Bengali - Economy

Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Statistical data for 1981 indicate that some 83 percent of the people in the Bengal region as a whole resided in the rural areas (89 percent in Bangladesh, 74 percent in West Bengal), and it is unlikely that the rural-urban distribution of the population or the Occupational breakdown of the labor force has changed markedly over the past decade. Two-thirds (67 percent) of the labor was engaged in agriculture, more so in Bangladesh (74 percent) than in West Bengal (55 percent). The region is largely homogeneous in the kinds of crop its people grow, wet rice agriculture being the hallmark of the Bengali economy. There are three cropping seasons: (1) a spring season marked by the onset of monsoon rains in April, during which varieties of rice classed as aus are typically grown along with jute, the region's major commercial crop, until mid-July; (2) the aman season, which accounts for the bulk of annual rice production, lasting to November; and (3) the dry winter season, lingering through March, in which types of rice called boro, which can grow under irrigated conditions, are sown, along with pulses and oilseeds. Wheat and potatoes represent relatively recent food crop innovations in Bengal. The raising of farm animals for food and labor is not usually an occupational specialization, although whether or not a farm family will possess any of the animals commonly found throughout Bengal—cows, oxen, bullocks, water buffalo, and goats—will depend on its wealth. Some small-scale fishing may be engaged in by farm families with homestead ponds, but extensive fishing is an occupational specialty of particular Hindu castes or castelike groups among Muslims.

Industrial Arts. Preindustrial manufacture and the provision of nonagricultural goods throughout Bengal has always been carried out by specialized, mostly Hindu, artisan caste groups—weavers, potters, blacksmiths, carpenters, and so forth. Because Bengali villages usually are small, it is rare for a full complement of artisan castes to be present in them, but these artisans are usually sufficiently dispersed throughout standard marketing areas to make their wares generally available. It should also be emphasized that industrial manufacturing is widespread in Bengal, concentrated primarily in its major cities.

Trade. As noted above, periodic local markets dot the Bengal countryside, and these in turn are linked to Permanent, daily markets in larger provincial towns and ultimately to major urban commercial centers. Many peasants engage in petty marketing to supplement their primary occupation, but large-scale accumulation and transportation of major crops, especially rice and jute, and artisan products are typically carried out by wholesalers who move from market to market. As elsewhere in South Asia, some Hindu caste groups specialize in certain kinds of trade and commercial transactions (e.g., those related to gold and other jewelry or specific consumption items other than rice). Because Bengal possesses a labyrinthine network of rivers, providing boat transportation to and between riverside centers is a major activity for many. Commerce is overwhelmingly male-dominated, since adult women are usually required to limit their activities to their homesteads and immediate surroundings and thus are not permitted to engage in significant trading activity.

Division of Labor. The division of labor by both gender and occupational specialization is highly marked throughout South Asia, including Bengal, particularly so in the rural areas. Regardless of a rural family's occupational specialty, men engage in activities that take place outside the home, while women are limited to those that can be performed within its confines. Thus, for example, in rice-farming Families men perform all the work in the fields—plowing, planting, weeding, and harvesting—and once the crop is brought into the homestead women take up the tasks of threshing, drying, and husking the crop. A similar kind of intra-(versus extra-) homestead division of labor by gender occurs in Families with nonagricultural occupational specializations. Not surprisingly, domestic and child-rearing tasks fall within the women's domain as well. The degree to which women are permitted to work outside the home is, however, related to the economic and social status of the family. A poor or landless farmer's wife may spend part of her day processing agricultural goods in a wealthier household, for example, to supplement her family's meager income, and among the lower-ranked service castes (see below) the taboo on women working outside the home is considerably less strict. In the urban middle class and upper classes, it is by no means uncommon for women to have a profession, especially in the teaching and medical fields (nearly all gynecologists are women), and to work outside the home. The other major feature of the Bengali division of labor is occupational specialization by caste, already mentioned and discussed more fully below. In traditional Bengali Hindu society, nearly every Occupation is carried on by a ranked hierarchy of specialized caste groups—not only the artisan and trading occupations already discussed but also personal and domestic service functions (e.g., barbering, laundering, latrine cleaning) as well as nonmenial tasks such as those related to public administration and, of course, the priesthood. There is some caste-based specialization among Muslims as well. In the modern sectors of Bengal's economy, the division of labor is not formally organized by caste. But the caste hierarchy tends to be visible in the distribution of the work force nonetheless; the professions and management jobs are likely to be taken up by persons of higher caste background, whereas laborers and lower-level service workers are most often members of the traditionally lower-ranked castes.

Land Tenure. Land has always been individually owned and small family farms, typically little more than a single hectare in size, are found throughout Bengal. Farm holdings are often highly fragmented, consisting on average of between seven and nine separate plots per holding. Recent land tenure surveys from Bangladesh indicate that around 80 percent of the cultivated area is owned by only 35 percent of the landowning households; 30 percent of rural households are landless and 10 percent more own farms of less than half a hectare. No significant land reform has been attempted in Bangladesh in the past forty years. Two decades ago, only 20 percent of the landholdings in West Bengal accounted for some 60 percent of the total cultivated area, and a large number of cultivating families were landless laborers, tenants, and sharecroppers as well; since then West Bengal has made a Significant effort at land reform with some beneficial results.

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