Farmers’ Movement And The Question Of Rural Woman’s Emancipation

Amita Kumari //

India is witnessing an unprecedented farmer’s movement on the borders of its capital. The rural world was never before brought to such close quarters of urban India, and for such a long stretch of time. The movement has not only laid bare the intimacy between State and Capital, it has also unsettled several of urban India’s long-held beliefs about farmers – for example, the popular imagery of farmers being ‘poor and uneducated’ stands questioned, and the general understanding that farmers constitute a monolithic bloc with least of internal class differences and contradictions, has also been proven wrong. The movement upsets another popular perception: that a farmer is always a male, and agriculture is all about male toil. The exemplary participation of women in the ongoing farmer’s movement is poised to question several of our gendered beliefs about rural India. This paper seeks to locate those questions and also attempts to find answers. The first part of the paper endeavours a gendered analysis of farmer’s movement. With this analysis providing the context, the second part attempts to situate woman on the larger canvas of rural world of agriculture. 

I

India has a long history of protests and movements. And almost all such minor and major movements have enlisted women as active participants. Both men and women have together shaped India’s present. The ongoing farmer’s movement is no exception. The deluge of farmers from different parts of India, who are camping on Delhi’s borders for almost three months now, and who have braved chilling cold, unspeakable inconveniences and constraints, has a good number of women too. Visuals of women driving tractors, attending and addressing public meetings, cooking and serving food in langars, shouting slogans and engaging in debates, are not uncommon. These are historic images, situated in historic times.

Apart from these women camping on the very site of the protest, there are others who have chosen to stay behind in their villages; but not without a purpose. They are the ones who look after farming activities at home, while the men struggle on Delhi’s borders; they take care of the supplies of varied requirements in the site; and they are the ones organizing and participating in the protests and campaigns at regional level. The women have risen to the occasion as formidable warriors.

But does this participation mean mere lending a hand to the male counterparts – the farmers directly affected by the Act? Is it just a gesture of sharing men’s woes and burdens as devoted mothers, wives, sisters and daughters? Or are they participating because the Act would affect their lives directly, as women, independent of their relationship status? A gendered analysis of the Act reveals that it bodes equally ill for women – the farmer women, in particular, and the rural women in general.

The Act, as we know, eases the entry of big corporates into agriculture. The deregulation of Mandis, with the natural fallout of Minimum Support Price being rendered redundant in future, would make agriculture dependent on the whims and fancies of the market. The competition from the big players would exterminate the individual farmers with meager capital. How would women farmers, already compelled to struggle within the constraints of the men’s world of agriculture and market, fare in the new competitive environment?

An FAO report (2010-11) titled ‘The State of Food and Agriculture’ may help us answer these questions. The report sheds pertinent light on the systemic constraints faced by women farmers globally. Firstly, women own smaller plots compared to men. To quote from the report:

In addition to being more likely to hold land, men also typically control larger land holdings than women. Representative and comparable data for 20 countries… show that male-headed households operate larger agricultural land holdings, on average, than female-headed households in all countries.

 Secondly, women fare worse when it comes to availability of labour, both when she puts in her own labour (owing to poor health, nutrition and domestic responsibilities) and when she hires from the market (owing to systemic constraints of patriarchal outside world). There are cultural constraints as well, such as the taboo against ploughing. The report underlines, “Household and community responsibilities and gender-specific labour requirements mean that women farmers cannot farm as productively as men and make it more difficult for them to respond when crop prices rise.”

Thirdly, education poses another significant barrier. The report shows that in almost all countries the female heads were poorly educated. This adversely impacts their performance as farmers. Similarly the women also lag behind in the field of information and technology.

Fourthly, there are systemic and cultural constraints that hinder women’s access to financial services from banks and other credit sources. The findings of the report in this regard are worth quoting:

Legal barriers and cultural norms sometimes bar women from holding bank accounts or entering into financial contracts in their own right. Women generally have less control over the types of fixed assets that are usually necessary as collateral for loans. Institutional discrimination by private and public lending institutions often either ration women out of the market or grant women loans that are smaller than those granted to men for similar activities. 

In the light of above findings, one should visualise Indian women farmers in the corporate driven world of farming under the regime of new laws. The Mandis, despite being a male dominated space, are closer to villages; hence they are a great relief for women farmers who have unequal access to transport facilities. Absence of a system like Mandi would make their life far more difficult. Again, their educational disadvantages may pose severe constraints when legal nitty gritties would have to be taken care of in dealing with the corporate players. The new laws, thus, have a gendered impact and they would crucially decide the fate of already constrained, and mostly small and marginal, women farmers.

As far as rural women in general are concerned, the handicaps posed by the laws sound more alarming. In a patriarchal society the advantages are invariably skewed in favour of men. The entitlements of female members are fulfilled mostly after the males have been satisfied. The former may expect to get a reasonable share of resources only when the resources are bountiful. Under the regime of new laws, when the farmers are reduced to penury, one can imagine the lot of the female members of the household – the expenditure cut backs would be more in the segments that meet the needs of women. The health and nutrition indicators where women invariably fare poorly than men, would get more seriously affected. One of the sectors that would stand crucially compromised is girl’s education. The young girls from farmer family realize this and that is why the ongoing movement saw the participation of several young female students from the universities of Punjab voicing their concern regarding this.

Also, as the new laws aggravate agricultural distress, the grip of indebtedness would worsen.  And consequently suicide rates would get steeper and the lot of women more miserable. Studies on farmer suicides highlight unspeakable hardships of surviving women. Ranjana Padhi’s research (2009) on the impact of farmer suicides in Punjab reveals that most such women had been rendered landless, compelled to work as daily wagers, combating worsening health conditions and worrying for wayward, alcoholic or drug addicted sons. A 2018 study in Marathwada and Vidarbha regions of Maharashtra by Mahila Kisan Adhikar Manch, found that forty percent of the surveyed women widowed by farmer suicides had failed to obtain rights to their farmland. As the new laws get implemented, such data would see a steep rise, leaving the rural life doomed to die its own death.

Thus, these laws are not just about men, the male farmers, the counterparts of women. They are about women, as well – in fact, rural women are poised to be hit by the laws more harshly. Sadly, the question of women hardly figures in the current debate around the laws, both on the protest site and in the media.

The question of rural women does not end here. The category of rural women is constituted not merely by female farmers and dependents of male farmers. A large majority of this category is constituted by agricultural labourers, whose stories have hardly ever been part of larger discourse around agriculture in India. Another related question is about the invisibilization of women’s work that majorly contributes to agricultural production. As the farmer’s movement make the women visible on its site, questions of the ‘invisible’ lot of rural women (the agricultural labourers) and their ‘invisible’ work needs to be brought to the fore. The next section seeks to do this.

II

As already mentioned, globally, farming is perceived as a male domain. The immense contribution of women to the production process gets easily discounted as ‘casual’ or mere ‘help’. To quote Christine Verschuur (2019):

Women in agriculture have often only been represented as spouses or daughters, not as workers. The female small peasant’s work has long been considered as ‘help’ and not as work. Failure to acknowledge the power relations and the division of work in the household and the farm has tended to reinforce inequality and devaluate the specific knowledge, practices and crops cultivated by women peasants.

This perception persists despite several studies in the academia (Ester Boserup [1970] was the first to highlight the role of women in farming globally, followed by several scholars like Bina Agarwal in India) and despite several statistics released in public domain. A few of such statistics can be mentioned:

As per Census 2011, out of total female main workers, 55% are agricultural labourers and 24% cultivators.

According to a Government of India report, titled ‘Key indicators of employment and unemployment 2011-2012’, 75% of the full-time female rural workforce is in the agricultural sector, against 59% for men.

In the light of these and similar other statistics, it has been officially accepted that the agricultural sector is witnessing an increasing feminization (the 2017-18 Economic Survey admits that Indian agriculture is undergoing a growing feminization). While ‘feminisation’ as a term must be celebrated by those believing in gender equality as it literally means ‘increasing participation of women in an activity’, the feminization of agriculture, in contrast, underlines the deplorable condition of rural women. The woman has been forced to shoulder the major share of farm work, along with single-handedly bearing the burden of domestic and reproductive responsibilities. Further, her share of tasks, although back-breaking and essential, are poorly paid and labeled as ‘casual’.

The feminisation has occurred primarily because of the pervasive agricultural distress which has either led to male migration to urban areas or gradual change of male work from farm to non-farm activities. Thus, women have been forced to fill in for the migrating men. The new burden is in addition to the varied farm activities that the women have been doing traditionally, like transplanting, weeding, harvesting, threshing and also post-harvest work. A photo essay in the PARI (People’s Archive of Rural India) repository poignantly captures the toil of rural women through several images of women working in the fields. The essay titled as ‘Visible Work, Invisible Women – A lifetime bending’ (https://ruralindiaonline.org/en/articles/visible-work-invisible-women-a-lifetime-bending-panel-2/ ) presents some appalling statistics about women’s agricultural labour:

32 per cent of the work force that prepares the land for cultivation

76 per cent of those sowing seeds

90 per cent of people engaged in transplantation

82 per cent of those transporting the crop from field to home

100 per cent of workers processing food, and

69 per cent of those in dairying.  

It further underlines:

Most of these activities mean a lot of bending and squatting. Besides, many of the tools and implements used were not designed for the comfort of women… So, severe pain in the back and legs is very common. Often standing shin-deep in water during transplantation, they’re also exposed to skin diseases.

These statistics exist in public domain. What explains then, firstly, the popular perception of farming being a male work, and secondly, government policies that are gender blind. The answer is simple: Men are the legal owners and heirs of land. According to one estimate (the index prepared by Bhubaneswar-based Center for Land Governance, 2018) women own only 12.8 % of total land holdings. And how many women contribute to agriculture by their labour? The answer has already been mentioned in this paper above – “75% of full-time female rural workforce is in the agricultural sector”. And these are women who, on an average, earn lower wages than their male counterpart. The rural women thus live in a paradoxical world: they contribute the most and own the least. In other words, there is a ‘feminization’ as far as agricultural labour is concerned but ‘defeminisation’ when it comes to agricultural ownership – the opposites co-exist in rural India.

Lack of land rights is a serious handicap depriving woman of the very security of a roof on her head – she lives and eats at the mercy of the land owner, who is either her husband, father, son or brother. But absence of land rights comes with other disadvantages as well. It denies her the opportunities to avail credit from banks, insurance, or entitlements from government schemes. We have already seen in the first section the constraints faced by women as farmers. These are women who own land and yet their location as women in the patriarchal set-up brings several handicaps. What about those 75% of rural women labourers who own nothing?

Can land rights for women, then, be seen as an answer? Many scholars and economists have presented this as a solution to rural women’s deplorable conditions. Bina Agarwal, in her seminal work ‘Are we not peasants’ (2002), argues that there should not only be both “legal and social recognition” of land rights, but this ownership must also be “effective and independent”. Rural Indian women have also fought in the past for land ownership rights. The Bodhgaya movement of Bihar during 1978-82 was one such exemplary movement where landless women finally succeeded in getting land registered in their names as individual titles, joint titles with husbands, as widows, destitute and disabled persons, and even as unmarried adult daughters. Such movements, however, have been few and far between.  

The Government of India had also come up with a Bill to ensure land rights to women – the Women Farmers’ Entitlements Bill, 2011. The Bill guarantees ownership rights to women:

Notwithstanding anything contained in any other law for the time being in force, every woman shall have equal ownership and inheritance rights over her husband’s self acquired agricultural land, or his share of family property, or his share of land transferred by the Government under land reform or resettlement scheme.   

The Bill, introduced in the Rajya Sabha in 2012, finally lapsed in 2013. No further effort was made to revive it. The government and its electorate, since then, are contented with the tokenism of celebrating October 15 as the Women farmer’s Day.

Land rights to women, despite arguments and efforts in its favour, can never be a feasible answer. With land fragmentation and landlessness on the rise, land has become a scarce commodity. The Socio-Economic and Caste Census of 2011 puts the landless households at 56.41 percent of total rural households. And continued land fragmentation has reduced the average land per person in rural India to 0.2 hectares. Land availability, thus, is too insufficient to ensure redistribution among all landless, including women. Further, the abysmal experience of land reform movement in the past is something we must learn not to repeat. Also, women, in particular, must stay wary of the idea of individual property rights – Engels thesis that the arrival of private property in prehistory led to the historic defeat of female and final establishment of patriarchy, stands proven by recent studies too. Women, hence, must abandon any idea that has been historically designed to perpetuate male control and female subordination.

If land ownership for rural women is practically unfeasible and theoretically flawed, where lies the answer? Sadly, the present set-up, structured on capitalist lines, provides no answer – neither for the woes of farmers leading the ongoing movement nor for the rural women. The capitalist system has reached the highest point of its crisis. And the present impasse is a reflection of that crisis. The answer lies in a revolutionary restructuring of the present system – smashing capitalism and building socialism.

 Socialism establishes social ownership in the place of private property and makes way for collective farming.  Large scale farming, we know, optimizes the use of land, machinery and technology. With land fragmentation, landlessness, lowered agricultural productivity and incomes, staring at our face, large scale farming organised with the mutual cooperation of several individual farmers, is the only alternative available. Sooner the farmers agitating at Delhi’s borders realize this, the easier gets the fight against capitalist forces. Further, as social ownership over resources gets established and the idea of private property vanishes in due course, labour achieves an exalted position in the social consciousness. The toil of rural women then gets its due recognition, ideologically as well as materially. Their emancipation, hence, is inextricably linked with a socialist revolution.

As far as the ongoing farmer’s movement is concerned, it has already placed impossible demands in front of capitalist forces. Although not revolutionary from Marxist perspective, these demands go a long way in showcasing the limits of capitalism as a system. These limits, however, exist in more certain terms for rural women. The farmer’s movement must expose these gendered limits of capitalism by giving voice to the long-neglected demands of its women, who have not only strengthened the ongoing movement but have also been historically sustaining Indian agriculture.

[Originally published in The Truth: Platform for Radical Voices of The Working Class (Issue 11 / March 2021)]

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