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The march of women farmers

As protests against the farm laws erupt across the country, women farmers are fighting to be seen and heard, get a share in land or government benefits and find space in policy documents.

A woman reaps wheat crops during the harvest season near Raispur village in Ghaziabad district of Uttar Pradesh. (PTI Photo/Arun Sharma)
A woman reaps wheat crops during the harvest season near Raispur village in Ghaziabad district of Uttar Pradesh. (PTI Photo/Arun Sharma)

Kudiya ta chidiya hundiya ne; par parr ni hunde kudiya de.

Peke vi hunde ne, te sohre vi hunde ne; par ghar ni hunde kudiya de.

Harinder Bindu, 42, a farmer and women’s leader from Ramgarh Bhagtiana in Faridkot, Punjab, is holding back tears, her voice quivering with suppressed rage as she recites this poem, unsure when or where she first heard it. Her farmer father, who she says was “martyred by Khalistani militants” when she was just 14 for opposing violence against Hindus in the area, owned land in the village. After his death, it was divided between Bindu’s two brothers.

Women are like birds, but they are flightless; without wings. They live in the homes of their parents and then their in-laws, but they have no home to their name.

The poem, lyrical though it may be, is a cold, sharp reality for many women across the country. According to the Periodic Labour Force Survey 2017-18 (PLFS), in India, where 73.2% of rural women workers are engaged in agriculture, women own only 12.8% of land holdings. Though the state has adopted a broad definition of the term “farmer”, which encompasses anyone engaged in agriculture, the reality on the ground and in revenue records tells a different story. Women struggle to be seen and heard, to get a share in land or avail government benefits for farmers. The struggle is common but the fight varies along the intersections of class, caste and religion.

Veerpal Kaur from Ralla, a village in Punjab’s Mansa district, grew up in her father’s fields. She can’t remember a time when she didn’t pick cotton, plant rice and harvest crops. Her father, who owned an acre, died early and his land was divided among his two sons. The three daughters, including Veerpal, were married young and moved away.

“The land that belonged to my father has to go to my brothers because they help us out in our time of need. We women may be entitled to land from the husband’s family,” says Veerpal. “But my husband lost his father young and was brought up by his paternal uncle, who appropriated the land and eventually asked us to move away. We remained landless.”

In 2003, Veerpal’s husband died by suicide, unable to pay a debt that she found had touched 8 lakh. “When my husband died, the debt did not end with him—jananion se hi mangde hain (they claim the amount from the wife).” Since then, the 41-year-old says, she has filed hundreds of applications for compensation, to no avail. “First, I lost my father. Then I worked as an agricultural labourer, then I was thrown out of my in-laws’ home. Saari umar humne kheton mein hi kaati hai, aap batao kya reh gaya humari zindagi mein (I have spent my life in the fields. What’s left of my life now)?” asks Veerpal. “My entire life has gone in repaying debts, bringing up my two children, it’s all over for me.”

Thousands of women like Bindu and Veerpal spend their lives as farmers but aren’t recognised as such. “Land ownership has been concomitant with our understanding of who a farmer is. In a patriarchal setup, property has largely been vested with men, except in some matrilineal communities,” says Karnataka-based Kavitha Kuruganti, who is associated with the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture (ASHA) that works to improve farm livelihoods. “Patriarchy ensures that property, resources and productive assets have been in the hands of men.”

More than a 1,000km from Punjab, in Valuna village in Gujarat’s Aravalli district, Bhanuben Khant, now in her 40s, is living out a somewhat different reality. She lost her husband towards the end of 2016. Almost immediately after the body was cremated, Khant says her in-laws came over to talk about their share of her husband’s land. “I told them, like you I have children, if anyone tries to set foot on my land, I will go to the police,” she says in Gujarati. “I became a widow at a young age, I knew I had to get my inheritance, otherwise people would try to dupe me, and what would happen to my children?”

Among other fears, her husband’s family had assumed that Khant would leave the village after getting the land transferred in her name. Eventually, with the support of paralegal workers at the local Swabhoomi Kendra, a women's land and resource rights centre, Khant accessed her husband’s death certificate, gathered witnesses and evidence, and after considerable struggle and resistance from her in-laws, managed to get her husband’s land transferred in her name. Today, she and her children own about two and a half acres. As a result, Khant has been able to access government schemes like the farmer’s credit card, crop insurance and PM-KISAN Samman Nidhi. “Kheti ke saare kaam karti hoon. Meri bhi mahila kisan ki pehchan honi chahiye (I do all the work of a farmer. I should be recognised as a woman farmer),” she says.

And that’s the crux of it. In December 2019, during the winter session of Parliament, Union agriculture minister Narendra Singh Tomar was confronted with some questions: Who is a farmer? What is the government’s definition of a farmer and how many farmers are there in India by that definition? In a written response, the minister provided data on the number of agricultural landholdings, adding that the Centre provides income support to all farmer families who own cultivable land through the PM-KISAN scheme.

A year earlier, when the then finance minister Arun Jaitley presented the Union budget, it was touted as one that would be “farmer friendly”, and news reports counted the number of times he had used the word “farmer” while promising cart-loads of schemes for kisaan bhai (farmer brothers). This September, when the farm Bills were passed in Parliament, news channels flashed visuals of protests across the country—but viewers would be hard-pressed to find the voice of a woman in any of the sound bites or policy documents.

Systemically, the definitions of farmers as those who own land, and phrases such as “kisaan bhai” in popular discourse, render invisible a large section of small and marginal farmers—chief among them women like Veerpal and Bindu—across an intersection of caste and class. Dairy farmers, fisherfolk, fruit and flower growers, as well as landless agricultural workers who cultivate land belonging to others, are also left out.

Women planting rice seedlings in Sarai Nayat village, near Prayagraj. (Photo: Getty Images)
Women planting rice seedlings in Sarai Nayat village, near Prayagraj. (Photo: Getty Images)

A more comprehensive definition has been drafted in the National Policy for Farmers, approved by the Centre in 2007. It defines the term “farmer” as “a person actively engaged in the economic and/or livelihood activity of growing crops and producing other primary agricultural commodities and will include all agricultural operational holders, cultivators, agricultural labourers, sharecroppers, tenants, poultry and livestock rearers, fishers, beekeepers, gardeners, pastoralists, non-corporate planters and planting labourers, as well as persons engaged in various farming related occupations such as sericulture, vermiculture and agro-forestry.” But this definition is a far cry from the reality on the ground, where it’s largely male tillers of land who are considered “farmers”.

Bindu puts it succinctly: “Aurat kheti mein barabar hoti hai mard te (women are equal to men in the field). Men cannot do farming alone. The woman plants the seeds, harvests the crops. She also raises the children and looks after the animals and livestock.”

A question of control

“(Some) historians believe that it was women who first domesticated crop plants and thereby initiated the art and science of farming,” agriculture scientist M.S. Swaminathan, who also proposed the Women Farmers Entitlement Bill (which lapsed in 2013), said in 1985. “While men went out hunting in search of food, women started gathering seeds from the native flora and began cultivating those of interest from the point of view of food, feed, fodder, fibre and fuel.”

More recently, the Economic Survey 2017-18 indicated that the migration of men to cities was leading to “feminisation” of the agriculture sector, with an increasing number of women playing multiple roles, as cultivators, entrepreneurs and labourers—and taking care of families.

“Surveys by the NSSO (National Sample Survey Office), however, are clearly showing a decline in employment in agriculture for women. This only means paid employment is declining, because of degradation of resources, distress in agriculture,” says Seema Kulkarni of MAKAAM or Mahila Kisan Adhikaar Manch, a forum that works to secure recognition for, and the rights of women farmers. “But it certainly is not the case that women are not in agriculture.

It seems surreal, though not surprising, that women have been erased in the common understanding of a “farmer”. In independent India, says Kuruganti, “when the agricultural architecture and state machinery got created, it was populated by men, given the additional advantage in education and particular skills that they had for jobs related to what the state posts required.” She adds. “They further shaped it the way they envisioned things, including what technology gets used, investing more on reducing the drudgery for men than for women and so on.”

In other words, tractors, irrigation systems and machinery to reduce the labour of men were introduced by men who made policy, but many of the jobs done by women—such as sowing, weeding, hoeing, grass cutting, picking, cotton stick collection, separation of seeds from fibre, tending to livestock—remained the way they had for centuries.

And while women’s participation in the state machinery is improving in certain states, numbers remain abysmal in most parts of the country. Going by the findings of one survey, titled Status Of Women Farmers In Uttar Pradesh, presented in 2016 by the Gorakhpur Environmental Action Group and non-profit Oxfam, only 2.3% are members of any government committees, schemes or programmes. This gendered structuring of agricultural work and control has overlooked a lot more than just land rights and access to schemes for women. Reproductive health and sanitation continue to be issues. Many of the mandis (markets) where women spend hours selling their produce, for instance, still do not have toilets.

Additionally, domestic work and household chores are almost exclusively handled by women. This includes cooking, cleaning, raising children and looking after in-laws—all unpaid work undertaken before and after hours of gruelling labour in the fields. Yet women rarely participate in decision making in the household or on the farmland, and usually earn a wage that’s 20-30% less than what men receive as agricultural labour. These wages too are, more often than not, handed over in entirety to the husband or another male member in the family.

Take the example of Dwarka Waghmare, 45, who lives in Kathoda village in Maharashtra’s Beed district. Married at the age of 13 to a 24-year-old farmer in the village, she took to sugarcane-cutting when the fields back home did not yield enough to sustain the family. Packed into trucks, labourers like Waghmare are transported to sugarcane fields hundreds of kilometres away from their homes. Contractors pay them an advance for their work. “The money was handed over to my husband; if I asked about it, he would often beat me. He usually spent most of it on alcohol,” she says in Marathi.

Waghmare has spent her life in sugarcane fields between Sangli and Kolapur. “We wake up at 3am, since there are no toilets we go far from the jhopda (shanty) provided to us, wash the clothes, bathe, fill water and do the chores for our children,” she says. Waghmare describes the living conditions as sub-human—the shanties are so small that either your head was outside or your feet, “and my husband would want sexual relations, the children would be in the same space. If I refused, there would be quarrels.”

Women are expected to work through pregnancies and menstrual cycles, often for 16 hours a day, since any absence results in heavy penalties from contractors. “One woman had a child in the fields, she went home but resumed work within 15 days, cutting cane, loading trucks, doing a lot of heavy lifting,” says Waghmare.

Wholesale onion market in Thane, Mumbai. (Photo: Hindustan Times)
Wholesale onion market in Thane, Mumbai. (Photo: Hindustan Times)

All these issues remain under-reported. As do suicides among women farmers. According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), India recorded 353,802 farmer suicides between 1995-2018, with 85.81% of them being men. As many as 50,188 female farmer suicides were recorded. An August 2017 study commissioned by the Union ministry of agriculture and farmers’ welfare from the Institute for Social and Economic Change reports that Telangana topped the list of suicides by women farmers, followed by Gujarat, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal.

“Aside from the farm debts and the gendered social pressures that come with being a woman, in Telangana one more reason for the highest number of women farmer suicides is higher land ownership. The national level average is 13%, but in Telangana, approximately 30% women own land,” says S. Asha Latha, agricultural activist and member of MAKAAM in the state.

Renuka, a farmer from Vangapalli in Telangana’s Siddipet district, worked in the fields alongside her husband for years, but the family was unable to make ends meet. One evening in 2013, 30-year-old Renuka inhaled pesticide. She was taken to the government hospital; within four hours, Renuka was dead. “Just before she passed away, she said, ‘I have failed. I can’t take care of my children, I can’t take care of the fields, I can’t do this’,” says Naresh, her stepson, now 24. It is unlikely that Renuka’s death was counted as a farmer suicide, since she did not own cultivable land and was therefore not listed as a farmer in revenue records.

The NCRB does not classify suicides as rural and urban, notes Women And Farm Suicides, a report published by MAKAAM in January. It is, therefore, not possible to know how many of the “suicides of housewives” that are reported annually (nearly double the number of farmer suicides) are from rural India.

In the case of suicides, the women are neither recognised as farmers nor as farmer widows. Often, they are even blamed for the deaths of the men, and like Veerpal, usually inherit not the husband’s land but the debt he incurred and the harassment of moneylenders. Very often, the debt she spends decades repaying was borrowed without her knowledge.

Road to reform

In 2011, a UN Food and Agriculture Organization report estimated that closing the gender gap in agriculture would generate significant gains for the agriculture sector and society. If women had the same access to productive resources as men, they could increase yields on their farms by 20-30%. This could raise total agricultural output in developing countries by 2.5-4%.

Some areas are working towards this reality. Manju Devi, a farmer from Bhagalpur, has benefited from the World Bank aided Bihar Rural Livelihoods Project (BRLP), known locally as Jeevika, as well as projects by Oxfam and SEWA Bharat, a federation of women-led institutions that provides economic and social support to women in the informal sector. These have focused on participatory reforms for women farmers in Bhagalpur and Munger—today, Manju is the director of a women farmer producers’ organisation (FPO), Karnbhumi Krishak Producer Company Ltd, set up in 2018. About 750 women farmers have each invested 100-1,000 to become shareholders.

“We use the money to buy seeds for the women according to their demands, we arrange for their produce to be sold in the mandis, we help them access government schemes as well as land rights,” says Manju, who has also managed to get a share in her family land, where she works for most of the day. In some states like Bihar, simplified land transfer processes are helping—for instance, land can be transferred on stamp paper by the husband, with only the signature of the sarpanch.

“One of the things that seems to have helped without it emerging as a feminist thought was that when many agriculture schemes had chunks of subsidies set aside for only small and marginal farmers, or in some cases for women farmers, men started parting with their land and willingly transferring it to create partition titles,” says Kuruganti. “That was a significant, insidious change. It silently changed things in several parts of the country.”

Structurally, models like the company that Manju is spearheading or FPOs—registered as collectives and often built around self-help groups (SHGs)—are a step forward. Not only do they help access resources, they also spread awareness about schemes and women’s rights. In the study on UP’s women farmers, for instance, only 4.2% of the women were aware of government schemes but 90% of them had availed of benefits.

This change is increasingly evident in Gujarat, where community empowerment programmes, such as those led by the Working Group for Women and Land Ownership (WGWLO), have made a mark over two decades. When Shilpa Vasavada went to Aravalli in 2005, she remembers conducting a meeting of 500 women farmers. “There was only one woman who believed that women deserve rights over land, despite the work they do,” she says. Change has been slow, but with a network of paralegal workers from within the community, the effort has been consistent.

Women farmers at work during the nationwide lockdown in Kolkata. (Photo: PTI)
Women farmers at work during the nationwide lockdown in Kolkata. (Photo: PTI)

Ushaben, who comes from a Scheduled Tribe, is one such paralegal worker for the Navjeevan Aadivasi Mahila Vikas Manch. Explaining the process of spreading awareness on the importance of inheritance entries in land records as well as recognition as farmers, she says the women are shown posters with agricultural tasks and asked to identify which ones are performed by women. “They find that nearly half the work is done by them, in addition to the domestic chores. This helps them realise why they deserve the rights and benefits male farmers have. She starts to look at herself as a farmer,” says Ushaben. It is through such groups and programmes that women like Khant, who got her husband’s land title transferred to her name in Aravalli, gain confidence and support.

More than 90% of agricultural land, however, continues to be transferred through inheritance. It remains an uphill battle, since succession laws for agricultural land are not uniform, and depend on the relationship with the landowning member. Hindu personal law allows women the right to own land and independently manage its affairs. But many states do not follow it. In states like Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Punjab, daughters and sisters do not inherit agricultural land.

According to the Shariat Act, Muslim women are entitled to half the share of property, but this does not extend to agricultural land, except in states like Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, which have made provisions in the law to allow women to inherit. WGWLO, which has been working to change the situation on the ground. Over the last three years, the organisation has helped 1,826 women get land ownership rights. Of these, 865 are widows, 370 are daughters and 218 have joint ownership in the land title.

For women from the Scheduled Castes, however, the battle goes beyond ownership. According to the 2011 census, 71% of Dalits work as farm labourers, at the lowest rung of the agricultural economy, but own just 9% of cultivable land. Ownership here, too, is skewed in favour of men. Women face the additional struggle of enduring violence at the hands of the contractors and upper-caste land-owners for whom they work.

For Adivasi women, the struggle is to claim rights on forest land, though the 2007 policy recognises persons engaged in shifting cultivation and collection of non-timber forest produce as farmers.  

Venkatamma, 35, is proof of this. A member of the Koya community, she grew up in Guttagudem in Telangana’s Bhadradri Kothagudem district. From the age of 10, she learnt to sow, weed and collect fruits, mahua flowers, tendu leaves and grass used for brooms. The tendu leaves and grass would be sold in towns. “My grandparents would work on someone else’s farm as contract labour but were exploited and so decided to take to shifting cultivation,” she says in Telugu. At 13, Venkatamma married her maternal uncle, with whom she would work in the forest and share the household chores.

In 2006, the forest rights Act came into effect, and people from Venkatamma’s village began applying for claims on forest land two years later. “A total of 126 families applied in 2008,” says Venkatamma—Guttagudem has approximately 250 families. Between 2009-10, “only 47 households were given patta”. Venkatamma’s mother, too, had applied for 2 acres of land and received just about a quarter of an acre. “I also applied several times but we never got it. We went to the Madrakalam Integrated Tribal Development Agency, met the collector, did dharnas in front of the collectorate. We have been fighting for 10 years but we have not received anything.”

The pandemic has been a particularly difficult time. The state government has been evicting members of the Koya tribe as part of the Haritha Haram programme. Launched in 2015, it aims at large-scale plantation to increase tree cover in the state from 24% to 33%. Venkatamma says the authorities and police have come to the village thrice since March. “The women have done everything to protect our land—we stood in front of the JCBs, we sat in protest on our land all night, they cannot take this away from us. This is our livelihood, this land is our right.”

Members of farmer organisations protesting against farm laws in Patiala in September. (Photo: Hindustan Times)
Members of farmer organisations protesting against farm laws in Patiala in September. (Photo: Hindustan Times)


Women farmers remain on the fringes, though a few have made their presence felt as protests against the farm Bills continue. From photographs on Dussehra of farmers burning effigies of politicians and corporate bigwigs to images of women on the streets of Maharashtra holding up photographs of B.R. Ambedkar the day after the Bills were passed in Parliament, their visuals, if not voices, are now finding space on social media.

“Some farmer unions say liberalising markets will benefit farmers. While they are asking for decriminalising of trading outside the mandis, the point that deregulation will help is not the correct position,” says Kuruganti. “Yes, all kinds of selling and buying options should be open to farmers, including women farmers, but all of those, including contract farming, also require government oversight because in these interfaces the weakest link is the farmer.”

Bindu has been participating in the protests since they erupted. As we wrap up our conversation, she is preparing to serve her 13-year-old son dinner and completes the poem she started.

Maape kehnde eh tan dhiyan prayiaa ne,

Sohre kehnde eh begane gharo aayiaa ne.

Rabba hun tu hi dasde eh dheean.

Kehde ghar de layi banayiaa ne?

(Parents say she will soon belong to another family

In-laws claim she has come from a different home

Only God can really tell us now, these daughters,

What home were they made for?)

Bindu says she has learnt how to fight for her own idea of home and belonging from her “Dalit sisters in Punjab, Adivasi farmers across the country and the Muslim dadis (grandmothers) of Shaheen Bagh”, with whom she stood in solidarity against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act in December 2019.

“Women are far more resilient than men. She who can give birth, she who can march on with the burden of oppression, no one can match her strength,” she says. “A woman is a farmer. A woman is everything.”

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