Editor’s Desk: It takes a village

Vishwanath Thange, one of Hiware Bazar’s millionaire farmers, sorting onions.

By Brent Cunningham

Our latest story, The resurrection of Hiware Bazar, had what is likely the longest lead time in FERN history. In January of 2020, Puja Changoiwala, a journalist in Mumbai, pitched us a piece about Hiware Bazar’s rise from a poor and hungry village to a model, both of sustainable agriculture and of a strategy to combat India’a long-running crisis of farmer suicide.

In February, Grist agreed to partner with us on Puja’s story. Soon we had secured a photographer and Puja was planning her reporting trip. Then, of course, the world screeched to a halt — and so did our story. 

Two years later, almost to the day, Puja emailed to ask if we wanted to revive the Hiware Bazar piece. Frankly, I wasn’t sure. It felt like the world had changed; we had spent the previous two years covering the pandemic’s devastating impact on the food system, from the outrageous and fatal abandonment of farmworkers and meatpacking workers by the huge agribusinesses that employed them, to the endless scramble by pantries and other groups to feed the growing number of hungry people. After all that, a story celebrating the rebound of a faraway village felt beside the point somehow.

It wasn’t. After consulting with Grist, we agreed to do the Hiware Bazar story. 

The resulting piece couldn’t have been more apt. With farmers everywhere facing growing threats from water scarcity, deforestation, and extreme heat, understanding how a village overcame all those challenges, and plenty of others, was more relevant than ever. But the resonance of what happened in Hiware Bazar was even more profound, given how America’s single-minded devotion to “individual liberty” dramatically failed the nation, on multiple fronts, during the worst of the Covid crisis. Because the takeaway of this story is that the village succeeded by working together—by sacrificing for the common good. There is even a Hindi word for it, shramdaan, literally “labor donation.” 

As one villager tells Puja: “I think what worked was that whatever plans and schemes were implemented in Hiware Bazar, villagers did not think of them as government schemes or village council schemes. They thought them to be programs for their own development, for their own family’s welfare.”