“What will you do with the information”, she looked at us intently and asked, “will you help us?” I didn’t have an answer to Lakshmi’s question. Honestly, even I wasn’t sure about what I was going to do with the information, what I was certain about and stumbled to accept was that I was not going to be of any help to them. At least, not in a way that she was expecting me to be.
The other women also stared at us curiously when Lakshmi asked us the discomforting question. It is a situation of dilemma that each social science student has to undergo when they are in the field. Most often than not, we try to avoid the question out of embarrassment, other times we are too arrogant to accept that we might be seen as intrusions. If we are reflective, we contemplate about the question, making it difficult for ourselves to participate further in the field.
However, herein I do not wish to dwell into investigating the roots of morality and dilemmas of a social science student. I seek to elucidate on the sense of alienation which prevails amongst the cattle owners in Barul village, Maharashtra. We were attempting to map the value chain of Milk dairy in the village. It encompassed participatory discussions with all actors involved in milk processing.
We had located a milk dairy in the village named Sainath dairy, only to later understand that it was a collection unit and not a dairy. I am still not sufficiently acquainted with the terms however, I refrain myself from calling it a dairy because the milk is not harvested there for consumption purpose. The milk collected from Sainath is then sold to Sahyadri Agro which has a direct tie up with Nestle.
Most of the people in Barul are involved in cattle rearing. Due to scanty rain in the village for the last three years, there is no fodder available for the cattle, which has affected the milk productivity. Amidst this, it was not unrealistic for Lakshmi to ask us if we would extend help. I was observant of her subtle smile which broke into a laughter later, joined by other women in the group. It was reminiscent of the rhetoric nature of her question and the sense of empowerment she felt in asking it. It also conveyed her desire to enable us sense the powerlessness which hovered over their lives as their acts had little control over the rain and was beyond their influence.
I would have liked to believe that she asked the question with some hope, but she was quick in adding that, “barish nai hai toh koi kuch nai kar sakta” (if there is no rain, nobody can do anything); a statement which I had heard from almost everyone I had spoken to. It reflected the excessive dependence of the people on rain for their livelihoods and the feeling of powerlessness in determining the occurrence of an event.
All the milk (which is never more than 2-4 litres) is given to Sainath in exchange of money. I asked them if they kept it for personal consumption and they negated it which was worrisome as a few of these women were carrying children with them. It is interesting to note the multiple levels of alienation which the people undergo in Barul undergo.
One can subjectively assume that economy has overpowered the impression of self worth thereby creating a space for meaninglessness. One is alienated from making coherent decisions as one does not holistically perceive the cause-effect relationship of this decision on their family. This process is so naturalised that it seems common to engage in such estranged tasks which reduces self worth.
I went around the shops in Barul searching for Nestle – chocolates or milk powder or maggi but none of it was available in any of the local shops. Ironically, the kids I spoke to were unaware of Nestle’s existence. A brand which has endorsed a few of its products with a claim of “creating shared value” by “being consumed in every corner of India”, was nonexistent in Barul which was hardly 22 km away from the main market area.
One can argue against the multiple layers of alienation amongst cattle rearers of Barul village by calling it an independent occurrence however, in that case, one negates the reality which does not exist as an independently and is intertwined with intersectional factors contributing to it.
This value chain can been seen as a system of relations which speaks the language of capital gain under economic development. It is contained naturally in our minds that we are unable to restrain ourselves from excessive dependence on it.
Sainath Dairy limits can be determined from the fact that it will lose its franchise the moment its productive capacity declines due to low milk yield. What will remain amongst the cattle rearers is the sense of estrangement from the final product of their labour.
(writer is a student of M.A in social work in Livelihood and Social Entrepreneurship in TISS, Mumbai)