Gas stoves switched off, pulses cut out, bikes idle

sonal

Sonal Matharu | April 24, 2010


Pramod Kumar’s wife, Suman, cooks on a chulha
Pramod Kumar’s wife, Suman, cooks on a chulha

About 150 km and a three-hour bumpy ride from the national capital is the sugarcane farmers’ village of Nanglamubarick in western Uttar Pradesh. The single-lane road along the Gang stream leads you to ripe sugarcane crops standing tall, waiting to be harvested.

Inside the village you can see big concrete bungalows with heavy metal gates. A cluster of houses made of finely-arranged burnt bricks hide behind the bungalows. Peep through any of these homes and you will see many half-empty bellies.

Pulses have gone missing from the food basket in most houses, kachcha or pucca, in this village. All that these people can barely afford nowadays are chapatis with salt, tea and potatoes.

Two cane chairs are pulled out on the freshly done veranadh floor of Pramod Kumar’s house. Next to the chairs and the khat, women squat on the perfect semi-circular strokes of cow dung. One leaves unwashed clothes in a bucket next to the hand pump, other comes running towards the khat, the cattle fodder she was cutting piled up in one corner. The older women of the house stitch plastic sacks together to make into a big sheet on which they will dry wheat in a few days.

The day this house receives guests, these women sleep hungry.

“We just drink a cup of tea and go to sleep,” says 60-year-old Anarkali. “We have to respect our guests. If we give them food, that will show we respect them.”

They have guests every 10-12 days. That is also when they buy pulses. “We have stopped buying urad daal. We used to eat it every day. A five kg packet used to cost Rs 90. Now we get only one kg for the same price,” says Pramod Kumar.

They have just salt and chapati for breakfast and dinner and, for lunch, like the others in the village, they eat potatoes. All their frugal meals are prepared on a chulha, except for tea, for which they use the gas cylinder.

“They charge us Rs 500 for the cylinder on the black market. That, too, has water mixed. When we call to book the cylinder, no one answers. Even when we go to their office, we never get it. We have no option but to buy it in black,” says Kumar, who shares his two-hectare farm with his younger brother and cultivates wheat, rice and sugarcane.

Farm yields have been declining steadily. Wheat production has halved over time from 60 quintals per hectare, while sugarcane produce has dipped from 60 quintals to 50 quintals per hectare. So the family has cut down on the use of tractor in the fields. They rent a tractor once—instead of four times as they did earlier—for ploughing and irrigation, and make do with bulls later. The family owns a motorbike but has severely rationed its use. “The last time we took the bike out was during my son’s exams,” says Kumar.

Farmers have started getting Rs 20 more per quintal of wheat but urea is now costlier by Rs 50 per 50-kg pack. On top of that diesel is dearer by Rs 2 per litre. “No matter what they do, we are at a loss,” says Kumar.

The family has few savings and fewer ideas to deal with an emergency. Festivals bring no new clothes, ornaments or sweets in this house. “We add sugar in milk and make gulukand. That’s sweet for us,” says Anarkali and her granddaughters nod their heads coyly.

“If the prime minister cannot bring prices under control, what else can he do? He should resign,” says Kumar, lighting a bidi and releasing a cloud of smoke.

“You’ll go to jail for this statement,” somebody promptly interjects.

“They can put me in jail if they want. At least I will get food there,” he laughs.

The rear door of Pamod’s house opens into the lane where Sunil, a landless labourer, lives with his family of eight. If he gets work every single day of a month, which is rare, he brings home Rs 3,000.

Pooja, the eldest of his five daughters, is studying for her graduation in a private college in Muzaffarnagar 17 km away. Along with her mother, she sweeps floors in the village’s big houses and sews salwar-kameez for the village women for Rs 40 per pair, which adds little to the household income.

“We do not even get ration from the local shop regularly,” Sunil says, flipping the pages of his slim white Below Poverty Line ration card. “We got kerosene oil this month after a gap of three months.”

If the cow and the goat resting in the shade suggest that the family can at least meet its dairy requirements, Pooja points out the cow isn’t theirs. They are just tending it till it starts producing milk. In return, they get some food and clothes from the cow’s owners.

They have no fridge, no television and no electric fan. “We did not apply for electricity connection,” says Pooja, wiping beads of sweat that form every few minutes on her face. “During my exams, we thought of taking the connection for some time, but then dropped the idea.”

For Sunil, educating his daughters is a priority. “The boys’ families now ask if the girl is educated. Both education and marriage are important. But we cancelled two proposals because they asked for a motorbike. How can I afford a motorbike? I barely manage their education. How can I save for their wedding as well as dowry?” he asks.

He has a bank account but no money in it. In case of emergency, he says, he will have no option but to beg for money from his employers.

Sunil brings a pink polythene bag from an adjacent room. Four times a month, his seven-year-old epileptic son has to be taken to a doctor. The medicines cost Rs 800 every month. “I take him to a good private doctor in the village. I will never take him to a government hospital,” he says resolutely. He has already lost a one-year-old son to pneumonia which the doctors at the government hospital failed to diagnose.

Sunil shares his house with two elderly relatives and his brother Saranveer’s family of six, making for a total of 15 under one roof.

Though the cooking vessels are kept outside in one corner of the verandah, there is no sign of a gas-stove. The food is cooked in the house on a chulha. A gas stove was never bought, for spending Rs 400 on one cylinder is out of the question for them.

“My head aches so much sometimes due to smoke and the eyes are always watery,” says Pooja, holding her head with both hands.

"The government sets the same prices for commodities of daily use for someone who earns Rs 10,000 a month and for a person who earns Rs 1,000 a month. How can the poor afford such price rise?” asks Sunil flinging the cloth from his shoulder on to the khat, “We have to choose between food and the children’s education.”

Two young boys playfully arrange unbaked bricks on the low wall surrounding the house.

“Won’t you have tea?” calls out Pooja’s mother, Jasbeeri Devi, from behind as I jump over a clogged drain outside their wooden gate.

“We drink tea without milk but we will make one with milk for you,” she says, betraying her spirit of hospitality.

Right across the lane, through which even an Ambassador car cannot pass, lives Harbir Singh with his joint family of 22 members. There are heaps of mustard crop, waiting to be threshed in his pucca, ancestral house.  A motorbike stands near the huge metallic gate. Four buffaloes and a cow rest in the stable. He owns five acres of land jointly with his four brothers where they cultivate sugarcane and wheat.

Despite these possessions, Harbir Singh’s family’s daily meals are no different from their landless neighbour Sunil’s.

“We do not buy any vegetables,” he says. “Pulses?” he stops to look at the women of the house who, upon hearing the word, cover their mouths with the dupatta flowing down from their heads, to hide their laughter. “We don’t eat pulses either,” volunteers Anita Baniwal, his sister-in-law.

Since the prices started spiralling upwards the family has had to cut down even on the quantity of food consumed to make its budget of Rs 7,000 last through the month.

“Sugarcane farming is no more profitable. We’ll get profit only if we get Rs 300 for one quintal. The mills do not buy sugarcane directly from us. They have contractors who are getting the actual rate of the crop,” he adds.

His family’s annual savings of up to Rs 30,000 come mostly from poplar tree farming that is picking up in the village. Poplar trees are grown on the circumference of the wheat or sugarcane field. When the trees are fully grown, they are cut down and sold to contractors who sell it in the wood market.

In the rainy season, when the income from farming is nil, the family cuts down on its dairy products consumption and sells it instead. “Starting June, July, we will have to sell milk to get some money in the house. We keep a little for the family and sell the rest,” says Anita.

Not just their eating habits, the cultivation techniques are also changing with the rising prices. Like others in the village, the family uses tractor just once in a crop cycle and bulls the other times. “It is just for an emergency,” says Harbir Singh, pointing to the bike that stands in the corner.

The family used to consume one gas cylinder every week until about a few months back. But the rubber pipe does not connect the cylinder to the gas stove any more. It now rests on the kitchen slab. The cylinder is covered with a sack and dumped on a top shelf.

“We use the chulha now. Within three months, the price of a cylinder has gone up from Rs 315 to Rs 400. In black, you get it for Rs 500,” he says.

If the prices rise any further, Anita threatens, “We will go on hunger strike. We will protest. And if they increase fuel prices, we will hold up traffic on the highway. The government will have to bring down the prices.”

Other women of the house nod in agreement, some smile. To hold up the traffic, Umesh, Harbir’s sister-in-law says, they will have to go to Muzaffarnagar. “The bus fare will be 10 rupees. We can buy a packet of salt for that much,” she giggles.

Anita does not laugh. She cluthces the red glass bangles on her wrists. “We are married women. We wish we could wear a mangalsutra, anklets, ear rings and nose rings. We have to kill our desires to feed ourselves.”

Too much work needs to be done in the house. Women go down to the verandah to thresh mustard. As the threshing progresses, the mug floor is covered with black mustard seeds. These seeds will be collected, dried and sold in the market.

“Farmers are on the verge of starvation. What does the prime minister know about us? He lives in his kothi. Perhaps he wouldn’t even get to know if farmers start committing suicide in this village as the last resort,” says Vipin Singh, Harbir’s uncle.

Just then, a buffalo goes loose in the front yard. A boy holds up high in the air the broken chain that had tied the buffalo down and yells: “It broke,” he yells.

“Another 50 rupees gone there,” sighs Vipin Singh.

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