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GENDER ISSUES IN FARMING SYSTEMS
RESEARCH AND EXTENSION
SOUTH INDIAN FEMALE CULTIVATORS AND AGRICULTURAL LABORERS
Who Are They and What Do They Do?1
JOAN P. MENCHER
Lehman College, CUNY, and CUNY Graduate Center
This paper looks at women in land-owning households in Chingleput
District of Tamil Nadu, India, one of the main traditional rice-producing
regions of the state (though from time to time reference is also made to other
rice regions in Tamil Nadu where I have worked, as well as to Kerala and West
Bengal). First, I discuss the question of what we mean when we talk about a
"farm household" in the context of a highly stratified society, with a wide
range in farm size and a sizeable landless laborer population. This is not
merely an academic question, because unfounded assumptions by Indian planners
about what constitutes a farm household continue to inform extension policy.
The remainder of the paper deals with the following questions:
(1) What is the general nature of the sexual division of labor in agriculture?
(2)What constraints to production and marketing activities exist when females
either own the land or are the main managers? How do they cope, and what
alternatives do they have available? (3) What happens when the family has other
enterprises in addition to farming? (4) How are the answers to these questions
affected by caste, size of holding, availability of water and the related mix of
crops, and differing family structures? (5) How might innovations in extension
affect women? The answers to such questions are extremely complex, and the most
I can hope to do here is to sketch out some of the main factors that have to be
taken into consideration in formulating answers. Furthermore, these questions
cannot be answered in isolation from each other, and thus my comments on them
will be interwoven throughout the paper.
What is a "farm family" in the context of Indian rice farming? Three
salient points need to be made about Tamil Nadu in general, and Chingleput
District in particular, before trying to answer this question. (1) Despite a
Hindu ideal of joint family living, the less land a household owns, the less
likely it is to have more than one married male living in the household. (A
household here is defined as a group of related people who share common cooking
arrangements, live in the same or adjacent structures, and have independent
living arrangements vis-a-vis other households.) Thus in 1961 among those with
less than one acre approximately 15% of households had more than one married
couple (either a married son or brother), whereas among those with over 10 acres
more than 40% of the households had at least one extra married couple.2
Furthermore, there seems to have been a steady decrease among the landed in the
number of people in each household between 1871 and 1961. (2) In a significant
number of farm households one or more males is engaged actively in non-agricul-
tural activity, and this has been increasing since the turn of the century.
(3) A major percentage of labor in the fields (even in those districts where the
Farm Management Studies of the 50's were carried out) has always been done by
hired laborers, both male and female. (For more details about Chingleput
District, see Appendix A.)
The traditional rice-producing states and districts of India have
always had the densest populations on the sub-continent. This is no accident,
because rice produces greater yields per acre than any other grain crop and
thus can feed more people. In addition,-work in rice has always been seen as
tedious and unpleasant. Thus, not only have those regions had the densest
populations, but they have also been the most highly stratified. As a result
these areas have from the earliest times contained a minimum of three tiers,
including (1) landless or semi-landless workers who belonged to either untouchable
castes or tribal groups, (2) a middle rung of low and middle-ranking communities
whose members either cultivated as tenants of larger and/or higher ranking land
owners or worked as managers directly under the land-owner, and (3) the land-
owners themselves, who had holdings of varying sizes but shared the main charac-
teristic that they did not work physically on their land. (Some did supervise in
the fields, and some males (depending on caste) participated in plowing for the
few days in the year this work was required.)
The typical "farm family", which owned and worked the land primarily
with family labor, was (and is) much less common in the rice regions than in
regions where other crops dominate. In a study comparing the 1961 and the 1971
censuses, Ramachandran noted that the proportion of agricultural laborers to the
total work force had not only increased throughout the state, but had done so
particularly in districts which were below the state average in 1961. In those
talks (administrative subdivisions smaller than a district) which had signifi-
cant tubewell-irrigation, the percentage of agricultural laborers in the working
population increased by an average of 94.72% over the decade (Ramachandran
1980:153). Thus the introduction of new irrigation resulted in a massive in-
crease in rice production, leading to an immediate increase in the reliance on
I have discussed the question of family farm labor labor in Tamil Nadu
elsewhere, and have pointed out that actually most of the manual work in rice
cultivation--even on the smallest farms--is carried out by wage labor, both
male and female. The types of work women do depend on the social class to which
they belong. Among the landless there is work both in the field (helping with
sowing, trampling the dirt as it is being leveled, transplanting and weeding,
harvesting, etc.--though the activities women participate in differ by region,
by caste or community, by training, by age and health, etc. (see Mencher and
Saradamoni 1982)--and in the house or compound of the employer helping to get
seeds ready for sowing, and after the harvest in threshing or helping with
threshing (this again varied regionally and by community), winnowing, parboil-
ing, dehusking and polishing the paddy, and transporting it to mills. Among the
small land-owning households as well as the tenant households, women (especially
if they are not of high caste) work on their own lands, sometimes work for
others, and also are involved with the purchase of inputs, preparing of food for
laborers, frequently supervising field operations, and taking care of all sorts
of small things that come up within their household and with their neighbors.
Among the larger land-owning households women do not do manual work in
the fields. But according to our data at least some women (among those with
husbands of working age who live in the village) do take a very major role in
supervision of field operations. (See further below.) Furthermore, throughout
Tamil Nadu in every village where I have worked (including those in Chingleput)
I have found among the land-owning households, both small and large, a number of
female-headed households where the women in charge (even if they have grown
sons) take the major responsibility for farm management. The proportion of
female-headed households varies greatly from village to village, even within the
same taluk. What can be said without question is that they exist in all vil-
lages and that in some their numbers are sizeable; furthermore, many of them
number among the more innovative and enterprising of the farming households.
I have shown elsewhere how even the smallest of land-owning households in
Tamil Nadu employ outside help for at least some operations (1978:203). Thus for
farms between ,1 and 1.0 acres in size 87x use hired help to assist with plow-
ing, 81X employ women to transplant, 81X employ women to weed, and 93x employ
men and women for harvesting (Mencher 1978: 203). This is not to say that the
household members do no work on their own land, but it does mean that agricult-
ure is not carried out by single isolated "farm families". Yet many planners
speak about farming families as if the household were an isolate, or as if
dependence on wage labor affected only a small percentage of agriculturalists.
In Tamil Nadu women do a great deal of the manual work in rice and
other related crop cultivation. While plowing and all activities that use draft
animals are done by males, these activities only account for a very small amount
of the time spent on agriculture or related work, and there are very few other
activities associated with paddy cultivation or related crops that are not done
by women in at least some districts. Chingleput happens to be one of the
districts where women participate in a very wide variety of activities. It is
easier to delineate the activities from which they are excluded than to list all
that they do. Apart from work with bullocks, they are excluded from: (1)
climbing trees, (2) most operations involving irrigation in the fields (though
women may use a water lift to water vegetables grown in a household garden
around their compound ), (3) applying chemical fertilizers (though women do
apply natural manures), (4) digging (mostly for bund construction, and on occas-
ion in a kitchen garden; women do sometimes dig in their own kitchen gardens);
(5) applying pesticides (interestingly, this restriction is not for the women's
protection, since in any case they are exposed to pesticides regularly when
weeding and transplanting; rather, it is because most males do not feel that
women should be trusted with such costly things): and (6) driving and repairing
tractors and other machines. As I have discussed elsewhere, when an activity is
done by women it is considered easy work, but when the same activity is done by
men, it is regarded as hard work (Mencher 1984c).
In Tamil Nadu as well as elsewhere, census materials have tended to
under-report the involvement of wonen'in agriculture. There are a number of
factors involved in this, including the fact that most of the rural enumerators
are males, who mainly talk to male members of the households, and that the
census is usually taken at a time in the year when there is relatively little
activity in agriculture. In examining the District Census Handbooks for 1971
for Chingleput District, I found that--
for some villages there is quite accurate reporting of the number of female
agricultural labourers, but for many others either none are reported or
some very small number is given...Some even include villages within our
sample [the one used for Mencher 19783...Yet, we not only have details from
women in these villages about their work, but also photographs of them
On the basis of my survey I estimated that in this one district alone there were
probably close to 100,000 more women agricultural laborers than reported, or
that the ratio of female to male agricultural laborers was actually about 208
women for every 222 men, or .94, as opposed to .48 or 108 women for every 222
men as reported. The provisional 1981 census seems to be somewhat more accurate
in that the ratio reported is .80 or 182 women for every 228 men, though even
here I suspect some women escaped the census takers.
When it comes to cultivators the census is even more inaccurate. There
are many confusions in the census figures for females who are cultivators, and
this figure has not been corrected for 1981. One problem is that the category
of "cultivator" is very poorly defined. Thus most of the women listed as
cultivators are living in households without adult males, i.e. widows or women
whose husbands live away for most of the time (where men are migrant wage
earners away from the village, returning only for occasional visits). But many
women in Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, and Kerala play a significant role in agricul-
ture even when they are not working in the fields. Males in the rice regions
(in Tamil Nadu and elsewhere) rarely hesitate to turn more and more agricultural
supervision over to their wives if they have something else they would prefer to
devote their time to. On the other hand, when questioned by a census taker, the
male "head of household" would certainly claim to be the cultivator. This is
certainly one of the major reasons why there are approximately 5 male cultiva-
tors for every 1 female one in the census.
As noted above, in all of these states among the middle and upper
classes, especially those households belonging to upper castes or high ranking
communities (such as the Mudaliars), while some agricultural management was
often carried out by household members, the actual physical work was done mainly
by agricultural laborers. Apart from plowing (usually with teams of hired
males), the only other activities in which the male landowners participated
involved supervision, which could be carried out while holding an umbrella (as
protection against the sun or rain) and wearing clean white clothes. Some land-
owning women, especially those belonging to lower castes and untouchable or
tribal groups, also worked hard in their own fields along with their hired
laborers. Nevertheless, in South Asia as a whole white collar or supervisory or
managerial ability was always regarded as superior to manual skills.
Most of the better-off households had land in a number of plots in
different places. This was not just the result of complex inheritance patterns
or the way land was purchased, but in many instances represented rational
decisions about diversifying the type of land owned, about staggering timing of
water release (when the land was watered from canals or lakes), or about the
types of crop that could be grown. Often the wife would supervise at one site
and the husband at another. In addition, many men of the upper classes or even
the middle classes were not primarily interested in agriculture. They lived off
their land, or at least had it as a reserve economic base, but they had other
interests. For Brahman men, and even for some of the other high castes, the
temple was often the main focus of interest. In addition, traditionally men
were involved in warfare, or village management, or local politics. During the
past 100 years or so, men's options have increased enormously. With education,
many landed men entered a wide range of professions, took jobs with government,
went into teaching, or started businesses (from small general stores to rice
mills, bus lines, brick factories, cycle shops, etc.), became itinerant traders,
etc. While young wives were not expected to go out and do all of the managerial
things a husband might do, a woman of 35 or so could begin to do more and more
in many of these households (especially those that chose not to employ a male
supervisor). In addition, there are numerous women whose husbands are too ill
to work and who have no adult sons. Such households are not rare, given the
traditional practice of marrying women to men at least 5-10 years older than
themselves, and often as much as 20 or 25 years older.
Are land-owning women doing more agriculturally-related work in these
regions today than in the past? It is not possible to give a simple answer to
this question. With more alternative opportunities open to males, some of them
are handing over more and more responsibilities to their wives or mothers. In
addition, partly because of population increase, partly because of the shift
from subsistence agriculture to landlord-managed capitalist farming, many women
whose parents belonged to small land-owning or tenant households are now land-
less, and many who were in medium-sized land-owning households are now in
really small ones. Some of these women, whose mothers did not work in the
fields, are now forced to do such work. The increasing costs of agriculture
resulting from having to buy pesticides, fertilizers and sometimes seeds, as
well as having to invest in pump-sets, etc., have also created a situation
where more women actually work in the fields. On the other hand, we also know
that even in the past, many women did supervise agriculture, though perhaps
fewer women belonging to higher castes did any manual work in the fields.
Some idea of the activities of landowning women can be obtained from the
excerpts from diaries given in Appendix B. These diaries were among those kept
by a number of land-owning women as part of the data for a recent project
carried out in Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and West Bengal (see footnote 1). The
examples include both women with and without husbands involved in agriculture.
It is useful in this connection to look at the main impediments that
land-owning women face in managing their own land. As I have noted elsewhere,
the most serious difficulties for land-owning women are
not the lack of physical strength but special problems in
dealing with the outside world. The main times these women
need help seem to be (a) to buy essential inputs, for which
they need to go to shops--normally outside the village, and
to bargain with people, or even to go to the government
depot and deal with the male officials there, and (b) to sell
their produce, if the merchant does not come to their house
[or nearby]. (Where merchants come to the house, women are
able to sell, often driving fairly hard bargains.) These are
male domains and women alone do not feel welcome, though
some women will go if they are accompanied by a male
relative or farm servant. Apart from these two domains,
some women are able to deal with the problems of supervision
and still get good yields (Mencher 1984:7-8).
As noted above, the farming population of villages in Chingleput District,
as in the rest of Tamil Nadu and in India in general, is stratified in terms of
both caste and socio-economic class. Although there is a fairly strong correla-
tion on the bottom (i.e. many untouchables are landless) and on the top (most
large landowners belong to a high caste), there is no 1-to-1 correlation between
caste and class. Yet both caste and class play a part in influencing task
allocation and general intra-household dynamics as they relate to agriculture.
Other factors that are significant in the Tamil Nadu context relate to household
composition, e.g. the number of adult males and females, the number of children,
their ages and sex, the number of generations in the household, whether the
household is female-headed or not, and a number of ideosyncratic factors, in-
cluding the personality of the women herself and that of her husband.
There are additional factors that also influence the amount of supervision
done by women, such as (1) the distance of the family's fields from the village,
(2) whether or not the husband is involved in other non-agricultural activities
or enterprises, (3) whether a woman has had any training in agriculture before
marriage, and (4) an elusive cultural variable I can only call village or
regional custom. (There are sub-regional differences in this, but the reasons
for the variation are not yet understood; see Mencher 1982, 1985b.) As a result, in
trying to describe intra-household dynamics, one cannot pin-point one or even
two general patterns. Each of the villages I have studied in Chingleput shows a
very wide degree of such variation. At this juncture, it may be useful to look
at a few brief descriptions of the circumstances of village landowning women.
(1) Saroja is a widow. She belongs to a high-ranking agriculturalist
caste.4 She has a son who is a teacher in a neighboring village, an unmarried
daughter, and a son in school. They own 2-1/2 acres of land. Her husband
used to work as a car driver in Madras. She supervises the work in her own
fields, and manages to earn a little extra by supervising others' fields during
the harvest. She sends her sons when they are free to learn about agriculture.
Her son purchases all inputs, but she does the spraying of pesticides, helps in
sowing, and pays the laborers. Her son the teacher also helps at times. She
is deeply devoted to agriculture, and once attended a conference at the block
office. She says, "I supervise all the work, transplantation, weeding, etc.
Especially I am careful in noting the duration of the transplantation work. I
also watch how much time a worker takes for doing a certain work. I do this in
my field and in other's fields." She engages a head laborer who is in charge
of hiring others. She pays him 1/12 of the produce, so he is eager to get good
workers to increase the yield. She does not do any manual work herself.
(2) Saradamma lives with one son and her brother's daughter. She
started to manage her land when her husband was ill. After his death, she sold
some land to pay off debts. Since then, she has run her farm quite efficiently.
"I go to the fields and supervise. I do everything that a man does. Sometimes
I even go and sell, sometimes I send an agent. I also listen to the radio and
go to seminars or training camps whenever the Mathersangam (women's club) sends
me. She has 7 acres, 4 of wet rice and 3 of "dry land" given over to peanuts.
Saradamma herself managed to get a borewell to change some of her dry land into
wet. Her mother and her mother-in-law both used to supervise agriculture.
Saradamma supervises all work now, though as her son grows up he is helping by
going to shops for inputs. She attended a 4-day training program in the nearby
town, where she learned all about seeds for different types of soil.
(3) Selvakumari lives with her husband and her mother-in-law and
children. (They are also high-caste agriculturalists.) They have 2 acres in
which they grow mostly paddy, though if there is not enough water they also
grow sesame seeds. She only got involved in agriculture after her marriage.
She works along with the laborers to transplant, weed and harvest, as well as
helping with supervision. Her husband is a school teacher, and has little time
even for supervision. First he tried using an agent but found that the yields
were poor, so he decided to train his wife to do the work. She claims that she
is being teased by the other women of her caste for doing manual work in the
fields. However, she comments: "If we go to do supervision they work all right.
But if we work along with them they work better. They feel more responsible to
work the same way we work. They think that we may say something if they do not
work well. If we only go to supervise and ask them to work well they will
answer back saying what do you know about this work. But if we work with them
they cannot say like that." However, she pointed out that it is only possible
for her to go and work in the field because her mother-in-law is in the house to
do all the housework, attend to the children' needs, and cook for the workers.
This case gives an indication of some of the other tasks performed by
women in agriculture that are often ignored totally by development planners in
India. In this household, the mother-in-law is not only responsible for the
maintenance of the family and child care, but also for the other agri-related
tasks the wife in a nuclear family must do. For women, if the size of holdings
increased and the family became more prosperous, they were required to do many
new agriculturally related tasks which kept them away from the fields and made
them in a sense less visible as agriculturalists. These include: (a) cooking
food for laborers during the transplanting, harvesting and threshing seasons, (b)
seeing to it that all equipment needed is available for the laborers, (c) paying
the laborers and keeping some kind of record, (d) supervising things done in the
house such as soaking seeds before sowing, (e) taking care of other things
associated with paddy preparation such as cleaning and sorting seeds to be stored
for the following crop, taking paddy to the rice mill, cleaning, measuring and
storing the dehusked paddy, etc.; (f) taking care of cattle, including cleaning
cow sheds, feeding the cows, milking the cows (if not done by hired labor), and
churning the milk: (g) taking care of small kitchen gardens, preserving food,
taking care of goats and chickens, and even trading at times. Women sometimes
keep small amounts of grain in their own private kitties for emergency use.
Among the poor this includes even hoarding and distributing the small remains of
rice in the times before a harvest or when a family is threatened with starvation
(see K. Markandaya, Nectar in a Sieve). Often it is farm wives with little help
from their men who are responsible for the prevention of post-harvest losses.
The amount of time involved in these tasks increases with the size of the
It is often stated that women tend to withdraw from agriculture as the
size of their holding increases. The reason that is often given for this
relates to the family's "prestige" and the need for a man to feel that he is
providing for his wife. Uma Lele notes:
In Asia there is significant evidence suggesting increased substitution of
hired labor on farms for household female labor with increased household
income. Preference for improved childcare must ... play a part in
domestic vs. income earning activities... Conflicts between women's
income-earning and household responsibilities especially childcare appear to
be considerable in traditional Asian households with important implications
for short- and long-run outcomes with regard to the derivation of women's
own utility, household utility and the development of their families and the
families' long-term capabilities and preferences. (1985:16-17)
I would submit that apart from child care, an equally important factor is the
simple fact that as holding size increases many women do not have the time to
participate in agricultural activities outside the home, because of the new
tasks that they have within the home, which are directly related to agriculture
though often ignored in planning and in extension work. This is not to under-
play the fact that we are dealing with a society where manual labor is looked
down on, and the fact that a wife whose husband could "spare" her from field
work would traditionally have higher status. (In this connection, it is worth
noting that Selvakumari's husband is an educated man who is consciously breaking
with tradition.) But, the role of women in these subsidiary agricultural activi-
ties may be far more time-consuming and important than generally understood.
During our recent research on women in agriculture, when we were seeking
women who would be willing to keep diaries, we ended up with a disproportionate
number of widows or women whose husbands were employed outside the village. The
reason for this is informative. When we went to ask women to keep diaries, many
of those women who do not supervise work in the field insisted that they did not
do anything in connection with agriculture. Indeed, it was hard to convince
them that we could be interested in knowing about many of these so-called
domestic activities, which we have conceptualized as being related to agricul-
ture. It is true that among the large landowners some have servants (both male
and female) to do these things, but this is not true of all. And even with
household servants many of the wealthier women put in long hours measuring out
food to be cooked for the laborers, cooking for them, checking on work, etc.
Table 1, based on the printed diaries given out during the second stage of our
study, gives some indication of how frequently many of our sample land-owning
informants performed a given group of tasks in the course of the study year.
Many of the lower-caste land-owning women who worked in their own
fields also worked occasionally for others. At first this seemed surprising
but reflecting about it, one comes to realize one of the reasons perhaps why
they may do this. The literature on Africa indicates that in many areas the
non-pooling of resources by spouses is often the predominant budgeting arrange-
ment, even when pooling is the stated ideal. In India, on the other hand, it
has always been assumed that there is a common pool controlled by the male head
of the household, who gives his wife what is required for day-to-day household
needs. However, our project data show that among the women belonging to
landless laborer households, by far the majority do not hand over their
earnings to their husbands, and in fact many of the husbands hand over their
earnings to their wives (see Mencher 1986c). In these households, I have shown
that female income is in fact absolutely essential to family survival (see
Mencher 1986b). In most of the landless laborer households the husbands either
keep what they feel they need for the maintenance of their male status, or in
some cases give everything to the wife and then take back from her what they
need for their personal expenses.
In the land-owning households, especially those where there is a
substantial amount of land, most of the women say that their husbands manage all
of their finances. If this is generally true (though it remains to be checked
further), then it is possible that some women would continue to do field work
beyond the point of absolute necessity in order to have some income that is
completely their own -- even if their social status suffers slightly as a result.
As I have noted elsewhere (Mencher 1985), female income is most often used for meeting
household needs, whereas income controlled by males is more likely to go in part
into their "male status producing activities" or unproductive consumption.
Thus, even some women with medium-sized holdings (4-5 acres) may feel that they
need outside earned income to give them more flexibility in managing the house-
hold and perhaps satisfying any of their own personal needs such as an occasion-
al extra sari. The circumstances which provide an incentive for a land-owning
woman continuing to work as a day laborer cannot be fully described from the
data collected on this project, but the fact that it occurs in some village
households needs to be acknowledged. These are areas which require more
To turn to the question of how innovations in extension might affect women,
I.would like to note first of all that because of stratification, innovations
that might benefit one sector of women might well be disadvantageous for other
sectors of the rural population. Increased knowledge about new inputs, or
increased access to water near the household, will certainly affect women in
better-off households more than the landless (though at times they might provide
more work for the landless). The introduction of equipment for transplanting
would obviously benefit the landed more than the landless (who would in fact end
up with less work.) On the other hand, programs to make available goats, or
poultry, or even milk cows, to all women would benefit a much wider group.
Having an animal in her own name means that a woman can also have greater
control over its products. In one of our sample villages in Kerala State,
where there has been an influx of middle east money, many of the landless women
have managed to get cows. This has greatly improved their situation. But most
of the time extension workers, even when they are trying to get loans for
villagers to buy animals, tend to focus on the males, even though females have
an excellent record of paying back loans. Another way in which extension could
help women more would be to look at the potential role of kitchen gardens. If
there was water readily accessible to women, then it would be possible to get
them to grow vegetables around their own houses even if they only have a few
cents of land.
1. The research on which this paper is based was carried out over a period of 25
years starting in 1963, when the author first worked in a village in Chingleput
District. She has lived and worked intensively in villages in Chingleput Dis-
trict at several times after that initial stay (see Mencher 1978). In 1981, she
also participated in an intensive study in one village in the neighboring
District of South Arcot. This was one of the new villages that served as part
of a larger study of women and rice cultivation carried out in collaboration
with Dr. K. Saradamoni of the Indian Statistical Institute, New Delhi, and
funded by the Smithsonian Institution and the Indian Council of Social Sceince
Research. The work on this study has been carried out in 10 villages each in
Kerala and Tamil Nadu, and 8 villages in West Bengal (including one where the
author worked previously in 1963). Two of the ten villages in Tamil Nadu were
ones in Chingleput District where the author lived previously. For a detailed
discussion of the methodology used in this study, see Mencher 1980.
2. This is discussed in more detail in Mencher 1978. The census has a category
which states "percentage having married males living in household" and includes
separately sons and other males (mostly brothers). There is no way of knowing
whether the same households have both sons and other males, or if they are
different households. The census actually lists 38.9% of households with more
than 50 acres having married sons, and 40.3 having other married males. If one
simply added them together that would come to close to 80% of all households
with lands over 50 acres. On the basis of village-level data, it seems likely
that among the better-off households those that have sons are also more likely
to include brothers, or occasionally a member of a still older generation
(since people tend to marry quite young).
3. In addition, Ramachandran points to a "rapid 'agricultural labourization' of
the population from among cultivators and others...pushed into the force of
agricultural labourers" (155:1980).
4. To date no research has been done anywhere on the subcontinent on the
relationship between women's involvement in production and such things as
yields. For example, it would be extremely useful to know if there is any
difference between households where the women are more active and onae where
they are not (other things being equal). In this context there are two types
of households: those where land-owning women play a very active role in super-
vision, decision making, etc., and those where they also work in the fields.
In cases of the first type, it would be useful to find out if households where
women are deeply involved in supervision in the field, as well as in planning,
are any more successful than households where they are less involved. Among
households of the second type, it might be useful to see if yields are any
better when the women of the household transplant and weed along with hired
help. Many women have told me that they thought the hired help did their work
better when the owners worked along with them, but there are no actual data in
support of this claim. If it turned out to be true, what would be the implica-
Background Data on Chingleput District
b. Tamil Nadu
c. Chingleput District
12.5' to 13.5' north of the equator
1100 F. maximum in summer (i.e. April-May)
650 F. minimum in winter (i.e. mid-Dec.--mid-Feb.)
Two rainfall regimes
1. sub-coastal: Oct.--Jan. 23-35 in., with peak in Nov.;
June--Sept. 16-23 in.
2. western part of district: Oct.--Jan. 16-23 in., with peak in Nov.);
June--Sept. 16-23 in.
Area fits into Medium Tropical Transitorial Bioclimate
Area subject to considerable variability in rainfall (one of
the sample villages in a pocket with extraordinary variability)
black and red, each with three varieties of loam, clay and sand
In talks studied, black soil accounts for 55% of total in
Madurantakam and Kanchipuram, and 21% in Sriperumbudur. Black
loam soil gives Madurantakam and Kanchipuram high fertility, with
irrigated areas most fertile.
a. Size distribution of farms (Based on a survey in 70-71 of 8
villages. Note: recent work in two of the villages reveals no
substantial change in pattern of distribution.)
SIZE (in acres) % POPULATION % LAND
0.00 48.7% I 0.00 I
0.01-1.10 16.8% I 92.8% 5.7% I 48.7%
1.11-7.50 27.3% I 43.0% I
7.51-15.00 4.7% I 7.2% 24.1% I 51%
15.10* 2.5% I 27.1% I
b. Two major types of tenancy: (1) 50/50 sharecropping called varam,
and (2) fixed share called kuttagai; also a kind of tenancy in
which a man takes complete charge of the work in exchange for 1/6 of
the produce (the land-owner makes all decisions and pays for all
inputs: also owner cultivation with the help of hired labor:
approx. 35% of total land leased, but considerable variation from
village to village
c. Tamil speaking. Villages divided by caste, with agricultural
laborers belonging to untouchable and low castes. Strong correlation
between caste and land ownership.
d. Easy access to markets
e. Access to credit through nationalized banks, agri. coop banks,
and traditional money lenders (often rich farmers)
4. Nature of cropping system
a. subsistence/cash objectives
Both subsistence and cash. Main cash crop in area is rice, which is
also consumed by household. Other crops also for cash and
b. Labor requirements
Per acre female labor requirement equal to or higher than male,
but females paid less than males. Many tasks sex specific.
2. Distribution over time
Long periods with no work, with high demand for work in short
of time. Male tasks tend to be more spread out than female tasks.
Two main seasons, in some villages one extra season for irrigated
land. Correlation between amount of land given over to paddy and
3. A very high percentage of work is carried out by hired labor.
Even the smallest of holdings make use of hired labor. Among the
lower ranking communities people may both work for others and
also hire labor for tasks such as plowing, transplanting,
weeding and harvesting.
Plowing done mostly by bullocks, though more and more cultivators
are using tractors. When plowing is done with bullocks one usual-
ly finds two or more plows, one following the other. Apart from
plowing, animal power used to transport products to the market
and to bring inputs to the village, and for trampling grain (for
Electricity is also used to power tube-wells that are used to
bring sub-soil water to the fields.
d. Cash requirements
1. Key inputs: (a) seed: mostly use own old seed. If purchased
price varies greatly from season to season. Mostly it is a very
small proportion of cost of cultivation, approx. 6.5% (1981
prices approx. Re. 120 per acre): (b) fertilizers (cow dung is
collected locally), chemical fertilizers (in 1981 approx. Ra. 419
per acre) about 23% of costs of cultivation; (c) pesticides
(approx. Rs. 170 per acre in 1981); (d) electricity: approx. Rs.
500 per acre in 1981, though this varies depending on the extent
to which village is dependent on tube-well irrigation: (e) labor
costs amount to about 25% of the costs of cultivation, though
this can vary by village.
e. Price of products
During period 79-81, price per quintal (= 100 kilos):
ragl (a millet, Eleusine coracana) = Rs. 120
paddy varies by week between Rs. 99-120
(In 1980-81, S1 = approx. 8-9 Rupees)
Some Excerpts from diaries kept by land owning women
Diary 1: Seivasundaram, widow (This woman has 2 sons, both employed
outside the village)
She herself owns 1.70 acres of paddy land and 50 cents of
garden land. During the year prior to our study she had also taken 2
acres on lease from a relative but in the end he cheated her, so in the
year of our study she was back to cultivating her 1.70 acres. During
transplanting and weeding she used to go to the field and supervise the
workers, but she will not go to the market to sell the produce. That
must be done by one of her sons. Also, he and one of the workers will
go to the market or the society for purchasing inputs. She both works
in the fields and also supervises agricultural work. If she wants any
suggestions she consults her husband's brother. However, when asked
about her use of fertilizers and pesticides she replied forcefully:
"I am having a radio. I will listen to the farm news abnd from that I
will tell my son what sort of fertilizers we should use and what kind
of pesticides to buy." She says that if it is hot when the harvesting
is going on, she will use an umbrella and sit and supervise the workers.
25 August 1979: This morning I went to the field. 14 persons had come
for harvest. I also participated along with them. At noon my husband
came to the field and I left for the threshing floor. The laborers
had gone for lunch. They came back by 3 P.M. and brought the bundles of
harvested crop to the threshing floor. The day ended only when this
work was completed. I then asked the laborers to come the next day to
harvest the rest of the 1 1/2 acres of land.
26 August 1979: Today harvesting could only be done in one acre. Thirty-
one persons had come for the work. My husband did not attend school
today, therefore I also could not go to the field. I was at the
threshing floor only. In the afternoon the laborers brought the bund-
les of harvested crop and seven persons wee engaged in threshing the
crop that was harvested the previous day. They also arranged the hay
in large heaps. Today's bundles were stored and sealed.
4 September 1979: This morning went to the field and took a round. Six
plows were present, until 11 A.M. plowing went on. I was also there till
the end. I watered the land and checked whether any holes were there
leading to subterranean streams and found some. After plugging them
came back hone.
5 September 1979: Went to the field again today. Six plows were present
and at work. But I found that some of the plowmen were not very serious
in their work. They were not holding the plow tightly and thus the
plowing was not deep enough. I gave them necessary instructions to be
effective in their work. Then I irrigatd the fields and returned home.
16 September 1979: Went to the field this morning and looked around.
Seven plows were busy in tilling the land. One plow was engaged in
harrowing the ploughed area. One man was engaged in applying pieces of
oil-cakes. The same person then became busy in untying the bundles of
seedlings and distributing them to the people involved in transporta-
tion. Four bags of oil cakes and one bag of complex manure were ap-
plied. Twenty-five female laborers did the job of transplantation. One
more acre of land was transplanted with seedlings today. Eight hundred
bundles of seedlings were plucked.
1 October 1979: Went to the field and watered it. Cut the grass for the
oxen. Plugged a few holes found in some places. After returning home
soaked 150 kilos of paddy for sale.
2 October 1979: Went to the field, again irrigated it, cut the grass
and came home. Boiled the soaked paddy. Again soaked 150 kilos of
29 November 1979: Went to the field, applied water, cut the grass and
brought home. Dried the paddy seeds. Asked my husband to purchase a
chemical called "Agaram" which is mixed with water in which the seeds
are soaked. This chemical helps in the germination of the seeds.
Diary 2. Jagadeswari, wife of K. Mudaliar (a high caste landowner with 4 acres
of land. (No other adults in household.)
18 February 1979: This morning I went to the field and found the
rice plants pale. I thought of applying urea. I also thought of harvest-
ing the field. I spoke to my husband and he agreed that urea must be
applied and also insecticides. Only in this way would the plants gain
their natural look. He insisted that it be done immediately. I made
arrangements with the laborers to buy the urea and pesticide.
24 February 1979: This morning reached the field and waited for the
arrival of the laborers. When they reported, asked them to continue
the harvest. I also joined hands with them. After the harvesting the
crop was bundled up. The bundles were brought to the threshing floor.
I guarded them until the arrival of my husband and then returned home.
6 March 1979: Went to the field this morning and watched the plows in
operation. Asked the workers to plow the land deep and without leaving
any gap. Also asked the helpers who were spading the mud to do their
job in a fitting way. Told them to scatter the green leaves on the
mud. Then came to the threshing floor and engaged myself in drying up
the paddy grains with the help of the laborers.
Diary 3. Lakshmi wife of Ezhumalai Naicker. Lakshmi is 41 and her husband 43,.
Their 20-year-old son has graduated from high school, her 18-year-old completed
the 9th grade, and the others are studying in school. They own 12 acres of
land. They belong to a caste that ranks fairly low, though nowadays there are
many land-owners who in this community.
30 August 1979: Today by 12:30 P.M. I went to the field carrying food
for the people who were working there. One acre of land was sown with
Ponni seeds. Distributed the food and came home by 2:30.
4 September 1979: Went to the field at 7:30 A.M. Engaged 6 persons in
weeding, paid them Rs. 12/-. Came home at 2 P.M.
6 September 1979: From 6 A.M. to 7 A.M. made dung cakes. At 7:30 took
11 persons to the field and did weeding. Paid them Rs. 22 and came
home at 2 P.M.
14 October 1979: Early morning by 4 A.M. my son and I went to a
groundnut field. Pulled out ripe groundnuts. We were paid Ra. 3 as
wages. Came home at 6:30 P.M..
12 November 1979: This morning by 8 A.M. my son and I took 12 laborers
with us to the field. Weeding was done. Came back home by 2 P.M.
Paid 27 Ra. to them at Ra. 2.25 each.
31 January 1980: This morning my son and six workers harvested the
Ponni paddy at Achikkattu field. I carried food for them to the field.
Diary 4. Devaki has an adult son and husband, and several younger children
living in her household.
9 January 1979: This morning went to the field and waited for the
laborers to reach there for harvest. When they arrived, asked them to
immediately start the work. I also joined them. After the operation,
the stalks were bundled up and the bundles were brought to the thresh-
ing yard. Stayed there guarding the bundles till my husband arrived and
then went home.
10 January 1979: This morning reached the threshing yard early and
waited for the laborers to arrive. When they came, the job of thresh-
ing began. I also participated in the work. Instructed them to be
extra careful in the work so that the paddy grains do not get into the
side by heaps of hay. After my husband came there from the field, I
asked him to take care of the work and went for food. Then I inspected
a different field to see if it has been irrigated sufficiently for
ploughing. After doing that came home.
January 25, 1979: Went to the field in the morning as usual. Persons
working in the adjacent field had thought that the water in their field
was a hindrance to their job of transplanting and hence had cut the
ridge of our field to make way for the water to flow into our field.
Therefore the water level in our field was in excess. That may cause a
subterranean stream through which the dissolved phosphates would also
be lost. Besides these harms, the seedlings would also get rotten. I
was sad that knowing fully well all these things, the neighbors had
acted in an irresponsible way. Then I tried my level best to extricate
the extra water, and plugged the holes leading to the subterranean
stream....I also asked my neighbors not to cause further damage to our
field by their unfriendly act of diverting their field's extra water
into our field.
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1981 Vellore Region (ChenqalpattuL North ArcotL and Dharmapuri Dts.) Series
20, Paper 3. Madras, Govt. Press
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Economic Development and Cultural Chanqe.
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1985 (a) "The Forgotten Ones: Female Landless Labourers in Southern
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appear in a volume edited by Andrea Singh, sponsored by I.L.O.,
Geneva, and to be published by Vikas, New Delhi. (in Press)
(b) "Women's Work and Poverty: Their Contribution to Household
Maintenance in Two South Indian Regions", presented at a
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