Swarup Datta: My first ‘scholarly’ visit to Punjab

Swarup Datta (PhD), Delhi School of Economics, New Delhi

In mid-August 2006, just one month before my Ph.D. registration, my first visit to Punjab was scheduled to meet Mr. Umendra Dutt in a small town called Jaitu in Faridkot district. He is the Executive Director of a local civil society action group called Kheti Virasat Mission (KVM) in Jaitu and probably one of the most prominent environmental activists in Punjab. By then, I had known Mr. Dutt only by his name. Before my first visit to Punjab, I contacted Mr. Dutt and managed to have a conversation with the help a journalist friend of mine in Delhi, who visited Punjab last year (i.e. in 2005) to prepare a report on Bt cotton cultivation. My friend repeatedly assured me that Mr. Dutt would be the right person who could guide me in my doctoral fieldwork in Punjab.

The ‘Punjab Mail’ left New Delhi Railway Station at 10.45 pm and arrived in Bhatinda junction at 6.30 am. I was told that it would take around 45 minutes to reach Jaitu station. It was raining outside. I stared out through the grimy scratched window of the train and saw that monsoon was in its full swing. It appeared to me that after the blazing heat of summer, the verdant fields on both sides of the railway track might have brought a relief to the local people. Located in a flat and dry terrain, the Malwa zone of southern Punjab has its own charm and is famous for cotton cultivation in North India.

The train reached Jaitu station at 7.30 am and it was raining cats and dogs. Somehow, I trundled along the deserted station. There was palpable silence and I was trying to look for the person who was supposed to receive me. Suddenly, a young boy appeared and introduced himself as a worker of Kheti Virasat Mission and he guided me to the KVM office. After entering in the main gate of the house, few young boys were found to engage in reading newspapers and cutting newspaper clippings. They told that Mr. Dutt was waiting for me in the office. As soon as I entered the room, I saw few people were engaged in a gossip and also noticed that a person with long hair, mustache and beard sat on an easy chair and was carefully reading newspaper. I did not take much time to identify him as Mr. Dutt. He greeted me and asked me to sit. Explaining the purpose of my visit, I initiated conversation with Mr. Dutt and informed him regarding my research plan He informed about the contemporary problems in Punjab agriculture. Mr. Dutt assured that he would definitely help me to search for a village where I would conduct my research.

During my first visit, I hardly knew Punjab and its culture. With the help of Mr. Umendra Dutt, my first visit to a Punjab village called Bhaktuana (near to Jaitu) was scheduled. However, it was very difficult for me to decide where to conduct the fieldwork. I came back to Delhi and started reviewing various literatures on Punjab, Punjabi culture and agriculture. For this purpose, Ratan Tata Library and Central Science Library of Delhi University were consulted. Several reports were searched from internet regarding Punjab agriculture. After three months, in December 2006, Mr. Dutt called me up and asked me to come to Bhatinda as early as possible. I rushed to Bhatinda on the very day itself and joined Mr. Dutt. I was put up in a hotel and Mr. Dutt assured to help me to select the village.

Next morning, Mr. Dutt took me to a village called Jajjal in Talwandi Sabo block district Bhatinda. The village is located 32 km from Bhatinda city. We went to Mr. Jarnail Singh’s house (a retired school teacher in Jajjal) where several other villagers were also present. Mr. Dutt introduced me with them and also asked me to take a round of the village. Mr. Jarnail Singh asked Mr. Rajwinder Singh (24), a young individual and a resident of Jajjal, to assist me to see the village. The village was quite large with more than two thousand people residing in it. The basic problem of the village was that the villagers have been suffering from cancer since last two decades and government did not pay attention to them. While taking a round in the village, I came across many farmers and finally it was decided to initiate fieldwork in this very village only. The pilot survey was started on January 2007. With the help of Mr. Dutt and Mr. Sucha Singh Gill (Former Dean Education, Punjabi University, Patiala), I managed to stay in Punjabi University regional campus hostel which was 3 Km away from Jajjal. A thorough census survey was conducted to understand the local people and their culture. But during the survey operation, a lot of problems were faced in language. The problems were consulted with Mr. Dutt and finally he suggested me to visit a village called Chaina near Jaitu, district Faridkot. Without taking much time, I decided to visit Chaina. During the pilot survey, those preconceived factors were taken into account and examined whether it was fulfilling them or not.

Being an outsider of the community, it was highly essential for me to establish a good rapport as it helped in breaking the barriers of hostility, unfamiliarity and shyness. As soon as Chaina was selected as the main study village, I started thinking, how to assimilate with the local people, because neither they could understand Hindi properly nor I could speak in Punjabi. Mr. Dutt helped me in this regard. He introduced me with Mr. Amarjeet Sharma, a farmer in Chaina. I requested Maninderpal Sharma, son of Mr. Amarjeet Sharma to assist me during the census survey. In spite of time constraints, Maninder assured me to help during the data collection. Thereafter, I decided to conduct a thorough census survey of the village. To conduct it at a faster rate, Maninder contacted few local school students of tenth class. After talking to the headmaster of the school, five students were selected whose communication skill was good. Finally, after making three groups, the students were informed regarding the census form. The form contained name, age, sex, marital status, educational status, occupational status, etc. Within a week or so, the survey was completed. They worked for me voluntarily.

During the survey operation, I met several farmers and explained them the purpose of my visit. Many of them responded properly and informed me about the local culture. Initially, the language became a barrier to understand the local situation. Incidentally, being a multilingual singer, I have a capacity to grasp any language through singing. It was largely applied in the fieldwork also. I started collecting local Punjabi songs and translated it with the help of Mr. Harmail Singh, the editor of the KVM’s News letter ‘Kudrati Kheti’. During the translation, I learnt the words like tusi (you), appa/asi (we), tuadda (your), kadon (when), kitthe (where), ki (what) kehri (which) Jaddon (when), oddon (then) and many more. I also purchased a book to learn Punjabi. Then I started constructing sentences like “tuadda na ki hai?” (What is your name?), “tusi kitthe rahende ho?”(Where do you live?), “tuadde kol kinne kille zammen hai?” (How much land you have?), etc. Within a span of three to four months, I started grasping Punjabi language up to a certain extent. Slowly and gradually, I started understanding local Punjabi language that helped me a lot especially during the data collection. To establish a good rapport, I also impressed my respondents by showing respect to their traditions and customs, learning their language, singing popular Punjabi songs, and so on.