Rivers of ink have been spilled over discussing the lack of recognition attributed to women's labour in farming. The 'unpaid' nature of most work undertaken by women farmers has particularly drawn a lot of focus amongst econ-feminists and other social scientists in recent years.
The National Policy for Farmers drafted by the committee led by MS Swaminathan in 2007 identified any individual engaged in economic and/ or livelihood activity of producing primary agricultural commodities, be in the capacity of cultivators, sharecroppers, fishers, or gardeners, to be duly recognised for work in farming.
It also extends to include tribal families who perform shifting cultivation and others in horticulture, vermiculture, and agro-forestry.
This is, however, contrasted by most government policies that often tend to provide farming/agri-support and benefits only to land-owning farmers, which causes the welfare safety net to be disproportionately distributed between 'land-owning farming class' and the 'land-tilling working farmer'.
Women bear the brunt of this created asymmetric division in the agri-class. To study this, our Visual Storyboard research team from the Centre for New Economics Studies, Jindal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities, OP Jindal Global University, spent a few weeks in one of the worst affected agri-areas of Maharashtra in the region of Vidarbha, infamously known for the highest per capita farmer suicides in India.
Our team interacted with numerous women farmers to know more about their stories and how – with limited support – they toil and till in the fields.
Despite Workload, Women Farmers Invisible
Traditionally, it has been observed that women farmers undertake more laborious and time-consuming processes, such as weeding, loosening the soil, and seed preservation.
Despite the heavier workload, supporting households, and performing other intra-household 'duties', they are 'invisibilised' as workers in fields, usually owned by their male (farmer) counterparts restricting their access to agri-enabling systems such as markets, irrigation, and storage infrastructure.
Furthermore, the daily wage for female workers is Rs 150, which is much lesser when compared to their male counterparts who earn Rs 350-400. The prevalence of gender inequality in law and its practice by the executive further deprives them of the right to possess land and move out of this oppressed cycle. As a result, women farmers are isolated and dependent on their husbands and fathers for the development of the fields and the sale of crops.
The Impact on Widow Farmers
This shifts the burden of income generation on male farmers of the country who become debt-ridden to maintain their farms in meagre monetary inflows.
There are several reasons behind such inefficient agricultural yield. This has come with an everyday rise in the number of farmers dying by suicide and a three percent rise in the numbers just between 2018 and 2019.
The scale of this issue has managed to catch the attention of local policymakers who have promised ex gratia or compensation packages post incidents of suicides to the widow farmers. However, this entitlement does not come easy.
Widows are left at the mercy of their in-laws and rarely become beneficiaries of the land previously owned by their husbands. Madhuri Khadse, a woman farmer and head of the Prerna Gram Vikas Sanstha recalls an instance where a widow was driven out by both her in-laws and brother along with her two sons. After threatening to call the police, she was kept in a cowshed and given the bare minimum to survive. Such events are common in the villages as the woman is seen to have no value of her own.
Moreover, to avail the ex gratia, women go through a round of investigation that includes recounting the incident several times, proving and documenting the details of the suicide. Still, the compensation is meagre, and cannot buy them more land.
A study found that widowed women farmers only became more vulnerable during and after the COVID-19 lockdown. The Maharashtra government issued a government resolution, which stated that land rights along with 7/12 would be transferred to the widow, in case of farmer suicide, and it was hailed to be very progressive. But it failed in the implementation stage, and the widow farmers continue to struggle.
Investigating the Channels of Farmer Suicides: A Case Study of Vidarbha
Maharashtra has risen to be the biggest contributor to the number of farmer suicides in the country. Much disparity can be noticed even within the state with Vidarbha forming for almost half of the cases internally. The Vidarbha region consists of eleven districts: Akola, Amravati, Washim, Nagpur, Yavatmal, Wardha, Buldhana, Chandrapur, Bhandara, Gadchiroli, and Gondia.
As of 2012, 65 percent of the population living in this region was dependent on agriculture and allied activities for their livelihood. We spoke to the residents, farmers – both male and female, and activists from the Yavatmal and Wardha districts – to understand this crisis from the lens of those who experience it firsthand.
It was observed that uninterrupted access to water and electricity still remains a struggle in Vidarbha. Residents report that in many areas, electricity is available only for a few hours a day. Other facilities such as roads and schools too are far-fetched, resulting in very poor standard of living for the villagers.
Factors Affecting Yield
Unfortunately, even agriculture in this region has not been very promising as it sits below the national and state averages of productiveness. This water-scarce belt receives 400-600 mm rainfall annually and relies heavily on cotton production. Insufficient water supply damages the crop very easily making it a high-risk entity for local farmers (most of whom own hardly any land on which they work). Proper irrigation facilities are necessary for a fruitful yield.
Unfortunately, of the eight districts that specialise in cultivating cotton, only 8-10 percent regions have proper irrigation connections, even now.
Other factors that prevent high yields in Vidarbha are the micronutrient levels in the soil and repeated attacks from wild animals. "The animals cause a lot of damage. They destroy crops worth Rs 1 lakh annually," claims Tushar who lost his father to suicide.
Due to several challenges, farmers undertake the sowing cycle twice in order to make up for the lost crops. However, this only pushes them into debt as they borrow continuously. Government sources are too time consuming and complicated as they demand multiple documents and visits before providing the loan. On the other hand, quick money from private money lenders comes at soaring interest rates of 16 to 18 percent.
Additionally, market forces also do not work in the favour of these farmers. Since many lack the infrastructure to store their crops, the market has a heavy supply of crops as soon as the harvest is ready. This brings down the market prices, depriving farmers from a decent income that they can use to repay their loans. In this manner, small scale farmers often fall into the debt- trap.
Due to the lack of natural resources, farming becomes difficult, and due to the lack of choice and proper infrastructure, changing professions seems like an utopian choice.
Farmers withstand absolute instability and an absence of security. 2019 was a difficult year for the harvest due to unseasonal rainfall, yet they failed to receive a loan waiver.
Role of Collectivisation and NGOs in Rehabilitation of Women Farmers
In the aftermath of the COVID-19 lockdown, in the fourth quarter of 2021, Maha Vikas Agadhi announced a relief package of 10,000 to compensate the farmers whose crops were destroyed during the rainfall and floods. The second state loan waiver was also implemented in the state.
However, all these combined too didn’t have much of an effect on the farmer suicides in the region. Amidst this, the need to empower women independently surfaces as a possible solution that would allow families to distribute the financial burden and provide women with agency.
An observation made in the Economic Survey of 2018 stated that the agricultural sector in India is undergoing feminisation due to the outmigration of male members from rural villages to cities in search of better employment opportunities. In this context, it becomes even more important to equip women with the tools that will allow them to harvest to the best of their capabilities without gendered obstacles.
Harish Ethape, an agro-theatre activist from Vidarbha said:
"Relatively, women have an advantage over men in terms of financial and household management. They identify their household needs and prioritise them first. They keep aside some harvest for the household and efficiently reduce the costs. In fact, many separately sow more crops in small quantities for household consumption."
Steps have been taken to mobilise women and empower them by pushing for collective farming. This helps combine small scale and marginal farmers, reduces the risks of taking loans, and divides the burden of labour and operations. It has also formed a solidarity network where women motivate each other and break traditional stereotypes.
Madhuri Khadse speaks about the instance when many women in her village refused to cultivate turmeric due to its association with religious beliefs and how that would prevent them from entering the fields during their menstrual cycle.
Madhuri took the initiative to grow tumeric and convince everyone to do so too:
"A flower bloomed in my fields in a few months. I took it around showing it to everyone in order to inspire them in breaking the stereotype."
These collectives also play a very important role in rehabilitating widows who are tortured by their in-laws post the death of their husbands.
Growing Influence of Organic Farming
There has been a growing influence of agro-ecology leading to organic farming within such women's collectives. Organic farming varies from region to region and previously, a resistance among marginalised groups would stem from the lack of understanding and guidance in accepting it. Now, collectives actively work in documenting the process and outcomes of different approaches.
Moreover, they mitigate risk by already securing food for household consumption and working in groups. In this manner, these women are largely contributing to the revitalisation of micronutrients in the soil and the maintenance of a seed bank at the very grassroots level.
Collectivisation, the creation of semi-formal solidarity networks, has allowed women farmers – even if in limited numbers across districts – to work together to improve their economic livelihoods and find better means for securing their (and their families’) lives.
Still, a lot needs to be done by local authorities and non-governmental organisations for those (mostly women) who are disproportionately affected by the lack of easier access to proper irrigation, fertilisers, cheaper agri-credit options, for sustaining higher yields in farming and ensuring a robust social safety net for the farming household.
This will also help reduce the high incidence of farmer suicides that has gripped the farmers (kastakar) of Vidarbha.
(With inputs from Rishiraj Sen and Mohd Rameez.)
(Deepanshu Mohan is Associate Professor of Economics at OP Jindal Global University. Jignesh Mistry is a Photojournalist and a Senior Research Analyst and Vanshika Mittal is Senior Research Analyst at OP Jindal Global University. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)