Who are the real Bread Winners?!!

Reminiscing about my brief stay with the communities one particular incident left an everlasting impression on my mind and am sure so shall it influence every worker.

Having been assigned the task of touring some villages in Tehri during one of my training segments we had planned to tour some interior villages in the Upper Balganga valley (Origin point for one of the tributaries of the Ganges). En route to the village we saw women and men working in the fields. When the meeting started to our dismay we found that there was not even one man who was in a condition to talk. All of them were drunk and dead tired. One person in some of his senses told me that most of them have toiled hard in the field from morning till evening and are not in a condition to even sit straight. I asked him that may be the same should have been the case with the women. The even more surprising reply came that now they have to take care of the household as well. Gender definition of roles was crying for Redefinition.

In one further incidence at the Balaram-Ambaji Sanctuary in North Gujarat I religiously tried to follow my professors directions about mapping the gender based activity profiles of both the sexes. Having done the rapport building part when I zeroed onto the crux and sought the various junctures in the day when the respondent interacts with the Natural Resource Base (simply put to know when does she go to the forests to collected fuelwood and fodder) She burst into guffaws. The listeners felt that the lady was bit too shy to respond to an outsider like me.

Later on when she became a bit more familiar she told that she laughed because this is something, which comes so naturally to her so somebody’s curiosity at the same betrayed her comprehension.

A third piece of information from an erudite gentleman was a reiteration of my understanding. Those opposing alcoholism in the tribal culture must understand that had it been not for the country liquor that men and women relish so much, there would be crisis of nutrition amongst these people. That led me to remember something I read in the Health magazine – that alcohol is something that is assimilated first thing in the morning after you work-out to remove last night’s hangover. Somebody might as well call Mahua the national tree of India with its multi-dimensional uses and obsession with regards its ownership in the tribal patriarchy.

So what do we assimilate from these disjoint incidents –

The First incident taught me that the traditional gender definition of Roles does not hold good everywhere. Leaving aside the Vast Gangetic plains and the areas that served as the cradles of green revolution (Punjab and Haryana) most of the countryside has undulating terrain and topography. This is as much true for the Himalayas on the north, Sivaliks a bit further down, Aravallis bisecting the Thar from the Deccan, Satpuras and Vindhyas in the Heartland, Deccan Rocks in the Andhras, Nilgiris and those reputed hotspots of Biodiversity called the Western Ghats in South India, Maharashtra with its sprinkling of Hillocks crowned with Sivaji’s castles, The triplets of Garo, Khasi and Jaintias amongst the Seven Sisters of Assam so on so forth.

Most of these if not all have a complex mountain/hill farming system to rely upon for their food. If these are not forest laden they might have been in the past. The point is these lands comprise of the majority of area where India’s Natural Wealth is confined. Most of such lands have only subsistence agriculture to boast of and hardy but unproductive livestock to show.

This condition which the economists usually call the lack of factor productivity (Less of output despite consumption of more of input) has roots both in the nature as well as the culture. Strikingly the tribal belt coincides with most of these areas. (8 % of India’s population and stretching right from the Vagad (Banswada and Dungarpur) in the West till the Assamese pygmies in the east, covering the gregarious Gonds and Bhils of MP and Chattisgarh, Santhals and others in Jharkhand and WB etc.

Apart from the Tribals we also have the other mountain dwelling communities that have somehow found the mother nature’s lap too irresistible to be weaned away from. HP and Uttarakhand today feel that their’s is a perfect example of the comparative advantage left unexploited.

Coming back to our gender definition of roles, we find that in all the above-mentioned areas the tradition definition of the division of labor (Again Gender Division of Labor) does not match the general patriarchal nature of the Indian Society. 20 Years ago an Urban Indian male would have felt ashamed had his wife worked to help the economy of the household. This task was somehow almost always was the hegemony of the male with the female supposed to look after the Janana pursuits like cooking, nurturing, feeding ……….

WAIT A MINUTE does that include only using the harvested crop or growing it in the first place.
That brings me to the implicit irony in the whole issue. In all the above mentioned communities that reduced factor productivity has led to heavy migration and dual lifestyles (6 months outside the home).

In Uttaranchal they call it the Money-Order economy, which has only one productive day in the month when they get the cheque from somebody serving in the army or a roadside hotel or a Dhaba.Full regiments of the Army are now comprising of Youth from a particular area. That has led to a further dichotomy that is seen within a village. With those households that have somebody working outside there might be Rs. 200,000 lying fallow in the house. Another might be trying to work in field to earn two square meal that day. The lone difference being the presence of a migrant in the family. This reminds me of the Soviet Era where they used to say – Only those families can get rationed bread that have old parents because only they have the time to stand in the queue waiting for their turn.

The direct result of this on the farming system was the increased burden on women-folk to assume the role of bread-growers. Thus we have another cadre of workers who have been forced to become breadwinners. Here we have also to remember that the traditional roles of the female in the House-keeping, Animal Husbandry etc stand as it is.

We must also remember that while this happens the dysfunctional PDS system fails to even reach such areas. When and where it does reach it is used up by the upper strata.

The whole dialogue brings to the fore increased drudgery on the women-folk. According to an estimate every Kg of Rice grown in Uttaranchal’s interior needs an investment of Rs 200 in terms of Labor input in activities like Preparation of fields, Canals, Terracing and Bunding etc. The Rs five per Kg that can be got from the Saharanpur Mandi notwithstanding.

Conditions in the Tribal Areas is no different. Only here either the male is considerate enough to be present during the sowing & harvesting season or may be he is not fortunate enough to get ready-made jobs for himself. But here the pain is all the more excruciating. Having started from the hunter gatherer mould, settlement to the subsistence type agriculture(cut and burn, Shifting) was logical succession. The unending hunger for more land kept on growing for the tribals till the British Production Forestry model put a full stop to it. Post independence conservationism oriented but grossly understaffed forest department could only look in mute helplessness while this hunger for land manifested itself in the form of encroachments.
This brings me to the second incident –

The farming system here has continued to depend upon the forests. While earlier on it was just the use based pattern in recent times it became a coping mechanism to counter poverty. Wood-selling was resorted to by the people to earn that extra 10 Rupee. Forgot to mention, that laughing lady used to go every third day to the forests to bring a head-load of 20 Kgs (through a walk of 10 km) and used to sell it for 7-8 Rs at Hotels catering to the Ambaji Pilgrimage. This meant that leave along cultivating she was barely left capable after the days work to cook herself the square meal.

Collection of NTFPs, Fetching Fodder for the animals are some of the other examples of this drudgery that is taking its toll both on the natural resources as well as the health of these poor souls. But why Natural Resources ?? Having got tired of the torture wheel many seek to shortcuts. Being the primary forest users, I am sad to say they have proven to be irresponsible in their use practices. Cutting of the full tree to get goose-berries growing at the top, grazing cattle on the immature vegetation, sometimes one feels as if she is avenging the treatment meted out to her by her family. Interestingly in many areas the eldest girl child is invariable uneducated because she is the one who is supposed to feed her siblings as well as the four-legged companions when her mother goes out to work locally (may be some welcome drought relief work).

The defamed JFM Programme people say failed because it targeted the owners but not the users of the forests.
Finally it brings me to the last question

If they are happy in their bounded rationality with their two square meals a day earned from subsistence agriculture and a pinch of Mahudi to go with it, does it necessarily imply that they are unhappy??

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