India: New Claim on the Land

The engineer who had introduced me to the squatters’ settlement in Bombay was also working on a cooperative irrigation scheme up on the Deccan plateau, some miles southeast of Poona. In India, where nearly everything waits for the government, a private scheme like this, started by farmers on their own, was new and encouraging; and one week I went with the engineer to look.

I joined him at Poona, traveling there from Bombay by the early morning train, the businessman’s train, known as the Deccan Queen. There was no air-conditioned carriage; but on this rainy monsoon morning there was no Indian dust to keep out. Few of the ceiling fans were on; and it was soon necessary to slide down the aluminum-framed window against the chill. Rain and mist over the mainland sprawl of Greater Bombay; swamp and fresh green grass in a land apparently returning to wilderness; occasional factory chimneys and scattered apartment blocks black and seeming to rot with damp; the shanty towns beside the railway sodden, mud walls and gray thatch seemingly about to melt into the mud and brown puddles of unpaved lanes, the naked electric bulbs of tea stalls alone promising a kind of morning cheer.

But then Bombay faded. And swamp was swamp until the land became broken and, in the hollows, patches of swamp were dammed into irregular little ricefields. The land became bare and rose in smooth rounded hills to the plateau, black boulders showing through the thin covering of monsoon green, the fine grass that grows within three days of the first rain and gives these stony and treeless ghats the appearance of temperate parkland.

It doesn’t show from the train, but the Bombay-Poona region is one of the most industrialized in India. Poona, at the top of the ghats, on the edge of the plateau, is still the military town it was in the British days and in the days of the Maratha glory before that, still the green and leafy holiday town for people who want to get away from the humidity of the Bombay coastland. But it is also, and not at all oppressively, an expanding industrial center. Ordered industrial estates spread over what, just thirteen years ago, when I first saw it, was arid waste land. On these estates there has been some reforestation; and it is said that the rainfall has improved.

The plateau around Poona is now in parts like a new country, a new continent. It provides uncluttered space, and space is what the factory-builders and the machine-makers say they need; they say they are building for the twenty-first century. Their confidence, in the general doubt, is staggering. But it is so in India: the doers are always enthusiastic. And industrial India is a world away from the India of bureaucrats and journalists and theoreticians. The men who make and use machines—and the Indian industrial revolution is increasingly Indian: more and more of the machines are made in India—glory in …

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