in the puja (worship) room, or mop up accidentally spilt anything in the house, or keep the floor or table tops clean when we lit the hundreds of earthenware oil lamps at Diwali to decorate the house… Leftover scraps from material bought for making dresses, shirts, curtains would be transformed into tote bags for vegetable and grocery shopping, shoe bags, inside-liners for cushions and pillows … The list of uses that she found for ‘waste’ was endless.

I realize now that it had nothing to do with being rich or poor, or the ability or inability to afford to buy new things. We were an affluent family, and lacked for nothing. What my mother was doing was to practice a traditional approach to resources whether natural or man-made… To stretch their lives by careful use… To put them through multiple lives.

The winds of change began to creep in when I was into my late teens. Plastic had become big time in India and a lot of affluent urban middle class folks began to start feeling defensive? ashamed? about looking “traditional”… called “behenji-ish” if you were in the north and “mami-ish” if you lived in the south…It started with discarding the habit of wearing saris and keeping hair long and braided, and extended to discarding the ubiquitous use of stainless steel tableware and so on, to discarding old styles of recycling and the products associated with them like cloth carry bags, stainless steel mobile water containers (koojas in Tamil) meant for long train journeys, stainless steel mobile food containers called “tiffin carriers”. And so on.

How liberating, when one was abroad, to set forth on shopping trips without carrying one’s own cloth bags. And how treasured the sturdy plastic bags that one brought back home bulging with purchases. People returned from foreign trips with huge stacks of plastic shopping bags…you could see them tumbling out of ladies’ suitcases when customs officials looking for dutiable goods found plastic bags instead. Eating in restaurants or off the street, and drinking whatever water was available without checking the source, became the preferred option to carrying one’s own food and water.

It had to come back to us from the West. By the time the environmental consciousness of the 1970s matured into the alternative individual life styles in the 1990s, educated Europeans could be seen walking to the market carrying their own cloth bags. And the first generation of those bags were pretty ordinary looking too…none of the frills and embroidery and other embellishments so lovingly put into cloth bags that fell out of every cupboard of an Indian household! 

I, of course, was charmed by this turn of events. I realize today how much of my mother’s practices I still hold on to. Things I never gave up even when they had become very unfashionable in metropolitan India of the 1960s and 1970s. Today, at home, I get dubbed “kabaadiwala” – waste collector – by my husband for my pains! But I persist. Imagine my delight when my young son – now in his mid 20s – who left home when he was 16 to go abroad for higher education told me that he continues with many conservation practices he had seen me and my mother follow! I am going to send him the Buddha story. And I hope that you, dear reader, enjoy it too.


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2.  Traditional agricultural communities v/s the foreign direct investment (FDI) paradigm

Walking to Fatehpura, a village about 4 km from where I live, is like an idyll.  The first and lasting impression is of the great and unspoilt beauty of the landscape, and I almost envy Prabhati her daily walk to work and back.  Probably as a result of a combination of the sheer passage of time and Narega operations (the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme of the Government of India that guarantees 100 days of work with wages for at least one member of every rural family), a fairly smooth kuccha (unpaved) walking path is in existence and facilitates my progress. 

We hardly meet anyone as we walk along comfortably; the only visual evidence is of nature and industrious agriculture.   On either side of the path stretch well cultivated fields showing the early tender green presence of wheat, garden peas, mustard and barley growing on  soil that looks dark and richly moist despite the generally sandy nature of the terrain.  Interspersed among the fields and along the pathway  are trees – mostly thorny sturdy babool, a tree suited to semi-arid soil conditions –  which provide shelter to busy birds exploring what the fields have to offer.  

Between stretches of fields we pass a couple of homesteads. It would feel strange, indeed, if  in India there were not even such a minimal encounter with human presence.  A few young women busy with weeding or looking after their buffaloes look up and smile briefly.  A few small children, chubby and relatively clean and well clothed, look at us with curiosity.  “Going for a walk?”  remarks one of the woman in a friendly voice, and we tell her that we are going to Prabhati’s village.  She nods and goes back to her work.  No further questions.  No small talk.  It is still 4 in the evening and any older children must be still at school.  The men are probably away at work.  There are no idlers to be seen;  so different from the more urbanized villages that abound in the area.  Occasional patches of marigold, clearly being cultivated for the market,  add a splash of brilliance to the deep browns, greens and yellows on the ground and pale blue in the sky.  Little vegetable gardens hug the homesteads, from across the thatch housing the buffaloes;  I can see thin green fingers of garlic, spring onions, fenugreek, potatoes, aniseed, spinach and turnips.  All this is evidence that the families in these homesteads are eating reasonably well.  Cowdung cakes are stacked to dry against the walls of the buffalo shelters.  These are families self-sufficient in grain, vegetables, milk and fuel.  Their men and women work.  Their children go to school.

We have reached Fatehpura.  All along one side of the pathway,  beautifully-tended fields covered with crops reach for  the horizon.  The village houses are ranged along the other side of the pathway, large compounds shielded by high walls of thorny twigs.  The one striking memory that will always remain with me about this walk – even more striking than the unspoilt and uncrowded beauty of the landscape – is the spotlessness that we have encountered so far along the path.  The blessed nature of sparse populations; the  homesteads along the route do not seem to be generating visible litter.  Another striking impression I have is the air of quiet industriousness.  In Fatehpura village too, people are relatively invisible, and those whom we glimpse through the compound screens seem to be vigorously going about their work.  If they happen to be at the entrance to the compound,  and we greet them with a Namaste, they respond with a quick smile and are gone.  No shops.  No blaring music coming out of radios or cassette players.  No sound of TV movies renting the air with the clatter of dialogue, music or advertisement jingles.  No teenage boys dashing around crazily on motorbikes.  No adult men lounging around in groups around a chai shop or playing cards under trees.    

The feeling of being in an idyllic bubble begins to give way when we get to the end of the village and closer to the main road that runs past it.  That road leads to  the slightly larger village of Begas and an occasional passing motorbike breaks the silence.  The landscape is still relatively empty of people, barring a shepherd and his wife in traditional dress leading a flock of goats and sheep, and two farmers on a motorcycle, also in traditional attire, crossing the main road like us and going on to the next village along the road.  But plastic bags and plastic tea glasses – evidence of modernity and prosperity in village India-  can be seen piled up by the roadside.   Traditional knowledge does not equip people with the means to dispose of synthetic wastes.  And nobody is giving them the new knowledge either.   Apart from this, the idyll is still  intact, but we are reminded of how tenuous this is.   

I am with a friend who is staying with me, and we have come to visit Prabhati who works for us.   There has been a new baby in Prabhati’s family;  her younger son’s wife has given birth to her third baby.  And a new baby has been born to one of Prabhati’s buffaloes.  Both babies are about one month old today.  Two babies in one house is occasion enough for a visit.  Prabhati has just offered the first of the milk she will market and use for herself  at the Shiva temple closeby, with a prayer for rich yields and more fertility for both mother-and-daughter-buffalo.  Every day she will sell the milk of one yield;  the   second yield of the day will be for the family.    

Prabhati comes from a family of hereditary agriculturists who used to be our family’s hereditary tenants until land reforms happened.  Her husband and his four brothers now jointly own and till their land.  And as Prabhati sweeps her arm across the landscape  indicating the extent of the family farm, I am impressed by the gracious expanse in front of me with its alluringly fertile and well-tended look.  Prabhati’s homestead – a compound that accommodates all five brothers and their families – is spacious and has several small single storied structures in clusters, each cluster belonging to one of the five brothers.  There is plenty of space between structures  and between clusters to ensure privacy for each cluster. Prabhati’s cluster has what seems like one building for each son and one for Prabhati, a granary store, a kitchen, and a water storage tank with tap.  Close to the water tank is a vegetable garden, and beyond the buildings is a spacious area where her milch animals are tethered along thatch shelters.  A few buffaloes and a sweet looking cow.  We duly admire the new baby buffalo  whose mother stands by chewing contentedly.  As Prabhati’s  daughter-in-law makes us milky tea, we admire the new grandchild and meet the rest of her grandchildren.  They all look bright, and the older ones have just trooped in from school.  Prabhati is clearly the proud matriarch, and in charge.   We have dropped by unannounced.  But her home is spotless, her grandchildren neat and well behaved, her granary full.  We know her to be a good worker on our farm – arriving on time for work every morning, completing her work schedule without having to be supervised or scolded, a non-tea drinker and therefore not lurching from tea break to tea break in a quest to while away the work day like some of the others.   As we talk, her husband walks up smilingly.  I have met him before when he has come on his motorbike to our farm to help Prabhati carry away the grass she has cut for her cattle.  I had been impressed that he worked shoulder to shoulder with her and did not leave it to her to carry headloads home.  I learnt then that he was a diligent earner and did not drink, nor did he abuse or beat his wife.  This, I now learn, is the trait of a traditional agricultural household  – stability and decent behaviour within the home.  He and his brothers  work for daily wages on construction sites – they are hereditary masons who also do agriculture – and when the land calls for their intensive involvement, they work full time on the land.  Cash earnings through wage labour is an important source of capital for meeting social obligations, school fees, and making capital improvements to the property.  It also enables them to hire a tractor for all significant agricultural operations.  

The sun has already gone down as we say our goodbyes to Prabhati’s family and begin our walk home.  She insists on walking us back, and accompanying her are two of her older grandchildren who will in turn walk her back!  The social landscape has changed somewhat around the little homesteads we had passed by earlier.   School children are back home as are the men of the family, women look busy around the house and cooking fires are already sending up little spirals of smoke into the sky.  Our little group creates a buzz, and we have to decline invitations to stop for chai on grounds that it is getting dark and we have to get home, while Prabhati  gives rapidfire answers their questions on how we had enjoyed our walk to her village. 

As I lift my face to memorise the delicate blues and pinks in the winter sky, and exult in the sudden coolness that accompanies the setting sun,  I reflect with wonder at the contrast between Prabhati’s village and some of the other more “prosperous” and urbanized villages of the area (that I have described in some earlier posts).  I can only describe Prabhati’s village as a sort of Shangri La…  probably on the verge of extinction.      And I wonder how committed farming families like Prabahati’s would be able to weather the 51 per cent foreign direct investment (FDI) in retail backed by the government’s policy promise that farmers would realize a greater value for their produce.  

The newspapers and TV talk shows in the last few days have been full of the storm and fury raging in the country over the opening up of the consumer retail sector to 51 per cent Foreign Direct Investment (FDI).  Soon Walmart and other giant foreign retail chains will be selling groceries and vegetables and just about everything else to the people ofIndia, instead of the little shops and markets that now perform this role.  This is part of the paradigm wherein Monsanto and other giant seed companies are already selling seeds to Indian farmers who have thousands of years of skill in generating their own seeds behind them,  creating the conditions for their entrapment  into concentric circles of debt, impoverishment, and suicides. The new and controversial FDI policy claims to do justice to farmers, eliminating middlemen who presently prevent farmers from realizing the full value of their products due to the opacity with which they operate.  It promises direct buying of farm produce by the giant retail chains, their safe transportation to technologically advanced cold store facilities, their efficient processing and packing, and the affordable sale of multiple processed products to urban and rural consumers through chain retail outlets belonging to the giant brands. 

How, I wonder, would this process change the lives of Prabhati and her family?  It is true that agriculture is hard unrelenting work and that farmers do not feel recompensed for their efforts.  It is true that farmers are easily beaten down in the prices for their produce and that middlemen and retailers make the maximum profits.  But what is the guarantee that Walmart and its ilk will not also beat down the price?  Now, with the entire family working the land, and bringing in extra cash through periodic resort to the abundantly available opportunities for wage labour, Prabhati’s family is able to generate enough grain to meet its annual food needs. The vegetable garden and careful tending of cattle by the women of the household add nutrition to the family’s diet.  Prabhati and her daughters-in-law process the grains – into wheat, bajra and chickpea flour, dalia (burghul) etc. – from which they prepare all their meals.  True, it is all hard work.  But, equally true, they all get to eat full nutritious meals,  and there is no time or leisure for the men to get drunk.  And if the monsoon rains are abundant, as they were this year, the family granary is full.  For their market needs, Prabhati’s family does not need expensive air conditioned malls or fast service counters manned by people in smart uniforms.  The mandis (local markets) and little shops that presently exist can satisfy their needs just as well.  I shudder to picture Prabhati’s family going the way of the other rural families in surrounding villages who have sold off their land (whom I have described in stories from “the Changing Face of Rural Eastern Rajasthan”), or ending up as slum dwellers in the nearby city. 

The industrialization of agriculture was suited to western countries with their sparse populations and abundant reserves of land.  Colonies brought in the capital and resources to develop other sectors of the society and economy.  As agriculture supported fewer and fewer people, cities and industries grew to absorb the surplus population.  By contrast, in India, given our teeming population and scarce land, our overcrowded cities and armies of poorly educated youth with no visible future, can we afford to destroy the small opportunities for self sufficiency among the small people who still count for most of the population in this country?

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