The scent of turmeric wafts across the emerald green fields of Pipri village in Andhra Pradesh’s Nizamabad district as woman labourers, humming softly, kneel on the damp ground and pluck out weeds with a skill only experience can bring. Barely has one soaked in this picture-perfect scene when one of the women, Saiamma, rushes out of the fields, yelling out, “I’ll be back in five days”. “My calculations went wrong,” she explains breathlessly. “It’s that time of the month and I’m not supposed to work in the fields. If the seth (contractor) finds out, he’ll be angry.”
And off goes Saiamma, convinced that she might have contaminated seven acres of “sacred” turmeric crop with her “carelessness”. In Nizamabad district, where high-quality turmeric is grown across 14,000 hectares, it’s a tradition followed blindly by farmers and labourers alike: a menstruating woman is not allowed to step into the fields lest she violate the sanctity of the crop.
Commanding a price of Rs 13,000-18,000 a quintal, turmeric is gold here; and Nizamabad has produced bumper crops for the last two years. Not just that, turmeric—used in pujas, temples, food, medicines, festivals and marriages—is also invested with notions of “purity”. No wonder then that there is hardly a voice in turmeric country willing to speak out against this medieval practice.
Farmers and labourers believe if women touch turmeric plants “during those days”, they may decay or lose quality.
Defending it, farmer G. Gangareddy says, “The women practise this self-imposed restriction because they don’t want to harm the crop.” Kalavathi, a labourer on his farm, does believe that if a woman touches turmeric plants during “those days”, the crop may be infested with pests, decay or lose its quality. Has she seen it herself? Kalavathi shakes her head, saying the women are too disciplined to work during their period.
Even Kotapati Narasimham Naidu of the Swadeshi Jagaran Manch, a Sangh parivar offshoot fighting for a minimum support price for turmeric, sees the ban as a sacred issue, not to be meddled with. “While it may just be a sentiment, it is part of our culture as well,” he says.
What this seeming consensus masks is that the ban makes life even more difficult for these women workers. Paid a daily wage of Rs 80-100 (about two-thirds of what men get) for an eight-hour day, they find themselves taking more breaks than they can afford to due to sickness, rains or family functions.
P. Kamala Rao, professor of sociology at Osmania University, explains that traditionally Indian women were asked to take breaks during their period so that they could rest. But the turmeric workers get no rest during theirs.
“We do odd jobs that do not earn us as much, but involve equal effort,” says one, Padma. Rao wonders why defenders of the contamination argument (an “unfair and baseless” one, she says) don’t ensure that the women at least get paid during their enforced break. V. Sandhya of the Progressive Organisation of Women debunks the notion of purity. “In some mandals, turmeric is sold in grocery shops which sit right across liquor shops. Is its purity not affected then?”
Refreshingly, however, younger politicians like Nizamabad MP Madhu Yaskhi Goud do seem to be waking up to the inequity of the ban. “This is a weird practice with no scientific support. It is time we did away with it,” he told Outlook, promising to mount an awareness campaign. About time.