Women agriculture workers

REEMA NANAVATY

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Earlier we used local seeds and fertilizers, but still the yield was good. Now we have to buy hybrid seeds and chemical fertilizers which do not give good yields! If the cost of inputs increases any further, we will stop doing farming.

Group discussion Radhanpur, Banaskantha

 

We purchased expensive seeds and tilled the land. Now our fields have been flooded. When water recedes, we will have to hire tractors and plough again. Agriculture is becoming risky.

Agriculture has become more productive, but more expensive. Earlier we produced enough foodgrains for household consumption. Now we have changed crops, we produce no foodgrains and have to buy from the market!

In tobacco we need labour the year round. In potato and banana we need labour for a short period.

Interviewer: Meaning only a few months?

No, only for a few days. When we want to harvest the fruit we may need ten to fifteen people for a few days. Then they are let go.

Patel Pranjanbhai Rarjibhai, Sarsa village, Kheda

 

When there were no mechanical implements we used to work for six months; now we hardly find work for 15 to 20 days.

Group discussion Radhanpur, Banaskantha

 

We cannot go out and sell the produce and merchants are not willing to buy it.

Group discussion of women agricultural labourers

 

INDIA has a predominantly agrarian economy: 70% of her population is rural; of those households, 60% engage in agriculture as their main source of income. According to the 1991 Census, there are 74 lakh agriculture workers in India, and three lakh within Gujarat. Of all agriculture workers, 99.4% work in the informal sector.1 Thus, the sheer numbers and proportion of India’s workforce dependent on agriculture labour and/or small scale agriculture demands attention.

Agriculture is a key source of livelihood for SEWA’s membership: 64% of the total informal sector workforce depends on agriculture and 38% of all agriculture workers are women.2 SEWA members have called attention to their increasing need for economic security as work is irregular and uncertain. When it can be found it is for long hours at low wages. Therefore, SEWA initiated an ‘agriculture campaign’ to better understand the issues, to identify the types of safeguards needed to provide economic security to agriculture workers, and to develop strategic interventions.

SEWA works predominantly in the north and northwest regions of Gujarat which have a harsh climate: saline land and groundwater with frequent droughts. As much of agriculture is rainfed, yields are unpredictable. Following the Green Revolution, India witnessed a boost in agricultural productivity. However, the main beneficiaries remain large farmers who, with larger land holdings and irrigation facilities, are better positioned to take advantage of economies of scale, new technologies and multiple cultivation seasons. Small and marginal farmers and landless agricultural labourers have been left out. They have little or no land, less knowledge and access to innovations and technology, minimal capital or access to credit and no bargaining power. With few links to the markets in which their products are sold (or in the case of landless labourers, to alternative wage or self-employment), they are forced to rely on large farmers and middlemen. Women are especially excluded as ‘We need direct market linkages, access to quality seeds and fertilizers. Then only will agriculture remain viable.’

‘Every year there are new varieties of seeds and fertilizers. But there is no extension and education. The farmer is not fully informed of the advantages and disadvantages of the new variety. Government should strengthen extension and education.’

SEWA’s membership includes marginalized women involved in every aspect of agriculture: as small and marginal farmers, landless agricultural sharecroppers, and casual labourers working in agriculture-related, on-farm activities such as tobacco processing, cotton pod shelling, farm irrigation and fertilizer distribution. The profile of informal sector agriculture workers consists of both producers as well as workers in all other agriculture allied activities. Further, due to the following processes, they are becoming increasingly vulnerable.

Small-scale producers: Insecure profits – The increasing cost of inputs has shrunk the profit margin and raised the level of investment required and therefore risk in each growing season. This is aggravated by unreliable yields and frequent drought.

Outdated practices: Marginal farmers lack technical knowledge and access to improved agriculture methods. This results in low yields of products that fail to meet the quality requirements of the market. Skill and capacity upgradation training is needed to achieve improved production and quality.

 

 

Increased competition: The liberalization of trade in agriculture commodities forces small and marginal farmers to compete with foreign producers in domestic as well as export markets. It will most likely lead to a decrease in domestic prices and the imposition of stricter quality standards. In particular, this will create problems for marginal farmers who are currently unaware of the changing scenario and of the demands, rules and regulations of the global trading system.

Environmental degradation: Post-Green Revolution agricultural practices have aggravated environmental deterioration characterized by depleted water tables, increasing salinity of both water and land and desertification. Sustainable agriculture through an integrated approach to land and water management, plant protection practices and strong support of animal husbandry needs to be encouraged. Use of recycled natural resources should be given priority.

Agriculture Labourers: Decreasing demand for labour – Changes in cropping patterns and increased mechanization have eliminated many employment options for agriculture workers. Many large farmers are replacing their tobacco crops with banana and sugarcane. Compared to tobacco, which provided year-round employment for agriculture labourers, banana and sugarcane are considerably less labour intensive. Furthermore, rich farmers now find it more efficient and cost effective to use the latest technology for harvesting and threshing, processes which were earlier done by hand.

Increasing labour supply: For weeding and other activities, migratory labour is hired on contract basis for lower wages, thus increasing local unemployment.

Having identified the major issues, SEWA helped agriculture workers to form their own local organizations as cooperatives in a regional federation. These agriculture workers organizations aim to increase productivity, yield, bargaining power and income through the following strategy: (i) Educating small and marginal farmers on technical skills, methods of costing and pricing, and the implications and requirements of increasingly liberalized trade. (ii) Building linkages with technical research and marketing organizations. (iii) Collectively purchasing agriculture inputs at lower rates: seeds, fertilizers, and equipment. (iv) Initiating alternative income generation activities such as agroforestry, horticulture, vermiculture and compost manufacturing.

 

 

Upon analyzing its rural members’ economic insecurity, SEWA found that the issues around which agriculture workers needed to organize were highly area specific. Agriculture workers in semi-arid areas battling water scarcity, salinity ingress and high fluoride content in their soils and water sources face challenges different from those in tribal areas who have traditionally earned their livelihoods through the forests and hills and are now facing displacement. In the former context, the first priority of agriculture workers is to curb soil erosion and land degradation and to reverse ravine formation.

While trying to address the issues of agriculture workers in such different and varying agroclimatic zones, it became apparent that in the eyes of the government, agriculture universities and researchers, agriculture is narrowly defined as cultivation. Moreover, it is further compartmentalized into agriculture, horticulture, floriculture and so on. In direct contrast, the reality of the small farmer demands that agriculture be seen in a holistic and integrated manner. With limited resources, a creative approach needs to integrate agriculture, horticulture, floriculture, aquaculture, dairying, composting and vermiculture in order for a small piece of land to be used optimally to generate year round employment.

 

 

The following are four examples of the activities and interventions initiated by individual agriculture workers’ organizations with SEWA’s support. These interventions, flowing from the most urgent concerns confronting each of the respective workers’ organizations, stand as pilot models of how core actions – natural resource conservation, optimization of the land, introduction of appropriate technology – can be tailored to changing contexts. The overriding goals remain the same: to increase land productivity and income to make agriculture a sustainable livelihood.

In addition, these case studies underscore the importance and relevance of organization in increasing agriculture workers’ economic security. SEWA’s long history as a trade union of self-employed workers lends solutions to a new field with its own set of challenges. The tried and tested strategies were tweaked, identifying new forms of organizations to meet individual situation’s needs. Finally, the following four situations highlight the important role and contribution of women in agriculture.

 

 

Vanlaxmi Women Tree Grower’s Cooperative: Due to rapid industrialization and the absence of necessary backward-forward linkages for inputs and marketing, the small and marginal farmers and agriculture workers in Mehsana district were slowly losing most of their land and assets. In particular, excessive irrigation from bore wells dramatically reduced the water table and rendered the remaining water high in fluoride content. With irrigation becomimg expensive and without dependable rains, many small and marginal farmers were forced to either migrate or take to casual labour. Women agriculture workers were even harder hit: they could find no alternative work and often had to walk miles to collect the necessary fodder and fuel.

SEWA organized the women agriculture workers into a cooperative. They demanded and eventually received government revenue land. However, it was not an easy process as the existing, disjointed laws in concerned departments led to a tricky struggle. Under the Cooperative Act, the cooperative could be registered only if the members own land. However, as per the revenue department, revenue land could be allotted only to a cooperative.

The struggle dragged on for two and a half years, until finally, with SEWA’s continued intervention, the revenue and cooperative departments came to a mutually agreeable alternative: the landless agriculture workers had to be registered as a tree growers’ cooperative rather than as an agriculture workers’ cooperative. They were able to form a cooperative for growing trees on government revenue wasteland. Only then, on registering the cooperative, could the revenue wasteland be allotted.

Through the cooperative, the women systematically planned to make optimum use of the available land employing a multi-faceted approach. With partnering the local research station of the Gujarat Agriculture University for technical assistance, they were able to maximize production and income by using scientific agriculture practices, including horticulture, agro-forestry, drip irrigation, compost pits and rainwater harvesting techniques. They utilized low-cost methods of boosting productivity such as designing cropping patterns to enrich the soil. For example, the mung plant’s root increases the soil’s nitrogen content; therefore strategic placement and alternation of mung augments subsequent crops. In all activities the cooperative encouraged participation of all village communities and women in their efforts.

 

 

Today, the Vanlaxmi cooperative stands as a model for the entire district demonstrating how the landless poor can successfully implement collective agriculture. Women who earned just Rs 15 as agricultural day labourers and never engaged in matters of yield, sale, expenditure or market, are now recognized as farmers. They meticulously manage their land, tracking each and every cost. The cooperative has acquired improved equipment such as a power tiller, thresher and a drip irrigation system. The plan also ensures full employment for members and the land meets fodder and fuel needs of the village. As a licensed and authorized seed distributor by the Gujarat State Seed Corporation, the cooperative also provides timely and reasonably priced quality seeds not only to its own village but the entire area.

Still, the struggle is by no means over. The land was allotted on a 15 year lease. Just as the land reaches its peak fertility and performance with maximum yields, the lease will expire. The threat of losing their asset, and with it the fruits of fifteen years of investment, therefore looms large. Clearly, the women will have to continue their battle to secure long term utilization that allows for long term planning and maximum benefit through entering the renewal process.

 

 

Sabarkantha Women Farmer’s Association: The Sabarkantha district is a semi-arid area heavily affected by soil erosion due to extremely sandy soil. This has resulted in ravine formation and overall land degradation, negatively affecting agriculture productivity and agriculture related employment.

SEWA organized the women agriculture workers/farmers into the Sabarkantha Women Farmer’s Association. The association, with SEWA’s support, has initiated watershed development techniques to check soil erosion. To supplement its activities, the cooperative also provides full employment for displaced agriculture workers by encouraging them to form tree-grower societies and start sapling nurseries.

In support of its economic interventions, the cooperative also organizes the women into self help and savings and credit groups and provides the necessary training for skill and leadership development, awareness generation and capacity building. Such local organization capacity building efforts ensure the members’ self-reliance. Finally, the cooperative has linked up with various government development and welfare schemes to accelerate asset building for its members.

Sukhi Mahila SEWA Mandal: In 1991, the Sukhi dam submerged the land and villages of agriculture workers in the tribal areas of Pavi Jetpur in Vadodara district of Gujarat. As compensation, they were given land near the village resettlement sites. Whenever dams are constructed, working families in different trades and occupations are displaced and need rehabilitation.

 

 

The challenges faced by women-headed agricultural households are particularly complex. Therefore, they require more support and time to once again secure their livelihoods. Traditionally, these women survive through a mix of collecting forest produce, agriculture, dairying and/or poultry raising. When displaced, at best they receive only land; resettlement schemes fail to take into account their multifaceted survival strategy. Even the land itself is often less fertile, rocky, unlevelled and far from the forests on which they depend. The land is not ready for immediate cultivation, yet women and their families have no other supplementary source of income. How can they survive the resettlement transition period when they are completely severed from their livelihood?

SEWA organized the relocated workers into the Sukhi Mahila SEWA Mandal to initiate economic rehabilitation. Under the leadership of the women agriculture workers, they initiated land development and installed irrigation facilities. They also started alternative income generation programmes for the suddenly unemployed, including sapling nurseries, poultry units, animal husbandry, mushroom cultivation and social forestry initiatives.

SEWA Gram Mahila Haat: In 1999, SEWA Gram Mahila Haat, a state-level apex marketing organization was established with the help of Government of Gujarat’s Commissioner of Rural Development to provide market, financial and technical assistance to small and marginal farmers and agricultural labourers. It attempts to eliminate dependence on middlemen and help members reach markets all over the country to sell their produce.

SEWA’s experience in organizing agriculture workers to build their own associations underscores that different approaches and interventions must be adopted according to context specific needs and issues. Also, a holistic and integrated approach to agriculture development must incorporate technical training, introduction of appropriate technology, and natural resource development through watershed planning.

In all of its activities, SEWA has found that sustainable development depends on understanding the elements that fuel poverty and strategically working with women to address these aspects of their vulnerability through asset building, capacity building, organizing for collective strength and social protection. Action to strengthen the economic security of agriculture workers and their families can be best charted through this framework.

 

 

Although women constitute two-thirds of the agriculture work force, they own less than one-tenth of the agricultural lands. Women must be allowed to own land. Through soil regeneration activities and wasteland development, women can build productive assets while obtaining supplementary employment. Landless women need to be organized into cooperatives to avail of existing government schemes for land development and the creation of fodder farms and pasture land.

Land allotted in the women’s own name or in the name of her women’s cooperative is used more effectively. Such groups can construct water harvesting, storage and irrigation structures to revive wasteland. The programme affect is two-fold: first from an environmental perspective it regenerates natural resources, thus reducing soil erosion and desertification. Second, it provides a source of supplementary income, fodder, foodgrains and vegetables for the women and is a resource they can hand down to the next generation. The SEWA Vanlaxmi Cooperative is a prime example: women developed community wasteland, reaped a harvest three times that of normal production, and thereby ensured a sustained livelihood.

 

 

More than 90% of the rural poor engage in agriculture; however, most rely on outdated agricultural practices and have little access to improved techniques or important information about advances in the industry. Women are especially excluded and overlooked. The SEWA experience demonstrates that if technical training is provided to poor farmers, in particular women, they implement this knowledge in their own fields, harvest bigger yields, and reap higher incomes.

Furthermore, in order to keep the rural poor abreast of the best and most appropriate practices, they must be actively engaged in research and development. Currently agriculture research is carried out predominantly in unincorporated research centres and fails to reach out to farmers or to the actual context in which they work. Agriculture research must reach the field. First, research teams should include farmers, particularly women farmers, in the process from the very beginning. As R&D for every other product, even down to lipstick, starts with consumer consultation, so should agriculture research start with the users themselves.

Second, research should be done not only in laboratories but also at the field level. It should base its models on the actual characteristics of the land, water, community composition, and level of social development of the target areas where it will eventually be implemented. It must take on the assumptions of specific geo-agro-climatic conditions in which the majority of small and marginal farmers work. For example, by and large women farmers depend on rainfed agriculture as they do not have access to affordable irrigation. Thus, some R&D needs to focus on innovations in dry-land farming.

Third, the results of agricultural research must not be merely an academic advance known only to those who work and study in university ivory towers. The findings must be shared with those women farmers who depend on agriculture for their livelihood.

 

 

Women must be organized to gain leverage in their relationship with the government, landowners and traders. Women farmers are generally invisible to the public agriculture agenda. Despite the fact that women contribute more labour to Indian agriculture than men, land remains almost solely in male hands. This is both a symptom and a cause of their lack of voice and consequent neglect. Few government schemes include landless women as beneficiaries; most exclusively target men. Thus women do not benefit from public agriculture development efforts. For example, although women constitute more than half of India’s landless labour, neither the government’s social forestry scheme nor their nursery scheme has a specific role for landless women. Women must, therefore, collectively demand to be actively included in all government schemes.

Sharecropping is common in Gujarat. Most of the poor who have land are small and marginal farmers; 50% of these are women. Due to the lack of capital to increase their own land holdings or to individually finance the inputs for a larger area of cultivation, they sharecrop land from larger farmers. The large farmer pays for the inputs and provides the land; the labourer undertakes cultivation. After an entire season of labour, the sharecropper receives only one-fourth of the total yield. This distribution needs to be renegotiated to achieve fair compensation for women farmers and landless women.

The current agriculture marketing system in India poses many barriers for women’s profitable participation. It is difficult for women to enter the mainstream market; traders control the pricing of sales and purchases and producers, especially small and marginal farmers and women, are reduced to the role of price-takers. Marginal farmers collectively could gain more leverage for bargaining, increasing the returns on their agriculture products. For this to happen, this group must be organized for better bargaining power in the market.

 

 

As informal sector workers are statistically also some of India’s most poor and vulnerable, measures must be taken to safeguard their economic security. First, existing schemes must reach the maximum number of qualifying small and marginal farmers; this requires that the land transfer process be simplified. Most land farmed separately by individual sons/daughters is still registered jointly under the name of the head of the family. Although the reality is that four or more small and marginal farmers are cultivating small pieces of a larger unit of land, Indian law considers the land a large farm under the name of the father. The offspring are not recognized as small farmers and are thus excluded from government schemes.

Currently, the procedure for transferring the land into the separate small farmers’ names is complicated and time consuming. The process often takes between five and ten years, though there have been cases where it has dragged out over an entire generation. Simplifying the process will allow allocated funds for small and marginal farmers to more efficiently reach the needy target population, benefiting the entire family.

 

 

Second, in the face of volatility in agriculture product prices due to factors that the farmers cannot control, the small and marginal producers must be ensured fair prices for their production. This fluctuation will increase as trade liberalization opens India’s markets to the fluctuation of international supply, demand and prices. Because of their low capacity for storage and their need for immediate revenues, small and marginal farmers are hardest hit by fluctuating prices and low returns. Producers are often forced to sell at a price that does not even cover costs of production. Where traders have a monopoly, buyers and middlemen dictate prices, depriving the small and marginal farmer of a fair market value for her product.

Third, as industrialization and urbanization are expanding into traditionally rural areas, agricultural land must be protected for small farmers. As a result of urban sprawl, small and marginal farmers sell their agricultural land. Women are the first to be forced to sell their farms. The advent of industry has introduced pollution as a new and serious area of concern in rural areas. Thus, prime agricultural land must not be used for non-agricultural purposes. Agricultural land in specified areas needs to be set aside for women farmers.

Finally, despite these measures, it is inevitable that with increasing mechanization, changing cropping patterns and heightened competition due to trade liberalization, unemployment in the agriculture sector will increase. Thus, tripartite boards – on which the government, traders/ employers, and rural workers are equally represented – should be formed to create alternate employment opportunities on a sustainable basis. Boards should be established to tackle specific areas that demonstrate great potential for mass employment, such as horticulture, handicrafts, agroprocessing, salt farming, minor forest produce collection, and fisheries.

 

 

Fertilizer is an essential input in agriculture production. Large farmers have the luxury of buying large quantities of chemical fertilizers when the price is low to be stored and used when the prices are high. However, small and marginal farmers do not have these resources and therefore often end up buying such inputs at high prices when required.

The promotion of organic farming could eliminate this problem. Traditional practices of using animal dung would reduce their dependence on commercial varieties and price fluctuations. Women know well these traditional farming methods that are today termed ‘organic’. However, in order for such methods to be equally profitable, decision-makers must be made aware of the importance of these methods and restructure industry incentives to promote them.

 

Footnotes:

1. Jeemol Unni, ‘Size, Contribution, and Characteristics of Informal Employment in India,’ Workshop on Globalization and its Impact on Women Workers in the Informal Economy, 4-5 December 2002.

2. Ibid.

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