Children of Srinagar, Kashmir
Children of Srinagar, Kashmir
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  Globalisation and Babool Gum

  Venus Envy
  Vol V : issue 1

  Cover page
  Kaushik Basu
  Radhika Coomaraswamy
  Taslima Nasreen
  N. S. Madhavan
  Zehra Nigah
  Only in Print

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Kaushik Basu

Photographs by NEMAI GHOSH

Four hours' drive out of Ahmedabad, the highway meanders into a narrower, bumpier road and the landscape is flat and stark. We are at the edge of the salt deserts of Kutch. The soil has a parched, white texture and the vegetation consists of the ubiquitous babool scrub, spreading all the way to the far horizon. The babool, I am told, is not native to this region. It was planted by government officials to stop the spread of the desert. Ever since, it has been a losing battle to stop the spread of the babool. This sturdy plant dries up the soil and has contributed to the precariously low water table of the region dropping even lower, beyond the reach of wells and tube wells. On the feeble plus side, the babool oozes a gum that can be used as binding material, and its branches provide a ready supply of firewood. The gum appears in small quantities and huge amounts of time have to be spent to collect a few rupees' worth. For the poor inhabitants of the region, this has ensured that survival will depend on a life of perennial foraging for water, firewood and gum.

During the last half hour of our drive to the village of Jakotra in Santalpur Taluk, Patan District, no cars cross our path. We see an occasional villager trudging into the dusk with some watering implements in hand. Ayeshaben tells us that hidden from our view are cumin plantations, which need to be watered at night; so the few villagers we see are heading to a night of hard labour. Ayesha, whom, as is customary in Gujarat, we refer to as 'ben', is a young volunteer of SEWA (Self Employed Women's Association). She is from Radhanpur, a small town an hour or so south of Jakotra. She has been assigned to look after us, that is, Jeemol Unni an economist from the Gujarat Institute of Development Research and myself, during our stay in Jakotra. Ayesha turns out to be an amazing person. Cheerful and indefatigable, she is a woman of endless grace; she seems to know everyone and everything about the villages in this area. Her husband also works for SEWA and they have a small child, whom she leaves behind with her mother in Radhanpur when she has to travel overnight.

This lifestyle, which seems natural enough now, did not come easily to someone brought up in a traditional Muslim household. She had heard of SEWA when she was finishing school. She was not badly off and so did not need SEWA's support, but was inclined towards social work and wanted to work for the organisation. When she started working with the group, she would occasionally return home late and be dropped off by a SEWA car. The neighbours and leaders of her community or the 'samaj', as Ayesha put it worried that this would bring dishonour to the community. So they leaned on her parents to prevent her from leading such a dissolute life. But Ayesha was determined. She worked hard to persuade her parents that SEWA was essentially a sisterhood, so they had nothing to worry about. Her parents were sympathetic towards her cause, but the community leaders remained resolute. Eventually, when one of her classmates, Zainab, decided to join her, and especially when she married someone understanding and supportive of SEWA's work, the community relented.

Travelling with us in the commodious station wagon are Uma Swaminathan and Dohiben. Uma has been working with SEWA for over twenty years and is in charge of organising our programme and setting up our travel and meeting plans. She does all that and, more importantly, sings classical Carnatic songs like a professional, so that the tedium of the journey melts away. Dohiben is a native of Jakotra, an embroidery artisan. It is to her house that we are headed for the night. I cannot talk to her directly, because she speaks only Gujarati and that too with the accents of a village dialect. Ayesha does not speak English but speaks Urdu and Gujarati fluently and is my translator.

Jakotra is a village like none that I have seen before. It is a poor, desolate hamlet marooned on the edge of India ten minutes' drive north would take us to the Pakistan border. There is no formal boundary, just a stretch of the rann, an unfriendly strip of salt desert, which acts as a natural deterrent to cross-border migration, though there are occasional transgressions and, even more rarely, transnational romantic liaisons.

The original village of Jakotra was destroyed almost totally on January 26, 2001, in the terrible Gujarat earthquake. The new Jakotra was built by the government. As a consequence, the homes, made of hollow grey bricks and asbestos-like roofing, look quite sturdy. The five hundred or so homes in the village are arranged along neat perpendicular roads, in the fashion of Manhattan. But the roads are not tarred and the houses and yards are barren, except for the heaps of hay and one or two cows and goats that each household seems to own. That this is a region of extreme poverty is obvious despite the solidity of the houses. And that we are far away from city life became obvious later that evening, when in the middle of our conversation in the courtyard of Dohiben's house the lights went off and a thousand stars lit up in the sky as if on cue.

When we arrive in Dohiben's house, it is already dark. A large number of villagers have gathered to see us. All are women; the menfolk are mostly away working as labourers in other villages. Two string cots are pulled out for the guests from the city and the villagers squat comfortably on the courtyard floor. I need no persuasion to sit on the cot. On the way in, I had asked Ayesha if there were snakes in the region, regretting my question as soon as it escaped my lips. She had promptly assured me that there was no dearth on that score. In fact, there were so many that I should be able to see some even on this one-day visit. For the record, I did not; but I nevertheless sat on the cot, feet off the ground.

p. 1 p. 2 p. 3 p. 4

Kaushik Basu is Professor of Economics and Director of the Program on Comparative Economic Development at Cornell University. He lives in Ithaca, New York, USA