Weeding With the Tribals

Jharkhand is home to every conceivable variation of plant and animal. I can’t even begin to categorize the dozen or so beetles, ants, and frogs I’ve seen while sitting in one place. Granted, I was aggressively disrupting their homes by yanking out large weeds. I felt like the monstrous logging machine in FernGully.

When it’s overcast, the mountains are shrouded by mist and aside from the fields, everywhere is a deep shade of green.

And when the sun’s out, it’s nothing short of a 18th century pastoral painting.

I’ve spent half of the days here working in the field with the laborers. The men do the hoeing and the plowing, and the women weed and sow. When the field’s small, the men forgo cattle and do all the associated pulling themselves.

At the Gene Campaign fields at Birsa Agricultural University, some of the laborers are young women who are in the 11th and 12th standards, the equivalent of our last two years of high school. This is their version of a job at McDonald’s. (In this analogy, fast food joints are the only employers in town.) At the more remote field in Tirla, the women range from my age to middle-aged, and usually one or two women have brought their children along.

The women live near the fields and belong to the Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Castes, a categorization that puts them at the bottom of the caste system and sometimes at the very bottom of the income spectrum. The Gene Campaign pays them 100 rupees for a day of work, which is about the government mandated wage. Elsewhere, wages may go as low as 30 rupees a day. The average annual wage in some of these villages is 20,000 rupees a year, which would only be enough if all of that income were spent on food; unfortunately, life requires other expenses like dowries, clothing, travel, and household repairs. There’s no room on that budget for education and I can’t see where entertainment could possibly fit.

It may sound odd, I feel quite stupid around these people. What they lack in literacy is made up for by common sense, lack of material ties, a sense of humor, compassion, and a vast knowledge of local fauna. While they searched for food the other day, I was probably talking to a friend about the merits of a Kindle over a Nook.

Picture this. Here I am, with my EMS backpack, which weighs maybe 16 pounds. It contains 3000 rupees, a camera, a camera charger, an iphone, its charger, headphones, a misbehaving laptop, two USB modems, a laptop charger, a large yellow poncho, an oversized swiss army knife and maybe a dozen other useless things. I’m wearing thick jeans and a faded blue kurthi and sandals. They’re barefoot, as they always are, clothed in vibrant saris and holding only umbrellas, in case of rain (which we can only hope for more of) and large metal tubs, with which they’ll transport the refuse atop their heads. There is nothing superfluous about their appearances.

Some of these girls are my age and already have three children, but they mother me. “Kaisa lugta hai?” they ask. How do you like it?

“Bahut bahut accha hai. Accha mossum, accha log.” Very very good. Good weather, good people.

They’re concerned that I’m unhappy about the work. They notice before I do that I have trouble squatting the way they do, so they overturn a metal tub for me to sit on. Every time we advance a couple feet, I have to drag the tub along. I feel encumbered by the cellphone digging into my hip and the camera weighing down my kurthi. And I become lost in thought while weeding. I imagine that this must be the way a hermit crab feels.

This is a view of the line of my skilled coworkers, from my end. Laughter is traded between women who come from different villages and don’t know the names of each other’s children. And although they all introduce themselves, I fail to remember their names.

This is the pile of weeds that gather by my side as the line advances slowly but steadily, with my end holding everyone else back.

Beside me, one woman’s son is playing with the metal tub. And then it begins to rain, first a few scattered drops. I catch the word, pani, water. It picks up a steady pace. My poncho is two fields away in my backpack, useless at this time. One woman walks over to cover me with her umbrella, and the rest crowd three or four to each of the umbrellas that are left. We wait patiently for the rain to stop, and I am the last one to notice when, true to the present drought, the rain subsides as suddenly as it arrived. As I retract my umbrella, the other women are already back on the ground working.

The labor is methodical and purposeful, but the conversations are far from it. My Hindi and attention span are too limited to catch everything that is going on, but occasionally I notice that I enter into their conversations as madam. They ask again how I feel about the work and how I like this place. I tell them the truth, that it’s the most beautiful place I’ve been to. Really, the first two photos don’t do the scenery justice.

As we move to the next field, I come across a small pile of white furry things.

They’re mushrooms, or kukuri. Over the course of the day, I notice the women and children gathering several other varieties.

I’ve been too focused on my weeding to notice that the women have been gathering them on their breaks. Wild mushrooms make up a major protein source for the tribals, who are the only ones with knowledge of local edible fauna. By virtue of their current economic state, these people are vegetarian and are often at risk for malnutrition. Their dependence on wild mushrooms points to a much deeper relationship with nature than I’ve seen in other rural populations. In the part of Andhra Pradesh that I was in, animals were valued only for their economic worth; people otherwise had no problem disposing of them. Even cows, which are often assumed to be sacred in India, are occasionally sold to the beef factory once they expire, as goes the Indian terminology for die.

While I was absentmindedly weeding, a frog appeared next to my toe. “Mendak,” said one coworker.

It’s the only word I’ll hear to describe frog for the dozen varieties I’ll encounter that day. The woman next to me shoos away one of the children and gently urges the frog to move on with her finger. It’s the first time I’ve seen a villager not try to kill an animal it has no use for. Later, when I’m visiting her village, we stand back and watch a small snake slither past a house and into the bushes. While on the surface, these women dress and live like their counterparts in Andhra, their philosophies are clearly quite different. In Andhra, families who invited me over showed me the kinds of things they had, their bangle collections, their televisions, the odd computer, and they seemed hyperaware of the things they did not have. That material consciousness and flippancy toward animal life seemed absent among these women. I suppose it makes sense when you struggle to even put food in your belly and depend so directly on nature for food.

Just in terms of numbers, this is by far the poorest population of villagers I’ve met in India. They’re at the national poverty line of 20,000 rupees a year (or $1.20 per day), making only a third of income of the poorest villagers I personally knew in Andhra. And in a state with minimal irrigation, there is only a single crop each year, which also makes work hard to come by for villagers without land. A recent survey done with the Gene Campaign, found that on average in these regions, people will go hungry for at least a month out of the year.

The government website for rural development programs, however, tells a different story. There are programs for pregnant women, for families whose only child is female, for the disabled, for ensuring employment, for mid-day meals at schools, for subsidizing construction of a house. There are even programs promising 35 kg of rice per month for people below the poverty line, which a quarter of the population in Jharkhand falls under. This population is eligible for all of these programs, but these programs are underutilized and funds are mishandled. And without knowing how to read, these people likely do not know what they are due.

I have a lot of thinking to do about this place, and I’ve been struggling to write this post, mostly because the situation is so complex and I know so little firsthand. Corruption, for example, cannot be boiled down to a few people cheating the system and other people being victimized. It seems that it’s a culture of people taking advantage of the system where they can, and the way the government is set up doesn’t help. At every mishap, every tragedy, every accident, and every terrorist attack, provided these are all publicized, the government is ready to hand off money — 1, 2, even 5 lakhs rupees (one lakh rupees is about 2200 dollars). They recently rolled out a plan to pay every lapsed Maoist 1 lakh in return for their weapons. This culture of both throwing money at problems and expecting money for problems seems to only create more problems. It makes sense then that if the problems are creating a flow of money, the unintended beneficiaries would probably make sure they continue to exist. This was the case with a lot of New Deal programs, which continued to highlight the problems they were created for even once the problems had ceased to exist. Anyway, we’ll leave this aside behind, and perhaps I’ll revisit it when I better understand how India compares to other developing countries which probably don’t have anywhere near the same bounty of resources.

Our lunch break began at 12:30, and the woman my age who had adopted me brought me back to her home. She’d seen how fascinated I had been with the mushrooms, so she offered me a full serving. I counted three different kinds of mushroom in this dish, the one to the bottom right.

And they were easily the tastiest mushrooms I had ever had. They had a firm texture that made them easy to bite through, and they didn’t seem to even need much seasoning. I was able to differentiate three distinct flavors in the dish, and I could see why, as I’ve been told, many tribals prefer mushrooms to chicken.

More strikingly, despite the fact that these people are at risk of starvation during many parts of the year, they still offered a vital part of their diets to a near-total stranger. I don’t think I’ll ever get over the generosity of people here. From the devastatingly poor to the incredibly rich, Indians have always shown me, a total stranger, the same generosity I would reserve for a friend or family member: from people I’ve met on trains to even those I’ve met while waiting outside a grocery store. (In fact, I bet a couple of those people are reading this post right now.)

Perhaps that’s part of the reason corruption in India, which amounts to theft, is such an enigma to me.

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