Sometime in 2013, Gaggi Bansra, the son of a farmer from the northern Indian state of Punjab, tried doing a wheelie with his father’s tractor. Bansra was 17. He was fascinated with videos of bike stunts and would spend hours watching them on his computer. His father could not afford a motorbike. So Bansra turned the ignition switch of his father’s tractor. “It took me a few attempts to get it right, but the joy I felt was incomparable,” 24-year-old Bansra told VICE News.
Bansra is now one of India’s most popular professional tractor stuntmen, having participated in at least 150 tournaments, each with a cash prize of up to INR 15,000 (US $200). Risky tractor stunts have fetched him roles in local music videos and 11,000 plus subscribers on YouTube. Some of his videos have garnered more than 16 million views. “But when I started out, my family was not too happy. They were worried about how life threatening doing tractor stunts is,” he said.
Cheap smartphones, success defined by virality and the possibility of reaching out to people across the planet without gatekeepers have given rise to a new section of youth that is willing to break away from traditional jobs. Unlike their previous generations, young men like Gaggi are trying to translate their online popularity into money.
“Gathering visibility and eyeballs is rather becoming a challenge, specifically on popular social media platforms, given the volume and diversity of content uploaded everyday,” Shriram Venkatraman, an anthropology professor at New Delhi-based Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology, told VICE News.
While tractor stunts have brought fame to some, they do not come without risks. News reports scanned by VICE News show that this year, at least seven people across India have died due to tractor stunts gone wrong. On Monday, October 19, a farmer in Shamli district of the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh died while attempting to drive his tractor over a sand mound to win a bet of INR 10,000 (US $136). The bet was between two men named Chandrapal Saini and Gaurav Sharma. While Saini gave up after a failed attempt, Sharma was egged on by villagers who had gathered to see the spectacle. In the next attempt, the tractor overturned, crushing Sharma to death.
In March this year, a newly married 23-year-old was crushed to death while shooting a tractor stunt for a TikTok video in Muzaffarnagar district, adjoining Shamli.
Such accidents do not deter Bansra, he said. “Accidents happen when you drive a car or bike also. In tractor stunts, they usually happen when someone has not trained enough or doesn’t have the right tractor.”
Apart from being an important farming vehicle, tractor is also perceived as a symbol of social status in India’s hinterlands. Between 1914 (when steam tractors were introduced in India) and 1960, India’s demand for tractors was met through imports. It was only in 1961 that two Indian firms started manufacturing tractors in collaborations with companies in Germany and the UK. At present, India is the largest manufacturer of tractors in the world followed by the US and China.
For hundreds of young men, particularly in states that primarily depend on agriculture, tractor is fast becoming the favourite vehicle to perform stunts of their choice. An annual tractor tournament, where two tractor drivers face off, known as Tractor Tochan Mukabla, has emerged as a highly competitive event in the northern Indian farming states of Punjab and Haryana.
Gurpreet Dhaliwal, 27, is a Punjab-based farmer and school administrator. In his free time, Dhaliwal films and uploads videos of tractor stunts on his YouTube channel which fetch him around INR 100,000 (US $1,356) a month.
“We farmers in Punjab have a lot of attachment to our tractors. We get excited when we see something unique happening with them. That’s why these competitions are so popular,” Dhaliwal told VICE News.
Dhaliwal said that tractor stuntmen are even paid up to INR 50,000 (US $678) to perform at pre wedding events.
The primary reason for accidents, according to Dhaliwal, is lack of knowledge. “You can’t use a normal tractor to do stunts. The tractor has to have special tyres, weight and engine,” he said.
Bansra, a school dropout, feels a sense of belonging when he performs before the crowd cheering for him. “It is dangerous, but I would be nothing without the fame doing stunts on my tractor has got me,” he Bansra said.
Not everyone is happy with the trend though. “It saddens me to see young people getting influenced by what they see on social media and doing it to seem cool,” Zakir, a village head in Muzaffarnagar, told VICE News.
Tractor stunts have become a regular addition of India’s National Racing Championship, an auto racing championship for formula one cars.
Seema Hingorrany, a clinical psychologist based in the western Indian city of Mumbai, told VICE News that most people who risk their life to seek visibility by doing such stunts may have been humiliated or felt overlooked growing up. “A young girl once came to me after she jumped from the second floor of a building for a dare. When I asked her why she would do such a thing, she said it wasn’t about a game. It was to prove she was capable and daring,” said Hingorrany.
“Social media has made it worse by driving people to constantly seek validation or visibility to determine their self-worth.”
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