As part of my India Fellow journey, I worked with the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), a legal aid organisation in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. Foremost of CSJ’s vision is to create a network of legal aid centres across India. One of our centres is setup in umarpada block of Surat district.
This dainty and quiet block is predominantly a tribal area. Some of these villages were displaced during the construction of Tapi Dam, some were the beneficiaries of the Forest Rights Act (FRA) 2006. But all these villages have close connections among their jan (people), jangal (forest), jameen (land), and janwar (animals).
As a part of our field visits, we visited Ghanawar village. Ghanawar has two coexisting communities – Adimjit and farm labourers. Adimjit are the bamboo tokri makers and farm labourers mostly do cash crop farming of sugarcane.
In the silent, yet occupied village of Ghanawar, I met a man hailing from Uttar Pradesh. He was there for business, sitting on a decent bike with a cool attitude. He had cartoon stickers hanging from one side of his makeshift carrier and the largest portion of the carrier was filled with kitchen utensils and daily utilities.
It intrigued me, that the demands of far off markets were also being mitigated. I inquired a little further.
How many rounds did he make here? Was his effort worth the amount he could earn from a village full of farm labourers and bamboo artisans? Did they even have enough money to buy too many utensils?
While our conversation was still on, a middle-aged woman walked past me with a handful of curly hair and the man instantly put the hair in his white sack and gave her a small steel bowl.
“How do you know the cost of that ball of hair without weighing it?” I asked.
He answered, “I am in this business for the past 11 years, that much hair is worth₹25; I can tell it from experience.”
“What happens to all this hair?” I asked again
He replied, “Humko kya karna hai usse? Kolkata jaata hai baal.” (Why would I care about that? Most of this gets transported to Kolkata.)
All this time, I was too shocked to give back a reassuring smile. So, he went on to tell me more about his unique livelihood. “I earn around ₹1000 – ₹2000 in a day. It’s a good business. I am earning well. Some elementary research over the internet gives you a good history of this 8000-year-old practice – barter.”
In hindsight now, I have mixed feelings about this incident. All the villagers seemed okay with the practice. There was no taboo around it except for the fact that the majority of married women there, wore long clothes on their heads to cover up the reality of the situation.
A practice that shocked me beyond words, was apparently a well-known fact for Sardarbhai (CSJ’s paralegal at the Umarpada Legal Aid Centre). He himself is an Adivasi living in a similar and quaint village. Later in the evening, we visited his house, and to my surprise, even his wife wore that long scarf. She had also probably exchanged her hair for utensils in the past, or maybe she does it even today.
But then who am I to judge the existence of barter? Who am I to click pictures of these women with long scarves, or make videos of the barter taking place? Nobody takes my picture when I ask for chocolates in return of a friendly favour.
Yatti Soni is an India Fellow (a 13-month long grassroots leadership program) of the 2016 cohort, currently working with a grassroots community empowerment and social justice organisation called Centre For Social Justice.