The Invisible Hand of Indian Women Farmers

Sukanya Maity

Highlighting the exploitation of women farmers in India and the impact of the psychological burden of their disguised labour and lack of recognition.

Besides the lush green fields and huge patches of land, separated from the vast blue sky by a streak of sap green forests which beautifully serve the purpose of the horizon, a regular scenario that often captures my attention are groups of rural women working on the field, almost outnumbering their male counterparts. What surprises me the most is that despite their more than equal participation, their work goes unnoticed and unrecognised. I have often questioned myself as to why every time I look for an article on Indian farmers, pictures of male farmers flood the screen. I am forced to opt for the second round of search on “women” farmers, who are mandatorily categorised just like the “women” cricketers, “women” soldiers, “women” pilots and the list goes on.

The invisibility of women farmers

“Despite India’s long history of farming and cultivation as a male-dominated profession, the National Council of Applied Economic Research (2018) reports that 42% of the farm work in India is done by women; however, they account for less than 2% of the land ownership.”

Despite India’s long history of farming and cultivation as a male-dominated profession, the National Council of Applied Economic Research (2018) reports that 42% of the farm work in India is done by women; however, they account for less than 2% of the land ownership. Why such economic disparity? The answer lies in the simple fact that instead of working as independent farmers, their formal identity remains restricted to widows and wives of their farmer husbands. To add on to their misery is their social identity of being women from the oppressed communities; reportedly more than 81% of the female agricultural labourers belong to the Dalit, Adivasi and the OBC (Other Backward Classes) communities. Like Aiyappan (2012) says that women from marginalised groups are often subjected to double exploitation, sometimes even outweighing their gender status, it is very clear as to why #rural women are deprived of what they rightly deserve. 

Indian Woman Farmer in Parasia, Madhya Pradesh – Photo by Navika Mehta

The plight of women farmers 

“The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) reports that as many as 3,53,803 farmers died by suicide between 1995 and 2018, out of which 50,188 were women.”

In India, which  can be referred to as the land of farmer suicides, the failure to implement labour laws and the repeated amendments to the existing agricultural and labour laws have stormed hell upon the farmers, especially women farmers. The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) reports that as many as 3,53,803 farmers died by suicide between 1995 and 2018, out of which 50,188 were women. 

“The pandemic-induced lockdown has resulted in deaths by suicide among farmers as they were unable to bear the burden of absolute money crunch, unavailability of farm labourers, no possible savings and huge debts.”

Unable to repay their huge debts, aided by the state’s inaction, the farmers ended their lives either by consuming pesticides or by setting themselves ablaze or hanging themselves. According to the NCRB, more than 10,281 farmers killed themselves in 2019. Young children of debt-ridden farmers had killed themselves fearing that if they didn’t do so, their parents would end their lives. People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI) documents that “altruistic suicide” has been on the rise among the farmer households in the poorest villages of India. The pandemic-induced lockdown has resulted in deaths by suicide among farmers as they were unable to bear the burden of absolute money crunch, unavailability of farm labourers, no possible savings and huge debts. Even while the reported cases of farmers’ suicides have been increasing exponentially in India, the data on the deaths of women farmers who killed themselves have been surprisingly reduced to zero.

Why are women in agriculture more vulnerable to exploitation? 

“Despite their vast presence, women farmers are hardly considered or referred to as farmers. In the interiors of rural India, a woman who spends more than 13 hours of her day on the field, when asked about her profession, vaguely replies that she ‘sits at home all day’.”

Despite their vast presence, women farmers are hardly considered or referred to as farmers. In the interiors of rural India, a woman who spends more than 13 hours of her day on the field, when asked about her profession, vaguely replies that she “sits at home all day”. Hence, her inability to claim her rights and protest against the unjust system stems from her internalisation of the oppression that she is subjected to. This has been largely possible due to the increasing and unprecedented rates of illiteracy among rural women due to lack of opportunities, lack of awareness, traditional gender roles, male-dominated administrative sectors and mostly, presence of a clear patriarchal setting in the peripheral backdrops of the sub-continent. 

They are also expected to shoulder the burden of both housework as well as fieldwork and this unequal division of labour further takes a toll on their mental health. Despite doing more than 60% of the work, they are made dependent on their husband’s income. Women also engage in more strenuous fieldwork, from sowing the seeds to harvesting them. This is due to their lack of educational exposure  in mechanical aids which poses a great limitation to their ability. 

Women farmers at work in Parasia, Madhya Pradesh – Photo by Navika Mehta

“Since banking rules do not permit already debt-ridden farmers to opt for further loans, the women members of the families are pushed to take exploitative, informal loans and the process continues as long as they are immersed in the vicious pool of debts and cannot get out of them. Reportedly, ‘every woman farmer in India has loans against her name (which she is unable to repay)’.”

When women farmers take up the mantle of a breadwinner, it becomes extremely difficult for them to continue with their work in the absence of government schemes and financial support due to gendered income disparity. As a result of this, they borrow from the local moneylenders and agencies much more than what their male counterparts do. Most of the time, their families force them to do so. Since banking rules do not permit already debt-ridden farmers to opt for further loans, the women members of the families are pushed to take exploitative, informal loans and the process continues as long as they are immersed in the vicious pool of debts and cannot get out of them. Reportedly, “every woman farmer in India has loans against her name (which she is unable to repay).” 

Aljazeera (2018) reports two such cases – Rekha Kadu and Shilpa Mamankar, two debt-ridden women farmers who had killed themselves. The latter was only 19 years old when she ended her life, unable to repay a sum of $ 5,500 that she had initially borrowed. She suffered from serious mental health issues and was on regular medication but even that didn’t help lighten her burden. Her family now struggles with the load of the unending debts that fell on them after Shilpa’s death .

Effect of the Farmers Bill (2020) on women farmers

In 2011, a former Rajya Sabha MP, MS Swaminathan proposed the “Women Farmers Entitlement Bill”  that would seek to provide recognisable status to women farmers along with their rights over land, water resources and credit funds as well as provide them with financial support. Unfortunately, it lapsed in 2013. 

“In India, where 81% of women farmers own less than 13% of the land, only 8% of them have control over their income and 4% of them have access to institutional credit, the new ‘contract farming’ rules will make it difficult for them to bargain for the best prices at the local mandis.”

However, the recent Farmers Bill (2020) not only ignores the contribution and participation of women in agriculture but also makes it much more difficult for them to thrive in the market economy. The bill ensures loosening of the rules related to storage, pricing and sale and states that private buyers can hoard essential commodities for future sale. These very rules have protected the farmers from the free market trade. The bill also allows the farmers to sell their produce to the private buyers, along with the government-owned mandis (without any exclusive mention). In India, where 81% of women farmers own less than 13% of the land, only 8% of them have control over their income and 4% of them have access to institutional credit, the new “contract farming” rules will make it difficult for them to bargain for the best prices at the local mandis

“The bill also outrightly ignores the gender-based digital divide; the proposition of technology-oriented work will lead these women to depend on their male counterparts while making financial decisions.”

The elimination of middlemen who act as informal bankers by lending loans without collateral will make it impossible for women farmers to avail financial support since they are not accustomed to the process. The restricted mobility of women farmers will not allow them to sell their produce outside of the local mandis. The bill also outrightly ignores the gender-based digital divide; the proposition of technology-oriented work will lead these women to depend on their male counterparts while making financial decisions. Moreover, the introduction of e-mandis whereby farmers can select mandis of their choice and sell their produce online through eNAM, will completely leave out the women farmers from the business transactions due to a lack of digital literacy and low access to smartphones. 

Women in farmer suicide survivor families

“The BBC (2014) reported that in Maharashtra, which is infamous for its history of farmer suicides, there are more than 53,000 widows of farmers who had killed themselves.”

The wives and daughters of male farmers who did not own land and cultivated on leased ones are not eligible for getting ex-gratia compensation. The loans that their husbands and fathers were unable to repay gradually fell back on their shoulders which they remain unable to repay , due to no prior schemes and financial aids. The BBC (2014) reported that in Maharashtra, which is infamous for its history of farmer suicides, there are more than 53,000 widows of farmers who had killed themselves. Besides the financial burden, they are also subjected to marginalisation within their own families. Neither are they allowed to remarry as it goes against their local customs. No psychological help or counselling is provided to them, which only makes the situation worse. Mahila Kisan Adhikar Manch (MAKAAM) found out that 40% of the widows in 11 districts of Maharashtra haven’t received any compensation yet. The widows are also at risk of being trafficked or forced into prostitution.

What can be done to ease their problems?

Women Farmers outside their home in Parasia, Madhya Pradesh – Photo by Navika Mehta

First and most importantly, the state must recognise the women farmers as farmers, irrespective of their marital status. The draconian Farmers Bill (2020) should and must be repealed, especially because of the massive outrage from farmers and the following violent outbreaks. Instead, bills like Women Farmers Entitlements Bill, as mentioned earlier, must be reintroduced. Psychological help must be provided to the farmers in rural areas, irrespective of their gender. Every village must have a counselling center.

“Positive discrimination in favour of women farmers in the form of special schemes, financial aids and free skill-development training courses must be introduced. Every woman farmer must register themselves as farmers, and have their own registration certificates. They should have their land and ownership rights.”

Positive discrimination in favour of women farmers in the form of special schemes, financial aids and free skill-development training courses must be introduced. Every woman farmer must register themselves as farmers, and have their own registration certificates. They should have their land and ownership rights. Rules must be mandated which propose the gradual transfer of the deceased farmer’s land to his wife and every family must be liable to compensation whether or not the deceased farmer owned any land. Social security schemes like old-age pensions must be introduced to help the farmers survive when their health doesn’t permit them to work any further. The government’s investment in agricultural sectors must increase in order to tackle these problems. 

It is high time that we spoke about the distress of women farmers, their oppressive status and their invisibility. Remarkably, one should be glad that more and more women farmers are claiming their rights as they lead the protests against the Farmers Bill. It is only a matter of time as to how far our policymakers can go and how long they keep leeching on the unpaid labour of oppressed women. 

Sukanya is pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in Sociology from Jadavpur University, Kolkata. She is a feminist, anti-fascist and anti-capitalist and hopes to document the lives of remarkable women so that their stories don’t vanish into anonymity.

Design by Hemashri Dhavala

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