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It’s time the government recognised the role of women in agriculture

There is much economic benefit to be had from the investing in women in farming. The Food and Agriculture Organization says that if women farmers had the same access to resources as men, they would increase output by 20-30% which would mean a dramatic reduction in hunger

columns Updated: Jun 10, 2018 08:19 IST
Lalita Panicker
Lalita Panicker
Hindustan Times
There is much economic benefit to be had from the investing in women in farming. The Food and Agriculture Organization says that if women farmers had the same access to resources as men, they would increase output by 20-30% which would mean a dramatic reduction in hunger(Burhaan Kinu/HT)

If the image of the farmer in the West is that of a rugged, dungaree-clad man chewing a cornstalk, in India it is that of a man, face furrowed looking up at the sky for the first signs of the monsoon rains. This is to miss the real picture, that of the contribution of women to farming. They are, as they are in so many areas, the largely unseen face of agriculture — but they are increasingly becoming workers and entrepreneurs in this field. In many cases, they have no choice with men moving to urban areas for work. The latest economic survey recognised this and spoke of the need for women farmers to get access to land, water, credit, technology and training. It is clear now that agriculture is not sustainable any longer without the involvement of women.

But while there are more women in agriculture today, they have just a dismal 12.8% of holdings despite being crucial to the whole production chain from farm to market. Unfortunately, the role of women in farming has got no mention at all among political parties and very little among policy-makers. Come elections and the issue of farmer suicides is raised mostly as a stick to beat opponents with. Grand farm loan waivers are announced but nothing at all is said about gender inclusiveness in agriculture. At best, we hear of self-help groups and micro-credit schemes for women but little about their inclusion in decision-making at any level of farming.

There is much economic benefit to be had from investing in women in farming. The Food and Agriculture Organization says that if women farmers had the same access to resources as men, they would increase output by 20-30% which would mean a dramatic reduction in hunger. But for this the government needs to ensure that women get the right tools to work with, the most important being the knowhow about agricultural best practices.

Several studies of self-help groups across India shows that women are far more credit worthy than men. Since they are not as mobile as men, they need information and communication tools much more if they are to succeed in agriculture. It is very rare for governments to acknowledge women farmers though recently the government has set aside a day for them — October 15. But acknowledgement alone is not enough; they must be given a leg up in training and technology.

Since women have limited ownership of land, they face many hurdles, the main one being getting credit from a bank or even accessing government schemes meant for farmers. Despite a huge presence in farming, women in Uttar Pradesh own a little under 18% of the land, and in Kerala it is just 14%. In other words, women can labour on farms but cannot hope to own them. Since land is passed on through inheritance, it is usually handed down to male heirs. Unless women are equal partners in land inheritance, this disparity cannot be addressed. Even in the southern states where the labour unions are strong, women farm workers get less than men; in the northern states, the wage gap is more. Women farmers work with very little support from their families or the state. It is time the government worked out special schemes for them and recognised the pressures they face. In 2014, according to the National Crime Records Bureau, of 8,007 farmer suicides, 441 were women. Also 577 women labourers committed suicide that year.

The increasing numbers of suicides among male farmers also forces women to take up farming as they cannot manage their families with the compensation that they may or may not get. Today, decisions concerning agriculture are taken by officials in faraway government offices for whom the femininisation of agriculture holds little meaning. When was the last time an official actually talked to women farmers to understand their concerns? Have they even thought of women-friendly technology? Have they thought of psychological support for those women whose husbands have killed themselves? Do they not need child care support if they have to work in the fields? If nothing else, investing in women farmers will prove a shot in the arm for the economy. If there is to be a second green revolution, chances are it will be led by women.

lalita.panicker@hindustantimes.com

First Published: Jun 09, 2018 16:03 IST