ikdmlogo Indigenous Knowledge and Development Monitor, March 2000

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Women and dryland post-harvesting practices in Tamil Nadu, India

by S. Parvathi, K. Chandrakandan and C. Karthikeyan

In India, dryland agriculture is an important source of livelihood. However, as the production is seasonal, it is of the utmost importance to store grains safely after harvesting. Research into post-harvest practices in Tamil Nadu, India, has revealed that these activities are largely the responsibility of the women. For this reason, the authors recommend that the local women be consulted when new post-harvest techniques are being devised, in order to ensure their sustainability.

In India some 123 districts have been classified as dryland areas, all of which have an annual rainfall ranging from less than 500 mm to 1500 mm. While dryland agriculture accounts for more than 70% of the cultivated area of the country, it contributes only 42% of the national food basket. The yields in dry tracts are low, and there is always the risk of a total crop failure as a result of erratic rainfall. Thus dryland agriculture is faced with the twin problems of climatic instability and low productivity (Jain 1985). One important aspect of dryland agriculture is the fact that production is seasonal, which means that grains must be stored for long periods by traders, procurement agencies and consumers.

In Tamil Nadu, dryland farming areas constitute 52% of the total cultivable area, and contribute 40% of the total food production (Jodha 1984). Here farming in dryland areas has been a way of life from time immemorial. Traditional cultivation techniques and post-harvest practices have been developed by the farmers themselves and are rooted in their own experience. In Tamil Nadu, as in rural areas worldwide, women are typically responsible for farming. National surveys have shown that the contribution of women to agriculture is higher than that of men. This includes most of the key operations, such as the application of manure and fertilizers, weeding, protecting crops from birds, threshing, winnowing and storing produce. In Tamil Nadu, the female population is just over 16 million. Some 48% of the rural labour force consists of women, while 22% of the cultivators are female. As a result, most of the post-harvest operations are carried out by farm women.

Post-harvest operations

While post-harvest practices vary according to the specific crop, in general they include all the operations which take place after harvesting and which are required to make an agricultural product suitable for immediate consumption and/or storage. These commonly include threshing, winnowing, cleaning, and drying. In dryland agriculture, an important aspect of post-harvest operations is the need to ensure that the produce is kept free from rot, pests, and rodents. Given the low productivity of the system as a whole, it is important to see that the produce which is ultimately obtained is edible and palatable.

Numerous ‘post-harvest technologies’, including improved material and better equipment, have been introduced to make the process faster, easier and more profitable. However, the majority of the farm women continue to use traditional tools and techniques for many post-harvest operations. Such indigenous knowledge is highly valued, since in many cases the new tools and techniques are not available or are beyond the means of the farmers.


A study was carried out in 1994-95 in Kattankudi, Puliyampatti and Chettipatti villages of Aruppukottai block in Kamarajar District of Tamil Nadu, India (see map). The majority of the farmers in these villages belong to medium and low socioeconomic status groups. In the study area most post-harvest operations were performed by the women rather than men. The objective of this study was to identify the indigenous tools and practices that are being used by farm women for various post-harvest operations in the case of millets, pulses and oil seed crops. It was felt that this would make it easier to establish which of the innovative post harvest technologies would be most compatible with the traditional practices presently in use.

Table Post-harvest operations in dryland crops

Indigenous practices/tools






By using wooden sticks

Farm women use wooden sticks approximately 0.5m in length to thresh the grains (small quantities). They hold the wooden sticks in their hands and beat the harvested crops to separate the grains from the earheads. This is usually done on an earthern floor.

Millets, pulses, and oilseeds (except groundnut)


Spreading the earheads on roads

The earheads are spread on the road where vehicles run over them and the grains become separated.


Using bullocks and rollers

Harvested crops are spread out in the threshing yard. Bullocks pulling a heavy stone roller are allowed to trample the harvested produce. The stone roller runs over the earheads and the grains become separated. This practice is used for large quantities of produce, especially if the road is too far away.


Using tractors

The harvested crops are spread on the threshing yard and the tractor is allowed to run over them, thus separating the grains. A tool known as a kavathukkavai (V-shaped wooden utensil with a long handle) is used to lift the earheads from the bottom to the top for uniform threshing. A pallukkavvai is a tool made of wood or iron, which is used to remove the plants of black gram and earheads of cumbu.

A koottupalagai is another tool made of wood and it looks like a levelling board fitted with a long handle. It is used to heap the threshed produce together (see photo 2).

Black gram and bajra


Beating crops on wooden platforms, etc.

The harvested crops are beaten against the wooden platform, benches and stools to separate the grains.

Red gram




By using winnower (solavu)

The grains are winnowed in a device called a solavu and the grains are dropped from a height. This separates the dust from the grains. To increase the height they stand on a cart or use a step-like structure called a kokkali. Three different types of solavu are used. One is made out of sheaths of the Morinda tintoria, a member of the mulberry family known locally as manjanathi; the two other types are made of bamboo and palmyrah leaves.

Black gram and millets


By using broomsticks (vallippumar)

Piles of grains are winnowed with the aid of a vallippumar, a kind of broomstick made up of coconut leaves. Other types, made of plants like cotton stalk, redgram stems and manjanathi, are also used to heap the threshed produce.

Millets and pulses




Using sieves (salladai)

Salladai (sieves) are used to remove dust, immature seeds, stones, etc. from the threshed grains. In the case of small quantities, a smaller sieve made of steel is used to remove stones and leaves. For larger quantities, a big sieve made of wire mesh with a wooden frame is used.

After threshing, the sunflower seeds are separated by means of a sieve-like utensil made of with palmyrah leaf sheaths.

Black gram and green gram




Sun drying is done to dry the grains. This is usually done on a ‘new moon’ day, since this is thought to reduce the risk of damage by pests.

Millets, pulses and oilseeds




Gunny bag

The cleaned produce is stored in gunny bags, fertilizer bags, drums and pots, pattarai and kulumai or kudhir (made of cowdung and clay).


Pest control methods


Mixing non-toxic materials with produce

To protect the stored grain from pests, any one of the following materials are mixed with the stored produce: ash, soap nut powder, nochi, leaves, pungam leaves, neem leaves.

Spreading BHC 10% on the gunny sacs or placing a cloth bag of BHC 10% inside the sacs.

Mixing red earth with red gram

Mixing pieces of jaggery, husk of gingelly and cumbu, and sand.

Sorghum, sunflower and cumbu are preserved by hanging the earheads in the kitchen.

Pulses and millets

Black gram, gingelly and millets (for seed purposes only)

Red gram

Pulses and gingelly

Sorghum, sunflower and cumbu (for seed purposes)


Preservation of processed products


Mixing jaggery

Storing pieces of jaggery in oil, and placing them in mud pots or tins.

Sunflower/ gingelly oil


Mixing vegetable oils

To dehusk the black gram and green gram, any vegetable oil (usually groundnut oil) is mixed in and the husk removed, using a stone mortar and huller.

Black gram and green gram


The 19 indigenous post-harvest practices identified were used by all the dry land farmers in the villages, irrespective of caste and class. According to the farm women, these practices were handed down from generation to generation, usually by word of mouth. They were perceived to be economically feasible and user-friendly. The indigenous post-harvest tools which the women used were made by local artisans, using low-cost resources which were locally available, and they were easy to repair and to maintain. Moreover, indigenous post-harvest procedures do not require a high degree of technical skill. In view of these advantages, the post-harvest operations identified here provide a point of departure for designing appropriate new technology for sustainable agriculture.

All 19 technologies were developed by the farming community and evolved gradually over the years, through informal, trial-and-error processes. This clearly demonstrates that the ‘local people’ are the ‘innovators’, and that when new post-harvest technologies are devised, they should be consulted first, because they are the real ‘experts’, as well as the ultimate users.


Indigenous post-harvest technologies have been widely adopted by rural people in dryland areas. In this study, some 19 indigenous post-harvest operations adopted by the farmers for dryland crops were identified and documented. Appropriate new post-harvest techniques for dryland crops can be developed by integrating these indigenous knowledge systems into the research and development projects. Furthermore, these systems should be refined and field-tested, with a view to wider adoption. This will encourage the dryland farmers to adopt the improved post-harvest technologies.

Dr S. Parvathi
Associate Professor
Department of Home Science, Agricultural College and Research Institute
Madurai 625 104
Tel.: +91-452-822 956
Fax: +91-452-822 785
E-mail: macdean@vsnl.com

Dr K. Chandrakandan
Director of Extension Education
Tamil Nadu Agricultural University
Coimbatore 641 003
Tel.: +91-422-431 222
Fax: +91-422-431 672
E-mail : vctnau@tnau.kovai.tn.nic.in

Dr C. Karthikeyan
Assistant Professor (Extension)
Department of Agricultural Extension and Rural Sociology
Tamil Nadu Agricultural University
Coimbatore 641 003
Tel.: +91-422-435 103 (R)
Fax: +91-422-431 672
E-mail : vijikarthi18@yahoo.com


Jain, H.K. (1985) Indian agriculture in 2000 AD. New Delhi. Indian National Science Academy pp. 1-6.

Jodha, N.S. (1984) Development strategy for rainfed agriculture possibilities and constraints. Paper presented at National Semenar at Institute of economic growth 27-30 April 1984, New Delhi.



Map showing Tamil Nadu, India.

Map showing the districts of Tamil Nadu.

Map showing the villages selected for the study.


1 Threshing by using a wooden stick.
Photo: S. Parvathi

2 Woman using a koottupalagai to heap the threshed produce together.
Photo: S. Parvathi

3 Winnowing the grains (of black gram and/or millets) by taking them in a solavu, winnower, and drop the grains from a a step like structure called kokkali thus separating dusts from the grains.
Photo: S. Parvathi

4 Salladai, sieves, used to clean the threshed grains of black gram and/or millets.
Photo: S. Parvathi

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