‘The primary motive for good care and good use is always going to be affection, because affect involves us entirely’, wrote Wendell Berry in an essay.
He cites Aldo Leopold’s example when in 1935 he bought an exhausted Wisconsin farm and began restoring it. Leopold was an ecologist. One imagines that he restored that farm with utmost love and care, mindful of the ecological connections that abound a farm ecosystem. Berry wrote, ‘without informed, practical and practiced affection, the nation and its economy will conquer and destroy the country.’I see the relevance of this thought in India today when the government compensates for farms acquired from thousands of farmers, labels it ‘land bank’ and begins butchering what were once fine agrarian production systems into plots for factories and industries.
The economic stimulus announced by India, in the wake of the contraction caused by the pandemic, spoke of enterprises and industries. In the economic imagination today, agriculture does not feature. Yet, as we know, in these weeks of the lockdown rural areas is where the workers returned. In distress they could only think of their villages to head back to and seek safety in.
With the returned families and workers, a reconfiguration of people’s relationship with land can be expected. Scarred from the behaviour they have been met with in the city during the pandemic a fraction of them are not likely to return. Moreover, with many states wanting to withdraw effective labour laws that protected the worker even if in the barest form, it will not be an easy return.
For the same twelve hours of work that they are asked to do in the factories, working on a farm can leave the worker and his family much better off than the minimum wage of the factory. Farm work is slow and hard, but it is not hazardous as the factories are. Farms are not vicios hives of Taylorist supervisors and managers who keep time on productivity and break time. At the end of the day, the worker gets to share a portion of vegetables growing on the farm, if she doesn’t own the farm. Farms are integrated with the seasonal and cultural rhythms of the place that one works with every single day. This is in contrast to the artificially lit factory floors which often leaves one guessing the time of the day if not wearing a watch.
Wage labour has completely lost reason in the industrial system. A dignified life as a floor worker in today’s industrial, political and deeply fractured value system seems difficult. Instead, a return to the farm will at least save the indignities that they have suffered in these months. The most recent gift of the modern industrial system to us is a gig worker. A gig worker is practically a non-human subject. So are informal workers in millions of small manufacturing units, construction sites, factories and houses across the country. When all these workers’ wages, workplace conditions, quality of life and life outcomes are seen together, it is hard to understand or identify any gain for the workers. The city atomized the workers.
In contrast, village economies integrate people into a network of mutual dependencies and connections that operate and drive people forward in a collective way. The industrial society has only given alienation and kept them invisible in the cities.
Berry is a third generation farmer and has lived on his family’s farm for all his life. In a lecture on connections between people, land and community he articulates the connection between human condition and agriculture.
In my view agriculture will remain a tragedy so long as it is kept separate from the problem of the human condition. And the human condition will remain a tragic problem so long as it is kept separate from the problem of agriculture.
The second half of this thought that seems to be unfolding right now in India. Human condition is already a tragedy here because of the divide between people and agricultural systems. I see hope in those who have returned and in the new relationships they will forge in the aftermath of this pandemic.