It is understood that one of the toughest aspects of farming, to put it mildly, is…farming. Labour intensive, unpredictable, and in the long run, backbreaking. As climate change wreaks havoc more and more of the rural population migrates to the cities in the hopes of a ‘better future’, leading to ever more automation. But the primary focus of this automation and tech is to boost agricultural outcomes. As it should be. But, in the long run this adoption also has consequences, invariably distancing the farmer from the farm. And with that, will fade the intangible connection that there is years of knowledge that can only come with direct contact.
The fact is that as we try and solve the more tangible issues we should also look into the more intangible aspects of farming that play an equally important role in, both, the farms, and the farmers, health.
This illustration and short story visualizes the lives of a village that has deployed wearable tech — ‘exoskeletons’, on their farms. This suit enables the farm-workers to work in the fields while doing all the load-bearing.
***Fiction starts here***
Short feeble footsteps rush on in aged hurry.
— This village is too small. We are not good enough for him. Pauses for breath. Those people are better in their big-big town. Hain?! Huh!
She mumbles as her nose furiously works to pace her aged knees. Anger keeps her feet steady. Her heart asunder and in pain.
— That tiny thankless rat! I will show him today!
In the trees the Drongo chirps its goodbyes to the orange in the sky. The Suraga mimes the suffocated hum of the farm drones parking themselves on the sides. The machines wind down and relay their locations to the centre.
Sriram slows his bicycle to greet her. Cheerfully.
— Goods-morning, Avva. Where you walk to so fast-fast?
She walks. A goddess twitches in confusion in the sky. Decisions come harder these days.
— He thinks he can leave his mother! HIS!! MOTHER!!! That good for nothing, hollow-empty-wire!
Sriram, confused, hurries on to deliver the last package of the day.
The folks in the paddy fields plant their last reflections just as Arun is pulling down the shutters. Shr-rr-rr-rr-rr. The Community Store or The Gram Seva Kendra is as a multipurpose kiosk. It works as a fair price depot; a data-warehouse for the drones and farm-tech employed in the fields, provides the exoskeletons for the field workers and keeps track of the weather data to sound the alarm when required. This is also the place where farm-related decisions are taken thanks to the country-wide database it is connected to. To sum it up this is the heart of the village, and Arun, the man shutting the shutter, is its guardian.
The shutter hits the concrete and ruffles the dust. But all this is inconsequential today. Arun is surprised to see Avva so far from her house.
— Avva? Is everything ok? Where are you headed to so late? He asks as she turns to face him.
Her heart racing she reaches the steps breathless and furious as he pulls her chair that was kept in the corner.
— Here sit. Why Avva?! The doctor has asked you not to walk so much. You should have asked for me to come if you needed to see me. I hope everything is fine though. He says with concern in his voice.
— Shut up! Both you and the doctor can wash your face with cow dung. I can take care of myself!
Arun puts his hand in the khakhi bag he carries. A flask lifts in his hands and pours tea. Her temper is world famous in the village. There are only so many ways Avva can be calmed and one of them was the tea that Shanta made. He had saved two cups from his daily quota to share with her when he got home but times change and we with it.
She takes the earthen cup from his hands.
— You tell me right now everything! Those suits. Are they not the best in the world? Is this village not the best place to be? Every other village is jealous! Is that not true? Then why would anyone want to leave when everyone wants to come back?
Sip. She forgets. The smell of tulsi fills her heart. The Goddess has decided.
— This tea is very good. How is Shanta? Without waiting for his reply she continues. Forget that, you tell me. It was so hard to grow the food in my time. Yes, the rain and sun was better then, but everyone was in pain all the time. She rants to herself. Raghu died of something like hernia, Sriram’s grand-father of a bent back and dusted joints…
She pauses as her mind opens the gates to her memories. Her temper rises and falls.
— And then you made these eksoskull-a-tons! Such a good thing! Now see all the girls want to marry into this village. So much good fortune you brought. You are a good man. Your father was also a good man. But very naughty, you are kinder. I remember when he was born. It was right after harvest. We had all danced for two days outside your house. Those were good times. But forget that. You explain to me son. Today I will understand everything from you. How even in the city you will not find such good things. Is it not best to stay here at home?
— Avva what is the matter? Arun is not sure what is going on. But her agitation is enough to suggest that something is amiss.
In the distance a thresher; threshes.
— You tell me how these things are better then the one’s in the city and I will go and tell Sridhar. Her voice shudders as horrid anticipations form in her mind. He will leave he said. You tell me everything right now. She breathes faster. Desperate, her hands trembles. He will leave for the city he said. It is better he said. That rat!
The rollercoaster of her emotions has no breaks. She has no breaks. Hardened by time she has no tears as well.
By now a group of hardened faces had collected behind her in curiosity. But everyone freezes as they realise what is going on. ‘Sridhar is leaving’ — instant messages murmur through the village network. Wives sit up straight in their houses, the grand mothers and grand fathers pray to their respective deities.
— What are you insolent liver-wasters listening to?
Nodding, no one replies. They understand her fears and her anger. They have felt it when their loved one’s decided to leave before the exoskeleton came to the village.
— Avva let me take you home and I can tell you on the way. Arun takes charge.
— NO! She says with authority. HERE! NOW!
— Ok Avva. He says, in his calm and steady voice. Yes, these have helped everyone. He points to the exoskeletons lying outside the warehouse. These drones as well. They could have been better, but they are made from local things so they are cheaper and more suited for us. And of course they help us with all the manual work which was so hard you remember? But I did not make them alone, we all made this together. Over the years we typed all our local records of the techniques and traditions that your’s and my father’s generation had, and using that information the computer makes decisions to make sure that the sowing, or plowing, or harvesting happens properly and on time. You understand what I am saying. But, listen, can I take you home and then we can talk to Sridhar together and tell him all about this and then he will not have to leave?
Avva does not understand a word. She heard it, and she got it, but she does not know how any of this will help her convince Sridhar. Her heart sinks to the centre of the earth. Her shoulders droop as if the devil put weights on her.
— Oh Saraswati! Sridhar will leave! He will go, my child! My piece of liver!
— And best of all, all this is made here as you know. None of this came from the city. So there is no need to go to the city.
Her back straightens, her resolve rekindled.
— Amma. Let me come with you and we can talk to Sridhar together.
— Yes, Yes. That is the best idea. Thankful, she closes her eyes in a quick prayer.
She knows the goddess is with her.