A combine harvester, or combine, is a machine that harvests food crops like paddy, wheat, maize and soybean. It combines three separate operations, reaping, threshing and winnowing, into a single process. Combines are giant machines; bigger than anything you see on Indian roads, except maybe the big trucks and earthmovers. I saw them first in Bhabhua, Bihar in year 2004. I was in Bhabhua to understand why farmers in Bihar do not choose labor and water intensive crops that also offer higher returns on land. Land is scarce in Bihar while labor and water are available in plenty.
There are more agricultural laborers per hectare of land in Bihar than anywhere else in the world. Average plot size is less than 0.25 hectares and low capitalization is said to be one of the key problems of agriculture in the state. Yet one saw combines in paddy fields there. Most combines came from Punjab, but a few local landlords had also invested in them. Drivers and operators were all Punjabis who had long experience of working with these behemoths.
Harvesting by combines was not cheaper than harvesting by manual labor at the going wage rate in Bhabhua. It did save time, but that did not seem to be a big reason for its growing use. Farmers were adopting combines to avoid dealing with organized and, at times, even militant labor class demanding higher wage and greater rights to the land they tilled. Bhabhua and its neighboring districts have been strongholds of the extreme left Maoist Communist Center (MCC). Maoists harass and threaten landowners to cede more rights and greater share of outputs to landless laborers. Laborers organized by Maoists would sometimes boycott harvesting when the crop was ripe for harvest putting farmers in a tough spot. The clash and the conflict would often become violent. I saw gunmen guarding paddy fields during the harvest.
Between the guns and the combines, combines were probably more potent weapons the landlords wielded against the laborers.
Recently, I saw a large number of combines on highways in Madhya Pradesh too. They were all on their way from Punjab to Chhattisgarh, India’s rice bowl, to harvest paddy. I have never been to Chhattisgarh and I know little about the landowner-laborer relationship there. But Chhattisgarh is at the nerve center of the Maoist insurgency in India. I wonder if combines serve the same purpose there too—to make local laborers redundant and powerless against the landowners.