By Khabar Lahariya and Abheet S. Sethi:
Chitrakoot (UP)/ Kota (Rajasthan)/ Mumbai: Slight and dark, Shyampati, 30, leaned against a house made fragile by the unseasonal rain, and talked animatedly about life as a farmer, labourer, goat-herder, mother of four, main wage-earner, and full-time housewife.
Here, in her rain-washed, poor village in western Uttar Pradesh’s Chitrakoot district – and across the northern plains and southern plateau – Shyampati (she uses only one name) represents a hidden Indian demographic: the Indian woman farmer, almost never publicly acknowledged, reviled by superstition and patriarchy, and increasingly troubled.
Reflecting the growing distress in Indian agriculture for over a decade, millions of women have gone from being land owners and cultivators to becoming labourers, according to the census data that was analysed by IndiaSpend.
There has been a 24% increase in the number of female agricultural labourers, that is, from 49.5 million in 2001 to 61.6 million in 2011.
“We don’t own land, but I work on contract on anything from a small, half-bigha (0.2 acres) piece of land, to something as big as 4 bighas (1.6 acres) of land,” said Shyampati. “Most of the agricultural seasons I get work as a farm labour, and from this I earn enough anaaj and tel (wheat and mustard oil) for a year’s consumption.”
Shyampati has a daughter – who walks 5 km to the nearest middle school – three sons and an unemployed husband – who finds sporadic construction work in the district headquarters of Karwi.
“Even when he has no work, like right now, he’s neither too concerned about what I’m doing, nor does he volunteer to do farm labour, which is available more readily,” said Shyampati, without rancour.
When she gets home from work, Shyampati grazes the family’s buffalo and four goats for an hour, cuts fodder, and brings it home. Before and after these tasks, she cooks for the family. Her daughter helps with the cleaning of utensils and clothes. Shyampati’s profession varies, depending on the work she gets, and life for India’s rural multitaskers only gets more difficult.
The farmers India never hears about.
In visuals of Indian villages, in stories about rural India, in news clips about farmer suicides or about farmers coming together to demand their rights, women seldom feature.
But women, as Khabar Lahariya reporters frequently find, plough fields, sow seeds, and harvest crops – and run their households with little or no help from men; although according to a report by the National Commission of Women, women own only small quantities of farm land. Yet, in discussions of agriculture and farming, women rarely count.
There’s an age old, and obviously male belief in north India that if women plough the field, there will be a drought in the village. Another belief held in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar is that if a drought does occur, then women should help plough the fields – at night and in the nude.
Female farmers are particularly vulnerable, then, to agricultural decline. There has been an increase of 38% and 13% from 2001, respectively, in women as main and marginal agricultural labourers from being cultivators.
Agricultural labourers do not own farm land themselves but earn wages by working on another person’s land. Marginal agricultural labourers – Shyampati is officially one – work on farms for less than six months a year, and for them farming is a secondary source of income. Main agricultural labourers work on farm land for more than six months a year, and for them farming is a profession and the main source of income.
The growing uncertainty in the agricultural sector has made it difficult for them to hold onto their land, which could explain the shift from farmers to labourers. The total number of people involved in agriculture has increased 12%, that is, from 234.1 million in 2001 to 263.1 million in 2011, according to the 2011 Census data, while agriculture’s share in India’s gross domestic product has declined from 22% to 14% during the same period.
The number of women with agricultural jobs has come down from 39% to 37%. This can also be attributed to the fact that the overall population of women increased 18%, that is, from 496.5 million in 2001 to 587.4 million in 2011, according to the census data.
The census has divided the agricultural work force on the basis of cultivators and labourers. Cultivators, or farmers, either own or have taken agricultural land on lease/rent/contract, and are involved in supervising and directing the cultivation process. (This does not include those who lease out their land.)
Against the odds, the women persevere.
The total number of female farmers has declined by 14%, that is, from 41.9 million in 2001 to 36 million in 2011. This includes a 10% decline in the number of main cultivators. There has also been a 20% decline in the number of the marginal female cultivators.
Although, as we mentioned, few women have land that is in their names. Millions work on the land that belongs to their husbands or to other land owners who contract their services as labourers in the fields.
A few fought their way to success.
In Rajasthan’s Kota district, Rippi and Karamvir (both use one name) are well-known faces in their village, often riding high on tractors across their 80 bighas (32 acres) of land. When the crop is ready, the two sisters harvest and carry it to the mandi (market).
“We started working on the fields when our father passed away. We had all this land but no one to work on it,” says 30-year-old Rippi.
Karamvir, 24, said that the villagers did not take their first trip on a tractor, kindly.
“All hell broke loose,” she said. “We refused to give in, and gradually people also came around to the idea of two young women working on the fields.”
At the mandis, they often faced obstacles; drunken men are still a common problem. “Eventually we had to take help from the district administration and the local police,” said Rippi. “We haven’t looked back since.”
This article was originally published by IndiaSpend.
This story has been produced in partnership with Khabar Lahariya, a rural, weekly newspaper run by a collective of female journalists from five districts in Uttar Pradesh and one in Bihar. Each district has its own edition, brought out in the local language of the district. Abheet Singh Sethi is a policy analyst with IndiaSpend