I was traveling in the field of a reputed NGO. Our host in the village I visited in Bihar was waxing eloquent about the benefits of the jaiveek (organic) plant protection materials he used. He took me to the part of his courtyard and showed me diverse pots in which the stuff was brewing. Against my better judgment I went close to one large pot and asked him to remove the lid. I peeped in.
Ye God! I nearly fainted. The smell was overpowering. It took me several minutes to recover my balance fully and be able to converse. I thought that the stuff appeared so potent that it could kill a 90 kg man like me and the poor insect and pest had no chance of survival. We talked some more about the process. He told me, copy book style, how the leaves of five trees were gathered, how they were mixed, crushed, allowed to ferment and so on.
The lady of the house was standing a few feet away, her face half covered with her ghunghat. I asked the host who worked on this. He glibly said “ham sab karte hain”. I pointedly asked the lady who did the work. She said “mard apna kam karte hain, ham apna kam” (men do their work, and we do ours). So I asked what men’s work was.
It appeared that collecting leaves form high branches was done by young men or boys as it involved climbing, etc. Collection of urine and dung and things like that was done by Gudiya (the daughter of the host) or the lady – Gudiya’s mother. And who did all this work on fermenting, etc? The lady said she asked Basanti (their maid servant, wife of Bhola, their labor hired on annual contract) to do that work.
It seemed a wonderful arrangement. The man could boast of helping to save the earth by adopting sustainable agronomic practice. The lady did the dirty work of soiling her hands with cow dung and urine and the really awful work was done by the Dalit woman working in their home.
We walked through the village and at one end we saw Bhola going into his hut. We talked with him. I asked if his wife was around and if I could speak to her. She had gone, it seemed, to gather firewood and he pointed a woman somewhere far off bringing a heap of bramble on her head. He excused himself, kicked his moped and went for some errand which Babusaheb had given him.
Later I suggested to my two bright young lady colleagues to take help from the NGO for their data collection. They were looking at where and how women took their daily bath. On their return they told me they had gone to the same village and some nearby. The situation about bathing was quite terrible. Only the household of Babusaheb and his brother had a bathroom within their premises and their womenfolk bathed there. All other women ‘had to manage’.
It was quite a large village. Rajputs, Bhumihars, Yadavs and of course the ‘Mahadalit’ reside in the village. There were a couple of ponds. One of them was perennial. That was used by men, women and buffaloes to bathe. Men and women bathed at different hours. Women had to ‘manage’ in a short span, under the blue sky and bright sun at one end, while buffaloes wallowed at the other end.
My colleagues told me that the women and girls changed and washed their soiled menstrual cloth in the pond itself and at times they let it sink to the bottom of the pond. When my colleagues asked about it, an elderly woman had told them that girls had to keep their lajja and could not allow ribald comments at their expense, which was likely if they allowed the cloth to be visible!
Women and drudgery
So that is how our idyllic villages are. Men know what their work is. Wives and daughters know what their work is. The women quietly collect dung, cow urine and help their husbands in their organic farming. They feed and clean the children. They manage all that is unpleasant and smelly. They go fill water from whatever source and however far it be, they cut lopping and collect bramble to light the chulha, they cut grass to feed their cow. “How can a man do these things?”.
Irritated by this sort of a diatribe, someone once asked me the way out. I was silent for some time and started thinking. Are there any solutions to such apparent wrongs? Or should we simply say that the village households are autonomous and have full freedom to order their lives as they choose? That is a good question. After all, no one has given me the right to go advise a rural family how they should divide work among their members.
But are we not making development plans and encouraging investments in diverse things which will improve their lives? After all, done with whatever motives, the Ujjwala scheme did reduce the burden of having to collect firewood for women of some households? Should this lens be adopted to devise schemes and plans?
A lot of money, of governments, of donors and of CSR funds, will continue to be spent on building rural health centers and erecting telecom towers and developing apps to be used on smart phones by those who can buy them.
That is the mode and appears to contribute to development the way those in power or those who have money, see it. But can some money also go towards building bathrooms for women in villages, in buying them water wheels to fetch water, in buying wheel barrows to lessen the load on their backs? Or to enable reaching women with sanitary pads so they do not dispose the cloth in the village pond?
Do engineering colleges not have the capacity to develop processes for managing the diverse operations in producing ‘organic’ materials for agriculture? They could surely start by trying to extend the use of existing crushing, blending, fermenting techniques to such application. I really see no fundamental difficulty. That is, nothing to stop such things form being done if saving the shame and the drudgery of Dalit women have any significance to the donors and the technologists. Please do not ask me whether such things will in fact be done.
Sanjiv Phansalkar is the director of VikasAnvesh Foundation, Pune. He was earlier a faculty member at the Institute of Rural Management Anand (IRMA). Phansalkar is a fellow of the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) Ahmedabad. Views are personal.