Suryagaon is a small village in the Kumaon hills, perched above the picturesque seven lakes, Sattal, in Nainital district of Uttarakhand. When Pushpa, 18, came here as a young bride she was awestruck by the blue lakes, the green forests, and the spectacular sight of the setting sun. But soon a new reality emerged: Behind all this natural beauty lay the grim realities of the everyday life of a hill woman.
In her research paper, ‘Colonialism and Development: Reinventing ‘Tradition’ and Gendered Work in Kumaon, India’, for the University of Oregon, American scholar Elena M. Fracchia points out that the women in this region are continuously foraging for “subsistence livelihood – generally in the form of gathering forest resources, agricultural practices and animal husbandry”.
Pushpa’s mother-in-law, Vimala Devi, 53, endorses this observation. She says, “Our way of life involves women working from dawn to nightfall. Be it gathering fuel, food and even medicines from the forest, to tending to our farms to feeding and taking care of the cattle, all these duties fall on the woman. Unless we master these chores, our families cannot survive. I had to teach Pushpa everything.”
The men here are mostly involved in tourism related activities. Suryagoan boasts of an adventure camp that is run in collaboration with the Delhi-based ‘Wildrift Adventure’. The day-to-day activities of the camp, which provides tent accommodation and organises adventure sports like kayaking, river crossing, trekking and rappelling, are managed by the village youth. The older men run tourist souvenir shops or food stalls down at Sattal.
In such a situation, “the women are automatically forced to do the outdoor household chores as well,” says a visibly pregnant Pushpa. Women cutting across age barriers chip in and complete all these chores, including the risky business of fetching drinking water sourced from underground springs for which they have to climb down to water tanks situated at different levels on the hills.
“We carry water cans of 15 litres or 20 litres and make about four to five such trips daily,” informs Sheela Devi, 24, adding, that the downhill trek takes over 15 minutes while going uphill with the heavy cans can take anything between 30-45 minutes. Obviously the climb is extremely strenuous and trecherous. “But then what choice do we have – this is the only safe water for drinking and cooking available to us?” she asks.
Unfortunately, cultural traditions have rendered all physical hard labour as “women’s work”. The men don’t lift a finger to help them out.
Strangely, this callous attitude is also reflected in state policies. As Fracchia writes in her paper, “Particularly in Kumaon, current development ideology constructs projects based on male needs, leaving women to make the adjustments.”
Take this example: While there is piped water supply from Bhimtal, the supply schedule is erratic and water is available for only three days a week. “It’s also expensive. The connection costs about Rs 8,000 (US$1=Rs 55) – only a couple of households can afford this and the monthly charge of Rs 150 that is entailed. Some have constructed tanks for rain water harvesting and use that water for bathing, cleaning chores, washing clothes and for cattle,” explains Vimala Devi.
Fuel is the other big problem here. Gas connections are rare so most women depend on wood to keep home fires burning. With the tightening of forest restrictions due to environmental conservation concerns, the trek for firewood is getting more grueling for women by the day. They have to travel long distances and then trek back home lugging heavy bundles of twigs and logs collected after long hours spent under the sun.
Because they now bring back smaller loads of wood, cooking takes longer. There are even times when the fire dies out before the food is properly done. “The fuel problem is, in turn, forcing societal and cultural changes in what people eat,” writes Fracchia. The staple diet here is rice, a pulse dish and a ‘junglee saag’ (a dish made from forest leaves) and yes, a cooker is used to cook all of it!
The capacity for sheer physical labour that these women display is amazing. Says Vimala Devi, matter-of-factly, “My husband and I built my son Santosh’s house with our bare hands. I carried logs of wood as well as huge boulders and collected stone chips for days. My husband did all the cementing and wood work himself. Carrying extra weight is normal for us hill women.”
Women are now doing most of the farming in the hills as well. This is because the large farms of an earlier era have given way to small holdings. The men no longer find it worthwhile to cultivate these small plots and prefer to look for more remunerative work. So it is the women who are left to manage these small plots, cultivating vegetables, turmeric and some pulses. They also rear buffaloes and sell the milk. “In our village we have a tradition. We don’t sell cow’s milk. Cow’s milk is only used in our homes,” says Nirmala Devi, 45, who grows grass in patches for fodder for the cattle.
Fracchia’s paper takes note of the impressive knowledge base of these women – they know the land and have developed impressive strategies to gain livelihoods. No wonder then that these resilient women can climb trees with alacrity, go fearlessly into dense forests and walk uphill for miles together even as they carry heavy loads.
But there’s a heavy price they are paying for this hard work. Vimala suffers from chronic aches of the lower back and migraine. “It’s because of the heavy loads she carries on her head and the difficult uphill treks through the forests to the village,” explains Pushpa, who has been spared this arduous task for a while because of her pregnancy.
In Kumaon, development plans are focused on improving public transportation and road building. But even today a hospital or a market is a good eleven kilometres away from Suryagaon, at Bhimtal and the villagers have to make do with a makeshift clinic in Sattal. “I will deliver my child in the hospital but I have not been able to go for a pre-natal check-up and the chances of a post-natal check-up is also remote,” says Pushpa.
Things are slowly changing fortunately and the fact that women are now heading local bodies is making a difference. Says Leela Devi, 49, who has been the gram pradhan for the last two years of Suryagaon, “I encourage the adventure camp enterprise run by the village boys on land leased to them by the panchayat making sure that a share of the profits go towards community development like building a new roof for the primary school or a ‘balwadi’ (day centre) so that the toddlers can be looked after when their mothers are away in the forest.”
Among Leela’s priorities is to build more water tanks sourced from underground springs so that women have an easier time. She also wants to do away with the practice of manual scavenging – Uttarakhand has villages where women are still forced to carry human excreta on their heads. For now, the situation in Suryagaon is only marginally better than it was a decade ago, but at least girls now study until Class Eight before dropping out and most of them get married only after they have turned 18.
From being the invisible workforce they once were, women like Leela Devi are now gradually emerging in the public domain, voicing concerns for their counterparts and demanding a better future for themselves. The hills, it seems, are alive to the possibilities of change.
(© Women’s Feature Service)