Brainstorm Think

Empower Women Farmers

Women are the backbone of Indian agriculture. Yet, they are ignored in public policy.

This is the second post in our Brainstorm discussion on ‘The Crisis in Indian Agriculture’. Earlier posts: Intro, 1.

It is a well-known but seldom formally acknowledged fact that women are the backbone of farming all over the world. In a developing country like India, they produce 60-80% percent of the total food output. Their work on the farms (of which they only own 9.3%, by a generous estimate) is hard, and the work hours are devilishly long. According to a report of the Food and Agriculture Association, in the Himalayan region, on a one-acre farm, women put 3485 hours of work each year. The comparative figures for men and bullocks in the region are 1212 hours (men) and 1064 (bullocks).

In the post-liberalization decades, feminization of farming in India has grown manifold with rapid urbanization and a steady decrease in farming land. In most villages one finds able-bodied young males migrating to cities in search of jobs while their women stay behind and take care of farm and family. Almost 90% of the women in rural female-headed household work as farm hands in the village or a village nearby. Most of them are unskilled, illiterate to semi literate, and unorganized. They are paid less than the stipulated minimum wages, and do not have the umbrella of labour courts that are already overburdened with litigation involving organized workers. Modernisation of agriculture along western lines has actually worsened the predicament of women farmers in India. Commercial farming remains an almost totally male enclave. And mostly, it is only men who access everything from credit to healthcare.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) considers farm work the most hazardous activity. Throughout the year, farm hands must work exposed to weather all the time. They also must remain in close contact with animals, plants, chemicals and tools that can be highly hazardous. Tools in unskilled hands can cause grievous injuries, plants can transmit severe respiratory tract allergic reactions, often leading to chronic asthma, muscular cramps and skin eruptions. In animal husbandry, handling sick animals constantly results in the care givers (mostly women), getting infected with all kinds of deadly zoonotic diseases, including drug resistant TB, Swine/bird flu and some times even rabies. Chemical manure and pesticides, which most farm hands sprinkle without any protective cover or even a mask, cause long term damage to lungs and nerves.

Add to these the long hours of working in difficult working postures that wreak havoc on muscles and bones of bodies that are already fragile due to chronic malnutrition, anaemia and repeated pregnancies. In Madhya Pradesh alone, the estimated medical cost of agricultural injuries leading to deaths and non-fatal accidents was estimated at a mind boggling US$ 27 million in 2000.

It is the easiest thing in the world, wrote the well known Hindi author Munshi Premchand decades ago, to take revenge on a farmer whose entire workplace and produce must lie out in the open, under the sky. Things have not changed much since, except that more and more farmers are now females between the ages of 15 to 50. Most agricultural operations — creating seedlings, sowing , weeding, watering and sprinkling manure and pesticides, reaping, threshing and winnowing — are still carried out outdoors. Women are part of each of these operations, even during pregnancy and the neonatal period.

When I was gathering material for my book, Stepping Out, on the reproductive health of rural women, doctors working in NGOs or government run health centres repeatedly shared their insights on the grave dangers farm work poses to women’s health, who must keep quiet about their health issues till the pain is unbearable. The reproductive health picture they gave me was scary : chronic reproductive tract infections, anaemia, prolapsed uterus (often due to lifting heavy loads immediately after giving birth), brittle bones, unhealed fractures and endemic tuberculosis. The dust and chemicals in the workplace worsened these conditions. Still, they worked till one day they just could not get up. And then, depending on the family and proximity of a hospital and finances, they would be carted to a clinic.

“If a farmer dies,” a village midwife told me, “everyone from collector to Tehsildar arrives in jeeps to find how and why he died, but young overworked farmers’ wives die in my hands through the year, and not even a fly stirs.”

In the east Godavari district, a study  of a hundred women tobacco farmers reveals that the high earnings of a particular cash crop will also fail to improve the lot of its (mostly female) farm hands. Tobacco farming contributes Rs 8000 crores domestically, and rakes in another 1360 crores in foreign exchange through exports each year. Still, in this industry, work has been found to correspond to the highest levels of the drudgery index. These women are given no protective clothing, such as gloves, aprons and shoes. There was also a near-total lack of toilets and washing facilities for them.

Another report on cotton farming (we are the world’s second-largest cotton producers) on Rajsamand district in Rajasthan found that despite sophisticated machines having been developed, due to lack of credit facilities, most small and marginal farmers could not afford them. As a result poorly skilled women from the family and daily-wage workers were made to do all the work manually, which posed a grave hazard to their lives.

The United Nations estimates that one of the reasons of their continued degradation and underpayment is that, despite their large numbers as productive members of the rural work force, women have mostly remained segregated in the informal sector. They are desperate to get work close to home so they can also care for families left behind by men, and will grab any work despite low wages, plenty of health hazards and virtually no job security . Their work is consistently undervalued not only in terms of financial reward, but has little social recognition as well. They are never present when basic wages are negotiated at Panchayats and Mandis. Nor does the media ever highlight them the way it does male farmers and their grievances.

Very little gender-specific information is available in formal government reports about the health status of millions of non-land-owning female farm labour . So they go on toiling in extremely hazardous conditions in these high-risk, low-visibility, low-paid jobs. No extra efforts are made to seek them out and give them a formal face, give them skills and better tools and/or address their work-related health problems, either by the governments or the land owners. The United Nations Human Development reports have routinely underscored the fact that developing countries (including ours) spend woefully inadequate amounts on human development priorities such as healthcare and education, while their military expenditures soar. The World Bank data on health expenditure in India also points out regional variations in government spending on healthcare by various states of India. In 2008, Gujarat, despite being one of the richest states was spending only 3.63% of its budget on healthcare, while the southern states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, and even UP, were allocating more than 5% of their budget for healthcare.

Public healthcare expenditure has always been low in India, but in the post liberalization years it has atrophied to a mere 1% of GDP. This means that ill-equipped, understaffed and woefully inadequate numbers of government hospitals and Primary Healthcare Centres remain incapable of taking care of the poor in rural areas. It is also no secret that environmental degradation and lack of potable water are touching crisis points in many areas. As a result, severe to chronic sickness among farming communities are rising, and the poorer farmers in rural areas are being increasingly driven into the venal world of private healthcare providers.

A report by the National Commission on Macroeconomics and Healthcare estimated that the rural poor spend nearly three quarters of their earnings to meet vital medical expenditures. And in case of severe illnesses requiring hospitalization, they incur debts from rural money lenders at very high credit rates. When that happens, the low social worth and lower sense of self worth of farmers’ women usually bars their accessing medical help in time. According to NSSO reports, in rural areas the average health spend on men is Rs 151 while for women it is Rs 137. As a result India’s high maternal mortality rate has come down only marginally and remains among the highest in the world.

It would be simplistic under the circumstances to repose faith in a magic bullet for Mahila Sashaktikaran like “Beti Padhao Beti Bachao.” The market, the government’s priorities, the state of the farm sector and our healthcare system are all slowly draining our mostly unskilled, poor and landless women farm workers of whatever real Shakti they had. From a practical and ethical viewpoint, the best way to empower women farmers would be to concentrate on improving their state and status in all its various facets. Provide them with vital land rights and joint Pattas if the family owns land. After this, work towards a standardization of women-specific practices in agriculture, and see how they can be made safer and free of health hazards. Simultaneously, we need innovations in marketing outlets to make them more women friendly. Above all, the government must start training women farmers on how to approach and handle the new markets, the tools of the trade, chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Last but not least, women must be recognized formally as a major interest group with a clear politico-legal identity. Once they can access credit, subsidies and innovative tools, the same as men, they will take care of themselves, and India’s farming.

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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.