Subsistence livelihood stalks the bountiful topography for the women of the Kumaon region
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.”
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 travel company Wildrift Adventure. The day-to-day activities of the camp, which provides tent accommodation and organises adventure sports 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. 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 gruelling for women by the day.
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, leaving the job of managing them to the women.
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. Women often suffer from chronic aches of the lower back and migraine. 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.
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. (WFS)