By- Soma K P

The Union Finance Minister, Mr Arun Jaitley, presented the Union Budget on February 1, 2018. On the surface, it includes provisions that not just focus on women farmers, but seek to actively uplift them.

However, many, including The Times of India, argue that the budget doesn’t do much uplift the standing of farming women because of the issue of landlessness.

Landlessness among Female Farmers

The issue of landlessness among women farmers isn’t well documented. So much so that when the Economic Survey of 2018, spoke about the feminization of Indian Agriculture, with as much as two-thirds of farm labour comprising of women, it failed to take into account that most of this labour is landless. While women provide services for farming activities such as land preparation, seed selection, and production, sowing, etc., they are often considered family members doing their duty or farm help. This is because land is often owned by the “head of the household”, which in rural India almost always means the husband or the father. So even as the share of women working in agriculture grows, their rights over land remain marginalized. Only about 35% of female farmers have any claim to the land they toil.

Take an average female farmer, who works on either her father’s or husband’s field (in terms of ownership). After years of working hard on the field doing a majority of the work, she is removed from the inheritance of said land. Often by in-laws, sometimes due to shoddy laws or an uncertain bureaucracy. Now, this farmer is left with little to no assets and perhaps children to take care of. Now she will either have to migrate to urban areas to look for work or serve as farm help on a farm that is her own. Even though the Hindu Succession Act had given a lot of women rights over their husband’s or father’s property, it had a loophole that allowed in-laws to simply create a will that bypasses these women entirely.

This is a chronic issue that is plaguing female farmers of India. However, a few organisations are working hard to ensure women farmers are able to reclaim their rights. Two such organizations are the Working Group for Women and Land Ownership or WGWLO and Mahila Kissan Adhikar Manch or MAKKAM. The organizations have been hard at work to ensure, what Dr Itishree Pattnaik calls, “The Feminisation of Agrarian Distress,” doesn’t occur. I had a conversation with one of the founders of MAKAAM, Ms Soma KP. A JNU and IIT alum, she is working tirelessly to enable more women farmers to gain access to land. Excerpts:

Women Farmers

How chronic is the problem of landless labour in the women of Gujarat and India?

In rural India, land ownership among women is low. Some might argue that the situation has been improving in the past few decades, but that improvement has been much too slow. Despite the passage of some important legislation in 2005, land ownership, particularly, private land, has remained low. While the speed at which women are being displaced and their claims discredited is much higher.

The situation with communal land is worse. Because communal land supports primarily Adivasi and Dalit women. They use that land for everything from fodder to food. But, in the push to industrialise, this communal land is given to industries or mines. Which means the sole source of livelihood for the women is being taken away. This is a very chronic problem, not just in Gujarat but across India. It is a threat to the safety and food security of the most vulnerable women in our society.

What are some of the most common issues faced by women who are not allowed claim over inheritance?

The whole issue of autonomy in decision making gets compromised. That is an often overlooked but essential, everyday problem. We can talk all about the Feminisation of Agriculture but the fact remains that though women farm, they don’t own land. Because of this lack of ownership, they cannot gain access to the Kisaan Card or formal credit or any other social welfare scheme. Their labour becomes marginalised. The Woman Farmer is the backbone of the Indian rural economy, but she’s never given that respect.

Why hasn’t any government been able to take up measures to ensure women their right to property?

I believe it has to fundamentally do with a lack of political will. Let’s face it, all political parties have a patriarchal bent and mindset. Add to that the recent surge of capitalism and neo-liberalism that have become key talking points. The combination of the two has ensured the rights and entitlements of the women are kept at bay. The powerful seldom allow the marginalised to exercise their rights. While there have certainly been progressive steps taken by all governments, take the Hindu Succession Act for instance. It has been too slow and too little. We’re potentially looking at the next agriculture crisis. We need more than mere rhetoric.

Speaking of rhetoric, how do you see the budget’s 30% allocation to women farmers in the context of landlessness?

A large chunk of this money allocated is to increase credit for women farmers. Which means they have to borrow from banking organizations and affiliates. This neglects the masses of women farmers who are not land-owners. At the end of the day, women are being recognized as mere borrowers and not producers. The budget doesn’t talk about investment in assets. Under all the gloss, it is a deal with corporate India. The Banking and Financial Sector stands to benefit massively as women farmers are considered a low credit risk.

This is only going to deepen the indebtedness of the farming community on the whole, while ensuring a growth in profits for Banks.

How do you think the budget could’ve been better allocated to actually help women farmers?

There have been small experiments conducted across India that could prove a better model for the distribution of funds. Take for instance the Land Lease model in Kerala, where women farmers and landless labour is given land on long-term lease. So they can claim the entitlements and benefits of a landowner. We need more such experiments to be funded. The government could use the funding to empower more grass-roots level organisations like MAKAAM, which work on a local level. Because the needs of every district are different and distinct. They could also set up a commission that brings together different organisations from different parts of the country to work on this issue.

However, primarily I feel the mere acknowledgment of women farmers as producers and not just borrowers, would’ve gone a long way. I mean credit has its importance but it is not the only aspect.

How has the work you’ve been doing through MAKAM helped women to reclaim their rights over land?

We’ve been working to build an informal forum. We are building alliances and affiliates to negotiate with states and central authorities to bring about changes in the issue of Land Ownership for women. We intend to create better access to entitlements for women. We have National Consultation programmes with different departments of the government on multiple fronts. This includes pushing for Gender segregated data to target women farmers with specificity.

We attempt to help women farmers get a better status. Use technology to advance issues and counter problems they care about. For instance, farmers often say that capital-intensive technology often replaces their labour-intensive work. They argue for the need for Sustainable Agriculture. We work with them to help achieve these noble goals.

The intentions with which MAKAAM and WGWLO are working are certainly appreciable. You can visit their respective websites and read some of their heart-warming success stories.

Stay tuned for an extensive coverage on the issue of landless women farmers in the coming few days.