Gujarat Dalit women’s cooperative is fighting for entitlement to land it has reclaimed

It’s early morning, but the summer sun is already beating down on the row of women busy with their hoes.

In Gujarat, known for the cooperative dairy movement, a group of Dalit women farmers from Vautha village in Dholka block of Ahmedabad district are pioneering the demand for land entitlement, for a one of its kind “land cooperative” in the State.

Five years ago these Dalit women, like their countless landless counterparts in the country, worked as farm labourers for the upper caste Darbar community. They took home a paltry daily wage of Rs. 50. One day Baluben Makwana (60) realised that a plot of government wasteland was lying unused in the village. She identified a plot of 182 acres and gathered other Dalit women to form the ‘Jai Bhim Mahila Sahakari Kheti Mandli’. The cooperative members then worked to clear the land and make it cultivable.

Soon they were growing castor bean, mustard, wheat and cotton, and sharing the proceeds from their produce among themselves. They did not own the land, but they owned the produce.

“We cleared the Babul trees and got JCBs [excavators] to level the land. We have been tilling it for five years. This is our only means of livelihood. Women from other communities own land, only Dalit women don’t,” Ms. Makwana points out.

The daily wages they take home today are still a meagre Rs. 100. “Workers under MGNREGA [Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act] make almost the same, but there is a feeling of working on our land,” says Lalitaben Solanki, a cooperative farmer.

With improved water availability, the women hope to increase their yield. The input costs are around Rs. 2.5 lakh. Their earnings from selling farm produce can touch Rs. five lakh, which is distributed among the cooperative’s 51 members.

However, for all its success, the cooperative is unable to get any government farm subsidy or crop loan as it does not own the land. “We have given a proposal at the block office demanding land entitlement. We have only got assurances so far,” Ms. Makwana says.

The district Collectorate rejected their proposal in January. “The land cannot be given to them as their demand was for a year. They are farming illegally. If they want land entitlement, the Revenue department can do something. The Collector has no power in this matter,” R.R. Thakkar, Additional Resident Deputy Collector told The Hindu.

The NGO Navsarjan Trust, which has taken up the cause of the women’s cooperative, has criticised the government’s inaction. “When others were farming, no one said it was illegal. These Dalit women have made this land cultivable. They dared the powerful upper caste people as well as some opposition from their own community. If they get this land, it will be a historic step in the cooperative movement of the State,” says Manjula Pradeep, the organisation’s executive director.