Social Security and the Family: Coping with Seasonality and Calamity in Rural India


Agarwal, Bina. 1990. “Social Security and the Family: Coping with Seasonality and Calamity in Rural India.” The Journal of Peasant Studies 17 (3): 341–412. 

Author: Bina Agarwal


This article examines how poor rural families in India cope with the food insecurity associated with seasonal troughs in the agricultural production cycle, and with calamities such as drought and famine; the effectiveness of the coping mechanisms they adopt; the intra-household sharing of the burden of coping; and the appropriate state and nonstate interventions that would strengthen the survival mechanisms adopted by the families themselves. The family is seen here as a bargaining unit, the ability of different members to command food (among other resources) depending on their relative bargaining strengths, determined in turn by their ownership endowments (of land, labour, etc.), exchange entitlements, and external social and communal support systems. Gender and age both form the basis of intrafamily inequality in this respect. While seasonality reveals a face of the family which is one of cooperation, famine mirrors one of disintegration. In both contexts, the burden of coping falls disproportionately on female members within poor households, traceable to women's already weak and further weakened (during calamity) bargaining position within the family. A re‐interpretation of existing facts about the 1943 Bengal famine illustrates the process of family disintegration and the abandonment of wives and children during a severe calamity. State efforts complemented by nonstate interventions therefore need to be directed to programmes that ‘empower’ poor families and the more vulnerable members within them.

Topics: Age, Agriculture, Class, Environment, Environmental Disasters, Food Security, Gender, Women, Livelihoods Regions: Asia, South Asia Countries: India

Year: 1990

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