Dr T Scarlet Epstein, an economist and anthropologist based in Britain, recently screened excerpts from `Villages Voices' - a film based documenting rural transformation in South India since 1954 - at the Vienna Institute for Development and Cooperation. `Village Voices', based on Epstein's book by the same name, showcases the development process in two villages, one irrigated and one dry, in the state of Karnataka.
Guest speaker Epstein's book was first released in 1999. However, the film documents changes right up to 2004. Epstein's research is ongoing, and she continues to visit India. Epstein, 83, says the purpose of her over 40-year research has been to find out from the villagers themselves how they define development.
In the film, Shoba, a wide-eyed teenager from village Wangala, talks of her dream of studying to become a high court advocate. She does want to marry, but only after she has a degree in law. Epstein first visited Shoba in 1994. A decade later, when Epstein returned to Wangala, a village located near Mysore, she found that Shoba seemed less enthusiastic about the future. She was married with a child and seemed to be completely under the thumb of her husband and in-laws. Shoba told Epstein that although India won freedom in 1947, only the men appeared to be free in the country today.
Shoba is a living example of how gender inequalities persist in India despite the country having progressed substantially in many spheres. While technological changes and modern ideas have generally benefited women, their gains are small compared to the discrimination and inequalities they continue to suffer even today.
In 1954, Epstein was a post graduate student at the University of Manchester, Britain, when she was invited by Professor M N Srinivas, the eminent Indian social anthropologist, to investigate the impact of a large canal irrigation scheme on the socio-economic system of villagers. Epstein first visited Wangala in 1954. In 1970, when she re-visited Wangala, which was now irrigated, she found an increase in educational facilities, leading to a great interest in family planning.
Talking of the effects of economic change on the role of women in southern India, Epstein felt that the negative valuation of women is linked to a rise in employment that does not involve agricultural activities. When occupations diversify away from agriculture, more women than men are left without jobs. In India, women are traditionally hired along with their husbands to till the land. But after the men leave the villages to work in urban areas, the wives are not given their jobs in the field.
Summarising her field experiences as both negative and positive, Epstein said that the introduction of irrigation in Wangala village allowed the transition from subsistence farming to the plantation of cash crops like paddy and sugar cane, making some villagers very prosperous. In the dry village of Dalena, villagers looked for employment opportunities away from agriculture to create an integrated regional economy.
While the irrigated village cultivated the produce, the dry village processed and marketed the crops. However, with an increase in household incomes, in both the irrigated and dry villages, Epstein noticed that many women were happy not to have to earn a living. They were relieved to retire indoors, often losing interest in the world beyond. Some were even reluctant to send children to school as they noticed that the traditional village culture, which revolves around conformity, clashed with modern education, where the spirit of competition is encouraged.
Throughout her stay in Wangala, Epstein wore a loose bush coat over khaki trousers; kept her hair short; and learnt the local language. "I considered the men to be my major source of information and tried my best to disassociate myself from any overt features of womanhood," she said during her presentation.
She recalls having forged close friendships with many men, but the village women remained aloof and reluctant to share their knowledge with her.
Epstein once asked a group of village women why they did not want to mix with her as freely as their menfolk. The most articulate of them told Epstein: "You have the body of a woman but the mind of a man and you behave like a man. You are so different from us village women that we feel that we have nothing in common with you. At an age when most of us are married and already have a number of children, you have no children and are without a husband. Our lives revolve around our families; you have no experience of this. Our paths therefore do not cross anywhere and this is why we remain remote."
Epstein, only 32 at that time, was taken aback. She wondered then if her account of the village life would have been significantly different if she had concentrated more on studying women, rather than relying on men. In fact, she regretted that the economist in her had overlooked her interest in discovering more about the women in the village. From 1974 onwards, Epstein started involving more women in her research.
She even introduced a novel research model that remains exceptionally gender-sensitive to this day. A four-year study of the role of women in Asian rural development was started in 1973, with female Asian students from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Indonesia.
In a village in Pakistan, where most men had migrated to the Middle East, Epstein's study shows that overnight women took on the role of decision-makers. In the absence of men, some women terminated pregnancies and decided the future of their children. But with prosperity, most rural women seem content to move into the women's quarter of their new, more plush homes, happy to live in purdah in imitation of upper-class women.
Epstein is considered a pioneer in promoting a growing concern about the lopsided path often taken by rural developers. Her work is significant as it continues to point towards a more culturally sensitive development strategy.
Epstein made Britain her home in 1938, after fleeing the Nazi occupation of Austria. She now travels across the globe sharing her unique research.