Jaspal Kaur- Karirwali village, Faridkot

Jaspal Kaur in her 60s proudly gives a tour of her kitchen garden right outside her house which is currently in full bloom. She points at the number of bottle gourds that are hanging from the creeper. Its been three years since she started growing vegetables organically in a small plot for household consumption. She was convinced when KVM activists talked about the adverse health impact of eating food grown with poisonous chemicals. Suffering from diabetes, she decided to experiment. She created the bed with new soil that she brought from a sandy uncultivated patch to ensure it was not contaminated with chemicals and then fertilized it with cow dung manure. Initially, she says, there were a lot of weeds, but gradually they began to reduce, and now over three years they are minimal. Currently, there is a wide diversity of vegetables in her small plot. They include different varieties of pumpkins, bottle gourd, eggplant, chillies, tomatoes and bitter gourds. At one point she was harvesting one kg of tomatoes every day. She states emphatically, “its a myth that nothing can grow without chemicals”.

She works about 2-3 hours in the garden every day. In their farm they grow potatoes with chemicals, but also organically in a small patch for household consumption. Last year when there was a urea shortage so everyone applied less fertilizer but otherwise on the commercial crop it is used excessively, she says. According to her it is not possible to go fully organic on the farm, because they cannot replace the entire field with uncontaminated soil like she did with her vegetable garden. She and her husband have been talking about making the shift to organic production on the farm as well, but have not gone through with it so far. She says that procuring ingredients for organic manure is not difficult because they have cattle and a large neem tree in the yard. She boils the leaves and sprays it on her vegetable plants. But to do it on a large scale would be very labour intensive. She knows that from her experience of working in the garden that vegetables grow without chemicals only with a lot of hard work. That is why not too many women want to take it up. She says their neighbors have a biogas plant, even then they do not bother. She had tried earlier as well but nothing would grow. It was only after they changed the soil that there was a good yield.

She talks about her experience with farming as a young girl. “We used to go and pick cotton-both indigenous and hybrid varieties. No one used any chemicals then, just cow dung manure for the most part. Women generally did not work in the fields, except for picking cotton. After I got married which was about 40 years ago and came to this village, I did go to help with harvesting wheat a few times. When we planted pulses, I did help with doing seeds as well as with the harvest. At the time just after my marriage we grew maize, bajra, indigenous and hybrid cotton as well as pulses. Now it is just wheat and paddy. We started growing paddy about 10-12 years ago, and reduced sowing cotton to about 1.5 acres. But about two years ago we eliminated cotton completely. We leveled the sandy, uneven part of our land and then shifted to paddy on that as well about two years ago. It is difficult to manage both rice and cotton together. It is a lot of work. We grew cotton under compulsion because there was not sufficient water. Now we have managed to get another motor, so we grow only paddy. There is also maize and millets in our fields but only for fodder, because no one likes eating them anymore. I remember though when I was young, there was excitement when the maize cobs were brought home and we extracted the grains with our hands. Our everyday meals those days consisted bajra and makki roti, green vegetables, khichadi and pulses. At the navtrinjan festival organized by KVM in our village, I cooked moth bajra khichdi with desi ghee and milk and received a prize for it. I had to go to the city to buy bajra and then cooked it in a clay pot overnight. Everyone loved it there. But no one likes to eat bajra anymore in the village. I still store seeds for wheat for next season, and for many of the vegetables such as tomato, spinach and fenugreek. The seeds you get in the market are coated with poison.The roti made from bajra does not taste the same anymore either. I know how to store seeds because we used to do the same for cotton seeds. Women used to coat bags and bags of cotton seeds and then give them to the men to sow in the fields. Coating with ash keeps them separate and there are less attacks by insects and pest and better germination. The seeds were carried on the back and then poured through a funnel like container on to the fields. Before that we spread them to separate the seeds. The indigenous cotton was used for weaving cloth at home, and then making bedspreads and clothes. Young girls made them for their future marital household. Weaving one would take an entire day. The iron handloom spinning wheel with the thread would cover this entire courtyard. We laid out the unripe boll of cotton in the sun after picking and they would also flower. Women used to love indigenous cotton. They were attached to it because they would pick it, weave cloth, and had a deep connection with it.

She prefers the life in those early years of her life. “All the men in the family left for the farm together at 4am to plough the fields with animals. Women took the food to the fields and came back at noon, and then went back in the late afternoon. We (women from the entire extended family) prepared our meals together on the tandoor, there was an atmosphere of festivity. The young boys would also go to the fields together to apply fertilizer and do other work. Now our water is contaminated and saline, so people have to install RO. Earlier we used to dig holes and harvest rain water, put white alum in it and use it for drinking and other purposes. Water is contaminated because chemicals are seeping into the groundwater. So many of our useful tree species have just disappeared such as pharma, suhanjana, jhand, van. The younger generation has not even seen any of these trees-they provided shade in the fields. We mixed pharma wood in the soil and put it in stove. The beans from jhand tree were mixed incurs to make raita. Van trees had these yellow colored fruits. But all of these trees were cut down for creating more land for cultivation. People also kept the land fallow for some time in the year. After the wheat harvest farmers would apply green manure and left it fallow. The land was divided into two parts – one part was left fallow, and cotton was sowed on the other half and the reverse in the next year. There were several rituals associated with farming. We set aside symbolic grains for our ancestors from the new harvest. With a part of the new wheat we bought sweets and distribute it in the Gurudwara. ”

According to her these transformations in the landscape began with government policies that encouraged the use of fertilizers to begin with and then other chemicals. She goes on to say, “farmers also adopted them and became greedy. Now the condition of the soil is so terrible that nothing grows without chemicals, so it has become a compulsion. People in the villages had no idea what chemical fertilizer was or pesticide was. They did not accept these changes easily but the moment one person adopted a practice others just followed. Now all the seeds are coated with sprays. Cotton seeds are expensive because they are imported, but we do not let our children near it. Helicopters sprayed DDT in our fields. I remember we would go and watch them in the fields, as they sprayed harmful chemicals everywhere. The officials then planted tiny flags to indicate that chemical has been sprayed on a field. Bit people also cooperated and registered their names to get their fields sprayed. The government officials would come with registers and went to every house in the village to ask. Farmers were happy because it made life easier and convenient just like with all the machinery.”

There have been transformations in social practices with chemical-intensive farming as well. For instance, she says, “earlier farmers provided cooked food for hired farm labour. This included milk, rot is with desi ghee and everything that they ate themselves. Now it has been reduced to just tea. The migrant labour that comes from other states for transplanting paddy are only given raw food because they eat rice. They mostly live in the fields and eat there. They do not come to farmers’ houses. They build a small structure in the fields, and take drinking water from the motor. With cotton it was mostly just local labour earlier. We used to take tea for them in big containers. They also got a share of the cotton they picked, so they also worked harder. I used to pick cotton as well. In one day we picked almost 40 kgs of cotton. However, I stopped going to the fields when cotton disappeared from the fields. Now the young boys in the household take the food/tea to the fields. Women just stay at home all day. I step out only to visit a relative or go to the market. The new daughter in laws that have ben married here have never even seen the farm. My son’s wife has been married for 10 years, but she has never seen the farm with her own eyes. As far as she is concerned the harvested wheat and rice that comes home is the only proof that we own land.”

She says wistfully, “I loved going to the farm and walk outside in the open fields. Now we just stay at home all day. The woman next door had pain in her arms, so the doctor recommended that she should churn milk and cut fodder for the animals by hand. I told her jokingly that lets get an announcement done in the village that everyone who needs their fodder cut should come to her house. We used to walk with tea and big containers of lassi twice a day to the fields. With that much exercise we stayed healthy. Now people do not even want to get up unless they ave to, how can we blame our limbs for giving up, if we stop using them. My grandmother and mother in law were 100 years of age when they died. Unlike us they ate nutritious food. Now everyone suffers from uric acid and diabetes. Everyone knows the reason for the widespread diseases is harmful chemicals in the food, and yet we do not do anything about it. Things are starting to change slowly. When women get together at the gurudwara the conversation usually revolves around who has what disease, and excessive use of chemicals so everyone knows. When the KVM activist would come to our village initially and tried to convince us to start growing vegetables, no one took her seriously. She was however persistent and would not give up. She kept coming again and again until some women started paying attention. My relatives simply take vegetables that I grow, and I am unable to refuse. Neighbours also pluck vegetables without even asking, since the garden is outside the house. So, they all clearly realize the value of organically grown vegetables but they do not want to work hard to grow their own.”