The Sheonath Express was late by an hour. Walked down to Rahul’s Tikrapara house in Bilaspur via the DRM office. Did not find any fruit sellers on the way, so gifted Deepaji two coconuts, purchased from a local kirana shop. Had a cup of tea at the house. Chatted with Aarvi, who wants to be an interior designer. She is in grade 8 now. Saint Xaviers has restarted. All three sisters are now attending school offline. Around 0930 hours left for Manoharpur with Nanu, Rahul’s driver cum handyman. He had driven down in a Maruti Omni to pick me up. Nanu’s brother was earlier working with Rahul. Now the brother has shifted to Hyderabad and works in the construction sector. After many years of marriage, Nanu’s wife is now expecting. On the advice of a well wisher, Nanu has given up non-veg and bananas. I realised the banana part when he refused to share some bananas that I had bought enroute.
Reached Manoharpur at 11:30 hours. Chatted up with Rahul and enjoyed some off the plant snacks at his badi, a kitchen garden that he maintains close to the house. Ate some palak and mustard leaves. Uprooted some beet and carrot and polished them off too. But the real tastemakers were the green peas. Sweet as sugar when plucked fresh. Gorged on them. Did not have the appetite to sample the corn, cauliflower, cabbage and tomato planted in the garden. Deepa had packed lunch for both of us. Being in the village is a great appetiser in itself. Immediately after feasting in the garden, I managed to polish off the dabba too. And it was still 12:45 hours. Had a longish siesta and woke up at 1430 hours. At 1500 hours, Rahul’s workforce landed up. Summer work timings are 0600 to 1000 and 1500 to 1700 hrs. Quite appropriate when most of your work is in the open.
The favoured crop in Manoharpur is rice, because of the government’s minimum support price. The government buys rice at Rs. 25 per kg. Private millers, in contrast, buy the same rice at Rs. 15 per kg. The government buys rice only from landowners. So the ardhiyas have to go through Rahul to sell their rice. The poor guys receive only the lower market rate. But then rice is the only MSP crop. Green pea is the next most popular, because of its low water and maintenance requirements. No pesticides needed. It sells for Rs. 35 per kg. The chana or chickpea sells at Rs. 45 per kg, but requires a lot more care. Rahul has planted chana, and some part of a field has also got kabuli chana – the white chick pea. Sampled some of that on the pod, it really has a different mouth feel.
The storage yard was filled with a recent grass pea harvest. And we were going to be threshing the harvest to separate the grass peas. Grass peas, called lakhri in Marathi and tiwra in Chhattisgarhi, are not as popular in Maharashtra. Grass peas have developed a slightly notorious reputation. During droughts, when grass peas become the primary protein source, there is a small probability of paralytic attacks. The culprit is the toxin OPAP. Most legumes have some quantity of toxins, as any seeds should, to dissuade overconsumption. Even legumes like tur, rajma and soya have inbuilt toxins. For the Chhatisgarhi, the grass pea is an important insurance crop. The locals mix it with other dals to reduce the average cost of protein. I attended the weekly bazaar at Manoharpur and had 4 dal wadas for a princely sum of Rs. 10. I am pretty sure that there must have been a significant proportion of grass pea flour in it.
In Chhattisgarh, the grass pea crop is sown just before rice harvesting, in the same rice fields. This is also the main reason paddy stalk burning does not happen in CG. The grass is mostly a runner and stays close to the ground. The leaves are exactly the same that you see in the common grass. The harvesting is done at the end of winter. Because of being so close to the ground, harvesting has to be done manually. The women folk of the village are assigned this job. I spent an hour working the fields with them. You need to be on your haunches to cut this grass. The roots are quite shallow, so you just pull off the entire plant. That’s what we were doing; making brownish green heaps of the harvested grass. The grass drying is done to ease separation of the seed from the chaff. I asked Rahul why we could not do the drying operation in the fields itself. 30% percent of the crop’s value is in the chaff. Animals love the stuff. And Rahul has about 20 cows, in addition to a few bulls. All of them are housed next to his place, so he needs the fodder there.
The grain is usually dried, either by spreading it in the field or in Rahul’s case getting it back to the yard near his home and spreading it there. The next day I took over Nanu’s duties and drove the tractor trolley to a field where the harvesting had already been done. Our job was to get all the heaps into the trolley. The most skilled person in the gang had the task of catching the bundles and spreading then evenly in the trolley. He also had to compress the bales to ensure adequate tonnage.
Coming back to the harvesting process, Rahul borrowed a harvester, as part of the barter economy. The harvester is operated by the Power Take Off (PTO) shaft of his Mahindra 545 Bhoomiputra tractor. There’s a splined shaft which has two universal joints at both ends. This shaft powers the harvester through a reduction belt pulley drive. The cut grass is pushed into a cylindrical chamber which contains rotating blades. The bottom half of the cylindrical chamber has a coarse sieve that separates the chaff from the seed. The chaff is blown off by a blower located downstream of the crushers. The heavy stalks and some seeds that are left behind are accumulated in a jute bag. Most of the seeds fall below into a vibrating fine-sieve. The dust and soil passes through the fine sieve and falls on the ground. The seed is collected in bags at the end of the fine sieve. There are also some insects and mud clumps that get into the bags with the seed. This happens when you process the grass peas at the bottom of the heap. Most of the seed bags go through some human inspection before they are sent to the mandi.
The cattle are taken out for grazing around 0800 hours and return back by 1600 hours. There is a Yadav family that looks after the cattle. The barter deal is that every third day, the milk from the cattle is taken by the Yadav family. The family stays in a Yadav basti in the village. The caste divisions are visible in the village geography even now. There is a part of the village where only the Schedule Castes stay. These folks still don’t mix up with the rest of the villagers. On the subject of caste, one of Rahul’s ardhiyas is an adivasi from the Schedule Tribe. The original homes of the adivasis were the jungles, but livelihood pressures have made them part of the country’s large migration pool. Many of the youth have migrated to bigger cities. Pune has more than 1000 boys from Manoharpur. With a population of just 4000, Manoharpur has a direct bus service to Pune, Hyderabad, Nagpur and Lucknow, albeit just once a week.
The ardihya need some elaboration. As the name suggests, it’s a labour barter, for half the crop. To ensure that the ardhiya has skin in the field-ing game, he has also got to share half the cash investments: in seeds, fertilizer and if required water. The land continues to belong to the landlord. Vinay had tried the ardhiya experiment in our Nasik land and soon went on to the fixed rent model. The going rate for an acre of irrigated land in Manoharpur is 9 lacs an acre. 5 lacs per acre for unirrigated land, where only one rainfed rice crop is harvested every year. Then there are the absentee landlords, who rent out the land for an annual fee of Rs. 10,000 an acre. This is done because the ardhiyas can be imaginative in crop accounting, inflating expenses and deflating yields. From an investment perspective, the fixed rent returns are not too great, if you have invested recently. You get only a 1.3 percent annualised return on investment.
Rahul estimates that 20% of the crop is unwittingly used as fodder for the chhuta janwar or stray cattle. Seeing the number of cattle on the road, you are sure the next big idea for the desi entrepreneur is fencing. Recycling plastic packaging to fencing material is a 10 K cr opportunity. Rahul has adopted two old cows from his Yadav workforce. There is some discrimination in the diets of the milking cows and these old folk, but you are still giving them some dignity.
A few decades ago animals were the real workhorses of the village, used for everything from tilling, sowing, harvesting and transportation. But today machines have taken over. With a population of 4000, Manoharpur has 40 tractors. The versatile tractor does the job of 10 bulls, and from a farmer’s perspective with much less upkeep. So what do we do with the cattle then? Rahul tells me that if you don’t castrate a bull at the age of a few months, it will never be able to focus away from reproduction. So maybe a Sanjay Gandhi style mass family planning program for our bull bhais may help. Farmers do use the chhuta janwar in their post harvesting deweeding. Not a perfect solution, because quite a few weeds are disliked by both humans and bovines.
Here is a proposed solution. In the future, electricity is going to be the common currency of energy. So one idea is to have a small generator run on cattle power. I have seen these kohlu ke bail used for sugarcane crushing. Will not take too much to get these rotary equipment to create some HP, no make that BP – bull power. What happens when cattle die? Earlier the chamar community would de-skin the animal, but off late their interest has declined. The cattle are generally dumped in an open area and are feasts for the village dogs and the avian fauna.
Talking of birds, I was surprised to see so few crows in the village. Probably they have now adapted themselves to city life and have all joined the Chhatisgarhi youth in their urban migration. This has created space for a good diversity of avian species in the village. interesting fight in a field in which we were harvesting. One flycatcher was busy chasing another in the denuded branches of one of the trees on the farm. Was amazing to see these fighter pilots fly around at such speed through this obstacle course. Realised later on that this was a territorial battle, as harvesting means an insect feast.
Another interesting sight was a pigeon sized bird, hovering over a field. Spotted a spotted eagle too. Another bird that enjoys harvests is the Bagla Bhagat. It is a species that has evolved to a state of having no fear for humans. I could stand a few feet away and these guys would not fly. Another bird sighting was a water hen in a marsh, close to Rahul’s house.
Rahul has a cycle parked at his Manoharpur house. This realisation dawned on me only on the morning of the last day. So I cycled to Lormi, a town almost as big as Mungeli, about 11 km away. Lormi is midway on the Kota Pandariya road. Could see some hills in the background and that should be my next cycling destination. Wanted to sample some aloo bonda in a village close to Manoharpur. But the shop has just opened and it was still Work In Progress for the bonda. Promised to myself to stop at the shop on the way back. An hour later, the town looked completely different with the bazaar open, so I went past bonda-less, imagining this to be a town closer to Lormi.
We started at 1015 hours for Bilaspur in the Omni. Decided to take over driving duties from Nanu. Took us 30 minutes more, as my driving was quite sedate compared to Nanu’s high speed thrills. Saw an interesting scarecrow on the way, with a helmeted head. Went past a brand new English medium government model School in Mungeli, Wow! More power to the people. Must interact with local schools when I visit next time. Maybe, a goal setting session for grade 9th and 10th.
Reached Bilaspur at 1215 hours. Post lunch, we did some EV scooter window shopping for Deepa. Visited the Hero and Okinawa showrooms. Hero, as expected, was out of stock of all models. Okinawa, I am worried about service. Just as we were finishing the trip, Rahul saw a Benling showroom. We realised we were amongst the first customers in the showroom; it had opened only 2 days ago. Found some fan following in the Benling showroom; the owner had watched a few pluginindia videos. Hope Deepa gets a new electric bike soon, masha allah, with an LFP battery. One inspiration for EVs came from observing Manoharpur traffic. More than half the bikes were triple seats. Can we design a bike with a seat that straddles the fuel tank area, now that you don’t really need that space. Now that I have my palette open, can we design a small thresher which can be operated by a BLDC motor powered by the bike battery? Maybe another 10 K cr opportunity!
Rahul has developed into a masterchef in Manoharpur. He treated me to some amazing pulao on day 1 and cauliflower sabji on day 2. He uses fresh ingredients from the bari for his cooking, which add to the flavour. He has 2 acres of coriander planted – and the green seed is used as a fresh spice during the harvesting season. He also grows a special rice, the Vishnubhog, for home use. It’s like Maharashtra’s amba mohar. Rahul uses only gobar for fertilising this patch – and ensures that no pesticides are used in this special rice patch.
My veganism suffered on the trip. It started with me consuming some homemade mithai that Deepa had packed for lunch on day 1. Had been wanting to experiment with unprocessed milk on my lactose intolerant stomach. No loose motions reported after consuming a glass of raw milk, straight from the stables. The live enzymes in the milk were appreciated by my gut bacteria friends. The last of the nonvegan sampling was lunch on the day of departure. Deepa’s curd marinated bhindi was amazing. Making your own lunch and dinner gives a sense of dietary satisfaction that 5 star hotels will find difficult to match.
Rahul must make Manoharpur a base for a reverse urban migration. My Vodafone Idea phone hardly saw any action in my village stay, because the sole cell tower that is there in the village has only got Airtel antennas. I enjoyed the manual work in the fields, having a fitful 8 hours sleep. Mahobia Farms is now inviting city labour. You can only earn what you eat in his barter economy. Ping me for reservations!
Footnote: Got dropped at Bilaspur station at 1415 hours. Indian railways is now back to its old ways. The Howrah Pune Duronto was one hour 15 minutes late. The good news is that it reached Pune on time.