The Pull of the Plough

Apart from agriculture, the plough’s influence can be seen in literature, theology and in the way certain societies have developed.

At first glance, the plough does not seem interesting enough to merit an in-depth analysis. After all, it is an ordinary, if critical farming implement used to turn soil and make it receptive to seed.

However, that description does not do justice to the plough’s status as a metaphor for human toil or to its influence on farming and society.

It can be a verb that signifies pain and perseverance (‘I ploughed through the book’) as well as a visual symbol of effort and exertion. The iconic Mother India movie poster shows a visibly exhausted Nargis heaving a plough on her shoulders. The wooden yoke also stands for the oppressive burden of maternal love and responsibility in this case.

Even the night sky has a connection to this tool. The ‘Big Dipper’ group of stars in the constellation, Ursa Major, is alternately known as the plough because of its arrangement.

The Bible uses the plough to signify the process of taking wasted, uncultivated lives in order to make them useful and productive. Hindu mythology presents Balarama, in contrast to his high profile brother, as the plough bearer and farmer.

Of course, it goes without saying that the plough as depicted in these examples is rarely visible on the modern farming landscape. Joginder, a grower with 30 years of farming experience in Batala, Punjab, says that the image of two bullocks pulling a plough, with a person guiding them from behind, is fast fading from Indian agriculture. “There may be little pockets or small land holdings in parts of the country [where the old fashioned plough] is still used”, said Joginder, “but it has been largely replaced by tillers and tractor combines everywhere else”.

However, manual techniques and inefficiency persist in Indian agriculture, partly because of fragmented land holdings. K.U. Somaya, a coffee grower currently based in Coorg, says that mechanization often does not make economic sense for smallholder farmers. He notes that farmers are now getting around this by pooling resources to invest in machinery.

Ploughing has definitely been impacted by the tussle between tradition and modernity, albeit with a twist. Traditional ploughs typically employed a method called mouldboard ploughing that inverts the soil completely in order to move the subsoil up and above the water repellent topsoil. Concerns regarding soil erosion and sustainability have called this practice into question. As a result, growers have begun to favour alternate ploughing tools such as roto tillers and spaders. Many proponents of zero tillage are also emerging in the farming community as it is believed to have minimal ecological impact on the soil. However, Somaya said that it is not clear if such cultivation practices can deliver the same yields as more entrenched techniques.

Clearly, the plough is imbued with symbolism and its evolution has shaped and continues to shape agriculture. But did its invention influence the way ancient societies developed? Yes, according to Alberto F. Alesina, Nathan Nunn and Paolo Giuliano, the authors of a research paper on the topic. They hypothesize that the plough may actually have created the gender disparity that still persists in many parts of the world, including India.

The researchers argue that the plough, while increasing productivity, caused women in ancient societies to drop out of the agricultural labor force. Not only did it now require brute strength but ploughing became an activity that had to be completed in one go rather than the intermittent task that it had been with the use of hand-held tools. Since women often had to stop work to tend to children and the household, they were gradually edged out of farming activities and relegated to domestic work. The authors quote a French historian, Fernand Braudel, as he described how this shift happened in ancient Mesopotamia. “At a stroke, it might seem that the society would move from being matriarchal to patriarchal”.

Joginder agrees, as does Somaya, that Indian agriculture still needs to progress when it comes to gender equality. “You will rarely see a woman driving a tractor combine”, says Joginder while Somaya says that change in this area may be a few years down the road.

Despite such baggage, the plough continues to stand for a certain brand of timeless industry. Somaya points out that the old Janata party used it as their party symbol in the 1970s to appeal to their rural farmer base. The act of ploughing, in his view, lies at the core of what powers agrarian societies. “Why do we plough?” Somaya said. “The only reason is to break the soil. That’s where and how it all begins”.