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Can’t Reap What They Sow: The Gender And Caste Inequalities In India’s Agriculture

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Have you ever experienced a situation in your workplace where you did all the work on a crucial project, but your boss took away all the credit? Well, this article talks about a similar principle that is applied to agriculture in India.

Today, even though 73.2% of women are involved in agriculture, only 12% own the land they work on. Similarly, while people from lower castes form a considerable rural farming labour force, they hardly have any rights over the plots they till. This article talks about the deep-seated inequalities that are present in our farmlands, despite the numerous efforts by governments, such as the Land Ceiling Act, the Zamindari Abolition Act, and the Green Revolution.

Have you ever wondered who was responsible for starting the chain by which your food arrived at the table?

Visibilising The Invisible: Women In Agriculture

As per Manusmriti, women are the field in which men sow their seed. This agricultural metaphor is the origin of how women have been denigrated since those days as the second sex. The laws of Manusmriti prohibit women from both acquiring and hoarding property — so much so that she is always expected to be someone else’s property. Her father protects her in childhood, her husband protects her in youth, and her sons protect her when she is old. Unfit for independence, women are thus prohibited from owning land.

A woman carries a bundle of cut sugarcane on her head as farmers harvest a field outside Gove village in Satara district. REUTERS/Vivek Prakash

All over the world, the face of agriculture is females, but many of us are still unaware of that. Most social studies’ textbooks specifically depict a man in the field when talking about agriculture. Agriculture is always seen as a man’s job since it’s physically strenuous. Even the government recognises women as cultivators and not farmers because they don’t usually own the land they are working on. Therefore, there is often a lack of awareness about this invisible force in agriculture.

The lack of historical images of women in the farms has inspired Audra Mulkern, who is part of the Female Farming Project that documents female farmers of today. “There aren’t many pictures showing women working as farmers, and if you don’t see it being done, you don’t know it can be done,” she says.

Women also face other barriers when it comes to farming. Often, rules about purity restrict them from coming in contact with agricultural inputs on days when women are menstruating. For example, in the early Mughal period, women weren’t allowed to enter betel nut groves when they were menstruating. In North India, even today, women are not allowed to have contact with livestock, poultry or even farms during these five days.

Industrialisation gave way to advanced technological equipment. It became easier for women to take up jobs that earlier required a lot of physical strength. DownToEarth, on the other hand, reports how mechanisation has had devastating consequences on women’s livelihood. Their jobs in the field have now been replaced by machines, and they are instead employed for lesser-paying jobs such as threshing, sowing seeds and winnowing.

While it became easier for women to take up jobs that earlier required a lot of physical strength, mechanisation, on the other hand, has had devastating consequences on women’s livelihood.

However, post liberalisation, we have seen a feminisation in the agricultural labour force. This is because many men migrate in search of work, and women are left at home to tend to the family’s agricultural landholdings. However, women are still paid lesser than their male counterparts when employed on someone else’s fields.

Even in systems where women are supposed to be given ownership, like in matrilineal societies, only 55% of the land is actually inherited by women. Even though this number is large, it doesn’t signify much. Despite this, agricultural trade in these societies is dominated by men. Many women say that they would rather have their husbands talk to grain shops, deliver and sell in the markets than having to do it themselves. So even though the property is theoretically transferred from mother to daughter, its ownership, in practical terms, is transferred from the mother’s brother to the nephew.

The problem, thus, is that often policymakers assume that no reform is needed in matrilineal societies because they already have the right to property and are “empowered”. Therefore, we must not equate a ‘matrilineal’ society with a ‘matriarchal’ one. Even in societies where property, in theory, is transferred from mother to daughter, men usually are seen as more powerful.

When it comes to agrarian movements, women are hardly given any importance. For example, in West Bengal, when there was this surge of change in 1977 in the direction of land reform, it did not consider women. The popular notion amongst women is that if they push for inheriting land, they will be seen as “greedy” by their family members.

Probably the only time women were willingly made owners of their husband’s lands was during the land reform carried out by the Congress government in the 1950s. This was because men wanted to avoid the repercussions of the Land Ceiling Act, which imposed an upper limit on the area of land that can be owned by one family.

This abysmal status of women in agriculture is equalled only to that of people from marginalised castes. But even in these communities, men enjoy more power and privilege over their female counterparts. Women from lower castes are often sexually exploited by upper-caste landowners when they are unable to pay rent for the fields they are working on.

A fairly common incidence in rural India, rape of women from lower castes is used as an instrument to defame the whole Dalit “community honour”. Upper-caste landowners often ask these women to pay in terms of sexual services if they are unable to compensate for the land they till monetarily.

“Caste” Your Seeds: Caste And Ownership Of Land

The Manusmriti clearly states that a ‘Shudra’ cannot own land. Earlier, the government had introduced something called community land, which was owned by the Dalit and lower caste community, and they had to cultivate as a cohesive unit. The past kings would also give land to Dalits for cultivation. They were called Inami or vatans, which was a highly oppressive system and bound a person from the Dalit community to perpetual slavery.

According to the Agricultural Census of 2015-16, only 9% of the total land is owned by Dalits (or Scheduled Castes). Today, Bhrigu, the author of Manusmriti, would be smiling because the state, too, has followed his dictates to the hilt. The self-immolation of Bhanu Vankar because of the Gujarat government failing to recognise the land he had cultivated as his is a testimony to how the problem of Dalit land rights is ignored by the government.

The problem is not only about whether the people belonging to lower castes own land or not, but also about how much land they own. A survey showed that nearly 61% of the total land owned by Dalits is not more than two hectares.

In most regions of the country, the proprietary caste owns most of the resources and can command lower castes to work for them. Exploitative practices such as begar are still prevalent in northern India. This was a process where people from lower castes had to provide free wage labour for a fixed number of days per year. Many of them are also tied to their landowners in hereditary relationships, such as in the Halpati system in Gujarat.

In an agrarian structure, there is a complex relationship between caste and class. Usually, the landed classes are from the upper castes. Sociologist M N Srinivas coined the term ‘dominant castes’ — who are the most powerful classes both economically and politically. Some examples include the Jats of UP, Reddis in Andhra Pradesh and the Vokkaliggas of Karnataka.

These dominant castes try to keep the lower castes under their thumb. And it’s not just through overt systems such as Halpati and Begar, but also by blocking paths of social mobility.

These dominant castes try to keep the lower castes under their thumb. And it’s not just through overt systems such as Halpati and Begar, but also by blocking paths of social mobility. For example, a Reddiar will give the Paraiyar (a low caste in Tamil Nadu) more pieces of land for sharecropping, but won’t allow them a higher income — which they can utilise for educating themselves and moving upwards in the class hierarchy.

Having talked about the caste dynamics in the agrarian structure, let us now focus on what the government has done in this regard. Some of its policies and interventions have really not resulted in tangible reforms. Let us take the example of the abolition of the zamindari system in 1950, which was aimed at abolishing the superior rights of absentee landlords over agricultural land. But it only managed to remove the top layer of zamindars in a multi-layered agrarian structure.

The second intervention was the Land Ceiling Act, which I have talked about in the first section of my article. This Act had many loopholes, and owners of agricultural land easily escaped this by breaking up their estates and dividing them amongst their relatives.

The Green Revolution in the 1950s also had some unintended impacts on the agrarian structure. The introduction of machinery led to the displacement of many service caste groups who used to carry out these activities such as winnowing, tilling, etc. Another severe problem was that the Green Revolution further increased the gap between wealthy upper-caste and poor lower-caste farmers.

Cultivators who were able to afford better seed and efficient technology, benefited from these policies while others did not. Thus, some groups, including those of the dominant castes, were able to consolidate their position as the landed class and were also able to diversify into other occupations.

We know how difficult it is to stand up to our bosses without the help of anyone else. Similarly, women and people from lower castes can’t stand against their oppressors alone. We need political intervention and support from civil society. Today, state governments have played monumental roles in providing subsidies to Dalits for purchasing land. For example, the Maharashtra state government approved a 100% subsidy to laboures belonging to Scheduled Caste who fall below the Poverty Line under the Karmaveer Dadasaheb Gaikwad Sabalikaran va Swabhiman Yojna.

At the same time, the agri-processing industries need to get into the act. The PepsiCo Foundation has teamed up with the global humanitarian organisation CARE to help women grow sustainable crops by providing them with technical inputs. Closing the Crop Gap was another programme launched by PepsiCo.

The biggest weapon against inequalities is creating awareness — not only among women and people from lower castes about their rights, but also amongst you and me because we are clueless of the dark origins of the food that arrives on our tables.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
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