“… Jisse ghar mein paans paans basse hain, ussa do bigha zameen mein syaa hoga? (What will someone who has five children at home do with two acres of land?)” posed *Jaspal Singh as he closed his response.
His response was to a question asked by me about land ownership in his village, Palesar. And what was I doing asking questions to Jaspal Singh in Palesar, you ask? See, I was there for the rural immersion program as part of the induction training of India Fellow.
Notwithstanding the fact that the good people of Palesar replaced the /k/ and the /chh/ sounds with the /s/ sound in their pronunciation, something that I’d come to realize later, the rhetorical question put across by Jaspal Singh still left me pondering for the rest of my day.
Earlier in the day, I had reached Kotda along with my other group mates after a gruelling travel of two bus rides for 120 kms over three and a half hours from Udaipur city. It was raining cats and dogs when we reached there, and as I got down from the bus, I landed in ankle-deep slurry. In my attempt to be aptly prepared for the rural excursion, I had put on Hawai chappals which proved to be a huge mistake, for it turned out to be quite a task for me as I fretted and trudged in that sludge, my slippers coming undone many times. It was quite a spectacle for the onlookers over there and they couldn’t help but laugh at my predicament to which I could only grin sheepishly. I had already started my excursion on a wrong footing.
This anxiety borne out of personal discomfort stayed with me all the way until Palesar. Just as we disembarked from the jeep near the school village, we were greeted by curious eyes. We decided to take a stroll in the village. We walked until we reached the outskirts of the village where the road led to a broken bridge with a river gushing beneath it. We took off from the road, walked over the stony banks and took an eyeful of the river and the beautiful green hills lining it.
The last of the rain clouds drifted by, hiding the sun, while a sweet after-rains breeze embalmed us. I finally felt at peace there and reconciled to the fact that this wasn’t as horrible as it seemed. We soaked in our surroundings for some time and then decided to go back and interact with the villagers. We had just walked a little bit from where we had come until we encountered Jaspal Singh, chopping fodder from a tree for his livestock. He got talking and told us a lot about the village and its issues, chief being the problem of smaller land holdings – as less as ‘do bigha zamin’. But Jaspal Singh’s life was sorted. He had a family of five kids and he had a land of five bighas.
Ironically, the movie buff that I am, upon hearing the phrase ‘do bigha zamin’, I instantly thought about one of my all-time favourite movies, made by Bimal Roy in 1953. This movie was about the plight of a farmer who is threatened of the selling of his land by the vile landlord from whom he has borrowed money. It leads to the desperate measure of migration from his village to the city to earn money. The living is harsh as he tries hard to make money by working odd jobs including working as a rickshaw-puller. <SPOILER-ALERT> After facing a barrage of exploitation in the city, he returns back to his village only to end up losing his land </SPOILER-ALERT>.
After we parted from Jaspal Singh, we chanced upon *Bhakt Singh, a little further down the village road. Mending the tiles of the roof and relaying them so as to prevent the leak which had been invading the privacy of his small hovel which sheltered a large family of 15 members, he spoke of his difficulty at times trying to earn and fend for his family. When I asked the same question to him, about how much land he owned, he replied with a look of self-pity on his face, ‘do bigha zamin’. It was also evident that he meant it in a way which expressed and directed the pity towards his progeny who would have to live off from even smaller patches of land inherited by them.
What further worried me was the realization that not only were there going to be meagre patches of lands for livelihood in the future, but also that there would be a paucity of space for construction of new houses and expansion of the village as its population grew.
For all of the two days that I spent in Palesar meeting the villagers, almost all of them rued about their smaller land holdings and the impending distress from it; as if problems like uncertain monsoons and financial troubles weren’t already enough. I also got to know that many villagers worked as small-time wage labourers in the off-season for extra income, as there wasn’t much yield from their farming. Whatever exceeded their own consumption could barely be sold.
By the end of my rural immersion, I left Palesar as worried as I had come there. Albeit this time, it wasn’t because of personal discomfort but because of the concern over the terrible state of affairs there. The scenic beauty of the village seemed like a cruel joke in the purview of the imminent tragedy. Unlike the movie, “Do Bigha Zamin”, there is no evil landlord in Palesar, but a precarious future itself which threatens to take the land away from its villagers.
*Names changed to protect identity
Prateek Dwivedi is a 2017 cohort India Fellow, working with Centre For Social Action in Raigad, Maharashtra to support farmers get better value for their produce through community collectives.