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How are the Farmer’s protest in India a feminist issue?

As India celebrated its 'National Women Farmers Day' on October 15th, let's learn about the abysmal state of women farmers in India, and the impact of recent agricultural reforms on 'FARMHERS' of India.


In a developing country like India, agriculture contributes 13.5% to the GDP of the economy. It provides 55% employment in the country out of which 80% of all economically active women in India are employed in the agriculture sector; they comprise 33% of the agriculture labour force and 48% of the self-employed farmers.

Photo by: Women Farmers of India

Let alone the above statistics, if you, yourself, just take a stroll in India’s heartlands, you will always see a group of women working on the fields – a visual, similar as above. Right?

Ironically, according to a fact-sheet brought out by OXFAM India, women work about 3,300 hours in a crop season compared with 1,860 hours by men, but the image of a farmer remains that of a ‘man’ (Kisan Bhai).

Photo by: India Today

And, on top of that, the major crisis is – whenever we began a conversation about issues related to farming, we often forget to address FARMHERS despite the face of farming being ‘female’, in much of the world, according to reports. Thus, missing out on who the policies will impact most, in conversation of farmer’s issues.

Women have been most often than not excluded from the farming narrative in a country like India where the word (Kisan) is perceived to be addressing a ‘male-farmer’. Even Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, when presented the Union Budget for the year 2018-2019, used the word ‘farmer’ 27 times during the speech and promised a bagful of schemes, which – he hoped – would help the ‘Kisan Bhai’. Not only him, a majority of our politicians’ speeches, and conversations around agriculture refer to the farmers as ‘bhai’, undermining a surprising, yet important fact: “the percentage of the male farmer is lesser than the female famer in India”.

A Flourish data visualization by News18

So, to not have a conversation on women but having a conversation on farmer’s reforms, in the recently passed controversial farm bills, is again missing out on who the policy is going to impact the most? How can you talk about agricultural reforms without talking about those who will be most affected by it?

The issue with the reform is that it’s unclear how the government’s policy will play out in reality but it is reasonable to expect that these farm reforms will affect men and women differently and are likely to have a bigger impact on female-headed households than on male-headed households.


Also, the government sees ownership of land as necessary for one to be considered a ‘farmer’, But that is not what India represents, a large percentage of our farmers are landless farmers they are tenets. So, the most important conversation on reform has to start with identity because if you’re not building that identity of who is a farmer and who we are talking about, all the other conversation that you’re going to have will apply on someone else who may or may not be our subject of interest.

Abysmally, according to 2018 fact-sheet of OXFAM India, out of 85% rural women engaging in agriculture, only about 13% own land. The situation is even worse in Bihar where only 7% of women have land rights, and even in the most literate state Kerala, the percentage of women owning agricultural land is a mere 14%.

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Due to the patriarchal land title system, more than 90% of agricultural land in the country continues to be transferred only through inheritance and other customary practices which further deny women their land share even when it is permitted under the law that women can own land and independently manage its affairs. “Land rights discrimination is a violation of human rights”.

But that is just the tip of the iceberg.

The hitherto invisible Inherent gender-bias in agriculture limits a woman’s access to credit, especially smallholder or landless female farmers who use land in either in their husband’s name or of someone else’s. Cultural norms and lack of collateral often prevent women from borrowing money from banks, and without adequate funds for capital investments, female farmers will be less likely than men to buy and use fertilizer, drought-resistant seeds, sustainable agricultural practices, and other advanced farming tools and techniques that increase crop yields.

In the past, several steps have been introduced in this regard, proper implementation of which has remained tardy.

In 2011, M S Swaminathan, leading agriculture scientist and Rajya Sabha (2007-13) member even proposed a ‘Women Farmers Entitlement Bill’ which sought to provide for the gender-specific needs of women farmers, protecting their entitlements, empowering them with rights over agricultural land and water resources, and also access to credit, among other things. He highlighted the fact that with the gradual decline in the size of farm holdings, employment availability in agriculture is for fewer days per year, which makes it essential for men to migrate to cities in search of better-paid work which had led to “an increasing feminization of agriculture because women are forced to fill this vacuum and they are experiencing several handicaps related to land titles, access to credit, inputs, insurance, technology and the market, but the ‘Women Farmers Entitlement Bill’, introduced as a Private Member’s bill, ‘lapsed’ on April 10, 2013, leaving the miseries of FARMHERS, the backbone of Indian agriculture, again unconcerned.


And now, taken together, these three agrarian reform bills, recently passed by Narendra Modi government, only talk about loosening up rules around sale, contract farming, and focus largely on ‘go-to-market’ where negotiations for produced crops will happen. But women farmers who constitute a major percentage of Indian farmers and about 60% of the farming sector’s workforce wholly and solely miss from that link.  It is the only link of agriculture in which large number of men are present. Otherwise, according to OXFAM data, about 60-80% food are produced by rural women but the lesser exposure of valuable agricultural market-chains leaves a scope of worsening FARMHERS plight. And in turn, would mean more exploitation and lesser productivity for them despite putting in as much effort as the ‘Kisan bhai’. And, to diversify and ensure – that more women are part of that, price transparency, hopefully in a way needs to trickle down to women.

Also, one of the biggest changes and the much-touted claim by Prime Minister Narendra Modi of doubling farmer’s income is that farmers will be allowed to sell their produce at market price directly to private players from anywhere in the country. Here, comes the pointless conversation, keeping the above account of already dilapidated condition of women farmers, in addition, entrenched gender roles which can prevent women from bringing their crops to market or even leaving their villages without their husband’s permission, how these reforms will playout for the major population of farmers, those faceless people, who form the backbone of the Indian agriculture?

For them, even having an identity seems to be a far-fetched thought. And, to the utmost surprise, women are even generally excluded from official data on farmer suicides because most do not have title to land. “A woman is not classed as a farmer. She is a farmer’s wife “. So, as long as, policymakers continue to address issues for the Kisan community as catering to male farmers only, there will exist a wide gap between the policies, plans, and related enabling programmes on the one hand and the situational reality of farmers and majorly FARMHERS on the other.



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