Commercialisation, Commodification And Gender Relations In Post Harvest Systems For Rice In South Asia

Date: May, 2005
ODID Working Paper No. 128
Author(s): Barbara Harriss-White (QEH)

When the output of a product that has been the basis of subsistence and social reproduction - as rice has been in Asia - expands, the marketed surplus rises disproportionately to the growth rate of production. Post harvest activities that were part and parcel of the reproductive activity of household labour (in the hands and under the feet of women - even if under the control of men) then also become commercialised. Firms expand in number and labour markets sprout up as firms become differentiated in size, scale and activity. Food security comes to depend not only on the market but also on the social and political structures in which markets are embedded. One of these social structures is gender. Two aspects of this gendered process are explored in this essay. The first is 'productive deprivation' which was argued by Ester Boserup to be the most notable impact of development on women. Using field evidence comparatively from four regions of South Asia from the 1970s to the present, the impact of the waves of technological change accompanying concentration and differentiation in rice markets is shown to be strongly net labour displacing and strongly biased against female labour. Nevertheless productive deprivation is class specific and masculinisation still co-exists with a high general level of female economic participation. To start to explain why productive deprivation is class specific the essay offers a development of Ursula Huws' theory of commodification and its impact on women in advanced capitalist conditions - elaborating it for conditions of mass poverty. Poverty is shown to limit the relevance of this gendered theory. Poverty is also an important reason for the persistence of petty commodity production and trade and petty service provision. Under petty production women are either self employed or unwaged family workers for men who are themselves not fully independent but frequently dependent on money advances from commercial capital. Evidence from West Bengal in the 1990s - where the growth of rice production has eased up - shows by contrast that the process of commodification has not eased up at all. Products, by-products, intermediate and investment goods, waste, public goods, state regulative resources and labour are all relentlessly commodified. The process creates livelihoods mainly for young, low caste men. Low caste women dominate itinerant retailing, directly dependent on money advances from male wholesalers. Women are being displaced from the rice mill labour forces in which economies of scale are pitched against unwaged work in petty production. The subordinated status and double work burden of women in petty production is well known, as is their economic dependence and social insecurity. (rice - masculinisation - commodification - comparative regional analysis - comparative institutional analysis)

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