Not far from where I live, Gram Seva Mandal stands fading in the Central India’s extreme weather. In Nalwadi one of the oldest experiments in self-reliance and village self sufficiency began. Vinoba Bhave was 39 years old in 1934 when he founded Gram Seva Mandal in Nalwadi. In the same year, Gandhi moved to Wardha and began living in a village that is now known as Sevagram. That year a businessman from Wardha placed his wealth at their disposal to enable them to experiment and shape their ideas about sustainability and development. Gram Seva Mandal in 2020 is a clutch of projects, perhaps still rooted in the early ideas of its founders, still steeped into the local ecosystem of agriculture, consumption and livelihood. This piece of history has a bearing today as we decide which variety of cotton to sow in our five acre plot. Some suggest that the desi variety of cotton is poor in yield, requires intensive crop care and has no takers. Gram Seva Mandal procures desi variety of cotton for its spinning unit in the town. The farmers recommend a hybrid variety that is relatively easier to manage. It plugs into the industrial textile production system conveniently. It is procured by the Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee markets regulated by the government, baled, weighed and sent straight for ginning and pressing. Processed cotton then makes way to the weaving and spinning units of textile companies. The linkages are straightforward. Gram Seva Mandal is no match to this integrated, entrenched production system.
Pre-monsoon showers have arrived in Wardha. The question of what to sow this year on the first plot is settled now – we are sowing cotton. It is an annual crop. Looking up crop research papers on some databases, I am not surprised to find that not much has advanced in the entire chain of cotton growing to processing in over fifty years, except seed technology. Gram Seva Mandal’s ginning and spinning unit continues to spin cotton into yarn and further into fine khadi fabric even now. I am delighted to know about this. Moreover, I learn that they have single handedly supported desi cotton cultivation in an environment where the market has completely shifted to hybrid cotton.
Sowing of seeds in the farms across our cluster of villages should begin if the pre-monsoon showers intensify. After a week here, thoughts begin to drift about what is the nature of difference between the city and the village.
Most of my generation has left for the cities. The villages though continue to exist in a slow moving space of average educational and health outcomes. More importantly, incomes haven’t changed here in any visible manner since the time I have understood how economics impacts households. The fraternity of marginal and small farmers here with their apparent ways and rhythms of a farming-centered lifestyle seems to be an encounter that casts one’s own lifestyle in a new light. Notions of sufficiency, utility, pace, approach to problems and perception of change are distinct. Whether people here feel trapped and frustrated in this configuration of life around them, is hard to determine. As a reference point though, I do know that one hits high levels of fatigue, frustration, anxiety and well-expressed levels of desperation a little too soon. That soon is mid-30s perhaps! It takes a lot to hold our immediate environments at distance and have a clear view of one’s location, purpose and relation with that environment. More often, we are at sea not knowing direction or purpose. These kinds of daily tremors seem to be absent from life in villages. Day to day exigences take away most of the time and attention here.
Nature and its elements are not screened out here. There is a profusion of ways in which it involves and touches people because work, home, daily life and geography – all of it is woven together and then dyed by nature. Whereas, the very template of the city is based on ‘conditioned’ micro-environments that are controlled with a galaxy of buttons. The larger, natural environment sits at odds with the city’s desired micro-environment. That is the point of start for the metropolis.
The point is not to pitch the city against the village. It is to understand the differences and explore what might be the attraction to farms and villages for some. There is something that is making a few people boomerang back into landscapes and life that a few generations back was a norm in this large agrarian country.
I returned to Wendell Berry’s immensely quotable essay ‘It All Turns on Affection’. I read a section on imagination where Wendell Berry begins to speak of a ‘tangible connection’ –
For humans to have a responsible relationship to the world, they must imagine their places in it. To have a place, to live and belong in a place, to live from a place without destroying it, we must imagine it. By imagination we see it illuminated by its own unique character and by our love for it. By imagination we recognize with sympathy the fellow members, human and nonhuman, with whom we share our place. By that local experience we see the need to grant a sort of preemptive sympathy to all the fellow members, the neighbors, with whom we share the world. As imagination enables sympathy, sympathy enables affection. And it is in affection that we find the possibility of a neighborly, kind, and conserving economy.
It could be that the word imagination now lies overused in media, research and popular discourse today because there’s no other way to say it – that our relationships must change and that a new relational ecosystem needs to evolve and of which it is necessary to get the early thoughts right.