While reorganising land rights for rural women may be an arduous and long-drawn task, alternative solutions can be adopted
The United Nations observes October 15 as International Rural Women’s Day to highlight the contribution of rural women to the world’s economic development. Taking cue from this, the Government of India declared October 15 as Rashtriya Mahila Kisan Diwas in 2017. This was a welcome step, especially in the context of the agricultural collapse that has engulfed the country and has manifested itself through farm suicides and exclusion of women agricultural labourers from the narrative of agricultural reforms in India. The year 2016 marked 25 years of India’s neo-liberal economic reforms and the opening of Indian economy to the vagaries of capitalist approaches of development (or displacement, as many may want to call it). Since economic liberalisation, disturbing trends of farm suicides have emerged. Media reports say that nearly 0.2 million farmers have committed suicide due to socio-economic pressures and poverty since 1997.
“Accidental Deaths and Suicides in India 2015”, a report by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), puts agricultural suicides in India at 12,602. Of these, it classified 8,007 as farmers and 4,595 as agricultural labourers. The report cited crop failure and indebtedness as the major reasons for the deaths, which increased by 2 per cent from the year 2014.
However, it is important to note that farm debt is just a corollary of the larger malaise of perpetual agricultural failure, which manifests itself through incidents like the Mandsaur agitation of 2017 in Madhya Pradesh, or suicides of farmers like Gajendra Singh during a political rally in Delhi in 2015. But what remains absent is the female face from the problem, recognition of which is key to address issues of ecological and food security, achieving targets of United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDG 5 on gender equality), and imputing contribution of women to larger goals of national development.
Marginalisation of landless women farm labourers
Women in rural areas, who do not own land, usually engage in agricultural labour activities. ncrb defines a farmer/cultivator as one whose profession is farming and includes those who cultivate their own land/leased land/other’s land with or without the assistance of agricultural labourers. While counting farming suicides, cases of people who have land on their names are considered as farmers, according to several studies undertaken. There remains ambiguity in the definition and classification of farmers, which further affects recognition of the female face in agriculture.
Bina Agarwal’s 1994 book, A field of one’s own, as well as the latest Socio Economic Caste Census (SECC, 2011), classify land as the most important economic determinant of poverty and deprivation. According to secc, over 100 million—or 56.4 per cent—of rural households own no agricultural land. What’s worse, while women do 80 per cent of farm work, they own only 13 per cent of land, according to a factsheet released by international non-profit Oxfam in 2013. This is despite the country having undertaken agricultural reforms since 1950s.
This means that rural poor in absence of any collateral, succumb to economic pressures, resulting in displacement of farm labour or “de-peasantisation’ (a disruption of peasant activities accompanied by a migration of males from agriculture towards casual work) and, in absence of better economic opportunities, in an “informalisation” of work away from agriculture. According to a 2013 report published in The Hindu, between 2001 and 2011, a total of 7.7 million farmers left agriculture. Another report published in The Wire in July 2017, stated that the number of rural to urban migrants (most of whom are men) in India stands at 100-200 million.
Feminisation and de-feminisation of agriculture
This migration results in “feminising agriculture”, which means women get increasingly absorbed in agricultural and allied activities. According to Census 2011, there has been a 24 per cent increase in the number of female agricultural labourers between 2001 and 2011, from 49.5 million to 61.6 million. Nearly 98 million Indian women have agricultural jobs, but around 63 per cent of them are agricultural labourers, dependent on the farms of others, according to Census 2011.
In addition to this, mechanisation of agriculture has also resulted in confinement of women to traditional roles such as winnowing, harvesting, sowing seeds and rearing livestock, which are low paying. This clubbed with the burden of household chores, and a lower wage rate than men, contribute to further economic disparity.
Absence of land rights not just keeps landless women and female agricultural labourers on the fringes, it also denies them credit, insurance, irrigation and other entitlements of agriculture-related schemes, in the absence of land security. This phenomenon of “defeminisation” (i.e. excluding women from their entitlements in agriculture) coexists with feminisation of agriculture.