When most people think about farmers, a male figure comes to mind. The livelihood is associated with physical effort – which, for some reason, thought to be the preserve of men. If women enter the picture, they are at best thought of as “agricultural cultivators’ or “agricultural labourers”.
But increasingly, women in many parts of rural India are the ones working on the farms. As falling productivity and the fragmentation of land over generations makes farming increasingly unviable, men are migrating to cities in search of work. Their wives and sisters keep their farms going.
However, though women often work harder than their male counterparts, they are rarely involved in making decisions. According to the agricultural census, while 73.2% of rural women are engaged in farming activities, only 12.8% of them own the land that they work on.
Most of the women farmers I met said that they work on the land owned by their husbands, fathers or brothers – most of whom are absent. Not owning the land prevents women from accessing institutional credit and subsidies.
These photos of women in the rural part of Raiganj town in West Bengal’s Uttar Dinajpur district makes the adverse conditions under which India’s women farmers operate startlingly visible.
I am in the area, 400 km north of Kolkata, to study voting behaviour. Of the area’s population of 340,000, about 60% live in villages and work in agriculture. The farmers here mostly belong to the Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe and Other Backward Classes communities, mainly the Rajbanshee, Namashudras, Kapalis and Adivasi groups.
In Raiganj, women farmers start their day as early as 5 am. Farming activities cover a wide range of physically demanding tasks. This includes preparing the land, selecting seeds, transplanting the seedlings, applying manure and pesticide and then harvesting, winnowing and threshing.
There are also allied activities to attend to: cattle rearing and visiting the markets to sell their produce, for instance.
In addition to their work in the fields, they have to take care of the children, do the housework and cook.
Even where women work as paid labourers, the wage gap is flaring. While men are paid Rs 250 a day for contractual farming work, women receive only Rs 150.
The gradual feminisation of agriculture has made it vital for women farmers to be recognised as land owners and for them to have access to the same credit institutions and other facilities that are available to their male counterparts.
“My husband died last year and I have to take care of my child and work on the field,” said one woman I spoke to, who asked me not to use her name. “I am not getting the subsidised fertilizers or pesticides because the land is still in the name of my late husband and it is next to impossible to transfer the land rights. Access to better facilities will definitely help my productivity and make life easier for me.”
Land ownership would also provide the female farmers a sense of security that would offer them better protection against domestic violence.
Said another woman, who also asked to remain unidentified: “Who will listen to us? None of the political leaders come to this part of town because here there are more fields and less people. We are unable to raise our concerns with the authority.”
As farmers from across North India stage a massive protest at Delhi’s protest demanding that three new agriculture laws be repealed, policy makers should also take note of the changing gender dynamics of Indian farming and plan accordingly.
Tathagata Bhowmik is a political consultant, writer and a singer-songwriter based in Kolkata.