The Woman Farmers of Uttarakhand

The agricultural economy of Uttarakhand is driven by women. They are stuck in farming, and have no options because they have no time for options.

Feed the words “Farming in Uttarakhand” into your Google search engine, and you will see many results about farming plots for sale at cheap rates all over the Uttarakhand hills. That’s right. Farming has never undone so many!

Uttarakhand today is counted among the ten richest (ranked 6th) states in India. But it is full of anomalies that become obvious when one checks out the hill districts of Garhwal and Kumaon regions (areas like Tehri and Pauri Garhwal, Uttarkashi, Almora, Nainital, Chaphawat and Pithoragarh). In days gone by farming was indeed a major activity in the habitable areas where, outside the forests, over 16,000 villages are located. But it was largely subsistence farming that kept the villagers free of dependence on hard cash. Today that kind of farming is crippled by repeated flash floods and droughts, increased man-animal conflicts and, last but not the least, a huge jump in young males migrating to cities in search of jobs. The departure of the able-bodied males has forced women to care for the family —  and also its landholdings.

For successive Uttarakhand governments, farms located in the large and rich farms located in the Terai region at the foothills seem to have have held greater priority. The well-run and endowed GB Pant University of Agriculture and Technology in Pantnagar has also been largely innovating and servicing the larger farm holdings more, helping them produce more. For the hills, State government’s developmental projects have largely centred around building large dams (to facilitate power generation mostly for the plains), and a hectic but hazardous building of broadening the roads that lead towards various pilgrimage centres. And there is religious tourism: the governments (both the Congress and the BJP which have ruled Uttarakhand successively since it was created) have believed that the hills are Dev Bhumi, abode of Gods. So religious and other kinds of tourism for the rich travellers may alone generate greater and steadier incomes. This seems to have been a false assumption.

While the building and blasting has rendered the hills increasingly prone to landslides and flooding, incomes have seen only a marginal jump. That too has taken a bad hit after the disastrous flooding of the Kedar valley that killed thousands of pilgrims and wrecked many villages. So today, while the rich plains of Haridwar, Udham Singh Nagar and Dehradun districts show an enviable average income of Rs 122,900 PA, in the hill districts, at Rs 59,791 PA, the average per capita incomes are closer to a backward state like Jharkhand. (Source: 2014-5 Uttarakhand Statistical Diary).

Contrary to the usual low literacy rates in backward states, most men and women of Uttarakhand, especially younger women, are educated. The literacy rate here is higher than the national average at 78.8%. They are attached to their mother country and also quite vocal about their needs, but being poor and rendered immobile with multitasking round the clock, they seldom get the attention they need and deserve from either the political parties or the media, both of who seem to wake up and become vocal only when the next annual disaster hits.

The BJP-headed State government, in its wisdom, has recently announced a few highly dubious packages for promotion of (largely religious) tourism for the hills of Uttarakhand, which could lead to an influx of millions of tourists through the year in this ecologically sensitive area. It also includes a widening of roads for the holy Char Dham Yatra, building comfortable tourist resorts and hotels and even taking a road through the Corbett National park (a protected forest zone) to cut travel short for outsiders. More recently, after the PM’s visits to Nepal to promote greater Nepali Bhartiya Bhai Bhai feelings, a mega proposal has been unfurled to build the Panchakeshwar dam over the Kali river between Nepal and Kumaon regions. The dam (blocked since 1996 on the advice of ecologists) is expected to generate 5040 MW of electricity for India and will be covering an area bigger than Chandigarh.

The farmers in the hills have feared dams primarily because of the fear of being ousted from the region that comes under Doob (immersion) in the catchment area. Such ouster is usually followed by very flawed relocation of oustees everywhere. Also, after the 2013 Kedar valley floods that broke the back of the marginal and small farmers here, all three government fact-finding committees have blamed dam building activities as a major reason for the ecological degradation of hills. Migration remains the only option for most of the young males now.

Largely driven by search for better paying jobs in the plains and nearby big cities, male migration according to the Census 2011 report has increased phenomenally in the last decade. Around 1048 villages in the area have emptied out, resulting in negative decadal growth in the hill districts of Almora(-1.28%) and Pauri Garhwal(-1.41%). And that, mind you, was before the Kedar valley floods. According to the 2015 National Institute for Rural Development and Panchayati Raj survey of 217 households in the hill districts, 88% houses reported at least one member having migrated, of whom 86% were male and 51% between 30-49 years old. Three quarters(73%) of these migrants are away from home for long periods (6 months to a year).

This brings us to young women farmers, already burdened with caring for small children and elderly members, now overburdened further by taking care of the land and the milch cattle . In an area of increasing man-wild animal conflict, women are eking out a living somehow by hanging on to their land, rearing cattle and selling grass as they fend off attacks by homeless simians, wild boar and Bagh (leopards). In her meticulous record of interaction with women’s groups organized over the last 25 years by the NGO Uttarakhand Seva Nidhi, Anuradha Pandey in her recently published book Pahadi Striyan, reports women farmers multitasking through the year to supplement the family incomes and educate their young. She reports that women farmers are supplementing the family income by Rs 1000 per month by selling leaves, green grass, cow dung along with various kinds of pulses, paddy and coarse grains .

“What skill upgradation? Should our women stop farming or go on a strike?” asks Mohan Singh Latwal who runs a shop in Almora town. “ If they do that not just the uncared farms and forests, but the whole economy of the hills will deteriorate fast and we will be forced to become dependent on cities and cash, which we have never done. It is because of these tenacious women farmers that local varieties of grains and pulses (like Ragi, Rajma, Jhingora etc) have been saved from extinction. They have hung on to their seeds even in times of drought and deluge.”

These women, most of whom are educated, voice their own firm and clear ideas about what suits them best in all women gatherings held by the Uttarakhand Seva Nidhi. It comes out that even those from the villages where most young males were swept away by the 2013 floods are unwilling to go to the poorly conceived skill training courses on methods of income generation for women.

In the village of Kimana, Sarojini Devi tells the gathering, “In addition to all my house work and caring for my farm and cattle, I must also accompany my daughter to her school and back. When do I go to the Centre (Kendra)? It would be better if women like me were given a cow. We already know how to rear cattle. The cow would give milk for my daughter and I could sell the Ghee for additional income in the local market. As for the feed, I can easily gather fodder for her since I go to forest regularly anyhow, to gather fuel wood. It would save me time all around.”

“After spending my life tending to the farm (Kheti Pati), bringing up my children and getting everything I need from the land,” says an octogenarian Rewati Arya of Ganai village, “how can I abandon it in old age and migrate? Having spent so much time here, I wish to die here.”

“I depend on no one but myself”, says Hema Negi of village Shilang , Almora district. “My husband’s elder brother is blind. To keep him busy we have started a shop for him. I carry loads of saleable goods upto 25-30 kilos on my back. Why be ashamed or fearful of hard work? All this buying and selling I do it because I want to work. You have to have courage. If you have courage you can become self-sufficient, and being self-employed will certainly generate an income for you. First thing we need is to trust ourselves.”

Trust in oneself and one’s work. That is all there is to it!

About the author

Mrinal Pande

Mrinal Pande is a noted journalist and writer based in New Delhi. She was the first woman editor of Hindustan, the multi-edition daily newspaper published by the Hindustan Times group. She has served as Secretary General of the Editor's Guild of India, President of the Indian Women's Press Corps and Chairperson of Prasar Bharati. She is currently Chairperson of The Media Foundation, which runs The Hoot.