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Savvy, effort pay off

Enterprise: Hard-working Sikhs show up neighbours in fields, at bank

By John Stackhouse
First published July 27, 1994

Biharipur, India

Biharipur's most puzzling development riddle sits on the village's periphery, past the flowers of a vegetable garden and the shade of a mango grove.

In the open field, surrounded by rice paddies and mounds of wheat, live a family of 16 people who have everyone else in the village baffled. In the course of three years, the Sikhs, as the family is known, have transformed the fields around Biharipur.

Arriving in the village in 1991 with a broken-down tractor and enough cash to buy a small plot of land, the Singhs have become Biharipur's second-richest family, behind only Rajinder Singh Yadav, the big landlord, school teacher and self-appointed quack.

From a standing start, the Singhs have acquired 4.5 hectares of land and sharecropped another 2.2 hectares, which they plan to buy when their savings permit. They employ 15 village youths during planting and harvesting. And they are producing about twice as much grain per hectare as any other family.

"It all depends on what you're willing to put into the land," explains Kartar Singh, 70, the family patriarch.

Mr. Singh is a wise farmer whose only education was at the school of hard crops. He is an advocate of rural infrastructure (witness the two boreholes he drilled), education (he insists his granddaughters complete Grade 8), nutrition (the family's vegetable garden blossoms with eggplant and ladyfingers) and preventive health care (vaccination shots and mosquito nets for all). But what Mr. Singh talks most fervently about is culture, the taboo of development, the idea that some people are more culturally attuned than others to economic development.

"The others here are very lazy," he said, returning from his rice paddies where he had laboured away the morning in the 45-degree heat. "They're not alert. You see my fields. We will plant our crop in 10 days. It will take the others 20 to 25 days to plant theirs. They're not aware of the importance of time."

Mr. Singh is one of the most generous people in Biharipur, a warm, gentle man, but he also limits his ideas to the hard logic of farming. "The others don't understand money," he continued, speaking dispassionately as he wiped his brow. "We see money in our land, so we take out loans. We borrow and invest. Then we save and we buy more land."

Although Mr. Singh relies on his granddaughters to read his mail to him, he could probably write the World Bank's next annual report. "The rest of the people here waste a lot of time doing other people's work, doing daily labour jobs," he said. "They're more interested in getting a day's wage than working on their own land. Our race sees daily labour to be beneath us. We work only on our own land and in our own house."

Mr. Singh, who was born in what is now Pakistani Punjab, moved to India in 1947 at the time of the subcontinent's partition. He left Punjab when sectarian violence began to rack the state, and eventually settled in a Sikh community in Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state. His life there was stable until the soil began to show signs of exhaustion. Not one to wait for disaster to strike, Mr. Singh took his children, grandchildren and tractor and moved down to the plains to Biharipur in 1991.

It was the first time the Singhs had lived in a caste-based Hindu community, and Biharipur's stratified society still baffles them. "Once you get into the village, there are all these equations," said his wife, Jeet Kaur. "Some people are lower on the ladder than others. We try to avoid all that."

While the rest of Biharipur, like most of rural northern India, crowds together in an unhygienic village core, the Singhs chose to build a farmhouse in the open field. Walking across the rice paddies to the adobe farmhouse is a journey to another way of life. At any given time, the entire family is at work: children washing buffaloes, the grandfather digging irrigation ditches, the grandmother threshing wheat. The house and yard are immaculately clean, free of the animal and human feces that clutter the village lanes.

There are cats - no other family has them - to keep mice and rats from the grain stock.

And there is a spacious outdoor cooking area to avoid the smoke that fills most village houses at dinner time.

Growing up on the fertile Punjab plains, Mr. Singh learned the finer points of irrigation, soil preparation and grain trading. He was the first farmer in Biharipur to employ urea and potash fertilizers, and to rent a harvester, which saves the family a full month of labour. "Now everyone is copying us," his son, Jaginder Singh, 31, said with a laugh.

The Singhs pay for their input with a strict pattern of saving and investing. They keep their money in an interest-bearing bank account, and belong to a local fertilizer co-operative. After the last harvest, which was a bumper crop, they bought a motorized water pump for 1,500 rupees ($68). And now their goal is to save enough for the village's first electric generator, which would cost 10,000 rupees ($455).

Although the Sikh men do most of the field work, and the women manage the household, there is a remarkable sense of equity. It is not uncommon to see Jeet Kaur, at 65, wrestling with an irrigation pump or chasing buffaloes across the fields with her stick, or to see her only daughter, Rajvinder, 19, barking orders at the men. Nor is it rare to see both sexes sitting on their charpoy cots at night, engaged in a lively debate, an interaction one would almost never find in the rest of the village, where women keep to themselves, most of the time indoors.

The Singhs have some natural advantages. Unlike the other villagers, who are members of backward castes or harijans (untouchables), they don't face discrimination when they visit town. They also have the physical size and worldliness to stand up to the local landlords.

But Mr. Singh believes there is something inherent in the Sikh way, as well. "If something bad happens to the crop, most of the others would blame destiny," he said. "I would never blame destiny. I would blame myself. The fields are my responsibility."

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