Women farmers are being effectively ‘deskilled’
The State should reorient policies, whether related to asset transfers, or wages and pricing, to serve their interestsanalysis Updated: Oct 29, 2017 17:03 IST
Every year, the government celebrates Mahila Kisan Divas. What does it mean for a majority of rural women engaged in farming? While statistical estimates of women’s work participation in agriculture vary, from 60-80%, depending on the definitions used, as cultivators or agricultural labourers, they still miss out on women’s work in livestock, forestry and other forms of production.
The National Policy for Farmers, 2007, defined a farmer as any “person actively engaged in the economic and/or livelihood activity of growing crops and producing other primary agricultural commodities”. Farmers therefore include all cultivators, agricultural labourers, sharecroppers, poultry and livestock-rearers, fisherfolk, amongst others, as well as tribal families engaged in shifting cultivation and in the collection, use and sale of minor and non-timber forest produce.
Using this definition, most rural women would qualify as ‘farmers’, though often classified as ‘unpaid family helpers’. Our research in Odisha and Maharashtra reveals that women perform almost the same amount of agricultural work as their men in the peak seasons of planting and harvesting, apart from managing domestic work. This is a significant point, as the government’s Time Use Survey, 1999, showed that while women perform over 50 % of total activities, they spend roughly half the time as their men on ‘productive’ work. There is also likely to have been a shift over the past two decades, with women’s contributions increasing as their men have no option but to migrate seasonally to ensure their family’s survival.
In tribal-dominated districts, whether it’s Koraput in Odisha or Dumka in Jharkhand,while women don’t have legal titles to land, plots of land, particularly the dongar or bari (uplands), are socially recognised as women’s plots. Women control the choice of crops and the output. Yet corporate interventions, especially the rapid spread of eucalyptus plantations for the paper industry, across central and eastern India, as well as new legislation such as the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act 2016 (CAMPA), which displaces women farmers from their upland plots, are threatening not just their livelihoods but equally their status as farmers. A Paroja woman in Koraput said: “I used to grow mandya in two plots for our daily consumption. Someone from the company spoke to my husband and convinced him of the profitability of planting eucalyptus. He agreed, and now I have only one plot left. Only if there is food from our land is there happiness”. The option of course is to purchase millets from the market, but this is hardly available and are unaffordable.
Several issues push against the recognition of women as farmers. First, in tribal areas in particular, jointness is recognised in both production and reproduction, yet with the coming in of corporate interventions, or indeed the displacement of women from their plots due to new forest laws, male control of land, income and indeed women is gradually becoming the norm.
While the government has numerous aspirational slogans for the country’s future, be it ‘Make in India’ or ‘Skill India’, women farmers are being effectively ‘deskilled’, at least as far as public recognition is concerned. Deprived of their socially recognised plots of land, they are not entitled to extension services, credit, or membership in farmer cooperatives. Their labour is considered ‘free’, and not valued in calculating the ‘costs of production’. Crops whose production is controlled by women, such as millets, pulses and vegetables, are not considered for Minimum Support Price or for public procurement. While incentives galore are provided to private industry for their growth and development, it is forgotten that women farmers constitute the largest ‘private sector’ in the country. They receive no support or incentives whatsoever, yet battle on against all odds.
We need to move from rhetoric to practice, in truly recognising women as farmers and reorienting policies, whether asset transfers, or wage and pricing policies, to serve their interests.
Nitya Rao is professor, Gender and Development, at the University of East Anglia, UK.
The views expressed are personal