“My name is Seema Mahila Kisan Samiti,” she said.
“Seema Mahila Kisan Samiti?” I repeated after her.
“Yes,” she nodded.
“Seema Devi,” I addressed her.
“Not Devi. Why Devi? Devi is that goddess we worship under the tree over there. I am no goddess, I am a kisan, a farmer.”
Seema, the farmer, is a member of the Saraswati Mahila Kisan Samiti, a women farmers’ collective in Sahar tehsil, district Bhojpur, Bihar. She is also the elected ward member from her community, the first woman from the Mahadalit caste to hold this position in their area.
“We have always been farmers,” Krishna Devi explains to me. We are standing in a group in the shade of a tree on the edge of rice fields. All around us is lush green standing crop. The only work the rice fields demand at this time is weeding.
Seema, Krishna Devi, Ganga Devi and Dukhni Devi are women who have emerged as leaders within the Dalit and Mahadalit community of Vishnupura village in Sahar tehsil, ever since landless women here formed a self-help collective to lease land and grow their own crops.
Today I am witness to a strategy and forward planning meeting in this open-air conference room. There is talk about seeds, fertilizers, soft loans and farmer welfare schemes that must be accessed. What they would like to do better in terms of soil preparation before they sow the next crop. There is exchange of information about cultivation of pulses in smaller plots and vegetables in their own kitchen gardens.
Some women have infants balanced on their hips. Toddlers are playing in the mud nearby. Older children are jumping into the irrigation canal repeatedly, squealing with delight. Childcare at the workplace is an accepted norm here.
“It is just that only men have been considered to be farmers, because they own land,” Krishna Devi tells me. “We have always worked in the fields, but we have never had access to money and resources. All through my life, I have cooked for everyone at home and gone to the fields. Women have always been in charge of seeding, sowing, transplantation, weeding, harvesting and storing the grain.”
“Now we do our own farming on our own land,” adds Ganga Devi. We get money in our own hands and we are able to save some of it. We can decide how to spend it.”
“Our families eat better now,” says Dukhni Devi, her voice tearing up. “When my children were small, they slept hungry. We were crushed under loans. Today I grow so many vegetables, I have to sell some of them in the market.”
Seema Mahila Kisan has a dramatic flair for storytelling. She narrates the story of the transformation in their lives using Rs10 to illustrate her point. The Rs10 that she didn’t have when she worked as farm labour in the fields of upper-caste men in the village.
“We got together and contributed Rs10 each every month. Slowly we collected enough money to lease a small plot of land. Why shouldn’t we work for our own selves?” she asks rhetorically. “The next year we leased a bigger plot. Slowly we began to grow potatoes and dal as well.”
Seema holds up her wrist and shows me two dozen green glass bangles on her wrist. “Today I have Rs10 to buy bangles for myself. You think I could afford this earlier? I didn’t even have the guts to sit on a dhurrie with people like you. I would have peeped from my window and hidden till you had left.”
This women farmers’ collective near the town of Ara is one of many such groups in Bihar that have been created through the efforts of the Pragati Grameen Vikas Sansthan (PGVS), a Patna-based organization that works for the land rights of underprivileged communities. Some of the most successful stories of women farmers’ collectives are to be found in Kerala, Punjab, Assam and the North-Eastern states.
“It is a reasonable estimate that 65-75% of the work involved in growing crops is done by women in India,” says Prem Kumar Anand, who is programme officer, economic justice, at Oxfam India. “What has been historically denied to women is ownership of land and the stature of a farmer. Less than 10% of women own land.”
Sindhu Sinha is a much beloved Didi (older sister) among the women of Vishnupura. She is the regional coordinator for PGVS and visits the community regularly to help with the logistics of running a collective. “When we first came to this village, no girl here was educated. None of them went to school. That is where we started from. Today five-six girls from this village have completed their matric studies.”
“I used to put my thumbprint on all official documents earlier. Since I became a ward member, I have started putting my signature,” says Seema Mahila Kisan, making a gesture of signing with her right hand on her left palm. “Today we know how to claim our Indira Awaas fund, disability allowance, widow pension and old age pensions. We receive fertilizers and seeds for wheat, onion and dal also. It was hard to make people at the district headquarters take us seriously as farmers. But now they do.”
In the social and economic structure of the village, a person’s status, honour and identity is linked intrinsically to land ownership. Claiming land rights is also critical towards sustaining livelihood and food security for families of the poor.
“When a woman owns a piece of land, however small it may be, it raises her social status. This has influenced the government too. The land that is being distributed to the landless now includes the woman’s name in the legal deed. This is a big success for us,” says Sindhu Sinha.
Seema Mahila Kisan is a mother of four. She sends two daughters to school regularly. She is pleased with the uniforms the children have received from school. The midday meal is an added bonus.
“Where all have you travelled?” I ask her.
“I have travelled a lot now,” she tells me. “I have seen many other worlds that I had not seen earlier. Earlier, when I left home, I would go to Barahi bazaar or Sahar. Now I have seen Ara, Delhi, Gwalior, Ranchi, Bodh Gaya.” She turns around her to see who all have surrounded us to hear her words. Her laughter rings with happiness.
Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker, media trainer and mother of three. She tweets at @natashabadhwar and posts on Instagram as natashabadhwar.
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