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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 their new skills. Industry in India is not what industry is said to be in other parts of the world. It has its horrors; but, in spite of Gandhi, it does not—in the context of India—dehumanize. An industrial job in India is more than just a job. Men handling new machines, exercising technical skills that to them are new, can also discover themselves as men, as individuals.

They are the lucky few. Not many can be rescued from the nullity of the labor of pre-industrial India, where there are so many hands and so few tools, where a single task can be split into minute portions, and labor can turn to absurdity. The street-sweeper in Jaipur City uses his fingers alone to lift dust from the street into his cart (the dust blowing away in the process, returning to the street). The woman brushing the causeway of the great dam in Rajasthan before the top layer of concrete is put on uses a tiny strip of rag held between her thumb and middle finger. Veiled, squatting, almost motionless, but present, earning her half rupee, her five cents, she does with her finger-dabs in a day what a child can do with a single push of a long-handled broom. She is not expected to do more; she is hardly a person. Old India requires few tools, few skills and many hands.

And old India lay not far from the glitter of new Poona. The wide highway wound through the soft, monsoon-green land. Bangalore was 500 miles to the south; but the village where we were going was only a few hours away. The land there was less green, more yellow and brown, showing its rockiness. The monsoon had been prolonged, but the water had run off into lakes. It was from one such lake that water was to be lifted and pumped up to the fields. The water pipe was to be buried four feet in the ground, not to hamper cultivation of the land when it was irrigated, and to lessen evaporation. Already, early in the morning, the heat of the day still to come, and even in this season of rain, the sky full of clouds, the distant hills cool and blue above the gray lake, heat waves were rising off the rocks.

The nationalized agricultural bank had loaned the farmers 90 percent of the cost of the project. Ten percent the farmers had to pay themselves, in the form of labor; and the engineer had computed that labor at a hundred feet of pipe-trench per farmer. The line of the trench had already been marked; and in the middle of what looked like waste land, the rocks baking in spite of the stiff wind, in the middle of a vast view dipping down to the lake, a farmer with his wife and son was digging his section of the trench.

The man was small and slightly built. He was troubled by his chest and obviously weary. He managed the pickaxe with difficulty; it didn’t go deep, and he often stopped to rest. His wife, in a short green sari, squatted on the stony ground, as though offering encouragement by her presence; from time to time, but not often, she pulled out with a mattock those stones the man had loosened; and the whitecapped boy stood by the woman, doing nothing. Like a painting by Millet of solitary brute labor, but in an emptier and less fruitful land.

A picture of the pain of old India, it might have seemed. But it contained so much that was new: the local agricultural enthusiast who by his example had encouraged the farmers to think of irrigation and better crops, the idea of self-help that was behind the cooperative, the bank that had advanced the money, the engineer with the social conscience who had thought the small scheme worth his while and every week made the long journey from Bombay to superintend, advise, and listen. It wasn’t easy to get qualified men to come out from the city and stay with the project, the engineer said; he had had to recruit and train local assistants.

The digging of the trench had begun the week before. To mark the occasion they had planted a tree, not far from a temple—300 years old, the villagers said—on the top of a hill of rock. The pillars of the temple portico were roughly hewn; the three-domed lantern roof was built up with heavy, roughly dressed slabs of stone. On this plateau of rock the buildings were of stone. Stone was the material people handled with instinctive, casual skill; and the village looked settled and solid and many times built over. In the barrenness of the plateau it was like a living historical site. Old, even ancient, architectural conventions—like the lantern roof of the temple—mingled with the new; unrelated fragments of old decorated stone could be seen in walls.

Four lanes met in the irregularly shaped main square. A temple filled each of two corners; and, slightly to one side in the open space of the square, there was a tree on a circular stone-walled platform. People waiting for the morning bus—luxury!—sat or squatted on the wall below the tree, and on the stone steps that edged the open raised forecourt of one temple. On this forecourt there was a single pillar, obviously old, with a number of bracket-like projections, like a cactus in stone. It was a common feature of temples in Maharashtra, but people here knew as little about its significance as they did elsewhere. Someone said the brackets were for lights; someone else said they were pigeon-perches. The pillar simply went with the temple; it was part of the past, inexplicable but necessary.

The post office was of the present: an ocher-colored shed, with a large official board with plain red lettering. On another side of the square a smaller, gaudier signboard hung over a dark little doorway. This was the village restaurant, and the engineer’s assistants said it was no longer to be recommended. The restaurateur, anxious to extend his food-and-drink business, had taken to supplying some people in the village with water. People too poor to pay in cash paid in chapattis, unleavened bread; and it was these chapattis—the debt-cancelers of the very poor, and more stone than bread—that the restaurateur, ambitious but shortsighted, was now offering with his set meals. He had as a result lost the twice-daily custom of all the engineer’s assistants. They had begun to cook for themselves in a downstairs room of the irrigation project office. And a certain amount of unspoken ill-will now bounced back and forth across the peaceable little square, with every now and then, on either side, the smoke signals of independence and disdain.

The bus came and picked up its passengers, and the dust settled again. At eleven, rather late in the morning, as it seemed, the schoolchildren appeared, the boys in khaki trousers and white shirts, barefooted but with white Gandhi caps, the girls in white blouses and long green skirts. The school was the two-storied panchayat or village council building in one of the lanes off the square, beyond the other temple, which had a wide, smooth, stonefloored veranda, the wooden pillars of the veranda roof resting on carved stone bases. Everywhere there was carving; everywhere doorways were carved. Outside every door hung a basket or pot of earth in which the tulsi or basil grew, sacred to Hindus.

Even without the irrigation scheme, improved agriculture had brought money to this village. Many houses were being renovated or improved. A new roof of red Mangalore clay tiles in a terraced lane announced a brand-new building. It was a miniature, very narrow, with just two rooms, one at the front and one at the back, with shelves and arched niches set in the thick stone walls. A miniature, but the roof had required a thousand tiles, at one rupee per tile: a thousand rupees, a hundred dollars for the roof alone. But that was precisely the fabled sum another man, just a short walk away, had spent on the carved wooden door of his new house, which was much bigger, and half built already, the stone walls already rising about the inset shelves of new wood, the beautifully cut and pointed stone of the doorway showing off the wooden door, already hung: wood, in this land of stone, being especially valuable, and carving, the making of patterns, even in this land of drought and famine, still considered indispensable.

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