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Business News/ Industry / The invisible hands tilling the fields

Gold dots the fields of Kakar Khateri in Uttarakhand’s Champawat district, nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas. There are specks of green as well, but when the wheat crop matures in a few days, the terraced fields of this region will resemble a vast sheet of gold.

“I can’t explain how beautiful it is. It is a sight I never tire of. It washes away all my exhaustion," says Chandrakala Tamta, a 30-year-old villager, standing at a point overlooking the village’s fields. Tamta’s delight comes not merely from the scenery. It comes out of a sense of satisfaction at seeing the payback from the days of back-breaking work that she put into cultivating the crop

Tamta and many other women like her share in the joy of a bountiful harvest in Uttarakhand, where women shoulder the bulk of the responsibility for cultivation. Women perform all the farming tasks here, save for sowing and ploughing.

“From chopping wood for firewood to fodder collection for cattle to irrigation, laying of manure or reaping or any form of tillage, everything is done by us," she says. “Everything is done by hand, there are no machines. In Uttarakhand, the woman is the machine," she says.

Farming in the hill state has always been the preserve of women. In fact, it was women who were at the forefront of the famous Chipko (hug the trees) movement in the 1970s to protest against extensive deforestation that threatened to wreck the ecological balance of the region.

“As the backbone of Uttarakhand’s agrarian economy, women were most directly hit by environmental degradation and deforestation and... connected the issue with their concern for safe environment and use of forest resources for livelihood," writes Shohini Chakraborty in a 2012 paper on women and ecological struggle published in Inclusive, a journal of the Kolkata Centre for Contemporary Studies.

A 1991 report titled Most Farmers in India are Women, published by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, noted that “In Indian Himalayas, a pair of bulls work 1,064 hours, a man 1,212 hours and a woman 3,485 hours in a year on a one hectare farm".

Women have been efficient farm hands in Uttarakhand for long, but across the country more of them have taken to cultivating crops in the past decade or so—a phenomenon experts call the feminization of agriculture.

“There are two factors that help us understanding this; out-migration of men or them finding opportunities in different sectors," says Kavita Kuruganti of the Mahila Kisan Adhikar Manch, a network of women farmers.

According to the lapsed Women Farmers’ Entitlements Bill of 2011, women make up more than 50% of all Indian farmers. Among farm workers, about 60% were women.

According to census figures, women made up 31.62% of the country’s total workers in 2001. Among women workers, 32.93% were cultivators and 38.87% were agricultural labourers. By 2011, the share of women as a part of total workers had declined marginally to 31.11%; among them, 24.01% identified themselves as cultivators and 55.21% as agricultural labourers.

The sex-wise distribution of workers, according to the 2011 census in Uttarakhand, identified 64% of women as cultivators and 8.84% as agricultural labourers. Interestingly, only 28.82% of men identified themselves as cultivators and 11.23% as agricultural labourers. Only one other state tops these figures: Himachal Pradesh, where 76.24% of the female working population were identified as cultivators.

Women’s participation in farming is also influenced by social and cultural norms, says Kuruganti. “In states like Andhra Pradesh and Bihar, the workforce participation rate for women in agriculture is higher as there are more Dalit women and socio-cultural norms attached to movement etc. are not so stringent."

Indeed, 58% of the working women’s population in Andhra Pradesh and 60% in Bihar identified themselves as agricultural labourers in the 2011 census.

“Farmer is a gender-neutral word, but it is almost always used exclusively for men. Even women are farmers and we want this fact to be recognized," says Bhagwanti Rana of Bigra Bagh village in Uttarakhand’s Udham Singh Nagar district. She alone works on the family land of a little over an acre, even though she is married and has children. Bhagwanti is openly contemptuous of the menfolk’s non-participation in agriculture: “What does the husband know what a field looks like?" she asks. Her husband, who works as a peon in a local school, does no farm work. “Left to him, he will transfer the land lease in exchange for alcohol. I work the land because it is the only way to feed my family."

A typical day for her begins at 4am. After finishing household chores, she heads to the fields where she works continuously till 2pm. After house work, she returns to the fields at 4pm. Udham Singh Nagar is in the plains, and the wheat here has already been harvested.

Preparations are now under way to plant paddy. Ploughing is followed by sowing and then starts the process of continuous tilling and weeding. Women also spray pesticides and regularly check the crops for infestation. “I also work as a daily wage labourer. There are days when I look up from my threshing and realize it is 1am. In between all this, I am expected to cook and wash also," she says.

While women do the bulk of the work, all financial transactions, including the sale of the harvest, are handled by the men. Draupadi Devi of Chanda Bhudaria village lives in a joint family of 50 members. The family has over 5 acres and with all the men, save the oldest member, involved in different business enterprises, most of the work falls upon the women.

Still she is unaware of the wheat yield. “Ask him," she says, referring to her brother-in-law. “None of the details of the sale or the price garnered are shared with the womenfolk. It’s unfair to keep such details from us," she later confides.

For the record, the family’s farm yielded nearly 150 quintals of wheat this harvest season. Some 100 quintals were sold whereas the remaining was kept for the family’s consumption. “There is not much money to be made in farming. The returns more often than not go towards buying seeds and fertilizers, leaving you with little in hand," says Gayatri Devi.

She is an exception among the women in these villages in that she handles all commercial transactions herself. “I don’t have a choice. My husband is an alcoholic and he usually barters away the produce even before it’s harvested. I stepped in from last year." Her land holdings are a little over 11 acres and this year she is looking at a profit of 60,000.

Women in the plains are marginally better off than their counterparts in the hills where land holdings, owing to difficult terrain, topography and remote villages, are scattered and limited. Nearly all the agriculture here is for subsistence.

In a 2013 paper for the Agricultural Economics Research Centre, Delhi University, professor Usha Tuteja writes, “Since a large part of Uttarakhand is hilly, average size of operational holdings is less than one hectare... The size of these holdings is extremely tiny and therefore, scale of economies cannot be availed which makes crop husbandry unviable proposition."

“We can put in as much effort as we want but it’s never repaid in full. Once in a while, all conditions permitting, there is a yield which is highly satisfactory, but even then, it’s only for subsistence, never enough to make a sale," says Radha Devi of Bisrari village.

The traditional crop of Uttarakhand is mandua, or finger millet, but more and more farmers are moving away from it. “Wheat, paddy, lentils and soyabeans have emerged as the new crops that they prefer. And since the terrain is difficult, there isn’t much investment from the cultivators in terms of inputs or even instruments used. The women still use sickles and spades," says Bhagwati Pandey, who works in Champawat district for the Mahila Samakhya (Education for Women’s Equality), a government programme for the education and empowerment of women in rural areas.

Mahila Samakhya has been working on women’s education in Champawat and in the process, empowered them in other areas also. Today, most women who are a part of the initiative have bank accounts in their names and have greater awareness of their own worth.

“We did not know that the constant weakness we feel is because of an inadequate diet combined with hard physical labour. Today, I know what a balanced meal is and my health is a priority, even if it is to continue with the work," says Hira Devi of Punai village.

She has trekked almost 2km uphill to Kakar for a monthly meeting of Mahila Samakhya. “Earlier, the mere idea of taking a day out during threshing season was unthinkable; but now we make time." For the women, October is the peak work season with no respite even in the afternoons. “The paddy is reaped, wheat has to be sown, grass has to be cut, there is no time to even breathe, but we still have to cook and clean," says Hira.

None of the women farmers Mint interviewed own the land they work on. It is always in the name of the husband or the father-in-law. Pratibha Singh of the College of Home Science, GB Pant University, identifies the lack of legal title as one of the biggest obstacles women farmers face.

“The women remain cut off from policies or even credit and things like crop insurance," says Singh. “Women farmers’ entitlement bill was introduced in Rajya Sabha but no progress was made." The bill aimed to provide land rights, water rights, legal land titles, equal returns for equal work and institutional credit to women.

As Kuruganti says, “We need greater autonomy for women farmers not just in terms of enterprise but also empowerment."

In states like Tamil Nadu and Kerala, there have been successful examples of women farmers’ collectives which, apart from training women in new techniques, also helps them develop as entrepreneurs.

Back in Kakar Khateri, Tamta is racing to finish the morning’s work. Red lentil plants harvested a few weeks ago have dried at home and she must thresh them. And later in the afternoon, she will head back to the fields to till the land until the sun sets.

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Updated: 05 Jun 2015, 01:21 AM IST
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