Chapter 3: A Barter Economy
Since farmers collected their own seeds, used minimal technology, and refrained from the use of other outside inputs, they were not reliant on the outside market prior to 1960. In fact, the entire village was a self-sufficient entity. People referred to the village unit as “pind,” a Punjabi word that means body, because the communities operated as distinct organisms detached from the global economy (Sunny). An eighty-year-old respondent, whose eyes glimmered with the wisdom of his age, emphasized that you didn’t need to leave the village to buy necessities. If you need a pair of shoes, a village artisan would come to your home and measure your feet. This craftsman would complete the whole process himself, from the collection of buffalo and camel hide to the stitching of the soles. People wouldn’t even buy sugar from outside vendors because there was a myth circulating that sugar from the city market was laced with crushed animal bones. Instead, households chose to fill their tea with home-made jaggery. The leftover sugarcane from this process was used as either fodder or compost material. For the concoction of ayurvedic remedies, the villagers extracted copper from people’s hair clippings and sulfur from pigeon feces. For record-keeping, the villagers manufactured paper from cow dung. The villagers even used twigs from the babul tree to brush their teeth. I experimented with this method of oral hygiene maintenance and concluded that the resultant dental cleanliness compensated for the wooden residue that clogged my gums following the deep scrub. Manufacturing pigeon poop medicine, cow dung paper, and organic toothbrushes, the pind established a circular economy before the term was even invented.
The circular economy that governed village transactions was based on an unconventional currency: social capital. Rather than trading money for every service, villagers relied on an informal economic model known as the sapee barter system. Through the sapee barter system, families would exchange raw materials for services. Sapee means a “six-month interval” in Punjabi and refers to the grain harvest that occurred twice a year. When the grain was harvested by the farmers, they would pay each landless craftsmen a quantity of yield calculated based on the craftsmen’s trade and the farmer’s number of plows. To best illustrate the functioning of this system, I will utilize an example. When a farmer needed his plow repaired in the 1950s, he would visit the local carpenter. Within a few hours, the carpenter would return the plow to its proper state and expect no payment in return. A few months later, when the slightest breeze sent whispers through the fields of wheat and every villager knew that the harvest was soon approaching, a sense of excitement welled up inside the carpenter. For, in a few short days, he would open his door to his bi-yearly salary - multiple baskets filled with wheat. This payment was not based on the amount of work he completed in the past year. Instead, the amount of grain earned by the carpenter was equivalent to the rate of his services (determined by a council of elders) multiplied by the number of plows owned by the farmers with whom he transacted. That was a long sentence so let me break it down for you. In the village of Sher Pur Kalan, the elders decided that the carpenter deserved 40kg per sapee for his services. If he provided these services to a family with one plow, he received 40kg every six months. If he provided these services to a family with two plows, he received 80kg every six months. If the carpenter provided these services to two families with two plows each, he received... 360kg of wheat every six months. Right now, you should be saying, “wait a second, that’s not right!” If you didn’t recognize that the correct salary in the last scenario is actually 160kg (4 plows multiplied by 40 kg), please splash some cold water on your face and resume reading. This pay-by-the-plow model functioned as a sort of wealth distribution system because of the number of plows owned by a farmer normally correlated with the size of that farmer’s landholdings and thus the degree of his wealth. Since farmers with more plows had to pay more grain to the laborers, the system incentivized responsible consumption habits. No farmer bought more farming instruments than he needed because he would be taxed for his over-consumption.
One respondent explained that there were only two carpenters in the village, and the demand for carpentry skills nearly matched the working pace of these two skilled laborers. Thus, their livelihoods were never jeopardized, and neither carpenter feared losing their work to the competition. While the carpenters and farmers had established unwritten contracts spanning back generations, there was a still a small incentive for the carpenter to outperform his competitor because the best laborer earned a few more customers. In comparison to the carpenter, the shoemaker only earned 12kg per plow per sapee. The rates of each laborer differed from village to village depending on the elders’ judgment, but the principle remained the same. Neither the carpenter nor the shoemaker ever feared for their family’s nutritional stability because, though the demand for their services fluctuated slightly from harvest to harvest, their family’s sustenance was ensured by time-cemented contracts with farmers. The craftsmen didn’t even bother keeping tabs on the services that they provided because they knew that, come harvest time, they would be paid in excess of the established rate. One respondent even noted that if a craftsman had small children or an upcoming wedding in their family, it was social custom to give that family more grain.
The question then surfaces: what if you lacked employment? The village’s response to this question was to keep every villager employed. There are a variety of scenarios in which the village sacrificed utility to ensure that every citizen had a role within the community. For example, there was one man whose job was to manufacture earthen pots for water storage. Unlike the Apple Corporations, this man did not manipulate planned obsolescence. Thus, his pots could have lasted for 30 years, leaving him idle for 29 years while people enjoyed the pots that he distributed in year 1. The village had a cure for his idleness, however. Every year, the village hosted a festival in which the community was encouraged to throw stones at the existing clay pots, knocking them from their rooftop perches. This festival ensured that the artisan’s hands were permanently crusted by the earthy hue of clay. Did somebody say that they want more examples? At the community’s funeral ceremonies, the deceased villagers would be carried on a bamboo bed to a large fire. There, the flames engulfed both the villager and his bed. Village lore explains that this tradition was threatened when, one day, an educated man, visiting the community from elsewhere, suggested an alternative to the ancestral practice. “This practice is so wasteful,” the educated man declared. “Why don’t you simply transfer the body from the bamboo bed to the fire rather than burning them together? That way, you can continue to reuse the same bed for every deceased villager”. An elder gave a slight, knowing grin, retorting “then, how would the bamboo weaver make his living?” And so, the weaver’s fingers were permanently intertwined with strands of bamboo until you couldn’t tell the two apart. There was another man whose responsibility was to keep each family hydrated. Every day he would fetch water from the well and fill the village’s earthen pots. This man was compensated with a measure of wheat. Another man had a knack for nail-clipping. In the absence of nail-clippers, this man’s trade proved quite useful. He too was rewarded in wheat. According to one source, even musicians and artists were food secure. Everybody with a role to play had a roll (chapati) to eat.
As described by participants, this exchange of resources for services was typically only associated with informal transactions. Hence, if a farmer wanted to buy a new plow, that farmer would pay the local craftsman with money. If the farmer needed his plow fixed, however, no payment was required. Though the distinction between formal services, requiring the exchange of currency, and informal services, compensated through the exchange of wheat, is unclear, respondents emphasized that money rarely changed hands when villagers transacted. This informal economy, which functioned alongside the more modern money-based economy, disintegrated with the rise of incomes.
Anonymous. Farmer and family. Personal Interview. Sher Pur Kalan, Punjab. 20 April 2019.
Anonymous. Farmers. Personal Interview. Sher Pur Kalan, Punjab. 20 April 2019.
Anonymous. Retired farmer. Personal Interview. Sher Pur Kalan, Punjab. 27 April 2019.
Singh, Sunny. Organic farmer. Personal interview. Sher Pur Kalan, Punjab. 7 May 2019.
Anonymous. Former farmer and activist. Personal interview. Sher Pur Kalan, Punjab. 21 April 2019.
Anonymous. Land record manager. Personal Interview. Sher Pur Kalan, Punjab. 5 May 2019