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'So I can watch TV': women's response to agricultural change in south India
June 08, 2010

PLECserv 115

It is fashionable to regret the major decline in coarse grain cultivation in the modern developing world. Many are nutritionally superior to rice and wheat and their loss contributes to biodiversity impoverishment. In India their share of cultivated land fell from almost 30% in the 1960s to 16% in 2000. Yet women, who perform most of the production labour and all of the food preparation, may only marginally regret the loss of these tasty and satisfying elements in the family diet. In the third of a series of papers on agricultural change in the Kolli hills, an outlier of the Eastern Ghats in Tamil Nadu, South India, anthropologist Elizabeth Finnis of the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada discusses how and why women respond to modern changes as they do.

The Malaiyali people of the Kolli hills (a minority or ‘tribal’ group) are small farmers. Until recently they managed a rugged landscape for subsistence cultivation principally of the small millets, of which 21 landraces have been recognized. Rotational and intercropping systems, involving rice and a number of vegetables with millet, were adapted to an irregular rainfall regime. Rice is still confined mainly to limited valley wetlands, without significant irrigation.

Roads were constructed in the 1970s to overcome the isolation of the hills. In the 1980s and 1990s, these roads were gradually extended to some outlying areas, contributing to major changes in agricultural production. Large areas were allocated to cash crops, both in small new estates (mainly for coffee, pepper and cardamom) and on smallholders’ land, leading to reduction of the area under millet. In the remote small-holders’ area where Finnis worked, the cash crop of choice became cassava grown for processing at starch factories in the plains. Cassava was preferred because of its relative resistance to drought, an increasingly severe problem. It required little attention after planting and harvest is simple – it is uprooted, cut from its stem, and bagged. This is in contrast to the more arduous work required in planting, weeding and especially harvesting the millet crop.

The changes lightened the women’s workload in the field, and also in their households. Millet had to be pounded with a heavy pestle to separate the grain from the husk, or in the case of finger millet ground using heavy stones to make flour. It was normal to do this arduous work before daybreak and then cook the day’s food before going off to work in the fields. A part of the income from cassava is now used to buy milled rice from the government ‘ration shops.’ This supplements the rice still grown in village wetlands, which is milled using one of the privately-owned electrical mills operated for profit in the village. Rice has replaced millet as the main staple, freeing the women of a major and onerous morning job. Other income from cassava, and from work outside the local community, is used to vary the diet, pay for children’s education, and buy other commodities. These include bicycles and, for a minority as yet, prestigious goods such as TV sets and motor cycles. There is more time for social activity, and, as one young woman put it, there are more ‘times when we are free. So I can watch TV’ (p.91).

In 1994, the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation of Chennai (formerly Madras) began an ongoing, multi-faceted programme of work in areas of the Kolli hills trying to revive the use of millet and conserve agrobiodiversity. The project has given considerable attention to marketing issues, and began to provide involved communities with mechanical mills suitable for the dehusking of millet (which has thicker husks than rice) (Gruere et al 2009). However, up to the time of Finnis’ report, these had not reached the part of the Kolli hills in which she worked. In her paper, Finnis does not specifically discuss the Swaminathan project, but suggests that any project involving millet cultivation revival, especially for household use, needs to consider demands on women's labour, and women's labour preferences.

Meanwhile, near-continuous cultivation of cassava is having deleterious effects on soil quality, requiring growing reliance on fertilizers. People still miss the taste of millet varieties, and are concerned about their consumption of the pesticides used on purchased rice. They are aware that millet provides more energy than rice. Yet the incomes obtained from cassava remain a compelling attraction, particularly given the low market prices of millets, while memories of the heavy labour involved in the production and processing of millet discourage its re-adoption as staple household crop. While irrigation and market improvements could help, it would be reduction of processing time from hours to minutes made possible by mechanical hullers that might achieve most, ‘allowing women to take advantage of both their preferences for reduced labour loads and for the taste of millets in their everyday diets’ (p. 92).

To communicate with the author and/or to request a single electronic copy of her paper, write to

E. Finnis 2009. “Now it is an easy life”: women’s accounts of cassava, millet and labor in South India. Culture and Agriculture 31(2): 88-94.

Additional reference: Gruere, Guillaume, Latha Nagarajan & E.D.I. Oliver King. 2009. The role of collective action in the marketing of underutilized plant species: Lessons from a case study on minor millets in South India. Food Policy 34: 39-45.

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