What’s troubling the main (and unnoticed) driving force in India’s farmlands?

Almost 70 percent of the farmers in India happen to be women. But why's it they don't figure in the farming narrative?

Sheikh Saaliq | 6 March, 2018

When Finance Minister Arun Jaitley presented the Union Budget for the year 2018-2019, the word was already out that the Budget would be ‘farmer friendly’. Jaitley used the word ‘farmer’ 27 times during the speech and promised a bagful of schemes, which – he hoped – would help the ‘Kisan bhai’.

While the Indian government defines ‘farmer’ as a person, male or female, who cultivates a plot of land—owner or non-owner, a majority of our politicians’ speeches, including the Finance Minister himself, refer to the farmer as ‘bhai’.

Depicted as a male-dominated profession, women have been most often than not excluded from the farming narrative. This narrative, however, undermines a surprising, yet important fact: the percentage of the male farmer is lesser than the female famer in India.

(Source: OXFAM)

Out of every 10 farmers, six happen to be women. This means a staggering 60% of the total farmer population of India are women.

Be it seeding, cropping, harvesting, ploughing, or even driving tractors — more women work on the fields than men. And yet, less than 13 percent of these women own any land.

Missing land entitlement

Usha Devi, 39, has been farming on a land for the last 15 years that doesn’t even belong to her.

She gets up before dawn to cook for her three children and husband, milks her buffalos, sends her children to school and spends rest of her day in a four-acre plot of land right outside her house in Paljar, Sonipat.

Her unemployed husband Devendra Kumar, who usually remains away from home during the day to play cards with his friends, owns the land.

Devi grows vegetables on the land and then sells it in the nearby mandi. The money earned from the product is the only source of income for the family, and she is the sole breadwinner. Yet, she holds no rights to the land.

“My husband doesn’t work at all. I manage to run this family from the produce I get from the land. Shouldn’t I be entitled to own some part of this land so that I can save it for my children?” Devi asked.

Devi is among the many female farmers in India who get little recognition. Despite their input they are not even included in budget speeches. She along with other women continue to be the main driving force behind the agricultural economy in India, with no claim on their land or decision-making power.

Without ownership over land, women have very little access to credit, and are often barred from government schemes that are meant to support farmers.

Many surveys and reports done in last five years say that 80% financially independent women in India are engaged in farm-related activities. Out of them, 33% are working as agricultural labourers and 48% are self-employed farmers.

According to the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO), women lead almost 18% agricultural households and there is not a single area of agriculture in which they are not involved.

Percentage of women workforce in agriculture has increased since 2001

(Source: Census of India)

According to an Oxfam report, In Uttar Pradesh, the largest state in India, women own less than 18% of agricultural land. In Kerala, the most literate state in the country, the percentage of women owning agricultural land is a mere 14%.

This abysmal land ownership stems from the fact that land titles in most Indian states are almost always in the man’s name.

The laws that hamper

The current inheritance laws ensures that women are specifically kept out of line in the succession of agricultural land on the excuse that it would lead to fragmentation of landholdings.

But that is just the tip of the iceberg.

Women land rights in India are mediated through various personal laws. The Hindu personal law allows women the right to own land and independently manage its affairs, includes ownership of agricultural land. But many states like Uttar Pradesh and a few others do not follow it. On the other hand, Muslim personal law does not allow for women’s share in agricultural land, except in a few states.

Other customary practices and traditions in some cases further deny women their land share even when it is permitted under law.

More than 90% of agricultural land in the country continues to be transferred only through inheritance. Here, women face severe discrimination from their families. Several research studies have shown that families are most likely to deny the married daughters, widows, unmarried women their land share in estate and tenurial land.

According to various reports, lesser ownership of land means lesser exposure to agricultural value chains for women. And in turn, it means lesser productivity for them despite putting in as much effort as the Kisan bhai.

While there are many ways to address this problem, Kavita Kanwar, a practicing lawyer and a women rights expert believes that land is not just a productive asset, but also equally a source of security, status and recognition.

“We need to remove discriminatory provisions in law, making women equal partners in land inheritance and ownership and ensure effective implementation through sensitisation of land officials and adjustment of forms and procedures,” Kavita said.

States with high percentage of women farmers in comparision to their land holdings in different states

(Source: World Bank Data)

The wage gap

In a landscape where a farmer’s plight is only worsening, the story of farm women of India is that of multiple barriers.

According to a report by the UN, “If given proper rights and land share, women can control additional income and spend more of it than men do on food, health, clothing and education for their, thus helping in tackling poverty.”

Besides not having land ownership, women often have to be content with low paid jobs in agriculture.

Jean Dreze, a noted economist and a professor at the University of Ranchi, argues that this wage gap, over the years, has shrunk but there’s still more to do. “Wages for farmers – men and women – need to be regulated. But that’s not easy in the informal sector,” Dreze said.

Female to male agricultural wage ratio in different states in India (1983-2004)

(Source: National Sample Survey (NSS) 2004)

In March 2017, the labour ministry nearly doubled the minimum wage for agriculture labourer including those hired on contract. According to a labour ministry notification, an unskilled agriculture labourer would be entitled to get a minimum wage of Rs 300 per day in C-category towns as against Rs 160 now while those in B and A category towns will get Rs 303 and Rs 333 respectively.

But how much of this exactly gets implemented on the ground is still a matter of concern.

Savitri, 30, was married four months ago to a man from Paljar, Sonipat. Savitri and her husband Shyamlal work together on a farm of a local Zamindar. “We spend equal time on the field and do all kind of agricultural labour. Yet my husband earns more than me,” she said.

The wage difference between the couple reflects the patriarchal mindset, which leads to the woman getting paid less than the man in every job. While Savitri’s husband is paid between Rs 180-200 for a day’s work, Savitri makes a little less than Rs 120 for the same job as his husband’s.

“But I can’t complain. There’s still time that we start earning like men,“ she said.

Dreze agrees. He believes that most of these problems faced by the women farmers in the country stems from deep-rooted patriarchy and discrimination against women. “Unless government starts to acknowledge that women are the pillar of farming in India, and actually starts to work for them, these issues will continue to surface,” he suggested.

The other reason for this wage gap is migration of the men folk to cities looking for jobs and other source of income. Employment in agriculture is available for fewer days per year, which makes it essential for men to migrate in search of better-paid work. Thus women are forced to fill this vacuum.

Ashish Yadav, who runs a women self-help farmer community in Sonipat says that, “In many cases women are also forced to accept work as an agricultural labourer in their own village under meager wages.”

This dependence of women labour, especially during the peak periods of sowing and harvesting, has become very common. “They [women] take up the job for whatever they are being offered. The men folk are away and the responsibility to take care of the family is on a woman’s shoulders,” Yadav said.

State-wise trend of women participation in agricultural activities (in %)

(Source: National Commission for Women)

Loss of life that goes unreported

The gender discrimination extends even to extreme scenarios where the farmer is forced to take their own lives due to lack of good agricultural produce, and in turn a huge debt.

While farmer suicides is talked about on a large scale – a major crisis that has hit a large part of the country in the last few decades, too often, it forgets to mention the women.

The data for the year 2016 and 2017 are yet to be released by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), but the available data shows an upward spike in the suicides. Farmer suicides rose by 42% between 2014 and 2015, according to the NCRB data.

What is worth mentioning is that out of total 8,007 farmer suicides in 2014, 441 were by women farmers and cultivators. Among the suicides by agricultural labourers, the NCRB recorded that 577 were women.

“It’s a thankless job”

Irrespective of all the troubles and discrimination, the women farmers of India continue to dominate the farmlands, albeit unnoticed.

“We [women farmers] have an emotional relationship with the land. It gives us food and dignity,“ Devi said.

But there aren’t many who credit these women for the work they do. Not even inside their own homes.

“Most days my husband returns home in an inebriated states. He wakes up in the morning and goes out to gamble with his friends. Do you think he will take out time and appreciate the fact that I earn for him and our family? It’s thankless job,” Savitri said.

“All we [women farmer] need is an identity of our own.”

But with just a fleeting a mention of these faceless people who form the backbone of the Indian agriculture, identity seems to be a far-fetched thought.

(Data Sourced from: UN, OXFAM, Census of India, World Bank, National Sample Survey (NSS), & National Commission for Women)

(Photos: PTI, Getty)