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Uttarakhand women break new ground

By Aditi Kapoor, Times of India, 23 August 1999

PAURI: In the hills of Uttarakhand, something unspeakable is happening. Fathers are teaching their daughters how to plough! Ploughing is widely considered to be an exclusively “male” activity; there is a taboo on women using the plough. Sociologists equate this with the “male” urge to control fertility of the ground. Surprisingly, however, at least one out of every ten women in the region can plough.

In Dulmooth village, for instance, five to seven girls can use the plough. Bhuvna Devi’s 17-year-old daughter has been ploughing her fields for the last three years because her brothers, now ten and five, are too young. “I do not like my daughter using the plough,” said the mother, curtly when probed. She admitted her husband had taught the young girl because he was too busy with his job in the plains.

Indeed, almost every household in the hills has at least one adult man doing a job in the plains. Villagers often talk about their “money-order economy”. Yet, women form the backbone of the hill economy because they shoulder most of the burden of agriculture and fetch food, fuelwood and fodder from the forests. A recent study by Sahayog, an NGO in Almora district, revealed that women, young and old, knew more about traditional seed varieties and agricultural practices than the men. The illiterate women ranked and sorted seed varieties on the basis of criteria like soil type, need for irrigation, yield, taste and nutrition. Now, they are breaking the male bastion of using the plough.

What is surprising about Dulmooth is that the girls have been taught to use the plough although, in as many as 40 of the 53 households, there is at least one male adult at home. Most women- headed households in the hills ask the village men to plough their fields. Payment is made in cash or kind. Often a neighbour’s field is ploughed for free to safeguard the tradition of keeping women away from the plough. Vikram, working with a local NGO, Doodhatoli Lok Vikas Sansthan, said widows whose sons have migrated usually face a problem and are helped by other village men. “Villagers refuse to accept a glass of water from a woman who has touched the plough,” he said.

Bhagwati Devi of Panjarabada village, however, has no patience with tradition or custom. She has been ploughing her field for four years though her husband, retired from the state roadways service, stays at home. “He doesn’t have the strength to plough. He is always ill,” Bhagwati Devi said matter-of-factly. “A hired person would cost me Rs. 1000 per season for ploughing alone. My harvest depends on the rains. I cannot afford this luxury of hired labour.” This is despite her three earning sons sending her money-orders.

In her early 50s, Bhagwati Devi admits her knees ache. Yet, her daughter-in-laws are not given the plough “because some people do shun me”. But, who knows? Tomorrow they may pick up the plough and yet not be socially ostracised for it.

(This is part of the series of articles contributed by Aditi Kapoor based on her research project on “Women and Environment”. The research is funded by a fellowship grant from Leadership for Environment and Development (LEAD) International, New York. The series appears on alternate Mondays.)