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Women at work: The betel nut crackers

Text and photographs: Manjima Bhattacharjya

A photo-essay on the poor, lower-caste, mostly non-literate women of Karnataka who labour undocumented and unrecognised behind the scenes of the multi-crore betel nut industry

I alight at Birur station on a warm muggy morning. Swaying palms and rolling fields greet me.  

I am here, in the middle of charming Chikmagalur district in Karnataka, a couple of hours by train from the spit and shine of Bengaluru, on an assignment with the Hunger Project, an NGO that works to empower women in local governance. I am with Shailaja who will be my precious translator for the period. 

As we ride into the depths of the country, the landscape is dominated by passing coffee plantations and betel nut farms. Is that the main economic activity here, I ask? Chikmagalur is famous for its coffee plantations, and also somewhat notorious. There’s a lot of child labour in the region, my host from Vikasana, one of the partners of the Hunger Project in the state, informs me. We will be staying at a hostel run by them for children rescued from child labour, it seems. “Coffee plantations are very low, so you need to be small and have small fingers to bend down and pick them. So child labour is common here on the plantations, because children can do the job well.”   

But in the area we are heading to, more than coffee, it is the betel nut or more accurately the ‘areca nut’ groves that are more famous. ‘Betel nut’ is apparently a misnomer that has stuck – a marriage of the ‘betel leaf’ (a completely different vine, the ‘paan’) and the areca nut (the humble ‘supari’) because of their inevitable pairing, a colonial legacy that confused the two as something chewed by the natives. The betel nut industry in India is one of its most profitable commercial crops, in fact India is the most important betel nut producer in the world. Production went up from 75,000 tonnes in 1955 to 330,000 tonnes in 2003, covering 290,000 hectares of land. Of this, Karnataka produces over 40% of the total with Kerala and Assam following closely behind. India is also the world’s largest consumer of betel nut, and has to ironically import some quantity of betel nut to make up the difference. Other than being chewed in its processed and semi-processed form in many parts of India -- on its own, and with its soul sister the betel leaf (paan), and its social and cultural significance (both the paan and supari are central to many religious and cultural rituals) it is also a key ingredient in the manufacture of paan masala, gutka, and other non-tobacco stimulants. “It’s huge, the paan masala and gutka industry,” the host shakes his head, “Just see the palatial mansions of these landowners who grow the palms.” He is pointing out pastry-coloured double-storeyed independent bungalows. Abode of the ‘betel nut barons’, I smile to myself at the alliteration. 

My interest is further aroused as I alight in the village I am here to visit, and see piles of betel nut husks lining the dirt tracks that make up the arteries of the village. Makeshift thatched ‘warehouses’ mushroom in open spaces; from their dark recesses I can see groups of women spill out from time to time, some with children in tow. “What’s going on there?” I ask. Is it a factory? Come and see, says the woman I am here to interview, the lovely Kenchamma, the first dalit president of the Tarikere district panchayat (now in her second term). 

Women sit in a row, some in synthetic sarees, some in their nighties, amidst a massive cloud of betel nuts, shelling the green nuts rapidly with practiced ease, with their hands. On the music system, Kannada film music hits blare.

Most are using a sickle-like apparatus, a knife that is positioned on the floor, that you keep steady with your feet while you use its standing curved blade. From the depths of my memory I recall my grandmother huddling on the floor of the house kitchen hunched over a similar knife to chop vegetables and scour coconuts. 

The woman I am standing and staring at in awe expertly hacks and pulls off the still immature green and yellow husk to reveal a smooth nude coloured nut inside, tossing it carelessly into the basket in front of her.

Protecting her fingers from the sharp sickle are a few strips of cloth tied around some fingers, and a rubber patch to protect the palm of her other hand. Not everyone is wearing one I see. “Do only women do this part of the work?” I look around. I had seen some men sitting in groups around the corner watching passersby, but none appeared to be participating in this activity.  

Yes, it seems that in the clear gendered division of labour in the processing of the betel nut, this is dominantly the work of women and sometimes children. Men have already done their work, climbing the palms to pick the clumps of nuts. The next step, the labour-intensive, repetitive and rather hard work of shelling or de-husking them, has been established over the years as ‘women’s work’. Something they can do from home by taking home containers of unshelled nuts, or drop in at the sheds during the day to work at their own pace and at their own timings. “It’s just something that only the women do,” the women explain to men, giggling at the thought of men pitching in. “No, no, they would never consider this a man’s job!” Even though it would add to the income if they helped, I wonder aloud.  Heads shake in disagreement all around me. “The children help sometimes in the household, but not the men.”

This ‘community pitching in’, sometimes sisters-in-law, mothers-in-law and children, in finishing a batch is possible because the payment for the shelling of the nuts is not based on a daily wage system but on the amount of nuts shelled. 

For each canister or container of nuts shelled, the women get paid approximately Rs 40, a mark-up from the Rs 25 they used to get a few years ago. That’s a big can, I think to myself. If she spends much of her day doing this, a woman might be able to do upto four or five a day. That’s Rs 200, beating the pay for most forms of daily wage labour in the area. The panchayat here tries to promote the NREGS scheme in the area, but that pays only Rs 74 a day and cannot match what a woman would make shelling the betel nuts.   

After the betel nuts are shelled though, it is back to the men for the rest of the process. The nuts are boiled and processed in water mixed with colouring pigments that turn it red over 30 minutes or more. After this they are either laid out evenly and open dried in the sun or dried by being placed on wood fires and being uniformly and evenly dried for about four to five hours. Continuous firing of the wood is essential for the temperature to stay constant. Sometimes they are dipped in a concentrate of a thick extract obtained from boiling three or four batches of nuts to give it a glossy appearance.   

Overseers, packers, and of course the land owners are also inevitably men. Women doing the shelling are all lower caste or adivasi women. Women from the upper caste households would not be permitted this sort of activity. Caste divisions of the village are very strong, and the village is demarcated clearly into areas that are ‘upper’ and ‘lower’ caste; segregation and discrimination persists, but it is a part of life for most people here. Younger generations bristle at the age-old systems that continue to treat the adivasis as discretely untouchable, but so strong are these customs that the battle against it is only sporadically fought.  

Even Kenchamma’s political success as two time president of the panchayat is not strong enough to break this reality. Even as she sits at her desk in Panchayat Bhavan, she still goes for work in the warehouses of the upper castes to shell betel nuts on most days. She sits between two of the older landowners here and the overseer in their house for a special photo-op before returning to the warehouse to sit with her ‘fellow sisters’.  

The betel nut barons are upper caste. They tell me how these nuts go all over the world, from the fields of Tarikere across foreign seas, to be used by the real supari barons, the gutka kings, a murky and suspicious industry rumoured to be run largely by the underworld dons. Besides gutka, the nuts are used as ingredients for ayurvedic medicines and veterinary medicines too.  

As I wander around, peeping into the bigger sheds, I see that the women are traipsing in and filling up the room. Some have brought their children. Domestic chores for the morning are over and they are now free until lunch to get some shelling done. They will slip out around lunchtime to feed elders in the household or attend to children returning from school, and then come back to resume work.  

Callused hands, allergies from the husk, nips and cuts, rheumatic fingers, sore arms and aching bodies from hours of sitting in one position are all forgotten given this sort of flexibility that allows them to handle domestic and care-giving obligations with some sort of paid work, and they prefer it to other systems of daily wage labour that demand they remain away from home from long periods of time.  

Many of these women are in a self-help group that has grown over the last 16 years. What does the SHG do? Anything from raising money to enable a dalit woman to buy a gold chain (“so we don’t look poor any more, and have at least some social status”) to helping a marriage take place, to a hysterectomy. Many women have been given loans to start a small hotel or a bangle store. As it grew in strength and experience, the SHG has begun to take on small community development projects, drainage, lighting and so on.  

As I withdraw from the now busy shed filling rapidly with discarded green shells, I make my way over a floor strewn with husk making a soft carpet on the shed floor.

India exports about 40,000 tonnes of betel nut at Rs 70 a kg in a year (but also imports almost double the amount!). Its popularity as a cash crop increased in the mid-1990s when prices shot up to Rs 140 a kg (http://www.livemint.com/2008/05/20233732/Arecanut-growers-want-port-res.html). An estimated 10 million people depend for their livelihoods on the betel nut industry. The impact of a ban on gutka and paan masala threatens the survival of millions of farmers, almost 2 million families in Karnataka itself, I have been informed. It’s a difficult issue, similar to debates on smoking and tobacco, replete with health issues, with the threat of oral cancer, addiction and so on being very real, but at the same time, besides providing lucrative profits to the betel nut lobby, also supports a chain of smaller beneficiaries – at the end of which is the woman shelling the betel nuts. On the other hand, there is the concern that such cash crop cultivation is at the cost of growing other agricultural products in a relatively fertile and abundant region where poverty and hunger are a problem.  

The relatively organised industry of betel nuts, led by cooperatives like Campco (Central Arecanut and Cocoa Marketing and Processing Cooperative Ltd), has been struggling against such bans for the last few years and also demanding that port restrictions on imports (from other betel nut producing states like Myanmar and Indonesia) not be removed, as this will result in cheaper betel nuts flooding the market.   

These may continue to be live debates in the betel nut industry, but at this moment all I am taking back with me is the picture of what goes on behind this multi-crore industry:  the callused hands of poor, lower caste, mostly non-literate women labouring away shelling canisters of the nut in dimly lit sheds, undocumented, unrecognised for the most part, and for a mere 40 rupees for every large can. Every time I see a packet of paan masala or gutka I will remember these betel nut crackers from Birur, who gave me a glimpse of yet another example of women at work in the informal sector that we don’t really get to see, the work that women silently do behind the scenes for so many of our industries.    

Infochange News & Features, July 2009