Chapter 12: A Worker's Ethic
At 4 AM, before the rooster’s alarm clock sounded, men would trickle out of their homes and begin the trek to their farms. At 9 AM, a swarm appeared on the horizon. It was the men returning from their morning work. One by one, the farmers would filter back into their own houses and collapse into bed. Before their heads even touched the pillow, they had already begun to dream.
According to many respondents, these men never complained about the manual labor of farming. People were used to the amount of work, explained one field laborer. Another interview subject claimed that their bodies were so accustomed to the work that they wouldn’t even feel the sweat-soaked shirts hanging from their shoulders. The Bihari laborer, who was raised in the 60s, carried the spirit of that era. He loves working and feels fulfilled when his hands are occupied with a task. Even without that spirit, laborers had an extra incentive to work diligently prior to the Green Revolution. Since laborers received a share of yield rather than a fixed sum of money, they reaped a larger reward for devoting more attention to the crops. One farmer mentioned that they would give a laborer 1/7th of their total yield for working full time. Since people were using more manual effort, they reported a greater sense of pride in their harvest. One respondent said that the food tasted more delicious after a long day of plowing the land with only a single bullock.
Life wasn’t all labor though. In fact, farmers could relax during the months of May and June when their land sat fallow. There were certainly days saturated with labor. Nonetheless, few complained because there was always a celebration around the corner. The largest celebrations occurred around the harvest, when two months of non-stop labor culminated in communal excitement, or around planting, when farmers worried about the future well-being of their crops. Participants spoke of a few of the rituals surrounding the harvest and planting periods. One mentioned that during planting and harvesting season, women would make a sweet dish that they would deliver to the fields and pass out to workers, regardless of whether they were members of the family or laborers. Harvesting and planting superstition were also intertwined with religious rituals. For example, some farmers’ families went to visit the Gurudwara, a Sikh temple, on planting and harvesting days. In addition to these more elaborate celebrations, each day was peppered with mini-festivities. After a long day of working, some farmers would stay late at their land and talk around a fire while barbecuing fresh produce. Additionally, the farmers invented songs for every occasion. There was a hymn for harvesting wheat and a melody for making chutney. The oxen were part of the orchestra, strapped with bells that would chime with the sway of their horns. According to the Bihari laborer, “Everybody used to sing in the fields and now nobody even speaks.”
With a rise in incomes, the effort started to wane. People’s work ethic did not shift at one particular point in time, so it’s impossible to explain exactly why this change occurred. Based on the interview data collected, there were a number of catalysts for this transition. I’m not pointing fingers, but the introduction of effort-saving devices, stigmatization of manual labor, the transition to wage labor, and disconnection from the environment likely did not invigorate people’s willingness to invest effort in agricultural work. According to one respondent, people these days think that they’re going to die if they work too hard. Another man notes that people have no incentive to work hard when they’re paid in fixed wages. Others verbalized that there is less honor in the work today. Now, if a landowner is not at his fields to supervise the laborers, they work leisurely. Even with the decrease in input effort, the mechanization of labor has freed up the farmer’s schedules, unearthing an abundance of leisure time. Many of the youngsters, who once helped out on their parents’ farm, now invest their newfound leisure time in a buffet of synthetic drugs. For this reason, one interview subject labels this explosion of leisure time as a negative development. Many people think that money is the reward for their labor, but that is not true, he declares. Instead, he points out that “work is the reward.”
Singh, Sunny. Organic farmer. Personal interview. Sher Pur Kalan, Punjab. 7 May 2019.
Anonymous. Farm laborer. Personal Interview. Sher Pur Kalan, Punjab. 25 April 2019.
Anonymous. Farming family. Personal Interview. Sher Pur Kalan, Punjab. 27 April 2019.
Anonymous. Farmer family. Personal Interview. Sher Pur Kalan, Punjab. 19 April 2019.
Anonymous. Farmer Family. Personal Interview. Sher Pur Kalan, Punjab. 18 April 2019.
Anonymous. Land record manager. Personal Interview. Sher Pur Kalan, Punjab. 5 May 2019.
Anonymous. Former farmer and activist. Personal interview. Sher Pur Kalan, Punjab. 21 April 2019
Anonymous. Teacher. Personal Interview. Sher Pur Kalan, Punjab. 3 May 2019.