Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Cast(e) into a Mould

We've all heard about the caste system. Being amongst the privileged 'educated' middle class I had never seen/experienced it first hand, until I went to Sikar. The instant we drove into the district town it became quite clear that the system was very deeply ingrained in the social fabric there. Take the student hostels for instance (the number of village boys attending university in Sikar is impressive)- there are separate hostels for Jats, for Rajputs...and for the dalits?

In the main village of Rewasi (most peasants have moved to live by their fields) one can distinctly separate the Rajput, Jat and Dalit settlements. Did I mention that Brahmins live in blue houses? Socially, the caste hierarchies are still intact from days of old, however economically there have been changes. Note, that I do not dub these changes as 'developments'. 

Not restricting the discussion solely to the past agricultural year, where the monsoon failure affected one and all,my point is that the average Rajput of the village is not far better off than the Dalit living on the outskirts of the village. And yet they insist on lavish social ceremonies (in times of drought even), with outrageous sums spent on dowry. Most non-agricultural loans in households I interviewed were incurred for a daughter's or sister's wedding at 24% p.a. r.o.i (the standard lending rate in the village). Also, as a result of their proud tradition Rajput women do not work on the land, whether own or others', regardless of economic status. This practice deprives HHs of atleast two bread winners on average. Oddly, this reminded me of Shaw's characters the Eysnford-Hills in Pygmalion: a class of the genteel poor. 

Caste consciousness was so very prevalent there, that us liberals bred on the principle of equality, could never quite get used to the inevitable question "Aap kis jaati ke hain?" I'd always manage to get away with an incoherent mumble about being Bengali. It helped that Mahender, my local investigator team mate was a chaach-loving Jat boy in those situations (there's nothing like bonding over a glass-full of thanda chaach/lassi). This one time that I was with my punjabi friend Navpreet however, a rather perceptive old lady of the village caught on that we had no clue and no care as to what our respective castes were. She reacted with a mixture of concern and  horror, saying "toh beti, shaadi kaise karoge?" It turned out that the lady was the match-maker in those parts-she was most eager to rescue us lost causes.

On the bright side, most children, regardless of caste or economic status were attending school. The current generation seemed by and large to be the first school-going generation of families there. In this one Rajput HH I was delighted to find a young girl who had finished a B.ed and an M.A. in Sanskrit from Rajasthan University. Her father was a proud man (his only son was a school drop-out who now drives a lorry). He had however a major problem weighing on his mind at the time-where was one to find a Rajput boy nearly as accomplished as his daughter, to marry her? The idea of an inter-caste marriage was unacceptable not only to him, but also to his 'educated' daughter. As I left that house the same evening, I remember feeling frustrated...not knowing who was to blame...or what the solution was. The residents of Rewasi don't realize that the system is pernicious. To them it is a given.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Summer of 2010

As I settle back into city life, enwrapping myself in civilization by constant trips to the neighbourhood mall, the rural-urban divide becomes stark in my brain. Terms such as ‘haves’ and ‘have not(s)’ are thrown about freely in every classroom until the words evoke conditioned reflexes in the form of drooping eyelids and wandering imaginations. The rural stint I undertook this summer has helped in ever so many ways to open my mind to a reality beyond the confines of my parents’ home, boarding school and now University. By and by I shall attempt to, by a series of blog posts, assimilate all that I observed, felt and want to record. If you find that the order/manner of documentation is rather haphazard, I beg you to bear with me for the time being. Perhaps some order shall arise from within the chaos.

Firstly, a brief introduction to the context: This summer I interned with the Foundation of Agrarian Studies (main office in Salt Lake, Kolkatta). The foundation (F.A.S) is currently engaged in a project to establish agricultural relations across India (P.A.R.I). Thus every summer they conduct socio-economic surveys in different States. They usually pick one village each from about three districts with distinct agricultural practices within a State. Consequently, this year I was part of the field team that went to Rewasi in Sikar district in Rajasthan; Panahar in Bankura district and Amarsinghi in Malda district, both in West Bengal. The team further went on to a village in Cooch Behar in North Bengal, but I was beckoned homewards by then. The internship lasted for about a month and twenty days.

Our study in the villages had several objectives, the primary being computation of rural household incomes. The measurement of poverty has historically been a bone of contention amongst schools of economic thought. Even ‘Prank’ ISC economics enlists in some detail, the problems of national income computation- particularly in the unorganised sector. The design of the questionnaire (painfully long, I admit, but usefully so) thus interested me from the very start.
Income sources were accounted for under the following sections: 
  1. Income from crop production
  2. Income from agricultural and non-agricultural wage labour 
  3. Income from salaries 
  4. Income from business and trade, rent, interest earnings, pensions, remittances, scholarships and all other sources
  5. Income from animal resources 
The first sub-heading, i.e. crop production comprised the lion’s share of the schedule. Here we collected under the following variables at the household level-
  • Value of hired human labour
  • Value of hired bullock labour 
  • Value of owned bullock labour 
  • Value of owned machinery 
  • Value of hired machinery 
  • Value of seed, home produced and purchased 
  • Value of insecticides and pesticides 
  • Value of manure, home produced and purchased
  • Value of fertilisers 
  • Irrigation charges 
  • Land revenue 
  • Miscellaneous expenses 
  • Rent paid for leased in land 
  • Interest on working capital 
  • Depreciation of implements and machinery (courtesy
We also accounted for family labour (also hired and exchange labour) involved in every crop operation. This particular page was very detailed-it accounted for gender of workers, hours worked per day and number of labour days (per operation per crop). Data on assets held by the HH; amenities such as sanitation, electricity, water sources available; housing conditions; ration cards held was also collected. Since I was not part of the team that worked on income computation from data collected, I shan’t be able to speak of procedure involved post this stage. Needless to say, that it’s terribly complex. F.A.S recently published its findings in the Andhra Pradesh round of 2005-published by Tullika Books.