Down on the farm

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“The only difference between farming in Punjab and farming in Australia is that Punjabi farmers farm in Punjabi and Australian farmers farm in Australian,” jokes Charnamat Singh. Mr Singh’s nearly 100-acre Kinglake farm was destroyed in last year’s fire. The Singh Brothers, the name of his business, lost property and produce totalling $2 million. Tractors, trucks, ice-making plants, storage facilities and their home were all reduced to ashes—a lifetime’s dreams and over a decade’s labour almost wiped off.

Singh’s escape with his family and employees from the Kinglake fires was in the news last year, both in Australia and India. Public sympathy and support were not lacking, but one year later the Singh Brothers feel let down by the government’s response in terms of aid to build back their business and their lives. According to them many members of the local community feel the same about the government’s help in rebuilding the community. Charnamat Singh’s brother’s son Talwinder says that despite the overwhelming response of the community with donations for the victims the government and the agencies controlling these monies have turned a deaf ear to the legitimate needs of many victims.
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What has happened instead, Talwinder says, is that private organisations were handed over contracts to clean up the place and make it look pretty. Talwinder says that the whole process of clearing up the charred remains of the fire has left a lot to be desired, and the clean-up itself has created quite a few fire hazards in the area.

Charnamat Singh came to Australia in 1986 from a family of farmers in Punjab. His first 10 years were spent working in various other jobs, but his aim was to return to farming in Australia as soon as circumstances permitted. His first job was in a farm in Queensland, but he left it to live in Melbourne. In the city, Singh never lost an opportunity to learn the tricks of farming in Australia, attending short uni courses on specific topics to gain insights into local agricultural knowhow and methods. After a few years of driving around and looking for the right land, he found Kinglake. The Singh Brothers grow broccoli, snow peas and zucchini.

The fire destroyed their cool-rooms and packing facilities. All this led to a serious disruption of their business, a disruption they are yet to recover from. Singh says that the fire destroyed produce worth more than $300,000. Their two-storey house too was gutted in the fire.

Today the family – Charnamat Singh, his elder brother Mukhtiar Singh, with their wives, daughters and son – live in a home they bought not very long ago. Going by appearances, no one would say the Singh Brothers recently went through a crisis and are still to come out of it. Talwinder says that he still battles depression. Charnamat and Mukhtiar are extremely cynical about the politics around the efforts to assist victims rebuild their lives. Yet normality is surely on its way back into their lives. The Singh Brothers say they’ve learnt the hard way that when it comes to politicians self-help is the best help.

Charnamat Singh and his brother are not the sort of men to accuse or blame. Rustic simplicity and the spirit of entrepreneurship animate their conversation. Charnamat has lived long enough in Australia and worked in quite a few different jobs in different places. This might be the reason why he is averse to getting involved in discussions about the perceived handicaps Indians face in Australia. He has no time or interest in unpacking the subtleties in words and terms people use to dissect social life in Australia, and the place of immigrants in Victoria. When Indus Age asked him if farmers from India faced any disadvantage in Australia, he quipped back: no discrimination. When this reporter tried to explain that discrimination was not the same as disadvantage, Singh shot back: “Hard work is rewarded here in Australia. Complaining and protesting gets no-one anywhere”.

The Indian community in the city, lost though it is most of the time in its urban life and preoccupations, is curious about farmers in Australia who’ve migrated from the Indian subcontinent. The community is well aware that Indian farmers are successful, but much less visible. Many Indian students and others make the trip to the farms for a variety of jobs that are on offer—most of them seasonal. Singh prides himself on being a good employer. He says that the city dwellers’ perception about farmers being a fortunate bunch of people is nothing but a case of the grass on the other side looking greener. Perhaps yes. But as Singh shows visitors around his farm it is easy to see why an outsider would want to be in Singh’s shoes. Life on a farm has all the charms the citydweller likes to dream about: fresh air and water, fragrant flowering trees and intimate friendships with them, farm animals, birds, long walks from one site to the other enjoying the countryside….

The Singh Brothers have every reason not to waste time: rebuilding is a more intense form of reliving…

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