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Rural lifestyle changes lanes

Several years of surplus crops and economic freedom have enabled residents of Biharipur to renovate their homes and invest in their farms

By John Stackhouse
First published July 24, 1993

Biharipur, India

They came from a score of villages on the horizon, by foot, by bicycle, by bullock cart, by any means they could find to get to the fair. The long harvest was over, and it was time to celebrate.

After steering their rickety cart into the shade of a sprawling oak tree, a dozen families from Biharipur took little time to find their way.

Rupee notes in hand, the children broke through the crowd, racing to the puppet shows and hand-powered Ferris wheel. In frenzy's wake, their mothers took in the stalls of jewelry, lipstick, washboards and sweets. Their fathers slumped under a tree to eat ice cream and gossip in peace.

From afar, the festival may seem like any other country fair, but in Biharipur it has come to symbolize the economic metamorphosis that is breaking generations of rural tradition.

A decade ago, almost no one in Biharipur could afford consumer goods or enjoy a day at the fair, let alone invest in their homes and farms. But several years of surplus crops and deregulated markets have brought an entirely new concept to the village - disposable income - that can be found in virtually every walk of life.

After a day of shopping, games, rides and sweets, the Biharipur families piled into the bullock cart and rambled home along the bumpy dirt path, a full moon glistening alongside in the irrigation canals.

But it is not until morning, when men and children have returned to the fields to prepare for a new crop, that the village's economic transformation comes into clear view.

On the biggest laneway, Dhan Pal's family is replacing their mud walls with bricks, a renovation that will cost 15,000 rupees ($600) and spare them the inconvenience of autumn repairs. It will add to their social status, too, as will the family's new horse.

Down the lane, Rajinder Singh, the school teacher, is adding a second storey to his two-room house and building a small temple - Biharipur's first - on the adjacent plot. A small antenna sprouting from his roof proves his status as the village's first television-set owner, although electricity is still wanting.

At every corner, new water pumps have been installed, while in the fields irrigation motors whir noisily.

A few years back, Biharipur's economy was little more than subsistence; a mix of wheat, rice, buffalo, cows and goats. Output depended on the monsoon rains and the prices set in New Delhi.

Now, with surpluses and savings, there's a micro-economy on every lane.

Every day Prem Pal, 32, pedals his bicycle 10 kilometres across the wheat fields to sell two-cent popsicles to the children of Biharipur. He admits being a popsicle man may not be as daring as his official job in the Uttar Pradesh home guard. But then, the near-bankrupt state government hasn't paid its home guards in six months. In Biharipur, kids pay cash.

Another man arrives daily with a basket of vegetables - tomatoes, jamfruits, ladyfingers, eggplant, chilies - strapped to the back of his bicycle. Not long ago, a woman says, buying a few things for her children to eat while they waited for dinner was a luxury.

There are more sources of income now, too. On Biharipur's main lane, an elderly man parks himself and his Singer sewing machine in the shade of a poplar tree. He turns torn shirts into pairs of underwear for two rupees apiece. Across the lane, another man irons clothes with a steam machine and flat board.

Next door, Chandrika Prasad has bought five drums, a harmonium and a trunk of costumes - and added five part-time jobs to Biharipur's work force.

"These men were all looking for work and could play the drums," Mr. Prasad said, "so I said, 'Why don't you come and join my band?'"

The Ali Baba troupe travels the district, playing weddings, festivals and anything else that pays up front.

Every morning, Rajaram goes door to door collecting milk, which he then sells to families without buffaloes. He remembers the day modern economics arrived in Biharipur.

One morning a few years ago, a woman emerged from her house, and for a cup of milk offered him cash, not the traditional handful of wheat.

Now, Biharipur has four milkmen - not one - and a daily surplus of about 80 litres, which the milkmen peddle to sweet shops in Tilhar, the nearest town.

Back in the village, three families have opened small shops. They're not much - matches, tea bags, betelnuts, cigarettes - but they're one more step away from barter and into the world of cash.

The changes are even greater on the producers' side of the economy. In Biharipur's endless rows of rice, wheat and sugar cane fields, farmers now are free to grow and sell as they choose.

A couple of years ago, they had to pile cane - their principal cash crop - on bullock carts and draw it to the state-owned mill. There, the farmers sat in the blazing sun, sometimes for days, waiting for the mill manager to call their name and state their quota.

Under its new economic philosophy, the Indian government allows private mills, thus changing farmers' lives forever. They can sell whatever they want, when they want. They can horde, they can dump, they can speculate. They can choose the government mill, which offers the best price but doesn't pay for up to six months from delivery. Or they can choose the private mill operator, who pays cash - 10 per cent less - on the spot.

Economic freedom, however, has its price. The central government, saying it could no longer afford to subsidize farmers, raised the price of a 50-kilogram sack of potassium-based fertilizer to 200 rupees from 90 rupees this year.

The people of Biharipur are also discovering that market economics creates losers as well as winners.

Last year, Bhawani, a middle-aged farmer stooped beyond his years, decided to set up a transport business with two new buffaloes and a cart. He paid for them with a 7,000-rupee ($280) loan from a money-lender, who visits the village every month.

At first, Bhawani could not keep up with demand. Then, other villagers got the same idea and hooked up their own carts. Transport prices collapsed. Bhawani lost his business.

Rajaram, the milkman, expressed equal dismay over the inequality of markets. When it was explained to him that New Delhi milk prices are double those in Biharipur, 300 kilometres away, he almost fell off his Hero bicycle.

"We work all day in the hot sun, we graze the animals, we milk them, and all we get is five rupees (a litre)," he fumed. "You mean the person in the city just packages it and sells it, and they get 10 rupees?"

An explanation of marketing did not appease Rajaram. He paused for a minute, as if to complete a balance sheet in his mind. "I think I want to move," he said, "to New Delhi."

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