September 19, 2021

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Indian agriculture and women – the legal gap in feminized agriculture

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This article is written by Arya Mittal from Hidayatullah National Law University. The article deals with the role and problems of women in the Indian agricultural sector, the legal gap that exists in this feminisation and the possible solutions for the same.

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Farmerette – defined by Merriam Webster as a female farmer. Most of us have been unaware of this term. Even if we consider farmer as a gender-neutral word, the first image that comes to our mind is that of a man working hard in the fields out in the sunlight. Did we hear of the farm suicides which caught the attention of almost the whole media? Even then we could only imagine a man (male farmer) hanging from a tree or committing suicide. India has been a patriarchal society and despite the significant role of women in various sectors of the economy, these sectors continue to be male-dominated and in certain cases, fail to give enough recognition to women. Agriculture is one such field. OXFAM has revealed that women contribute to a whopping eighty percent of total farm produce and seventy-five percent of full-time workers in farming are female workers. 

Yet, we have failed to give enough recognition to these women in feeding the country with the second largest population in the world. They work in the fields, do household chores, take care of children, collect wood from forests and water from faraway rivers but still, all of this does not seem enough to applaud their efforts. Since 2017, the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare has been celebrating Mahila Kisan Divas (Women’s Farmers Day) every 15th of October, but most of us are unaware of the same. Right from sowing the seeds to selling their produce, they are involved in every process, balancing between their farms and children and household chores. This article aims at discussing the increasing feminisation in agriculture. Their role in agriculture, problems that they face at work, the role of the legal system and a lot more has been discussed to get a holistic view of the difficulties female farmers face at work. 

Patriarchy is deep-rooted in the Indian society and women have always been considered weak, docile and submissive. It is believed that women are not capable of performing strenuous tasks or labour-intensive jobs. As a result of this mindset, there is a division of labour between the genders and the existing wage gap between the two genders is a consequence of this division of labour. Female farmers work on their own fields and perform all the activities ranging from weeding, sowing, plantation to ploughing and harvesting. Yet, while they work on someone else’s farm as paid labourers, they are considered to be weak and are only given those tasks which do not involve physical strength. Tasks such as ploughing and spading are considered ‘manly’ and are not to be performed by female labourers. As a result, they receive lower wages than male labourers, despite them working for extra hours. 

The Indian women play a crucial role in feeding the whole country, however, their efforts and hard work are often overlooked. Little or no recognition is given to their efforts despite the work they perform. From the very basic process of sowing the seeds to storing the grains, they are present everywhere and perform all the processes in between. Their role is discussed hereafter.

Agriculture

Women have an important role in the production of crops. They are involved in labour-intensive tasks such as hoeing, weeding, etc. They are even responsible for the irrigation of crops. It is to remember that a large part of India still does not have proper access to water and they walk long distances to fetch water for their household as well as their farms. They are engaged in different roles depending on their economic status. They might work on their family land or be engaged as paid labourers on someone else’s land or even act as supervisors and get involved in post-harvest activities such as separating the grains, marketing, etc. Additionally, they engage in many other ways such as managing the nurseries, spraying fertilizers, protecting the crops from extreme climatic conditions, harvesting the grains and later winnowing them to separate unwanted substances and storing them till it is finally sold. These post-harvest operations are largely managed by women. Their work does not stop here. Many women are also responsible for selling these crops in the mandi where they face different kinds of struggles in order to fetch little money. 

Cattle management 

Livestock is a substantial source of income for many sections of rural India. It has been an age-old custom in most parts of the country to give cattle to the bride when she gets married to ensure her sustenance post marriage. Indeed, it is a boon for rural households, yet the role played by women in maintaining the livestock is largely ignored. Maintenance of livestock serves a dual purpose, personal and commercial. Women are responsible for cleaning the cattle and their sheds. They are also engaged in collecting fodder for the livestock to ensure its sustenance. In case the animal gets sick, they take care of such an animal. Additionally, the excretion of animals serves as a good source of nutrients for soil and women prepare manure. They also prepare cow dung cakes from this waste which they can sell to earn extra income or burn for cooking food. They are also engaged in making products from the milk of the cows. The milk is churned to prepare butter, fermented to form a curd, or processed to make other milk products such as cheese, cottage cheese, etc. Women are predominantly engaged in all the activities relating to the maintenance of livestock except for grazing, which is mostly done by men. Despite their role, these contributors to the primary sector remain invisible and unrecognized. Owing to the substantial contribution of livestock in the agricultural economy i.e. nearly forty percent as well as a contribution of six percent in the GDP of the country, the efforts of women need to be applauded. 

Poultry

Poultry is another major source of income for rural India. Many rural households have hens, ducks, etc. to cater to their economic needs. They sell eggs and meat to earn an extra income. Backyard poultry farming has become a recent trend that has significantly improved the health of rural people. Herein, the women rear the hens in their homes themselves to get eggs and meat. Despite the lack of infrastructure and equipment, women have handled the task well. Backyard farming has reportedly helped a lot of rural households to earn their livelihood. It has not only emerged as a source of income but has also helped in improving the nutritional requirements of these people. Poultry eggs are a vital source of protein and are cheap as well. Therefore, it now helps them to have a protein-rich diet and helps them live a better life. Lastly, it is noteworthy that backyard poultry farming contributes approximately twenty percent of the poultry sector and is effectively managed by rural women. Seeing the increased role of women in poultry farming, the government at the central level as well as state levels have formulated different schemes to empower their role in this sector. To conclude, their continuous efforts have helped to improve the health conditions of rural people, their economic status as well as the agricultural sector of the economy as a whole.

Concept of feminization

The feminisation of agriculture denotes the increased proportion of women in agricultural and allied activities. The word was first observed in the Indian context in the Economic Survey Report of 2017-18. The report admitted that the role of women has been crucial in the primary sector which has benefited the economy in ensuring food security and preserving agrobiodiversity. The change has been witnessed globally and with the recognition in the Economic Survey Report, India has also become one of the countries to witness this change. There have been different reasons for this gender shift, some of which are mentioned below. 

Cause for feminisation

Low pay, more work

The patriarchal Indian society has found it easier to harass female workers. Due to their socio-economic circumstances, they are willing to work for lesser wages and more hours. Their work remains substantially the same as that of their male counterparts. They are paid irregularly, knowing that she is helpless and is considered docile. It saves the costs of the big farmers and helps them to accumulate capital.

Unfree labour

Unfree labour refers to exploitative labour relations to make someone work against the favour done to them. Rural men often take loans from moneylenders to migrate to another city for work or any other purpose. In consideration for the same, their wives are made to work during the agricultural season. They are paid lower wages than the prevailing market rate, made to work more and even restricted to work for someone else. This way, the women are first made to work on the field of creditors and then on their field apart from the household work, which is unavoidable. 

Mobilisation by men

In recent times, it has been observed that more men are migrating from agricultural to non-agricultural jobs to work as casual labourers, drivers, carpenters, etc. It is believed that these tasks are most respectable and can be exclusively performed by men since it involves rigorous labour. In such a scenario, it is the women who take charge of the family farms since the jobs of men are insecure and even if they are earning, it provides an additional source of income. Moreover, in times of COVID-19, when men came back to their villages and had no jobs, the women worked in the field to earn income to run their households. In such a situation where women are helping to generate an agricultural income while men are involved in non-agricultural jobs, they are merely termed as supplementary bread earners and rarely get any recognition.

Pay gap and wage problems

This is one of the most common problems that Indian women face in different sectors throughout the country and agriculture is no exception. Women work nearly twice the hours on the field as men do yet they are paid only seventy percent of what men receive. These payments are also irregular. There is a huge gender disparity that exists in the agricultural sector. One-third of the women work as unpaid labourers in the fields of their parents, husband or in-laws but they receive no recognition or money for their work. 

Lack of land ownership

Female farmers own less than two percent of the inherited lands in India and less than thirteen percent of total farmlands in India. Despite the change in inheritance laws in the country, the situation remains the same owing to the social pressure wherein women transfer their rights to the male members of the family or the male members get rights in a hostile manner. In either of the cases, they are left with nothing. This refrains them from entering into contracts with different parties since they do not have legal possession over the land. 

Financial difficulties

As a result of a lack of ownership rights, they fail to get credit when they need money for the cultivation of crops. The banks require collateral failing which they cannot receive a loan. Moneylenders charge high rates of interest which are not feasible. Still, if she chooses this way, the high rates of interest ensure that her economic burden only increases and this turns into a vicious cycle. A study revealed that merely four percent of women have access to institutional credit in the state of Uttar Pradesh. 

Policy failure

Until the Economic Survey of 2017-18, the agrarian policies paid no heed to women and the policy benefits were entitled to male farmers since most of the state governments regarded only those individuals as farmers who were land title holders. As discussed above, only a few women had been entitled to ownership of land and thus, the women were reduced to the status of cultivators and were not provided with any benefits in terms of credit, seeds, equipment, etc. It was only after the Economic Survey report that they were recognised and policies were suggested to be formulated to encourage their role. Yet, the situation has not improved to a considerable extent and the women continue to suffer. 

Less exposure to agricultural developments 

The multi-layered problems of policy failure, financial difficulties and lesser rights have also kept them away from the technology. They continue to work in the traditional manner which proves to be costly and time-taking. Lack of education for women in Indian society also prevents them from accessing technology. They remain unskilled and continue to strive to earn their livelihood. Hence, they remain unaware of the developments in the sector which leaves them with lesser or no profits and consumes their time and energy. 

Suicide

It is unfortunate that the already suppressed continue to remain suppressed even after death. The farmers’ suicide which continues to remain an important concern of the country fails to consider women as part of this struggle. The data of female farmers remains mostly unreported. As reported by the Hindu, fourteen percent of farm suicides in Karnataka in 2019 were that of women. In that year, nearly twenty percent of farm suicides were in Karnataka. The rest of India has not even been taken into consideration. Yet another problem is when male farmers commit suicide, the ultimate burden of clearing the debts comes on their wives, who are often forced to work for free for the creditors, leaving their own farm and household. 

Agriculture reforms

The new farm laws have faced a lot of criticism. Though the laws aim to make the process easier, yet these laws can have catastrophic effects on female farmers. Everyone has witnessed how women have also participated in rallies against farm laws in large numbers. They took all the pain to come all the way from the villages to participate in the rallies leaving behind their children and household chores. This makes it clear that these reforms will have a negative impact on the lives of women.

The problem that stems from these laws is that they will leave women nowhere. Women do not have equal access to the market as men. The earlier system ensured that they could sell their produce in the nearest mandis but with the new laws, it will become difficult for them to travel farther places and search for buyers. The female farmers do farming apart from their household chores. So, in such a scenario it will become difficult for them to balance both works simultaneously. Moreover, India is a male-dominated society and the male buyers will force these women to sell their produce at a lesser rate. Also, it is known that women have less access to justice. Thus, in case they are harassed, they will have no legal redressal in courts and would have to reach out to the agricultural board which might not be a feasible option for most of the women. 

Various schemes have been formulated by the Ministry of Agriculture & Farmers Welfare and the Ministry of Rural Development some of which are mentioned below.

  1. Mahila Kisan Sashaktikaran Pariyojana (MKSP)
  2. Agri-Clinic & Agri-Business Centre (ACABC)
  3. Integrated Schemes of Agricultural Marketing (ISAM)
  4. Sub-Mission of Agricultural Mechanization (SMAM) 
  5. National Food Security Mission (NFSM)
  6. Mission for Integrated Development of Horticulture (MIDH)
  7. National Mission on Oilseeds and Oil Palm (NMOOP)
  8. Sub Mission on Seed and Planting Material (SMSP)
  9. National Mission on Sustainable Agriculture (NMSA)

All these schemes have ensured to earmark a minimum of thirty percent towards the development of female farmers. MKSP which has especially been formulated for women in agriculture has been able to achieve some success and has proved to be most fruitful among all the policies. It aims to skill women and provision them with production assets and extension services. The scheme has seen achievements in certain states in terms of women’s access to markets, information, resources and even empowering them to a considerable extent. 

Article 39 of the Indian Constitution directs the state to ensure that there is equal pay for equal work to both men and women. Therefore, the state should strive to ensure that there is not a gender-based wage gap in agriculture as well as other sectors of the economy.

Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) has been ratified by India in July 1993. Article 14(2)(g) of the convention directs the state parties to ensure that women have equal access to marketing facilities, agricultural credit and loan, appropriate technology and most importantly, equal treatment in land and agrarian reforms and land settlement schemes. 

Additionally, various statutes have been enacted to ensure the provision of certain basic rights to female farmers. Section 25 of the Plantations Labour Act, 1951 prohibits the employment of women after 7 P.M. and before 6 A.M., except with the prior permission of the State Government. Maternity Benefit Act, 1961 applies to establishments that include plantation. Thus, all the maternity benefits provided in the statute are applicable to female farm labourers. Equal Remuneration Act, 1976 is also applicable to female farmers and Section 4 of the act mandates that similar wages should be provided for a similar kind of work. Yet, a huge gap of nearly 30 percent exists between the wages of male and female farmers, as stated by FAO. Lastly, different personal laws governing different religions have tried to provide equal inheritance rights to daughters but these laws suffer from practical difficulties. 

From the above-mentioned information, it is imperative that India needs gender-based agricultural laws to support female farmers in the struggles they face every day. Even the Economic Survey Report 2017-18 has suggested adopting gender-specific interventions. Undoubtedly, sanction needs to be created to protect the rights of women. Recognising the same, Women Farmer’s Entitlement Bill, 2011 was introduced by Prof. M.S. Swaminathan (former member of Rajya Sabha) back in May 2021. Unfortunately, the bill lapsed and no action was then taken. The bill gave recognition to female farmers in a real sense, considering them to be a farmer devoid of their landholdings or marital status. The bill could have solved some major issues such as land rights, water rights, access to credit, etc. It even provided for penalties in case of non-compliance and formation of a board for redressal. 

It is high time that the legislature realises that the country is in need of a legal framework to protect the rights of female farmers. They constitute four-fifth of the agricultural workforce and not providing them with sufficient rights will hinder their right to life. A centrally enacted law should be in place to cater to their needs so that these invisible contributors to the economy could live a peaceful life.

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The significant role of women in agriculture and allied activities cannot be ignored. Statistics have shown that if they are provided with proper infrastructure, then the overall production can rise by nearly 30 percent as per the survey report of FAO. Even otherwise, it is important to secure the survival of these women. The condition of women cannot improve unless and until there is a stringent law that determines the rights of these farmers and recognizes them as farmers devoid of their landholdings. It is of vital importance that a centrally enacted law needs to exist to help women get basic rights such as equal pay, access to the market, access to technology, access to infrastructure and every other thing that their male counterparts have access to. Moreover, the newly enacted farm laws should be reconsidered from the perspective of safeguarding the rights of female farmers, in absence of which, female farmers will be left with nothing in the upcoming privatization era. Additionally, an efficient regulatory mechanism needs to be set up to ensure the proper execution of laws. This is important since even now certain laws exist, but they have no practical applicability and are far-fetched. There should be a proper system for redressing their grievances. To sum up, efforts are required from all the wings of democracy to solve this crisis.

Women have played a crucial role in the agricultural and allied sectors by constituting three-fourths of the whole workforce, producing nearly eighty percent of the total production and working for nearly twice as many hours compared to men. The multi-layered problems of female farmers need to be addressed so that they have equal access to resources as men. They manage their household and work on the farms without any recognition. These are the invisible contributors to our economy, whom we fail to provide with the most basic rights and recognition. The aforementioned struggles of women need to be addressed and solutions need to be provided for the same. In light of Article 39 of the Indian Constitution and CEDAW (ratified by India), it is the duty of the state to ensure that the rights of women farmers are protected so that feminized agriculture proves to be a boon for the country.

Note: SEWA (Self-Employed Women’s Association) is a registered trade union working for empowering the self-employed rural women of the country with reach across sixteen states of the country. MAKAAM (Mahila Kisan Adhikaar Manch) is yet another organisation that specifically works for the rights and recognition of female farmers across twenty-four states of the country. Any female farmer may contact them to seek assistance.

SEWA – +91 79 25506444

MAKAAM – 020 2588 0786

A detailed guide for all the schemes can be accessed here.


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