Written by Lakshmee Sharma.
In the Indian Himalayas, a pair of bulls works 1,064 hours, a man 1,212 hours, and a woman 3,485 hours in a year on a one-hectare farm, a figure which illustrates women’s significant contribution to agricultural production.
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Sustainable Development Department
A ubiquitous sight in the mountains of Kumaon (in Uttarakhand) are women, usually in groups of three, walking home from the field, carrying huge bales of hay on their heads. This scene caught my interest one day, not because it was unusual, but because it has always only been women.
My earliest insight into women in Indian agriculture occurred in 2013, when I watched Nero’s Guests, a documentary chronicling journalist P. Sainath as he navigated the farmer suicides in Vidarbha, Maharashtra. The stories shared through the film were compelling and informative about the state of agriculture in India, especially after the spread of globalization (from the early 1990s). However, what piqued my interest was the segment on women farmers in the country. Women in India’s agriculture landscape are often not recognized as farmers because a farmer’s identity is primarily tied to land ownership.
The drudge work that goes into farming, even on the smallest piece of land, is usually done by women. They till the land, they sow the seeds, they de-hull the grains, they take care of livestock and above it all, they also act as primary caregivers to their children and perform household duties. The dual role that women play in the field (Khet) and home (Ghar) is disproportional to the recognition and autonomy they enjoy. The men, on the other hand, almost always control the production, sale, pricing, and income of the produce- even with smallholdings.
Since September 2016, I have been living and working in Uttarakhand’s Kumaon region with Gene Campaign as part of the AIF Clinton Fellowship. The larger focus of my work is sustainable agriculture and ensuring livelihoods for women farmers in the region. The Kumaon region is well-known for its orchards, primarily producing Malta, apples, peaches, and plums. The region, however, is also home to a wide variety of indigenous grains like finger millet, amaranth, barnyard millet, and buckwheat.
Here, I witnessed a gendering of grain and fruit produce. Men mainly cultivate fruit which constitutes the primary cash produce of the region. The majority of the farm labour and tilling in the orchards is still done by women while the economic yield is controlled by men. Women, on the other hand, seem to be relegated to growing other crops which do not have the market value that fruits do. One such crop is millet.
The gendering of food crops and produce is a curious one, one that is directly linked to economy and marketability. Through my work so far, I have come to find that the menfolk in the region rarely bother themselves with cultivating millet because it isn’t cash crop. Millet has largely been used for subsistence- household consumption and child-rearing. Millet is an excellent source of nutrients like calcium and anti-oxidants, and is the perfect food for weaning babies at an early age.
Conversations with my colleagues resulted in the hackneyed reasoning that it is almost ‘natural’ (a word I am wary of) for the woman to be the custodian of millet. What is also apparent is that there is a significant amount of surplus millet produced with each yield. Now, millet is a climate resilient crop, which means even in periods of significantly minimal rainfall, one can enjoy a reasonable amount of millet yield. Millet seemed to be the obvious solution for combating many issues in Kumaon such as childhood malnutrition, income generation for women, and a way to ensure basic food security during unpredictable climate changes.
Organize and Monetize
I spent a weekend working with a group of women farmers making orange marmalade for sale in local shops. As we worked, I chatted with them about their experiences so far. One thing they all seemed to unanimously swear by was organizing themselves into ‘Samithis’ (associations). They were all part of various formal and informal groups: farmer producer organizations, microfinance, informal credit groups, etc. Most of them were government registered cooperatives, but some of them were created with interventions from NGOs (Non-Government Organizations), and these were the groups that the women were most active in. Millet, they said, is widely harvested in the region apart from fruits. I asked them if they ever sold millet flour to markets outside the Kumaon region. They said that since it wasn’t a cash crop, they only sold the surplus in local village mandis. One of the women said to me, “there are enough of us in this group and there’s strength in number, what we need is money and the information to sell our produce in the right market”.
As development practitioners, we invest in training, organizing, and acquiring the resources for the Mahila Kisan Samithis (Women Farmers’ Association in Kumaon) to set up a millet value chain which would enable them to have control over production, and autonomy of pricing and sale. The larger goal is to create a source of income with the resources available to them in their social context.
This work complies with several UN Sustainable Development Goal: Gender Equality, Decent Work and Economic Growth, Responsible Consumption and Production, and Reduced Inequalities. Several organisations have started working on sustainable agriculture in India, often working with public-private partnership models. The impact is palpable, and the promise of empowerment is a realistic one.
One of the women described the simple reality of being a woman farmer in India:
The men do much of the work too, of course… We do the tilling and harvesting, they help with their tractors and some of the more physically challenging work, I would say that the work is shared equally in most cases… But it is only the men that take the produce to the market. They decide the sale price and this is the way it has always been. Of course, they share the income with us, but maybe it is time for women to go to the market too? Who knows, if one of us goes maybe it will start something. We should have the option, at least.
As a woman navigating my own professional and personal journey in the current divisive rhetoric spewed globally, never has “having the option” been more vital. With this aspiration, at least, the world resonates with the women farmers of Kumaon.
Lakshmee Sharma is a Fellow at the America India Foundation and is a graduate of Social Anthropology with a focus in transnationalism, diaspora, and migration from the University of Oxford. She tweets at @lakshmee, Image Credit: CC by Millet Farmers/Flickr