HIDDEN HEROES OF AGRICULTURE

For most of us the word ‘farmer’ conjures up images of a man, ploughing his fields, irrigating or tending to his crop. This actually is only half the picture or even less. While travelling through rural areas, rows of women bent over double in ankle deep water in paddy fields is a common sight.  If one goes into villages, one can see women tending to cattle or carrying fodder from the fields.

All very normal domestic chores associated with a rural woman but in essence these constitute a crucial part of the agricultural sector, a part that remains unrecognized. Women farmers and agricultural labourers while rendering yeoman service remain very much in the background, unseen. According to the World Bank development report 2006, women labour force constitutes 37.5% of 71.5% of rural population (2003-2005). They prepare the soil, sow seeds, plough and irrigate the fields this is in addition to the routine domestic tasks taking care of children, preparing food, fetching water and collecting firewood. A range of activities, which support and sustain the rural family not only as a social unit but an economic one.  Yet this significant contribution is still considered incidental.

This line which silently divides the women agricultural force from their male counterparts runs like a thread across sectors, institutions and in collective public consciousness.  According to 1991 census, there were two distinct categories in the agricultural sector i.e. one main and others marginal workers. Women usually fall in the category of ‘marginal’ defined as those who worked for shorter periods. On closer observation, the dividing line indicates that while women undertake a whole range of tasks in the sector, men are largely engaged in largely marketing of farm produce. This division comes sharply into focus during periods of crises. During the 1990’s, farmer’s suicides, striking regions in Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh sent shock waves across the country.  relentless periods of drought, high input costs and low support prices were seen to be some of the contributing factors pushing small and marginal farmers deeper and deeper into debt and ultimately into a death trap. It was obvious that agriculture was not yielding enough, protective mechanisms were inadequate and it was breaking the backs of small cultivators across several regions. it is not a localized problem in Vidarbha or in Andhra but an endemic one.  This painful phenomenon reveals not only a deep malaise in the agricultural sector, the distress among farmers; it acutely reflects the vulnerable position of women at such a time of crises.  Suicide or accidental death of the farmers leaves their womenfolk in greater distress, coping own survival additional responsibilities of supporting the family and often mounting unpaid debt.

What is the recourse or relief for these women who had lost their husbands, who were in the danger of losing their land to debtors? What was the support from the government to women who were farmers in their own right but without their name in the joint ‘patta’ of the land? With no such provision, without any credit facilities, women automatically lose the land.  The system is simply not sensitized enough, and certainly not geared to provide success to these stalwarts in agriculture. Relief measures were initiated without consulting farmers, local bodies’ panchayats or civil society groups based on data of existing schemes. Large numbers of affected families do not figure in the ‘lists’, which meant the woman, recently widowed, with a slew of crushing responsibilities is left completely bereft of governmental support.  There are other pressing problems as well. Water logged fields, lack of irrigation facilities, poor sanitation become a breeding ground for vector borne diseases like malaria, dengue, filariasis. Ardous labour in these circumstances takes a toll on them which largely remains unaddressed because of a lack of adequate health facilities in rural areas.    Women working in the fields are invariably exposed to the chemical fertilizers now widely used in agriculture.

Unaware of the consequences or ways to protect themselves, through the use of masks or gloves, they fall easy prey to deadly side effects.  Malformed babies, sterility or even breast cancer are some of the horrifying effects of this exposure.

SUPPORT TO WOMEN FARMERS

Under the national Policy 2001, there is a section for providing support to women in difficult circumstances. It enumerates measures and programs to be undertaken for women in extreme poverty, women affected by natural calamities. This document needs to be revisited and a reorientation of existing policy measures is required in the light of its intent.The system is not sensitive to their needs and there is no guidance and support. For instance, they could benefit from training on improved agriculture system at local level.  There needs to be in place a system of special allowances, loan waiver schemes to women farmers.  For those who have been affected by suicide of their men folk, provision of cheaper loan rates is required.  New technologies including organic farming, practices like rotational crops needs to be popularised among women farmers while there is an absence of effective state level intervention, some civil society and SH groups have stepped in, particularly in the south to impart training to women farmers, enabling them to actively participate in decision making processes at the local level and to demand welfare benefits.  Civil society groups like sewa in gujarat have been struggling for land rights for women farmers, and have taken up the issue of joint ‘patta’.

India is a rural-based economy with around 70% of its people dependent on agriculture for their livelihoods.  Women constitute 2/3 of the agriculture force; they own less than 1/10 of the agriculture land. 48% self- employed farmers in this country are women and a whopping 64% of the entire informal sector workforce depending on agriculture are again, women  it is said that women hold up half the sky, which in India remains unrecognized, unsung, their status-quo in the agricultural sector completely undermined. In the 63rd year of our independence surely our women who toil day and night to sustain their families and grow food for the county, deserve much better?

Assistant Professor – Mukesh Topwal
Department Of Horticulture
Uttaranchal (P.G.) College of Biomedical Sciences and Hospital