Thursday, March 4, 2010

Mud Trucks

Driving to Watunde Village each morning, it’s not unusual to see large trucks headed the other way into town, loaded with soil destined for landscaping projects at the many construction sites throughout Pune. Day by day, without pause, topsoil is strip-mined from the countryside to feed the growth ofIndia's cities, leaving behind a moonscape of gouged pits and subsoil fields. No one particularly likes these “mud trucks” but seemingly few care enough to do something about the environmental tragedy they represent. “After all,” the thinking goes, “India’s land has been raped for so many centuries, why bother about this small thing when a good profit is at hand?”

If you stand at a point on our land offering a good view, you will notice areas of excavation, particularly in Borde Village to the west. There, backhoes (called “JCB’s” in India) fill daily convoys of trucks, each capable of hauling three to four brass (1 brass = 100 cu. ft.) of soil. In Watunde, our village, you will find fewer large pits but many small excavations, usually the result of a farmer selling his soil for Rs.500/truckload. That’s about $10.00 US. The trucks come, usually in pairs, with a crew of eight to ten workers to fill them by hand in a half day when a JCB is unavailable. The soil is then transported to Pune in the afternoon where it is sold for Rs.5000/truck. Each worker makes about Rs.150 for his day’s labor while the truck owner or contractor keeps the rest after paying a royalty to the government (or the government agent who pockets the money). It’s a profitable business, especially if you can avoid paying the landowner or government, a practice not uncommon.

Our neighboring village of Borde is unusual in that the entire village is owned by one person, a descendent of a nobleman who was gifted the village in British days. I’ve heard that he is an NRI (non-resident Indian) living overseas who has never lived in Borde. In the intervening years of his absence, farmers have taken possession of the land, and in the face of multiple lawsuits, have claimed it as their own. Consequently, no one has clear title to property in Borde, making it fertile ground for poaching by the mud trucks. They begin by taking soil in a lightly inhabited zone and showly expand their operation. Should anyone complain, they give a small payment to keep that person quiet. It’s said that some villagers make a good living this way by extorting “tips” from the mud trucks to not raise a fuss. Also, because the Borde villagers do not have clear title to their land, some see it as in their interests to extract monetary benefits while they can.

A couple of weeks ago, Biraj asked me what was up with the new excavation on our neighbor’s property. I had no idea what he was talking about so I decided to investigate. To my surprise, someone had started harvesting our neighbor’s topsoil from a beautiful meadow of trees and grass and then driving it out across our property to reach the roadway. I could hardly believe it. Obviously, they had come and gone early because otherwise, I would have noticed them. Did Prakash, our neighbor, know about this or were the trucks stealing his soil?

Two days later, we arrived at our land earlier than usual to find two trucks backed onto Prakash’s property harvesting soil less than fifty feet from our property line. I was incensed and stormed over to confront the drivers and crew. “GET YOUR TRUCKS OFF THIS LAND AND DON’T COME BACK,” I yelled at the truck drivers. (It doesn’t work to be subtle or soft spoken in village India if you want to get someone’s attention.) The drivers were befuddled by the sight and sound of a strange gora (white guy) shouting at them. The workers paused while I delivered my tirade in multiple variations until there was little doubt they got my point. They were crossing our property with their trucks and I wouldn’t allow it. How many times had I heard in the past year these exact same complaints directed at me from one of a dozen neighbors on whose land I had inadvertently crossed onto? In such situations, the first thing a neighbor does is start yelling. The second is to block your access, so by this time, I knew the drill. Since the trucks were almost full, I told them to finish their loading and leave and then stomped off, looking for Prakash.

It didn’t take long for Prakash to find me. He was mad. “What’s your problem?” he asked indignantly. He was trying to make a little money and saw nothing wrong with selling property he rightfully owned. I had no right to interfere. “Maybe so,” I countered, “but you are crossing our land and I won’t let you do it. If you continue, I’ll block your access and will never again hire you or your wife to work for us. You’ll become a stranger to me.”

This went back and forth for a few minutes and all the while a crowd of villagers gathered to watch the show, including the sarpanch. This was great entertainment, all of which had to be translated from Marathi to English and back, with a sprinkling of Hindi thrown in. In India, a crowd gathers for just about anything. I soon became aware that I had the crowd on my side and sensing that, I began to lay it on thick to Prakash, gesticulating and loudly invoking ecological havoc, stealing from future generations, money grubbing, greed, and the general destruction of Watunde Village. I even invoked the devas, saying they surely thought what he was doing to be evil. The crowd nodded and the sarpanch smiled, jumping in himself to lecture Prakash about sending his soil to Pune. As I came to hear later, the sarpanch and others had already been after Prakash for his dealings with the mud trucks and, because of some other shady dealings, he is presently in disrepute in the village. You could visibly see him shrink under the onslaught.

Feeling I now had momentum, I marched back to the mud trucks and began taking photos of the men at work from multiple angles, with special emphasis on the trucks and their license numbers. I took photos of the drivers and of Prakash. I could tell this made everyone very nervous. “What are you doing?” they asked. “Just keeping a record,” I said before inquiring, “Tell me. Did you get permission from the government? Are you paying royalties? Did you pay the talsidar? Do you have papers?” “Oh yes,” they replied quickly, but I had my doubts. “Maybe you should show me your papers and I can call my attorneys so they can talk to the talsidar about this?” This sent the drivers and Prakash into an extended discussion out of earshot, so I walked away. Ten minutes later they came over and suggested a solution. The trucks would leave. In return, I’d simply let the whole thing slide. We made a deal and the trucks have not come back. Yet.

I have to admit my motives for opposing Prakash’s soil harvesting were not entirely for noble, ecological reasons. I do believe that selling his soil is short sighted and destructive, but I’m not indifferent to the plight of farmers in need of cash or of their right to sell their land but in Prakash’s case, I know he is not a poor man. He has multiple pieces of property and is generally considered well off in the village. One of his sons is even attending college in Mumbai. But I also know that we have been trying to talk Prakash into selling to us the land from which he was taking soil. He knows we want that land as we have offered many times to buy it. My suspicion is that his harvesting plan, while paying him some ready cash, was also one more way of putting pressure on us to offer a higher price. A degraded piece of land in a prominent place next to ours would have been a terrible eyesore but I wasn’t about to succumb to that tactic. Too many times already we have paid money to buy ourselves out of a difficulty and have had it come back to bite and cause us problems. Also, by acting strongly in such a situation I had gained “face”. While unimportant to me, it's meaningful to the villagers.

I think the selling of topsoil says something about changes taking place in India. Most of the harvested soil comes from marginal farmland, not from fields easily irrigated. The valuable land in the floodplain is capable of two or three crops each year because of available water, whereas the upper lands produce one meager crop after the monsoon. These drier lands are no longer economical but by selling the topsoil a farmer can get at least a little income now from his holdings while the future will simply have to take care of itself.

Is it any wonder that the younger generation is no longer interested in farming? What future does the land hold for them other than back-breaking labor and limited opportunities? With education expanding, energetic kids want something more and head to the cities to find it, letting the marginal fields lie fallow and the better fields to be tilled by their elders. I look to see who is working in the fields and see few young people. A good giveaway is to see how the men dress. The older generation wears the traditional white Nehru cap, white kurta and white trousers. Pravin, a young man from the village who sometimes paints for us when he doesn’t have better things to do, wears a baseball cap. You rarely see the Nehru cap on someone younger than forty unless he is a politician.

Education in the villages is changing India. The country’s challenge is to keep up with the pace at which young workers are migrating away from the villages by providing decent jobs and economic opportunities in the countryside as well as the city. In Watunde, most young men leave, coming back only to visit or help the family from time to time. For now, I think most girls stay behind but that too is changing. Each Saturday I pay our village laborers. As I give them their weekly wages, I ask them to sign their name in our labor book to show that they have been paid. Nine out of ten men can sign their names. Nine out of ten ladies cannot. The exception is the girls who almost always sign. That’s progress.

Stopping a couple of mud trucks on our neighbor’s land won’t stop the strip mining of soil. I’ve already noticed the same two trucks taking “mud” from another piece of land close by. It seems that the country has neither the will nor resources to bring such practices under control. There are too many vested interests in the status quo, allowing deforestation, water pollution, erosion, and habitat destruction to become rampant. As it stands, officials who monitor these often put assessments into their own pockets and do nothing constructive, making everyone cynical about the government’s motives for charging royalties. Few believe that it is really concerned about the environment. “The babus simply want more money.” It will probably take a large environmental NGO to get behind farmland preservation to exert enough influence to affect change. Degradation is rampant in India and the country seems powerless to do anything meaningful about it. At least, that’s how it appears to me but I know I'm an outsider and maybe should resist making hasty judgments. I remind myself that India is, after all, an overwhelmed and over populated country with limited resources. We have to give it time. My feeling is that education is the long-term answer. When I see the swarms of uniformed kids walking to school each morning, waving to us as we pass, I see India’s future and feel hopeful. Like I said, it will just take a bit of time.