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How can feminisation of agriculture lead to the empowerment of women in rural India?

How to think about the empowerment of women in rural India? What are the far-reaching solutions to the problems they currently face? This article aims at answering questions centred around the fundamental phenomenon that rural India has been witnessing for the past few years - The feminisation of agriculture.

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The data provided by the annual reports of the Periodic Labour Force Survey in 2018, 2019 and 2020 shows that India is witnessing rapid feminisation of agriculture. Ensuring equal rights and access to land for both men and women multiplies economic opportunities, facilitates investment in land and crop production, increases food security within households and strengthens women’s decision-making agency. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, if women’s access to productive agricultural resources is made equal to that of men, the country’s agricultural yields would grow by 20-30%. Thus, empowerment of women in this sector is not just socially desirable, but also economically prudent.

Apart from farming, women also have domestic and reproductive workload. Moreover, the fact that they have to take up agricultural work because their husbands migrate to urban areas in search of more profitable employment adds to the concern over the amount of work rural women end up doing. This discussion leads us to a puzzle for India: Can ‘feminisation of agriculture’ foster the empowerment of women, or does it only lead to the ‘feminisation of poverty’ and the ‘feminisation of agricultural distress’? This article identifies various problems faced by female farmers in India, and successful developmental models for the empowerment of women and the development of the agricultural sector as a whole.

Let us start with some definitions. ‘Feminisation of agriculture’ can be defined in two ways: either as “increase in the proportion of farm-work undertaken by women” or in the more expansive sense, “the extent to which women define, control and enact the social processes of agriculture”. It is also important to note the two positions women work in within the sector- as ‘cultivators’ and as ‘agricultural labourers’. According to the Indian District Database, a cultivator is “engaged either as employer, single worker or family worker in cultivation of land owned or held from government or held from private persons or institutions for payment in money, kind or share of crop.” On the other hand, an agricultural labourer is “a person who works in another person's land for wages in cash, kind or share.” Assuming empowerment would come from increased decision making agency, it is obvious that women would have to be in more roles as cultivators compared to being agricultural labourers.

Land rights play a huge role in the possibility of women being employed as cultivators. Even after the passing of the Hindu Succession Act, 1956, and the enactment of the Hindu Succession Amendment Act, 2005, only 8.4% of all women own land in the country. Social, religious and cultural forces deny them ownership, so they cannot become cultivators even when they can afford to.

For feminisation of agriculture to lead to women empowerment, the first step is to identify the problems women face in the sector. There are two problems in particular, land and credit, which form a vicious circle. To grant loans, banks require collateral (preferably land), which the women do not have. Women require loans in order to buy land. This implies that they can’t have land because they don’t have credit, and they can’t have credit because they don’t have land! In order to solve this problem, the two resources will have to be provided first.

Fortunately, an organisation named Kudumbashree in Kerala has come with a response. It is built on multi-tier collectives within the framework of Community Based Organisations (CBOs) and focuses on eradication of poverty and the empowerment of women. Its development model has been successful in raising their position from agricultural labourers to cultivators. Women control the resources and have access to formal credit. Their ‘collective farming’ model has high efficiency and replicability- Joint Liability Groups of women farmers are formed, and the collective effort of the group leads to increase in bargaining power, decision-making agency and credit-worthiness. Even if women own land in the country, they are extremely small landholdings of low profitability. As a solution, one of the best results of a collective farming model is that women gain the benefits of economies of scale by taking larger plots on lease.

Agriculture has long been criticised as unsuitable for women empowerment for its: 1. low profitability and 2: high suicide rates. There are obviously no golden solutions to these problems. However, it is critical to empower women in this sector for its high employability, so certain methods need to be applied to minimise the impact of such systemic difficulties.

As for decreasing suicide rates, Govind Kelkar, Director of GenDev Centre for Research and Innovation, provides two suggestions. Firstly, multiple-cropping methods should be practised by farmers so that “downturn in output and price of one crop can be made up by upturns in income from another crop”. Secondly, formalisation of credit would be financially crucial for affordable interest rates, whether under a Self-Help Group (SHG) or a government bank. Proper execution of these two suggestions would lead to a decline in the distress of farmers and hopefully prevent suicides. We have already seen formal credit working out well in the cases of female-led associations such as Kudumbashree.

For low income and profitability, it is important to identify certain fixable flaws in the allocation of resources. Christopher Udry, an economist who currently serves as King Professor of Economics at Northwestern University, shows how in practice, more fertilisers are used in men’s plots than in women’s plots. He says, “because the effectiveness of using fertiliser declines steeply with how much is used, it would make much more sense to use a little on both men’s and women’s plots. This, however, is not what households seem to be doing in most cases”.

Along with the effective execution of all these measures and the replication of successful models, there would also have to be more support by the government in the area of gender equality. In 2020-21, only 5 per cent of the total budget was sensitive to gender neutral outcomes and focused specifically on women-centric schemes. This figure has scope to be increased. Policy makers will also have to design policies centred around the reduction of domestic and reproductive workload that women have, for their true empowerment in the agriculture sector.

The Indian agriculture industry, along with feminisation, can also drive the empowerment of women, given that the developmental models of successful SHGs are replicated on a larger national scale. It is crucial to empower women in this industry because a majority of the female rural workforce finds employment in agriculture and even women who migrate to work in the informal urban sector see farming as a ‘safety net’ in times of economic crisis. Practising agriculture in ‘collectives’ is the key to development because a group has more financial strength, bargaining power and labour capacity than a single female farmer. Under the framework of CBOs, women get all the benefits of economies of scale which reduce the cost of resources and thus, increase profitability. Giving ‘cultivator’ status is also major for their empowerment, so improved land rights laws should be strictly enforced. It is, afterall, both socially and economically beneficial to bring women of all social and financial backgrounds on equal footing with men, and to provide them with equal opportunities.




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