The livelihood crisis for women


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AS we approach another March 8 in this 60th year of India’s independence, amidst all the turmoil of development options chosen or sought to be chosen, are we even listening to the voices of working women, urban, rural and tribal women, about where all of this is leading?

My own feeling is that we have got so mired in the intricacies of representational politics, about responding to people and forces claiming to speak on behalf of others and claiming to have all the right solutions for universal progress that the ability to feed concrete voices into policy debates and decisions has all but disappeared. I will never forget the words of Mukta Jharia from Kuchaipadar village in Kashipur who tried to explain why she was opposing the aluminium plant project. ‘Today, we adivasi women roam freely in the forests and fields. We work on the land, gather produce from the forest and process our collection. Once the plant comes up, there will be nothing for us to do except wash dishes in the homes of the babus.’ The lament was for loss of work, loss of culture, loss of space and dignity. Her words are symptomatic of the crisis of livelihoods and accompanying social and cultural spaces confronting working women in the villages, forests and urban centres in India.

With the arrival of the international ‘open market’ at our doorsteps as the WTO regime digs in its heels, the crisis of livelihoods has deepened in many sectors. A development paradigm that validates export growth more than employment and social security, the open invitation to foreign direct investment, the entry of major multinationals in the agriculture, mining, manufacturing and service sectors, the retreat of the welfare state – all of these have made lives and livelihoods even more vulnerable. Although the crisis and the symptoms of misery it is gathering in its wake are common to all marginalized people, we will try to focus this discussion on what is happening to women.

With the commercialization of agriculture and the rising price of inputs, particularly in the green revolution areas, farming is increasingly becoming unviable for the middle and small farmer. Crucial in this regard are the total dependence on HYV seeds that need high inputs in the form of fertilizers and pesticides, centralization of the seed and pesticide supply in the corporate (including MNC) sector, the issue of remunerative agricultural prices and the minimum support price, power sector reforms that hike up the costs of irrigation, and the increasing mechanization that affects the marginal farmer and the totally landless in these areas. Areas that have been untouched or only partially touched by the green revolution still retain some sovereignty in the matter of seed and technology options available to the farmer. However, agri-business is rapidly advancing towards these areas as well. Uncertain livelihoods have forced the landless and the marginally engaged among the rural population to migrate to towns and cities and to work as contract labour in the construction industry that is booming in many parts of the country.

What has this meant for women? In many parts of the country we have already seen women’s withdrawal from agricultural production and their ghettoization within the domestic spaces. In relatively ‘backward’ regions like Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and western Orissa, though women still retain a significant presence in farming, they are on the retreat. They either subside into domestic dependent positions or join the ranks of the dispossessed migrant workers in cities. In a place like Delhi, the many Baby Haldars tell and retell their stories; in Vidarbha, the ranks of suicide widows swells.


Communities living in the forest have long been victims of a process of being enclosed out of the forests they live in. Rights to common property resources and rights to settle in the forests as well as entitlements have been contested for a long period. Historically, forest communities have been able to supplement the food they grow through small-scale farming with forest-based food resources. However, the livelihoods of forest communities are today threatened for a multiplicity of reasons. With forest bio-diversity becoming a tradable commodity in the international market, commercial plantation and monoculture (e.g. of jatropha in Chhattisgarh) is threatening to destroy the mixed and bio-diverse forests that gave sustainable livelihoods to so many.

Many of the forest areas also contain mineral deposits that are today attracting MNC investment. Development of bauxite, iron ore or uranium mines and the processing of raw ore into alumina or liquid slurry causes a complete disruption of the lives, lifestyles and traditional livelihoods of forest communities. Forest communities in western Orissa (Kashipur, Lanjigada, Niyamagiri), Chhattisgarh (where the new Tata plant and the Essar pipeline are proposed and Jharkhand (which has suffered Jaduguda and is battling Koelkaro) are today seeing a major disruption of their traditional livelihoods.

In this context it is legitimate to express some of our concerns about recent legislative changes. The proposed Land Acquisition Act will make it possible to acquire land, including land belonging to the Scheduled Tribes, in the ‘national interest’. The Tribal Bill attempts to secure the traditional rights of the forest communities and to validate the role of the gram sabhas in deciding development priorities, but it contains confusing prescriptions on the rights of forest dwellers who are not from the Scheduled Tribes. Women in many forest areas are today in a shell-shocked condition as the loss of land, forest access and home forces them to confront catastrophic changes within one generation. In extreme situations like the Salwa Judum camps in Chhattisgarh, where a strident state militarization places the inhabitants of over 600 villages in relief camps even as land acquisition for industry goes equally stridently forward, the depression and apathy of the women is evident to all who have had a chance to visit them.


Direct industrial employment has shown little increase in recent years and changes in labour laws have significantly eroded what even 25 years back were regarded as constitutional and statutory rights of workers. Contracting and subcontracting of industrial operations, recruitment of workers for short term and specific functions , and negation of liability at every level has become the new norm in industrial employment. Even as rural to urban migration has increased, urban employment remains insecure, unsafe and hazardous. Though for a very small urban professional and white collar sector there may be a boom in employment, but such employment too is insecure and unprotected. Migrant women are extremely vulnerable socially and physically. Poorer women in the city slums walk the tightrope of back-breaking and uncertain casual work ranging from rolling agarbattis and beedis, domestic labour and construction work along with the burden of sustaining their children and families in an extremely hostile environment.

While the constitutional promises of equal opportunity for all are fading away, what policy options are being offered to women in this crisis? It is disconcerting that even as women’s development and women’s empowerment get institutionalized into the official agenda, self-help groups are today being touted as the way poorer women can overcome their life and livelihood crisis.


Quite apart from the absurdity of the thesis that the larger interests have the impunity to destroy and the ‘self’ has the responsibility to rebuild, there is today enough evidence to indicate that Self Help Groups (SHGs) are mere band aid and do not heal. Many of them save only to consume later. Even when there are production SHGs, there is no clear indication that their products have a secure future. There is no evidence to suggest that SHGs have been able to influence larger policy questions. By reducing women’s organization and organizational potential to mere savings and credit, that too at higher than market rates, the SHG model ultimately offers a travesty of the entire concept of organization, solidarity and fellowship.

Today, if we are serious about the issue of women’s livelihoods (and we have every reason to be), a genuine peoples’ alternative that encompasses policy track change, builds upon and relies on the insights of the women’s movement is the crying need of the day. If at least such a process could be begun on this anniversary of the International Women’s Day, we might embark on our journey on the road to healing.