Women and work in Garhwal


Images By: Pankaj Gupta/Gautam Sonti

It is May, the wedding season in Garhwal, and the mountains reverberate with the sounds of drums and Scottish pipes. Colourful wedding parties can be seen winding their way through mule tracks. The wheat crop has just been harvested, and is now being threshed. Celebration is in the air. Against this backdrop, 72-year-old Bachni Devi has been asked to recollect her own wedding. What was it like coming, as a young child bride, to the village of Jardhargaon? She is both surprised and amused by the question. "My wedding? Oh, it was so long ago," she says. "I was only 13. Now I am 72."

After a pause, Bachni Devi continues: "In the beginning, I used to miss my parents a lot. There was so much work here. Sometimes I fell asleep while working! First thing in the morning, pound the grain, fetch water from the spring, clean the cowshed. There were 11 cows and oxen to take care of. After cleaning the cowshed, I had to take head-loads of dung and spread it in the fields. Even the fields were levelled by us. Then, we had to go to the jungle to get grass. By the time we got back, it was dark. At home, my in-laws had a large family, and they all had to be fed before I could eat. Then wash the dishes, and so it went. We got only two hours of sleep before another day started with the same routine. Sometimes we did not get enough to eat! We used to manage with whatever was available – rice, millet. Then, back to the fields…"

This may sound like the diary of a prisoner or a slave, but Bachni Devi's account is no different from that of many other women of the mid-Himalayan region of Garhwal. In fact, the labour of women was a crucial element in the interdependent agro-pastoral system that was prevalent here until sometime during the 1970s. Material sustenance came from natural resources: domesticated animals converted grasses into milk, draught power and soil nutrients; the forests provided timber for house construction, fodder, firewood and water. But it was human labour that made all of this into a working system: levelling the terraced fields, sowing, tending to standing crops, cutting and threshing, fetching fodder and firewood, channelling water for irrigation, and caring for domesticated animals. Each of these activities was backbreaking in a difficult and hostile terrain. Gender roles complemented the production cycle. The men led a semi-nomadic life – grazing cattle on the lower slopes in the winter, moving up to the higher mountains in the monsoon, and helping with the ploughing, harvesting and maintenance of kools (small irrigation channels) in between. The women, meanwhile, were responsible for all of the other farming and household activities as well as the crucial task of seed preservation and propagation. Keeping the diverse stock of seeds resilient and robust is an essential feature of subsistence farming.

Despite the hard work, it was still a hand-to-mouth existence, with no surplus wealth. Yet unless there were successive years of drought, nobody ever went hungry. This food security was achieved by growing a highly diverse range of crops, with planting and harvests staggered around the year, and over a range of altitudes and ecosystems. This minimised the risk, as one or two crop failures – from among a dozen small ones each year – did not significantly affect the overall production. Furthermore, farmers in Garhwal practiced baranaaja (literally, 'twelve grains'), a unique version of poly-cropping, or growing a number of crops mixed randomly on the same field, that optimally tapped the soil and solar energy, and also worked as a defence against pests.

This way of life began to change rapidly in the 1970s. At this time, the relative isolation of Jardhargaon, as with all of the Hemval River Valley and much of Garhwal, began to be breached by a succession of events. Roads were built, and agriculture extension services were set up to disseminate hybrid seeds, fertilisers and pesticides under an ambitious state plan to promote the 'Green Revolution' – despite questions about its appropriateness for mountain ecologies. It was also during this decade that the free allotment of small pockets of agricultural land, which had long been practiced in Garhwal first by the king and then by the state, also came to a halt. As a result, agricultural production could not keep pace with the growth of the local population.

A series of popular protests erupted around this time. The most prominent of these were the Chipko Movement to save trees in the 1970s, and in the 1980s the Uttarakhand movement for autonomous statehood, as well as the protest against the Tehri dam, which displaced or completely annihilated settled agriculture in scores of Garhwali villages. While these movements – spread over three decades – successfully raised popular consciousness and put a spotlight on the hills of this area, they also diverted a fair amount of men and women away from production activities, which in turn disrupted the local economy. Another blow to local livelihoods came in 1982, when a ban was enacted on the commercial felling of timber under the auspices of the Forest (Conservation) Act. The cumulative effect of these developments was the gradual weakening of subsistence farming and local self-sufficiency. By the 1990s, households were producing less than half of what they produced two decades earlier, and there was simply not enough food to last through the year. With negligible cash incomes, this meant starvation.

The local communities inevitably responded with migration. Though migration had always been a survival strategy in mountainous areas, the extent of the movement witnessed in the middle Himalaya in the last few decades was unprecedented. In Jardhargaon, every one of the 300 households had at least one – if not all – of the men in the family travelling to work in distant cities. From the 1990s onward, this became only more acute, as the rapid diffusion of television attracted a new generation to the charms of the city. Many also attribute this rapid out-migration to the spread of standardised formal education, which included a curriculum that made no distinction between rural or urban, let alone mountains or plains, and which prepared students for anything but local occupations.

Inevitably, the en masse migration of men resulted in new social and production dynamics. The level of pastoral activities, dependent as it was on the labour of men, dropped drastically. Within 30 years, the population of domesticated animals plummeted to just a tenth of what it had been. As terrace farming needed animal compost, this further exacerbated the decline of farm productivity. Socially, a typical pattern soon took shape: the younger men left for low-paying jobs in the cities, while their wives stayed on in the village, looking after the farm and the household, and keeping the 'roots' intact for the men. Meanwhile, for the latter, home was always the place where they were born and raised, despite the fact that they were visiting it for no more than two or three weeks every year. A dominant picture emerged, one of the absence of young and middle-aged men, and the predominant presence, instead, of children, old couples and young and married women.

72-year-old Bachni Devi recollects her own wedding which took place 59 years ago
Veteran of the Chipko movement, Sudesha Devi at work

Hitherto, Garhwali women and men had been partners in the agro-pastoral production system. This equation had dissolved under the compelling force of out-migration. The absence of men not only strengthened the dominance of women in farming, but also in other household affairs. Given the patriarchal structure, land ownership of course did not pass to the women, even while their dependence on cash remittances sent by the men also increased. Nonetheless, the influence of the absent husbands gradually diminished in local decision-making. During their annual visits, the men who visited from the city were generally objects of mild amusement for the other women – for the way they dressed, their new cultural orientation, and their fading grasp of how to do agricultural tasks.

In this way, and quite unexpectedly, a new recognition of self-worth slowly emerged among the women. Sudesha Devi, a Chipko veteran from Rampur, has some typically strong views on the gender question in the context of male out-migration. "The house that does not have a woman is a lonely house," she says. "But a house whose men have gone away is still thriving! Only one man in a hundred can do household tasks the way women can. If all of us women went away from these mountains, leaving the men behind, life would collapse here in a matter of days. Men cannot survive here by themselves, but women can!"

In some ways, the move to the city was good for the men as well, as it made them more responsible. Most women with whom this writer spoke felt that households whose men were away were better off, as the remittances they received were far more valuable than the presence of men in the village, or their traditional contribution to the pastoral activities. It is also true that, traditionally, men did little during the six months that they were at home, when they were not busy with the cattle. What do men do? is a frequent refrain in these areas. Just play cards, drink and chat at the roadside shops! Even when the men were in the village, they followed the division of gender roles rather strictly; if they were idle, they would not lift a finger to do a task that would be categorised as 'women's work'.

With their superior purchasing power, the migrants tended to create something of an identity crisis for the men who remained back in the villages. Birender was one of those required to stay back to look after the kool maintenance, and to plough with the oxen. "What will I do outside [in the city]?" he asks. "Just work in a restaurant, washing dishes. I'll never get a good job. It's quite good here; our needs are so little." But he concedes, with a twinge of regret, that when he was younger he lacked the courage to go to a big city and find work. Although he was quite bright and finished high school after studying science, his father had not let him study any further. "So I stayed at home," he says. "If I had studied a little more, I could have gotten a job." Many such men responded by joining the local cash economy. When the state offered hybrid seeds and fertilisers for trial in Garhwal, many switched to commodity crops as a way of gaining cash income and regaining self-esteem. Ever since, farmers here have been growing soybeans, hybrid rice, tomatoes, French beans, potatoes and peas.

Over time, a clear pattern of gender divide has become visible in the two co-existing economies. The first is a cash economy of remittances and commodity crops controlled by men, while the second is the women's informal economy of household chores and subsistence farming. The cash economy made the lives of the women significantly easier, at least at the outset. Even with meagre remittances, cooking gas provided an alternative to fetching vast amounts of firewood. With the decline in livestock numbers, demand for fodder was also reduced. Despite this, however, for many women – especially of the older generation – the previous regime of subsistence farming was preferable to the new monetary culture. For one, the social status of women went down as subsistence farming became socially devalued, compared to the higher value ascribed to activities that brought in cash; this was especially so as all of the decisions and labour for growing commodity crops became a male preserve. In addition, for some, like Bachni Devi, who do not have sons in the city to send them remittances, the new monetary culture has been hard, as it has come with a breakdown in community linkages. "Earlier, people used to lend their oxen during sowing time," she says. "Now, you can get oxen only if you can pay for their hire." But without a cash income, where would she get the money to hire oxen or buy food?

No wonder that, among the newer generation of women, toiling through farming is no longer a preferred option. "Earlier, when boys went to ask a girl's hand in marriage, the girl's family would consider the proposal based on how much cultivable land the boy had," says Raghu Jardhari, a young farmer-activist. "Now it's the reverse. Now, they will say no to a farmer, and yes to a city migrant." In fact, out-migration from these mountains has recently entered a new, more permanent phase, driven by a desire for English-medium education for the children. Whole families are now moving to urban fringes, preparing their children for jobs in the information-technology sector. Even locally, the service and trade sectors have grown, fuelling urban-based service occupations in nearby towns such as Chamba and New Tehri. Villages like Jardhargaon, just a few kilometres by road to thriving Chamba and New Tehri towns, are now more akin to residential suburbs than thriving agro-pastoral ecologies.

What changes lie ahead for the young people of Jardhargaon? How will women fare in this new milieu, and will they feel more liberated or more oppressed? Already at just 15, Kabita straddles two worlds: in Delhi, where her father has a job, and in Jardhargaon, where her mother continues with subsistence farming. Kabita acknowledges her own conflicting loyalties: "It's better to be in the village and do some good work here. In a city, even if you have your own business or work, it is no good. It's only worth it if you have a good job in the city." She admits, though, that she herself is not interested in farming, though she does not mind doing household chores. Her brother, Mukesh, volunteers for a UNESCO-sponsored community radio station in Chamba, and is preparing himself for the service sector. For him, "The difference is in mental power. A person doing physical work is paid 80 rupees a day, but a computer operator gets a thousand!"

Whether Mukesh and Kabita eventually live in a big city or get absorbed into the emerging local service sector, it is clear that for the new generation in Garhwal, subsistence farming is no longer much of an option. This could mean the end of a unique culture that has accorded women a special, central status, to be replaced perhaps by a new dynamic that makes them subservient to an economy controlled by men.

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Himal Southasian