Eminent agriculture scientist M.S. Swaminathan once said, “Some historians believe that it was women who first domesticated crop plants and thereby initiated the art and science of farming. While men went out hunting in search of food, women started gathering seeds from the native flora and began cultivating those of interest from the point of view of food, feed, fodder, fibre and fuel.”
A common misconception
In India, whenever we talk about agriculture, we think of men as farmers. However, this is far from the truth. According to the agricultural census, 73.2% of rural women are engaged in farming activities but only 12.8% own landholdings. Due to cultural, social and religious forces, women have been denied ownership of land. This stems from the perception that farming is a man’s profession. The India Human Development Survey reports that 83% of agricultural land in the country is inherited by male members of the family and less than 2% by their female counterparts. Thus, women are mostly left without any title of land in their names and are excluded from the definition of farmers. Besides, 81% of women agricultural labourers belong to Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, and Other Backward Classes, so they also contribute to the largest share of casual and landless labourers.
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The government too turns a blind eye to their problem of non-recognition and conveniently labels them as ‘cultivators’ or ‘agricultural labourers’ but not ‘farmers’. Without any recognition, women are systematically excluded from all the benefits of government schemes. Moreover, they are not guaranteed the rights which they would otherwise be given if they were recognised as farmers, such as loans for cultivation, loan waivers, crop insurance, subsidies or even compensation to their families in cases where they commit suicide.
Non-recognition as farmers is only one of their problems. As the Mahila Kisan Adhikaar Manch (MAKAAM) notes, they have unequal access to rights over land, water and forests. There is gendered access to support systems such as storage facilities, transportation costs, and cash for new investments or for paying off old dues or for other services related to agricultural credit. There is also gendered access to inputs and markets. Thus, despite their large contribution to the sector, women farmers have been reduced to a marginal section, vulnerable to exploitation.
The farm laws
Now they have a new worry: the farm laws . Since the government’s policies never aimed to reduce disparity or alleviate their distress, women farmers fear that the farm laws will further deepen gender inequality in the sector. MAKAAM, in its statement, has highlighted several issues with the laws. The first is the lack of any mention of MSP (minimum support price) that protects farmers from exploitation. It also highlights how women are barely in a position as empowered agents who can either understand or negotiate (written) agreements with traders and corporate entities who are seeking to enter into agreements with the farmers to purchase their produce or for other services. It is clear that farmers will have no bargaining power in the corporatisatisation of agriculture, where corporates will decide the price with no safety net or adequate redressal mechanism for the farmers. Consequently, the small marginal and medium farmers will be forced to do sell their land to big agro-businesses and become wage labourers.
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But while this struggle rages on, we must not forget the troubles of our women farmers. Perhaps that is why they are at the front line of this protest — to remind us that they are too are farmers and have an equal stake in this fight.
T. Sumathy aka Thamizhachi Thangapandian is an academic, Tamil poet, an MP (South Chennai constituency), and member of the Standing Committee (Information and Technology)