Aug 1, 2014 – The year 1964 was a momentous one. In May, the country’s first and much loved Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, passed away. He had never quite recovered from the 1962 debacle at the Chinese border. Lal Bahadur Shastri had stepped into his shoes amidst severe economic strife facing the country. He had inherited a tortured legacy of food shortages on an unparalleled scale.
By 1965, India was importing 6.5 million tonnes of wheat from the USA with 20,000 tonnes of grain arriving at Indian ports every day. Lal Bahadur Shastri personally led the campaign to create awareness among people. He asked his countrymen to save food; to clean up their backyards and start growing vegetables; and to ‘miss a meal a day’. He appealed to farmers to increase grain output by growing more than one crop a year and promoted both the white and the green revolutions.
That, way back, five decades ago, India was suffering pangs of a famine is something most people do not remember. Today, without any historic insight, people criticize the green revolution. Not the Brar bothers of village Lakhiya, tehsil Karanpur, district Sri Ganganagar. In May 1964, Harnek Singh Brar and Gurdev Singh Brar were compelled to traverse a vast expanse of the Thar desert to begin a journey, which not only changed their lives but lives of all those around them.
The famine meant shortage and that meant petty squabbles daily, with unreasonable relatives and greedy neighbours in the village, which were becoming unbearable. An engineer of the Panchayat Samiti, wise and well informed, advised them to go to Kota. The Brar brothers had never ventured out of home and were obviously hesitant to venture out to newer pastures. The cost of exploring new vistas at Kota was `100, a princely sum for farmers in the midst of a drought year. The persistent engineer, however, managed to persuade Gurdev Singh to travel to Kota, which was a task in itself in those days.
There, a retired officer of Rajasthan canals, a certain Puri sahab, convinced them with his earthy logic: even if they moved from Sri Ganganagar to Kota, they would be in Rajasthan; only further away from Pakistan. That was an appealing proposition. What Gurdev saw when he did venture out was even more appealing. He found a wide expanse of land, good soil and ample water and immediately sensed an opportunity of a lifetime.
He returned home and the family decided – much to the amusement of the villagers – to sell everything lock stock and barrel and migrate to Kota. They were forced to sell their land cheap for it was the drought year and the Brars were in a hurry. Many villagers predicted doom for them, certain that they would come back to the village having lost all their money and look for jobs. Some even scoffed that there would be no jobs on offer.
Beginning life afresh was far from easy. For starters, they had no place to stay. The brothers would hop between the ‘Hindu Dharamshala’ and the ‘Sunder Dharamshala’. One was allowed to stay in a dharamshala (rest house) free of cost for two days in a row. On the third day one had to pay Re 1 for a place to sleep. One was not allowed to stay on the fourth day.
The brothers hired two bicycles and travelled long distances every day – possible only on cycles – to scout for land. They ate once a day paying a rupee and a half per meal. Land was not as sought after in those days as it is today. After a month of scouting and dharamshala-hopping, they found land in village Manpura, a little further out of Kota. The Brahmin brothers who sold them the land were pujaris in Shimla and Dalhousie who detested agriculture. The Brars became the first Sikh farmers in Kota.
Land acquired, they needed a home in the village. That was the next hurdle. Villagers who were not familiar with Sikhs were not totally welcoming. Some suspected them to be people of questionable character who might harm their daughters. It took much convincing and explaining by the new arrivals that they had bought land here and would soon be getting their families there too before they were allowed to stay. They finally took a house, a shed of a place, on rent for a sum of Rs. 5 per month.
Some things do not change; defecating in the open is one of them. The women in those days would leave early in the morning for their ablutions and were not allowed to defecate in the fields. It was then clarified that the ladies could use the embankments in the fields. Matters are pretty much the same 60 years thence; India is still talking about making toilets for people.
Then there were the mosquitoes; by the millions. That seems to have been addressed to a certain extent. There were many other curious ideas that had to be addressed when the brothers got down to brass tacks. People thought that watering the lands would harm the soil. The canal had just been built in 1962 and irrigation was an unfamiliar business.
The brothers first grew berseem as a fodder crop for cows. They also became the first farmers to grow paddy in Rajasthan but not without initial failures. It was only after two years that they successfully reaped a profitable harvest. Meanwhile, by Diwali of 1965, the family was out of cash and had to celebrate Diwali with borrowed funds. The kind- hearted “Panna”, a lady in the village, lent them Rs. 20. Gurdev remembers his benefactor, who passed away recently, fondly.
After the first successful paddy crop of 1966, there was no turning back. He bought his first tractor in 1967. Harnek shifted from the village to the farm in 1976 while his brother Gurdev Singh still resides in the village. There was no electricity; they made do with lanterns. For the ladies of the house it was a daily chore to clean the soot off the lanterns. Electricity for the farm came in 1977 because they used motors there. The village got electrified much later; in 1980. Law and order were never issues, not even in these troubled times.
Harnek did not grow vegetables nor did he take up dairying professionally. He kept cows for domestic consumption of milk. He had tried his hands at grapes but he did not succeed. The wheat and the mustard growing in Kota get a higher premium than elsewhere. The oil extracted from mustard grown in this region is of a superior quality with between 42 per cent and 43 per cent protein content. Even the shakkar made from sugarcane grown here is of a better quality. Kota could well be transformed into a vegetable basket feeding the urban centres in far off places. This is where food parks need to come up, where government must invest and incentivize a much-desired change.
Earlier people grew a thicker paddy variety called ‘Kranti’, used for making poha also called chidwada in Punjab. Making poha involves flattening of the rice kernel. Earlier people also grew Pakistani basmati or ‘Tiravadi’ but now they grow ‘Pusa 4’ or ‘Pusa 1121’. The yield is between seven quintals and eight quintals per bigha (2 ½ bighas make an acre). Son, Sukhwinder Singh grew up here and is a witness and a partner to the hardships and the ensuing success that followed.
The ‘Kota Anaj Mandi’ (agriculture market yard) named Seth Bhama Shah Mandi is the largest in Rajasthan and is named after Seth Bhama Shah, who helped Rana Pratap financially after his forces were decimated by forces of Akbar led by Raja Mansingh of Jaipur at Haldi Ghati in 1578. About 2,50,000 tonnes of paddy and basmati are sold at the ‘Anaj Mandi’ that had humble beginnings in 1964.
That is the power of an idea. In 50 years, the Brar brothers became prosperous and helped others learn to farm and bring prosperity to the masses. This is a better way to grow than courtesy the government’s social programmes and dole outs. It is an approach that many refuse to understand; the idea that farmers need to be empowered to become self-sustainable and to achieve a more prosperous future.
The most surprising aspect of farming here is the complete lack of orchards. There were many orchards of guava in Kota that perished due to a disease that no one helped control. They have been uprooted. Kota’s potatoes are excellent too with low sugar content. Fluctuating prices have, however, compelled farmers to move away to more reliable crops. With the potatoes gone, all the cold storages also closed down. Sugarcane farms, once a common sight in Kota, too have come to an end with the government sugar mill closing down.
One thing is apparent here: the foresight of the earlier generations has made life for grandson, Satpreet Singh, easy. The same goes for the nation, good decisions of those who govern impact the future generations, just as tottering, ill-informed governance leads to self-goals or to problems as in the WTO negotiations.
The policy-makers of yesteryears gave a scientific temperament to the national agriculture policy and developed agriculture infrastructure. Supported by the sheer perseverance of the farmer they provided the genesis for the transformation of a “ship to mouth existence” to one of overflowing granaries that has got India in trouble at the WTO.
It is no longer sufficient for governments to have good intentions. Such intentions must be translated into positive results. That is what sweet dreams are made of: grit and dirt; risk and reward; hard work and providence.