PM Narendra Modi through his address to the nation announced the withdrawal of 3 new farm laws in the upcoming winter session of the Parliament on Friday. This assumes the victory of the farmers’ movement and their year long struggle against the union government. Although a key demand has been conceded, the issue of legislation on MSP and other demands remain unresolved.
Women farmers played a crucial role in the year-long protest. They brought new life to the protest and kept alive the resistance of the farmers. Women driving tractors in the protest rally was a representation of their strong presence in the movement. Thousands of women present in the Kisan Mahapanchayats organized at various places such as Jagron in Ludhiana, Muzzafarnagar, Panipat, etc showed their involvement and participation. But the question of recognition of women farmers of India and their issues seems to be on the back-foot as repealing of the three regressive laws makes headlines.
The gendered perception of agriculture has a large impact on the visibility of labour by females. According to the non-profit Oxfam, women operated landholding is 13.87% (Agricultural Census 2015-16) whereas they end up doing around 80% of farm work in India – sowing, winnowing, harvesting, and other labour-intensive processes and non-mechanized farm occupations are undertaken by women. They are often the lead farmer in that household yet are not recognized as the ‘farmers’. The women coming from the landed families often end up categorizing themselves as the ‘housewife’ in various kinds of surveys and censuses. Annual Report of Periodic Labour Force Survey 2017-2018 reports that 73.2 percent of the females are engaged in the agriculture sector whereas males account for only 55 percent. As per the Census of 2011, 62.1% of all female workers are involved in agriculture at the national level.
As per the Census, anyone who operates a piece of agricultural land is a ‘cultivator’. Operational land is the land used by anyone for agricultural production – irrespective of whether the person using it owns it or not. Land is a State subject and state governments consider only people with a land title as ‘farmers’. So, even though 3.6 crore women have been labelled ‘cultivators’, this does not mean they are considered farmers by the government. In spite of the digitization of the land records, the sex-segregated data regarding ownership of land is not available.
The systematic distancing of women from ownership rights is seen persistently through the religious norms, the patriarchal nature of the society, and the caste system. The relation of land ownership is directly proportional to the engagement of women farmers in the formal sources of credit. The severity of the situation gets deepened when women have to survive in the suicide affected household. The transfer of property usually takes place in the names of the in-laws of the household and when widowed women farmers have to avail credit, the sources are mostly informal (saavkar, relatives, neighbors). Formal sources, such as banks, do not lend them money due to previous debts taken by the husband and thus, there is no channel for re-issuance of credit for the women.
According to NCRB data, women farmers’ suicides is the only category in the country where many states show zero incidents every year! Because women are not recognized as farmers. Currently, there are no statistics defining the suicides of women farmers as they are not recognized as farmers but as cultivators by the State. The reasons behind the suicides must be addressed rather than pushing the count of the suicides under the carpet by modifying the criteria for identification of farmers’ suicides. According to the senior rural reporter P Sainath, tens of thousands of women are excluded from the farmer suicides data in the country just because they are women. Out of eight exclusions from the NCRB data; women farmers, Dalit farmers, and Adivasi farmers are the three largest exclusions.
In the context of the farmers’ movement, while speaking to the Peoples’ Archive of Rural India, a woman farmer Sarbjeet Kaur said, ‘People in power think of us as weak, but we are the strength of this movement. We women look after our farms. How can anyone consider us weak?’ she asks.
Indeed, they have been the reason behind sustaining the movement and now they must ask for The Women Farmers Entitlements Bill like the one introduced in Rajya Sabha in 2012 by M. S. Swaminathan.
Prof. Swaminathan, in the Bill’s ‘Statement of Objects and Reasons’, said that with the gradual decline in the size of farm holdings, many rural men from poor families were migrating to cities and towns looking for work. This had led to “an increasing feminization of agriculture,” and women farmers experienced several handicaps related to land titles, access to credit, inputs, insurance, technology and the market.
The Bill sought to provide for the gender-specific needs of women farmers, protect their entitlements, and empower them with rights over agricultural land and water resources, and also access to credit, among other things.
It is time for the protesting farmers’ organizations to demand The Women Farmers’ Entitlement Bill along with legislation on better remunerative prices.
The author has completed Masters Degree in Development Studies from Ambedkar University Delhi. Views are Personal.