Agriculture cannot survive without them. But they are invisible in the current conversation on the agrarian crisis

Written by Mrinal Pande |

Farmer agitation, Farm loan waivers, Agricultural sector, Women farmers, Unorganised sector, Minimum support price, Indian ExpressA woman farmer stands on her dried up paddy crop land in Maner in Patna district in Bihar. (Express Photo/Prashant Ravi, File)

An ex-company executive-cum-economist turns to the anchor during a discussion on the farmers’ agitation. “Overpopulation is destroying the farming activity. There are simply too many mouths to feed and the farms are shrinking. We must look to the urban areas for creating new jobs,” he says. The man at the local paan shop tells no one in particular: “Yaar, none of the farmers’ children want to dirty their hands anymore. They wear jeans and own mobiles. They will sell the land as soon as they inherit”. A respected Hindi anchor turns to a farmers’ representative, “Kaka (uncle)”, he says, “Our agriculture minister is out somewhere performing yoga asanas with some baba as our farmer brothers suffer. What do the farmers really want from the government?” Kaka thinks for a bit. “The farmer has traditionally never wanted anything from a government except a fair support price,” he says.

What do these pictures and dialogues have in common? They have males talking to males about what is being seen as a totally male problem, to be tackled by males. By now one is used to such responses from people about the enormous churn going on in our farming communities. They are only reacting to and repeating messages such as the ones above. What can life as a woman farmer, daily-wage labourer mean if women were to start talking?

As women who came of age in the campuses of the Sixties, many of us avidly read the first ever (1974) national report on the state of India’s women, Towards Equality, cover to cover. It revealed, in no uncertain terms, that the rural agricultural sector was the biggest employer in India. However, unlike male farmers and cultivators, their female counterparts remained doubly burdened during their peak productive period with their reproductive role seen as fundamental to their gender while the duties it entailed were socially created. So even as women laboured in fields, they continued to have and rear children almost single-handedly, the report showed.

Nearly two decades later, working with a group of women on Shram Shakti (the first government report on India’s women workers in the unorganised sector), this fact was reconfirmed. The farm sector, even in 1989, employed the largest number of women workers both as cultivators and daily-wage labourers. But women remained outside the formal definition of “worker” in the census reports.

Cut to the the 21st century. The latest census figures list only 32.8 per cent women formally as primary workers in the agricultural sector, in contrast to 81.1 per cent men. But the undeniable fact remains that India’s agricultural industry, which employs 80 to 100 million women, cannot survive without their labour. From preparing the land, selecting seeds, preparing and sowing to transplanting the seedlings, applying manure/fertilisers/pesticides and then harvesting, winnowing and threshing, women work harder and longer than male farmers.

Maintaining the ancillary branches in this sector, like animal husbandry, fisheries and vegetable cultivation, depends almost solely on women. So where are these women while the male farmers and their kakas furiously debate the future of farming, loans, subsidies and irrigation matters? Men get more than their share of visibility on TV, in governmental publicity material and within the banking sectors but millions of women farmers have no spokesperson from their ranks.

The primary reason for this is that they are usually not listed as primary earners and owners of land assets within their families. So getting loans, participating in mandi panchayats, assessing and deciding the crop patterns, liaising with the district officials, bank managers and political representatives and bargaining for MSPs (minimum support prices), loans and subsidies, remain male activities.

Over the last decade, as farming became less and less profitable and small and marginal farmers began migrating to cities, rural jobs for full-time women daily-wage labourers (those who do not own land but work at least 183 days in a year in someone’s farm) in the agricultural sector have shrunk alarmingly. The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employee Guarantee Act, that employed many of them in the interim period, has been curtailed sharply by the government that proclaims “sabka saath sabka vikas” as its basic mantra. According to a recent study by the Evidence for Policy Design at Harvard University’s Kennedy School, there has been a drop of almost 11 per cent in women’s participation in the workforce.

When confronted with these facts, the usual laconic response has been: “Oh but why do you wish women to be stuck perennially in these low pay low visibility jobs as farm labourers? Most of our educated young women do not wish to work in farms. They can now be teachers, nurses, Asha didis”. If only it were so. The same study also reveals that with so many well-educated men also competing for these white collar jobs, rural girls in urban homes, armed with a mere school certificate cannot find jobs. They must also have a college degree. So the vast sea of farmers’ faces on our TV sets shows no female leaders. If they appear, they do so as sobbing widows and mothers of farmers who killed themselves or were killed by police bullets.

At a time when fundamentalism and neo-fascism are on the rise and unfettered consumerism and trade treaties are eroding old communities and threatening the environment, when measures like the ban on animal slaughter are impacting the dairy industry and destroying jobs, diseases due to the contamination of earth and water are erupting everywhere can we afford to sustain gender barriers between human beings unquestioningly? When not just the politicians and media persons but also the farmers regard the impoverished sea of women farmers as a faceless void, they deny them their humanity while diminishing their own.