Friday, July 23, 2010

The last of the farmers of Lumshnong

It was finally over and the cameras stop rolling; I bate her goodbye and wished her a long and healthy life. Then I realized from the stifled voice of her answer; the deep feeling of emptiness and sense of hopelessness to continue with live. Her response was that of a spirit bereft of the zeal for life. She said why should I live long? Why would I want to live long? What is the point when there is no more land for agriculture? Grandmother Thrin Lamare is the remnant of the last farming community of the lost generation of Lumchnong village.

She is a jolly good old woman whose smiling face and jovial mood hid more than it reveals and like many of her contemporary she does not know her age. ‘Neither of my parents can read nor write,’ she told me when I asked how old she is. Hoping to roughly estimate her age by guessing from the age of her children, I asked, how old is your eldest son? ‘Do you for one moment think I can read or write? Do I look like somebody who can read or write?’ was her answer to my question. The unkempt grey hair on her head, the wrinkles on her face and her teeth less mouth is the only proof of the hardship that this genteel life had toiled for so long.

It was in the afternoon when the secretary shnong ma Puson Gympad took me and the crew to meet her. The woman with a frail and forward bending body has just returned from her small garden, the only remaining priceless possession she treasures. She was sitting near the fireplace with fire burning in the hearth and throughout the interview she was busy cutting the bamboo shoots, banana flower and green-chillies she collected to prepare dinner for the entire family. During the conversation; when occasionally smoke started to fume; she would take the bamboo cylinder and blow air on the fire wood to rekindle the fire while she continue talking to us. She was frank and spoke candidly about the past and her feelings about the predicament the village is in.

She nostalgically recollected the time gone-by when agriculture was the mainstay of the village and no doubt they lived through hard times, but they seldom experience starvation. In spite of all odds; they practice Jhum cultivation because there are no paddy fields in the terrains of the Narpuh sub-tropical forest and the bank of the Lukha. There are times they face hardship because of poor harvest and they do not have enough rice; so they cook few grains of rice with millet and corn to satisfy the family’s hunger, yet they live a life of heart content,’ she recounted. She remembered walking bare feet and lived in the grace of the nature and the only disease that was prevalent those days was malaria, stomachache and fever. Health care was still a distant dream then; so the medicines they use are those available in the nature.

Her face brightened, and smiles broaden when she narrated about the recent past two three decades when Lumchnong was famous for its oranges and orchard covered a large part of village. One can still see these orchards dotted the landscape of Lumchnong, albeit in the shadow of their former glory, but the land does not belong to the villagers anymore. Ma Olbin Shylla an elderly man we met earlier in the morning, smiled as he reminiscence how he used to transport trucks of oranges to Silchar and to Jowai. Those were the heyday of the orange orchard in Lumchnong and the boom of orange business has benefitted all the people in the area. ‘Then, people were gainfully employed throughout the year’ he said. I asked him what he is doing for livelihood now. He said nothing, since they stop farming. When asked ‘now that there is no agricultural activity in the village, how do people earn their livelihood?’ He said ‘earlier our job was either in the woods among the trees or in field with the crops, now we just move among people.’

In the Grandma’s kitchen she continues with her chore and when asked what about the young people, do they still involve in any kind of agricultural activity? The old woman stared at us for a moment and then answered with action, ‘the young people now are busy in one thing only’ moving her hand in a gesture which imply drinking something from a bottle -‘this’ she said. Puson Gympad and Mario Rymbai who accompanied us, has nothing else to say but laugh and at the same time nodded their head in agreement. When I asked her about their orchard and plantation in the village, grandma Lamare’s answer was ‘what orchard, what plantation? Every piece of land in the village has been sold to the cements companies. Gympad the secretary of the village dorbar came up with approximate statistics that more than sixty percent of the land in the village and may be in the entire elaka Narpuh is owned by the many cement companies. I think ma Gympad is very mean in his assessment. Most of the families the only plot of land they owned is the land where their houses stand. The cement companies have literarily bought the entire elaka for a song.

Gympad the young secretary of the Lumchnong was obviously very angry and lamented ‘it seems the Government’s main intention is to quickly rob the eleka of its mineral wealth and not to develop the region as such. If that is not true; how else can the government permit the construction of 9 cement plants in the area within the radius of 5 kilometers only? In addition to the 9 cement plants there are also few captive power plants which are operative now. How long will the coal and lime stone last? The term sustainable development; it seems is not in the government of Meghalaya lexicon.

Puson foresee a bleak future for his village because till now no cement companies had even bothered to reclaim the top soil; that people can reuse the land for agricultural activity once the minerals are exhausted. One may question why, what happened to the proposed state mining policy? Who can wait for the government of Meghalaya’s mining policy? Will it ever see the light of the day when everybody in the Government from the MP, the CM of the state to the Magistrates and Police officers are mine owners by proxy through their wives or close relatives? Meanwhile the government can insist on the mining companies to device a mechanism to reclaim the land by conserving the top soil and also make it mandatory that each cement and mining companies plant trees as part of the company’s Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). But nothing of that sort is happening, our leaders are either busy in the business of government toppling or on a voyage to foreign land while topsoil is on its own journey to Bangladesh.

If the top soil is conserve by the companies then, we can still hope to see agricultural activities in the village sometime in the distance future. But few decades from now and while cement industries are still active in the area, agriculture will be the think of the past. How long will it take to revive agriculture again is a million dollars question.

Beimen Thin Lamare’s almost instance response to my usual polite gesture on June 28 was like a thunderbolt from the blue, it dawned on me then, that the moment I wished her goodbye; I also bate farewell to the agriculture activity in the area for she is one of the last of farming generation of Lumhnong village.

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