Mumbai: Every monsoon, minivans ferrying women labourers can be seen making their way from the small sleepy town of Wardha to Waifad village, 18 kilometres away. Urban workers from Wardha have come to occupy an integral part of Waifad’s farm economy over the past few years, working the fields of villagers during the peak agricultural season.
A scarcity of women labourers in and around Waifad has prompted this wave of daily migration from Wardha, located around 750km from Mumbai in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra. Women form the backbone of the agrarian economy as they perform most agricultural tasks other than ploughing and spraying.
“In addition to higher wages, we have to pay the daily fares of the bais (women workers) we hire from the town,” said Charudatta Wakey, a large landowner at Waifad. “But what choice do we have? We are increasingly finding it difficult to get workers in the countryside.”
Farmers in other parts of Wardha echo Wakey. Across rural India, it has become more difficult and expensive to hire workers, particularly women workers, over the past few years.
India witnessed a massive exit of female agricultural labourers between 2004-05 and 2011-12, according to India’s official employment estimates published by the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO). Thirty three million agricultural workers, mostly women, quit the labour force between 2004-05 and 2011-12. The shortage of workers has driven up casual wage rates. Casual wages for women have, in fact, outpaced those of men between 2004-05 and 2011-12, reducing the gender disparity in wages, NSSO data show.
The withdrawal of rural women has pulled down India’s average female labour force participation rates (LFPR) by nearly seven percentage points between 2004-05 and 2011-12 to 22%. Female LFPR has always been low in India and the latest drop places the nation 10th from the bottom among all nations ranked according to their female LFPR, World Bank data shows.
According to social scientists, the under-representation of Indian women at the workplace reflects their low social status, reinforcing gender stereotypes and contributing to sexual offences. Across large swathes of India, a woman working only at home is seen to confer greater respectability to that family. A 2011 research paper by economists Mukesh Eswaran of the University of British Columbia, and Bharat Ramaswami and Wilima Wadhwa of the Indian Statistical Institute, Delhi, using NSSO data showed that the time spent by a rural woman working outside her home is less for women from wealthier families and for higher castes.
The under-representation of women at work may be a structural problem in India but the latest transformation of the rural labour market is as much a story of women defying stereotypes as it is of women adhering to them.
A sharp rise in rural incomes since 2005-06 has allowed many women the freedom to opt out from back-breaking work in farms, according to the labour economist Jayan Jose Thomas, assistant professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi. Some have returned to the confines of domestic life. Others, mostly the young, now prefer to go to college rather than farms. While the rural wage boom has raised incomes at the bottom of the pyramid, aspirations have shot up even faster, driving the youth away from farm jobs.
“I want to take up a professional course in either nursing or pharmacy after graduation,” said 21-year-old Mamta Sawadh, the first in her family to attend college. The Sawadh family, like others in this Dalit (formerly untouchables) corner of Neri village, a few kilometres from Waifad, has always worked as farm labourers. Mamta’s parents, Vandana and Sahukar are both landless labourers and have studied only till primary school.
Vandana and Sahukar together earn Rs.300 in daily wages, double what they earned even four years ago. During the peak season, their family earnings are above Rs.6,000 a month but in the lean season, work becomes scarcer and earnings dwindle to Rs.4,000 or less. Rising incomes have allowed the Sawadhs to invest in their children’s education. Vandana estimated that they end up spending as much as Rs.15,000 annually on tuitions for Mamta and her younger brother.
Landless labourers, considered to be the bottom of the rural pyramid since they have the lowest incomes and typically belong to historically disadvantaged caste groups such as the Dalits, are at the forefront of the changes sweeping the rural economy today. Even a few years ago, women in Mamta’s circumstances would have joined their parents to work in others’ farms. Not anymore.
Dalits are increasingly turning away from farms because they associate farm jobs with the indignities of the past, said Chandrabhan Prasad, a Delhi-based Dalit intellectual. Dalit women, in particular, have long borne the brunt of caste and sexual oppression in rural India.
“We did not get the chance to educate ourselves but we want a better life for our children,” said Vandana.
The rural wage boom
The past few months may have seen farm wages tapering off in the countryside but they are still much higher than a decade ago, as they have risen consistently since the mid-2000s. Estimates by the Commission on Agricultural Costs and Prices (CACP) show that real farm wages (after adjusting for inflation) grew 6.8% per annum in 2007-11 after declining 1.8% in the previous five-year period. The consumption expenditure of rural labourers grew faster than the rural average during the same period, research by economists Sukhadeo Thorat and Amaresh Dubey of Jawaharlal Nehru University shows.
Maharashtra, a state with below-average wage rates, has seen some of the fastest increases in casual wages in India over the past few years. Even Vidarbha, a region typically associated with agrarian distress and farmer suicides, has seen an improvement in rural fortunes, particularly among those at the lowest rungs of the income ladder.
Economists identify five key factors which reshaped India’s rural economy over the past few years. First, faster economic growth led to a boom in sectors such as construction and raised demand for rural labour. Second, better agricultural growth, supportive global commodity prices and higher minimum prices received by farmers trickled down to labourers. Third, because of better roads and the growth of “census towns”, the work options have increased, and are now available within a daily commute. Fourth, during the initial phase of its launch, when wage levels were still low, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) may have helped raise the wage floor. Finally, improving educational enrolments shrank the workforce, sustaining the wage boom.
The advent of high-yielding seeds has been a key local driver of wage growth in Vidarbha. The use of new technologies has led to a move away from traditional patterns of farming to a more industrial version, requiring more intensive uses of inputs such as water and labour. The use of genetically modified cotton, for instance, raised the demand for labour even while raising productivity in the early years of its adoption, research by Ram Ramakumar, economist at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences shows. Cotton and soya are Vidarbha’s major crops. On the supply side, ebbing migration from neighbouring states such as Chhattisgarh have exacerbated the labour crunch.
“MGNREGA has not pushed up labour costs in Vidarbha, growing aspirations have,” said Vijay Jawandhia, a Wardha-based activist of Shetkari Sangathana (farmers’ organization).
The wage increases in recent years may have made life a bit easier for labourers but the gap between rural and urban incomes still remains high, Jawandhia pointed out. The urge to escape the shackles of rural life has only grown, and those who stay back often do so only out of compulsion.
Rupali Jevani, a 19-year-old Dalit woman of Nagzari village dreamt of finishing college and working outside Nagzari just like her sister Amrapali —a nurse at a private hospital in Wardha—had done. But fate intervened. Her father passed away and Rupali had to drop out and join her mother Mangla to work as a farm labourer.
The Jevanis could afford the education of Amrapali, who is now married, because there were two breadwinners earlier. “Without Rupali working, it will be difficult to make ends meet now,” said Mangla, as tears well up in her eyes.
The growing alienation of the youth from farm jobs and the consequent rise in labour costs has most farmers worried. “Many labourers have migrated to urban and peri-urban areas while those who have stayed back have become too lazy to work because of government doles,” said Wakey.
According to Prasad, the empowerment of lower caste labourers has upset the rural caste hierarchy. “Upper and middle caste farmers are unable to reconcile to the fact that labourers today have more money and the leisure to pursue their interests.”
The bargaining power of labourers has increased, partly because of better rural connectivity and increased migration. The workers Wakey hires from Wardha have all migrated from the countryside to settle in and around Wardha. Most work in brick kilns, which are shut during the rains, allowing them to make the daily trip to Waifad during the monsoons.
Mobility within the countryside has also moved up during the past couple of years, said Chandrasekhar Dorlikar, a landowner from Dorli village in Wardha and a farm activist. “Labourers from Dorli prefer to work in other villages. Dorli’s farmers have to hire workers from other villages or from Wardha (town) now,” said Dorlikar. Such mobility puts an upward pressure on wages.
The nature of labour contracts is also changing, Jawandhia said. Male labourers who were paid daily wages earlier are now being paid on an hourly basis.
Farmers often outbid each other to hire workers during the peak season only to regret later, says Dorlikar. “If market prices move against them, they end up indebted.”
While average yields and incomes have gone up in Vidarbha over the past decade, so have risks. Growing labour costs have exacerbated the risks, and many farmers have started scaling back labour use now. Soya cultivators are increasingly using herbicides and mechanical harvesters instead of hiring workers for weeding and harvesting, respectively. Increased mechanization, in turn, raises seasonal unemployment, and provides further incentive for migration to urban and peri-urban areas. For women farmhands, who still earn only half as much as men do in these parts of the country despite the rise in wages in recent years, the incentives are even more stark.
The slowdown in the economy, however, threatens the rural transformation. According to some economists, the current slowdown is likely to reverse the effects of the rural boom of the past few years. The lack of adequate employment opportunities could drive back many migrants back to farms, and depress wages, incomes, and aspirations once again.
According to a January research report by Crisil, an estimated 12 million people will be redirected to farms from non-farm activity between fiscal 2013 and fiscal 2019 because of the economic slowdown.
Women such as Mamta are clearly unwilling to take up farm jobs. Rupali says she will wait for the right time to resume her studies and chase her dreams once again.
The reluctance of women such as Mamta and Rupali to work in farms surprises Shankarrao Wakey, the octogenarian father of Charudatta.
“Earlier people came begging for work. Now they simply refuse even when we approach them,” said Shankarrao.