Oral History Update –

I’ve been here several weeks now, and realise I have hardly mentioned the oral history project. So here’s the update.

I’ve done 28 interviews so far. The first 5 are not oral histories, but interviews with various people working in agriculture and environmental health in Punjab – activists, agriculture extension workers and doctors.

Interviewing Dr. Cheema, a specialist on traditional plants and herbs at Punjab Agricultural University

Of the remaining 23 interviews, 9 were done on my first trip out to several villages. This was in my second week here, and I really wasn’t prepared for how difficult I would find it to understand rural Punjabi, particularly the strong accent of that area. For these interviews, I was extremely dependent on Aman, my companion and translator, and often didn’t have as much control over the direction of the interview as I wanted.

A lot of this early information is pretty basic – a broad overview of what farmers grew before, what they grow now, and the problems they face. It was hard to ask the right questions for the personal narratives and details that I was looking for. However, considering how little I knew at the time about rural Punjabi life, I realise these early interviews were still an important learning process.

Since then, the interviews have steadily improved. I was able to communicate to Aman more clearly what kind of approach we wanted for the interviews – less interrogative, short questions, being ok with silence if someone is taking time to formulate an answer, etc. Not that I know a whole lot about oral history! My language skills also improved (or I was working in areas with easier accents) which meant I could navigate interviews more precisely.

However, a big change occurred in the last 9 interviews. Aman had work to do in Haryana, so I had to conduct the interviews myself. The first 2 didn’t go very well, but they were with older people who didn’t understand much Hindi (I tend to communicate in Hindi, and the person replies in Punjabi, which is functional but can obviously lead to problems). However, after that I was surprised and pleased to find that the interviews, not only didn’t fall apart without Aman, but in fact went much better. Partly, I know a lot more about the issues facing farmers, so can ask more appropriate questions, but I also appreciate being fully in control of how I express myself, instead of working through a translator.

Of the 23 oral history interviews, 7 are with women, and 5 are with organic farmers. One of my favourite questions to ask the older women is whether they remember any old songs about agriculture, crops or the seasons. (I also ask the men this, but so far none of them know any). For a lot of the women its hard for them to remember songs that they haven’t sung since their childhood, but most of them can come up with one or two. One song that almost every woman seems to know is about bajra (millet), one of the main staples 50 years ago, and now hardly eaten at all.

Listening to her voice for the first time, she was really absorbed

I’m pretty sure that 5 out of 16 farmers in Punjab is not a representative ratio for the prevalence of organic farming here. All the organic farmers I have met work with KVM. Their farm sizes range from 1 acre (but with a subsidiary business for income), 5 acres, 10 acres to 25 acres. All five had been educated, at least until secondary school which I think was a big factor in their decision to make the shift, however I wouldn’t say they were all extremely well-off. Making your living off 5 or 10 acres is not going to make you really rich, any where in the world, I don’t think. The pictures below show some of the practices of two of the organic farmers I interviewed – Jarnail Singh and Inderjit Singh.

Jarnail Singh, who has 10 acres in the village of Majhi, is an extremely interesting farmer. A chemical farmer until 8 years ago, Jarnail ji started reading articles about the environmental and health effects of pesticides, and attended a few workshops held by NGOs in his local village. He made the switch, but did so with extreme care, reading everything he could (in Hindi and Punjabi) about khudrat kheti – natural farming. He dislikes the word organic, saying he is a natural farmer following indigenous Indian practices to keep the soil and ecosystem healthy, as opposed to just not using chemicals. (everyone has their own interpretation of what organic means, I guess). Jarnail ji now saves all his seeds, and his household (wife, son and parents) subsist fully off the products of the farm – from lentils, sugar, rice and their own wheat flour, to vegetables, onions, and spices. Like the old days for Punjabi villages, salt and tea leaves are basically the only things they need from the bazaar. It means they can’t always eat what they want when they want – for example, it’s a pretty steady diet of daal (lentils) and okra in the monsoon, but everyone in the house feels a sense of pride and satisfaction in this achievement. Unlike some of the other organic farmers I met, Jarnail’s family really supports him in his work, and he is seen as something of a visionary and teacher in the village, despite being only in his early 40’s. Many other farmers I spoke to say they wish they could do what Jarnail ji does, but they are scared to make the leap – especially if they only have 2 or 3 acres or have outstanding debts (both are extremely common). Jarnail ji holds monthly workshops at his farm for village farmers to learn about what he does, and he says its slowly catching on – in the last 3 years two more farmers have joined him.

Jarnail ji showing me his rice nursery - Basmati Pusa, variety 1121 - which he has covered with netting to protect from birds. In the next few weeks the seedlings from the nursery will be transplanted into the paddy on the left

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