Arunachal's 'economic development' does not bode well for women
FOR many observers, Arunachal Pradesh is an 'island of peace' in India's conflict-prone northeast. In recent years, however, the state has seen a spurt in violence. All sections of people in Arunachal have not been equal participants in the state's development and the resultant disquiet has boiled over. The shift from a natural resource-based economy to one based on the market has also led to significant changes in resource utilisation, with another significant repercussion women's control over resources has declined.
Women, of course, are not an undifferentiated category and impacts of development would be uneven not only among different sections of the society but also within women as a group. That said, women played a significant role in the traditional economy of the indigenous communities agriculture, forest-related activities like gathering forest products of a wide variety and household-based manufacturing.
But that's changing
Commercialisation of agriculture has already taken root in many parts of the state. But agricultural production in Arunachal is still at a subsistence level; increase in yields have more to do with clearing forests and bringing them under the plough than with a rise in per acre productivity. The implications are many. Uncontrolled expansion could accelerate deforestation. It also means an increase in the work burden for women as they have to bear the responsibility to collect forest products such as fuelwood, fruits, vegetables, and roots for household consumption. This might have serious implications for the overall well-being of women.
Land in Arunachal is largely community-held and there aren't clear-cut private property rights. This worked fine when agriculture was practiced in the traditional ways. But commercialisation has encouraged powerful people to bring more land under their control. The transition from need-based to market-based processes does not bode well for women. Their control over household income is imperilled.
At present marketisation is low and participation of households in businesses quite limited. But horticulture and cultivation of vegetables and fruits is increasing, and men are getting a toehold in trading and business, though women are the main producers.
Changes in the production pattern due to commercialisation might also lead to decline in per capita production of staple foods and a decline in per capita availability of food grains at the local level. Arunachal Pradesh Human Development Report 2005 shows that gender-discrimination in intra-family distribution of food is not very significant in Arunachal Pradesh, but these egalitarian aspects are now under threat.
Occupational diversification among women in Arunachal Pradesh is abysmally low. Literacy rate has improved, but women generally are confined to agriculture and the few who have moved out have mostly taken up low-paid jobs in the service sector. It's true that this means women are moving from unpaid household work to wage work but it is difficult to asses whether this implies opportunity or distress. The only silver-lining seems to be the entry of large number of tribal women into retail trading of various kinds.
Tourists and development
Many believe that tourism and hydro-power will be the pillars of future development of Arunachal. The development in tourism, in the past few years, has been phenomenal, thanks to government initiatives. Sectors like trade, hotel and restaurants as well as transport communications have received a fillip. Some educated males with financial resources and excess to education, have gained from this. Development of tourism till now has had little impact on women in general and rural women in particular.The only visible impact seems to be the emergence of few small scale retailing units catering to tourists, with a resultant increase in demand for handicrafts made by women. But experience of other countries, particularly in southeast Asia, shows that women have been victims of flesh trade and other forms of violence, when the tourism sector expanded.
Besides, the ecological impact of uncontrolled mass tourism could be substantial for the rural people who depend a lot on these resources, for food, fodder, fuel wood, medicines and a large number of other products. Similarly much depends on the kind of technology that is used for hydro-power generation.
If the rich biodiversity and environmental wealth of the state is not properly taken into account in the cost-benefit analyses, the result could be more destructive than progress of any kind.
Aparimita Mishra is an independent researcher