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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 10 New Delhi February 23, 2019

Agrarian Crisis and its Resolution

Sunday 24 February 2019

by S.P. Shukla, Jaya Mehta, Vineet Tiwari

This article was written quite some time ago before the ‘Delhi Chalo’ movement of farmers in December 2018. In the introduction of the article the authors explained:

“We wish to present this paper for the consideration of and interaction with peasants, activists, scholars and indeed the entire ‘Nation For Farmers’ which is being mobilised as part of the magnificent Delhi Chalo Movement of Farmers.

“We have been engaged, for more than a decade now, in the endeavour of understanding and analysing the deepening agrarian crisis and visualising a way out. We embarked on this difficult task at the instance of the Late Comrade A. B. Bardhan whose emphasis was as much on the scientific character of the exercise as on continuing and close interaction with the brave men and women who were the victims of the crisis and who, at the same time, beckoned to a transformatory way out.

“This paper is our humble homage to the memory of Comrade Bardhan.”

The neo-liberal policy frame inaugurated in the Indian economy in the year 1991 radically restructured the Nehruvian development paradigm both in economic as well as in political terms. In the 1950s, India had assumed the leadership of the postcolonial Third World. India stood for peace and justice and anti-imperialist struggle. Now India is qualified as a fast growing Asian economy, which should get entry into the rich men’s club. True—in 1991, India did not have a single dollar billionaire and now there are 121 of them.

Our political and economic leadership complacent with the fast growing wealth in metropolitan towns chooses to completely ignore the fact that 93 per cent of our work force is employed in the unorganised informal sector, largely characterised by abysmal living and working conditions. They choose to ignore the fact that more than 50 per cent of our work force depends on agriculture for its livelihood and the agrarian economy is engulfed in a deep and intractable crisis for more than two decades. They choose to ignore the fact that over three lakh farmers have committed suicides in India since 1995.

In section I, we explain the agrarian crisis as we understand it and suggest its possible resolution. In section II, we situate women workers in the crisis-ridden agrarian economy and discuss their pivotal role in resolving the crisis.

Section I

Crisis in Agrarian Economy and its Resolution

The Employment and Unemployment Survey of the NSSO enumerated the workforce in the Indian economy in the year 2009-10 as 460 million: 332 million men and 128 million women. Of these244 million workers (156 million men and 88 million women) were employed in agriculture and allied activities. To understand the basic premise of the agrarian crisis, it is necessary to get an overview of the manner in which these 244 million men and women are integrated in the farm production activities.

Land is the main resource base for farm production. The first point to be noted is that the total land available for household operational holdings in the country is limited and over the past two decades, it has declined at an alarmingly rapid pace. According to the NSSO surveys, the total area under household operational holdings was 125 million hectares in 1991-92. It declined to 107 million hectares in 2002-03 and further to 94 million hectares in 2012-13. There were 108 million operational holdings in the year 2012-13 and the average area per holding was only 0.87 hectare. Naturally, 244 million men and women and their families cannot hope to get dignified livelihood space in these circumstances.

The second point to be noted is that the distribution of farm land has always been skewed and the liberalisation era has further worsened the scenario. The NSSO survey on ‘Household ownership and operational holdings’ tells us that in rural India around five to six per cent households do not have any land whatsoever, that is, not even house land. Then, 35 per cent households have only homestead land but no farm land. Next 30 per cent households, who own farmland, have miniscule size holdings. The average holding size in this group is 0.2 hectare, that is, half an acre. After that 13 per cent households have holdings of average size 0.7 hectare and 10 per cent households have farm holdings of average size 1.3 hectares. In all, only seven per cent rural households have holdings greater than two hectares in size. But they own more than 47 per cent of the land area. The remaining 93 per cent households are either without any farm land or have holdings characterised as marginal and small holdings. Their share in the total operational land is 53 per cent.

It is clear from the above statistics that around 40 per cent men and women workers in agriculture are not ‘farmers’. These men and women belong to the agricultural labour house-holds. They do not have their own land to work on. They work on others’ land as wage labourers. At the same time, a majority of cultivator households have such small size holdings that neither can the farm accommodate the labour available in the households, nor can it provide sufficient income for bare subsistence. Income from farm activity has to be supplemented with other income—mostly wage income. In other words, the share of wage earners in the total agricultural workforce is much more than 40 per cent.

Agricultural wages in India are low. In States like Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand they are around Rs 180 for men and Rs 130 for women in the year 2015-16. Further, agricultural work is not available throughout the year. It is available in spurts and mechanisation has substantially reduced the demand for labour in agriculture. Most workers get agricultural work for around 100 days in a year. Migration of agricultural workers and small and marginal farmers from rural to urban areas, from one State to another, from agriculture to construction or from agriculture to trade and service is rampant.

Impact of Neoliberal Policy Frame

The neo-liberal policies removed all tariffs from agricultural commodities and completely handed over the input and output markets of agricultural produce to multinational and domestic companies. State support to farmers in terms of irrigation, credit, marketing and seeds etc. got diluted over the years. The new markets erected by companies demolished the traditional community linkages and government’s infrastructure. This affected the entrepreneurial space available to the farmers and increased the risk factor involved. Especially, the small and medium level farmers found it difficult to cope with the new technology and new market structures. They took loans and became so vulnerable that the slightest of perturbation led to a complete breakdown. The three lakh farmers’ suicides have the same story repeated again and again. The farmers were not able to pay back the loans taken by them. Either their standing crops were destroyed due to weather fluctuations or pest attacks, or the markets of their produce collapsed. Individual loans were small in magnitudes but the income equilibriums of these farmers were fragile.

Suicide was one option but many others relinquished their farmlands and joined the group of landless wage labour households. Another cardinal feature of the neoliberal policy frame has been to encourage transfer of agricultural land into non-agricultural uses. Under the neoliberal regime capital and its profits have acquired primacy over everything else. Industrial development and investment corporations of the State governments invited multinationals and domestic companies to set up factories and large tracts of agricultural land were encroached in the process. Many State governments invoked the antiquated Land Acquisition Act of 1864 to forcibly evict farmers from their land. Farmers across the country resisted it. The corporate staff and government administration used force which led to violence and bloodshed in many places. Violent conflicts in Niyamgiri, Jagatsinghpur, Singur, Nandigram and Bhatta Parsaul made history during the UPA rule.

The government was compelled to repeal the Land Acquisition Act 1864 and replace it with the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013 (LARR Act, 2013). Use of force was restricted and proper compensation was ensured, but the new Act is no barrier to the transfer of agricultural land. It should be noted here that land that was transferred through use of force made news but much more land got transferred quietly through the market. The real estate market boomed and a large number of farmers surrendered their land, sometimes willingly and sometimes under financial duress.

Farmers’ Protests

The Modi Government’s policies on the agrarian front further aggravated the plight of rural households. Diluting the LARR Act, 2013 through ordinances and/or slashing the funds allotted to the MGNREGS were policy actions which hurt the rural households but did not result in explicit revolt. But the demonetisation in 2016 came as a shock. Just when kharif crops came to the market and farmers were to make preparations for rabi crops, the cash crunch was the prescription for complete ruination. The simmering discontent of the farmers exploded in open protests. The farmers are angry all over the country and are expressing their anger at the local, regional and national levels. Fifty thousand rural men and women, walking barefeet in blazing sun from Nashik to Mumbai in March 2018, expressed most eloquently that agrarian distress will no longer manifest itself in the form of individual suicides. When 50 thousand men and women come together, then their collective strength is formidable and their voice is loud and clear. It cannot remain unheard.

From the extreme north to down south in every agitation the demand is common. Farmers are demanding implementation of the Swaminathan Commission’s recommendations. To begin with, the farmers are asking for debt waivers from banks and a guarantee for Minimum Support Price which is 50 per cent over and above the cost of production. These demands can provide relief to only a section of the farm community. The institutional debt, which can be waived by the government, is accessible only to a section of the relatively well-off farmers. Agricultural labourers and tenant farmers are mostly forced to go to informal sources for finance where they pay exorbitant interests on their tiny loans. Similarly, higher MSP will benefit those farmers who sell their produce to a procurement agency. The procurement infrastructure is lopsided. A great many geographical areas and quite a few crops are outside its purview. Further, the agricultural labour households (comprising 40 per cent of the rural population) and many small and marginal farm households are actually net buyers of foodgrains and other produce. For them, higher MSP will mean higher buying price in the market. Without access to a properly functioning PDS infrastructure, a higher MSP may have an adverse impact on many rural households.

The National Commission for Farmers was set up by UPA I Government under the chairmanship of M.S. Swaminathan in 2004. The Commission submitted a comprehensive report in five volumes. The recommendations implied a radical restructuring of the rural economy and much beyond it. Neither the UPA Government nor the NDA Government could think of implementing the Commission’s recommendations. It is a great advance that the report is no longer confined to government offices and libraries but is being talked about in the farm community at large. One of the prime recommendations of the Commission is to redistribute surplus land to the landless households so that maximum possible households have access to the main resource base.

A Programme for Resolution of Agrarian Crisis

“If resolution of the agrarian crisis means that secure and dignified livelihood space is created for the 244 million men and women employed in agriculture and allied sectors then the land-labour relations in the agrarian economy have to be restructured radically.”

With the above basic premise we put down a pragramme for resolving the agrarian crisis —for the perusal of activists, academics and the farm community

A. As a first step, resolution of the agrarian crisis demands an immediate moratorium on the ongoing mindless and rampant transfer of agricultural land for non-agricultural uses. A people-friendly and scientific land use policy has to be spelt out for different agro-climatic zones (recommended in the Swaminathan Commission Report) as well. This is also absolutely necessary for ensuring food security at the macro level.

Ideally, the demand for such a moratorium should come from the farmers themselves. However, with predominance of small and marginal farmers with non-viable holdings, a large proportion of the agrarian community being landless and a speculative market in land operating in and around urban/industrial/commercial hubs, this is not happening. While redistribution of land and cooperative farming, which form important substantive elements of a programme for resolution of the agrarian crisis, will eventually provide a strong impetus for the emergence of a popular demand for moratorium, an immediate government intervention is called for to eliminate the speculative market in land and prevent further transfer of land from agriculture to non-agricultural purposes, particularly through the corporate sector.

It is relevant to recall that Scheduled areas’ regulations existed in pre-independent India preventing transfer of land from the Scheduled Tribe members to non-Scheduled Tribe persons. Similar legislation was passed post-Independence to annul such transfers as had taken place and acquired some legal status due to the passage of time and abuse of loopholes in the erstwhile legal provisions.

Asking for drastic regulation of the operation of the market, particularly speculative market, in land in the wider public interest should be a feasible demand even in the bourgeois democratic polity. A moratorium will only hurt the speculators and corrupt elements in politics and bureaucracy, not the peasantry, particularly small and marginal peasantry.

Particularly noteworthy in this context is the Hivre Bazaar village experiment in the State of Maharashtra where even in the absence of redistribution of land and initiation of coope-rative farming, such a moratorium is being practised voluntarily by peasants in the larger interest of the village community.

B. The resolution of the crisis then demands equitable access to the main resource base—the land. While the NSSO data gives an accurate picture of landless households and households with small holdings, it fails to capture dis-proportionate control over land and other resources by rich farmers and erstwhile landlords. There are farmers controlling land far beyond the ceiling levels imposed by the respective States. Temples, trusts and plantation owners are exempted from land ceiling. The resolution of the agrarian crisis demands that all the surplus land is recovered and distributed to the landless households. The agenda of land reforms needs to be revived.

C. Redistribution of land among maximum possible households is a necessary step but it is not sufficient for resolving the crisis. Numerous holdings with miniuscule-size land is not a tenable proposition in the long run. As already mentioned, very small holdings can neither make use of the labour hours available in the households nor can they generate sufficient income to fulfil the basic demands of the household. A certain minimum size of farm is required for mechanisation, optimal water management and optimal crop choice. Minuscule- size land holdings have to be pooled together to obtain optimal-size cooperative (collective) farms.

To persuade the farmers to willingly convert their individual holdings into a collective holding requires patience and persistence. The farmer has to be convinced of immediate material advantages that would accrue to him by joining the cooperative farm. From Lenin to Fidel, all leaders in socialist societies offered concrete material incentives to farmers for joining a cooperative. In Brazil, when the MST occupies land and gives it to landless households, it also gives training to ensure that the land given to them promises a viable productive venture.

D. When sufficient member of cooperatives are formed, they need to be federated at the village level and then at the district, State and national levels. Again, to federate the cooperatives into bigger and bigger groups at district and State levels is another uphill task. To overcome the caste and communal cleavages in a society where violent conflicts on these grounds are being actively promoted might appear to be a naïve proposition. However, we should not forget that there have been successful massive experiments in the cooperative movement in some States in the area of processing, be it sugar or milk. That some of these experiments degenerated is also a fact. But that was largely because of the big operators’ machinations from within or the conducive policy environment provided for big capital operating from without.

With a massive political movement demanding a supportive policy environment, including massive financial support in the initial stages, it should be feasible to visualise a cooperative movement enhancing itself progressively: starting from joint farming and expanding into a range of operations such as procurement of inputs; grading, storage, transportation, marketing; and value addition through processing.

As these cooperative farms and related cooperative enterprises get federated at the village level and then the district, State and national levels, eventually a robust cooperative sector will emerge as an alternative institutional form of land and production relations.

A national level movement to cooperativise small and marginal farm holdings is indeed a herculean project but the impact it can have on the farm economy is unimaginable. Already, the households with small and marginal holdings control 53 per cent of the household operational land. If proper land redistribution takes place, this share will further increase, If the small and marginal holdings can be brought together and decisions are taken not on the basis of profit consideration of individual units but according to what is desirable and sustainable at the macro level, then the markets will change, technology will change and cropping pattern will change. We will realise an alternative agrarian economy where small farmers will be producing what is needed by the people.

We must also note here that once the land is integrated in a cooperative structure, it will not be possible to snatch it away for non-agricultural uses—neither by the state nor by the market.

E. The picture is not yet complete. Land redistribution and cooperativisation of small and marginal farmers will not be able to include all the 244 million men and women. Notwith-standing the most appropriate designing and most efficient implementation, the land reforms programme cannot provide land to all the landless households mainly because the land available is limited. These households have to be included in the programme by forming labour collectives which are coordinated with producer cooperatives. Labour collectives would take up entrepreneurial activities to provide inputs required by farm cooperatives. The labour collectives can take care of watershed requirements, seed requirements and organic manure and pesticide requirements, also requirements of the farm machinery. Similarly agro-processing, storage and transport and distribution of farm produce can be taken care of by the labour collectives.

The concrete demand from the state should be to throw big companies out of input and output markets of the agricultural produce and reserve this sector for the cooperatives and labour collectives. Direct financial support or subsidised loan should be given to labour collectives for modest capital requirements of their enterprises. This will enable them to fulfil the input requirements of the cooperative farm sector and channelise the output forward. Thus, resolution of the agrarian crisis demands expanding the employment space beyond agriculture. This employment space will be created around the backward and forward linkages of farm produce.

Feasibility of the Above Programme

The economic programme that we have sketched above may sound to some like a pure fantasy which has little political relevance.

Lenin talked of introducing the cooperative movement in a country where political power was in the hands of the working class and this political power owned all the means of production. In this basic premise the cooperative movement meant a transition to a socialist society. Lenin was categorical that overthrow of the exploitative ruling class and political power in the hands of working class was the necessary premise within which to build the cooperative movement.

When Chavez talked of the cooperative movement in 21st century Venezuela, he had the state power although not complete control over the means of production. The Venezuelan economy is in crisis today. We do not know in detail the role which is being played by the cooperative infrastructure built in the Venezuelan economy in the early 21st century.

We are canvassing for a cooperative movement of small and marginal farmers and their coordination with labour collectives from landless households when there is no state support. We are canvassing for a political pro-gramme in which the cooperative movement would arise from the ground and demand its space in the production sphere. The state representing the interests of the domestic and international capital will not offer any support. On the contrary, there would be an all-out effort by the vested interests to suppress and liquidate the movement.

It is necessary that with every new obstruction the political movement becomes stronger and more impervious. And in the end the crescendo of demand as well as action is pitched so high that either the existing govern-ment yields to the masses or gets replaced by a more democratic and people-friendly govern-ment.

To sum up—resolution of the agrarian crisis demands a revolutionary project which restructures the character of the state and transforms the identity of India in the world theatre. Nothing else can resolve the crisis.

Section II

Women Workers in the Crisis-ridden Agrarian Scene

We sketched the agrarian crisis in terms of households not having access to the main resource base—the land. Obviously the women workers’ participation in farm production depends on the category of households to which they belong.

Forty per cent of women workers would belong to the landless agricultural households where they would be working on others’ farms for wages. The remaining 60 per cent would belong to households where farm land is available. The women who belong to households cultivating their own land should be classified as farmers. Of course, when one’s own field brings little income then women farmers also do wage work.

Women as Agricultural Wage Labourers

When sugarcane was harvested in Sonnakhota village in Beed district in Maharashtra, 10 couples worked in a field from 5.30 in the morning till 7 pm in the evening with a short lunch break. Umesh Kedar slices the sugarcane plants one after another with his sickle. Cutting requires strength and force. His wife, Mukta, picks up the stalks, makes a bunch of 10, ties them together and carries them on her head to the truck standing nearby. The couple gets Rs 228 for every tonne of sugarcane they cut. They manage to cut two tonnes in a day. Mukta wakes up at 4 in the morning finishes cooking for the day and reaches the field at 5.30. The sugarcane cutting season is heavy work but it fetches income.

(from People’s Archives of Rural India)

In the overall marginalised employment space of agricultural workers, women workers are further disadvantaged due to the gender bias. There are tasks done only by men. These are ploughing, well-digging, cane-crushing and others. Wage rates for these tasks are higher. There are tasks where both men and women are employed. For these tasks the wage rates are lower and for the same tasks the wages received by women are lower than those for men everywhere.

The all-India agricultural wage rate for field labour for the year 2015-16 is Rs 281 for men and Rs 218 for women. In all the States, the wage rate for women is lower but in some States the difference is unbelievable. Maximum difference is in Tamil Nadu. For men the daily wage rate for field work is Rs 334 and for women it is Rs 142. In Kerala the wage rate is highest for men as well as women. However, the gender bias remains and is also large. The wage rate is Rs 576 for men and Rs 427 for women. At the lower end is Chhattisgarh where men get Rs 181 per day and women get Rs 134 per day.

The shrinking employment-space for rural workers compelled the UPA-I Government to enact the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) in 2005. The Act provides 100 days employment for the unskilled rural workforce. The women workers have taken employment under the MGNREG Scheme with much greater zeal than men. There are many stories from different quarters about the malfunctioning of the MGNREGS. This one from Munagapaka village of Andhra Pradesh is reported in PARI:

T. Lakshmi worked for 95 days in a MGNREG project. Her wages were not paid because the government decided that from April 2015 onwards the MGNREG job cards would have to be linked with Aadhaar cards. The computer operator made a mistake in linking the numbers of T. Lakshmi’s two cards. T. Lakshmi’s payment got transferred in the account of P. Lakshmi from Ganaparthy village. Both the women could not withdraw the money from the bank. Bank accounts are also to be linked with Aadhaar cards. Around 700 MGNREG workers in Munagapaka village and 294 workers in Ganaparthy village are waiting for their payments of Rs 10 lakhs and Rs 4 lakhs for the last three years. Is anyone going to be punished for the non-payment of hard-earned wages of these poor and unskilled workers? Will T. Lakshmi and others get interest for the waiting period? A farmer commits suicide because he/she is not able to pay back the loan taken from the bank. With the same logic the State administration, which cannot pay what it promises to pay, has to be dismantled!

Women Farmers as Unpaid Family Labour

Women categorised as cultivators are largely those who work on family farms as domestic labour. The land is invariably in the name of their husbands or sons or brothers or in-laws. Traditionally, women in cultivator households take care of seeds, cattle and poultry. They are also involved in agro-processing activities for subsistence needs. The exact description of their work varies with region, the farm-size, crops grown and cultural norms dictated by caste and religion.

However, what is common is the fact that in most cases they have no control over the means of production, hardly have any say in decision- making and consequently have no control over the income received from farm operations. Women participate in family farm work not as principal workers but as subsidiary workers. In fact, their participation in the family farm work is quite flexible. Their work has no separate account and of course no separate remuneration. When required they are available for work and when not required they withdraw themselves quietly. In other words, they constitute the reserve army of labour for subsistence work.

Inclusion and withdrawal of women offering domestic labour in farm production activities is manifested in the fluctuations in the total count of female workforce in agriculture. Between 2004-05 and 2009-10, 20 million women withdrew from agriculture. They did not engage themselves in any other occupation. They withdrew from the workforce altogether. A large proportion of these 20 million women belong to the category of subsidiary family labour. When men moved out of agriculture in search of better employment leaving their fields to the women, the women moved in to look after the family farms. After 1999-2000, the male workforce increased in the agricultural land available and women moved out. If the need arises for additional labour they may again pool in their lot.

Women as Cultivators: their De-facto Control over Land and Farm Operations

The neoliberal policies leading to farmers’ suicides and migration of small farmers in search of better employment brought new protagonists on the agrarian scene. The women, who would have remained as unpaid helpers and unseen workers on their family farms, were forced by new contingencies to come forward and join the community of main cultivators— a community which has traditionally been dominated by men.

Vidya More lived in Kalamb taluk in Osmanabad district of Maharashtra with her husband, Sahadev More, and two children. Sahadev More had two acres of land. Repeated crop failures compelled him to mortgage his land for Rs 30,000. His inability to repay the debt and regain his land led to a breakdown. Sahadev doused their tiny hut in kerosene and set it ablaze. But Vidya refused to end her life and her children’s lives in this manner. When she saw the hut on fire, she threw her children out of the hut and jumped out herself. Vidya survived with some injuries. She recovered and decided to rebuild her life from ashes.

It was not easy. There was no support from the family. Vidya did wage work in others’ farms. She also did sewing work at night to get additional income. With years of hard work she managed to continue her children’s education and also repay the debt taken by her husband. Vidya finally got the land back and became a ‘cultivator’. Joining the cultivator community was not simple either. People resented, ’She acts like a man.’ They stopped water in her field. She says, ’I am only acting like a responsible mother.’ Ten years hence her son is studying in the 11th standard and daughter in the 9th standard.

(TOI, October 29, 2017)

There is another story of Kamalabai Gudhe from Lonsawala village in Wardha district.

Kamalabai is a Dalit farmer in her mid-sixties. In her younger days, she and her husband, Palasram, worked hard as wage labourers. For additional income, Kamalabai walked kilometres and brought fodder from the forest and sold it to farmers for their animals. With their hard-earned money they bought four-and-a-half acres of land at the edge of the forest. They along with their children worked on the farm, dug a well there but the farm was six kilometres from the house and exposed to wild animals. The crops were again and again destroyed by wild boars. The couple could never manage the money required to put fence around their four-and-a-half acres. Kamalabai and her husband continued to take wage work to supplement their income. One of their sons died, their debts mounted and then crops on their farm failed. Palasram could take it no more and one day he consumed pesticides and killed himself.

Kamalabai continued working on their farm and also continued doing wage work on others’ farms and continued repaying old debts. She lives in a half-broken hut with her son, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren. People think of her as an old woman, as a Dalit woman, as a widow, but she thinks of herself as a farmer and walks six kilometres to her farm along with her grandchildren with great deal of pride. (PARI)

In the above two cases the husbands died leaving their land and their debts to their widows. In other cases, farm widows have to fight for their right to cultivate the land which was being cultivated by their husbands. Brothers or other male relatives are quick to come forward and take control of the land. The widows are promised a share of the returns from their husbands’ land. But more and more women want to know the entire economics of farmland left behind by their husbands and take control of the assets and liabilities themselves.

Taking de-facto control over land is one part of a farm widow’s struggle but the other prolonged and complex battle remains, which is to get the land title transferred in her name. Without the land title in her name the woman farmer cannot apply for institutional loan or any other governmental assistance. She cannot sell the land and use the money for some other investment or for any contingency. Transfer of the land title in the name of the farm widow is then necessary for making the farm operation viable. Unfortunately, it constitutes a real uphill task. In many cases, the papers are not in order. Land is owned jointly by the family and the land cultivated by the husband is only an understanding among male members. The land title in the husband’s name does not exist. In other cases the in-laws refuse to give the papers to the widow. And there are, of course, cases where the woman finds that registration fees and required bribes to the officials concerned is far beyond the finance available to her. The claimant woman has to wage a long drawn struggle without a definite promise that she will succeed. De-facto control or responsibility of land is also given to women when husbands move out in search of better jobs. The farmer’s suicide is an individual act but migration of able-bodied unskilled labour from a village is a mass phenomenon. The labour contractor collects men and sometimes husband and wife both, and takes them in a group to another village or town for agricultural wage work or construction work. Even otherwise, unskilled migrant labour moves in a group. There are several such villages where women, children and old people are left behind and all the younger men have moved out.

Betara village of Jashpur district in Chhattisgarh is one such village. In May 2004, after two years of drought, all men moved out to Nagpur for work. Even farmers with more than 10 acres of land left (there were only three). Women are left behind to take command of the nonviable farms and bad weather, with scanty resources at their disposal. Women farmers call women workers to work in the farms. Men workers have also gone to Nagpur. From the neighbouring village also, only women workers are available. Again, women don’t have the land title in their names and so remain deprived of official assistance. Women workers and women farmers do not have the training to operate farm machines; so farm operations at all levels are carried out manually. Interestingly, in many cases, women take care of ploughing, sowing, weeding, irrigation etc., but at harvesting time men return back to take charge. Many such villages can be identified in Bihar, Odisha and Madhya Pradesh also.

Beena Agarwal in her book, A Field of One’s Own, has given an apt description of women workers in Indian agriculture. She calls them “dispossessed farmers and disadvantaged workers”. We feel that the subordinate status given to women in a patriarchal society places them in situations where they acquire immense resilience to face adversities. At the same time, they also develop confidence in their collective action. Hence, their apparently weak position too can be viewed as their strength.

Revolutionary Potential of Dispossessed Farmers and Disadvantaged Workers

Historically, whenever the peasantry has risen to struggle for its land rights and a fair share in the agrarian economy, the women in the community have valiantly stood up in the frontline. Women’s participation in historical uprisings of Telangana, Tebhaga, Punnapra-Vayalar and others are well-documented. In the contemporary scene, women’s role in the Save Narmada Movement, and their participation in the struggle against the mighty multinational POSCO in Odisha have been celebrated again and again. Women are in the forefront in fighting against draconian laws like AFSPA.

In the recent long march of farmers from Nashik to Mumbai, Adivasi women farmers from Nashik, Palghar, Dahanu, Ahmednagar and other districts, along with women farmers from Marathwada and Vidarbha, participated in large numbers. Adivasi women came from families with small holdings and were also engaged in wage work. Joining the week-long march meant losing one-fourth of their monthly wage income. This was a big sacrifice.

The peasant struggles are directed against feudal lords, state authorities and corporate units. Incidentally, the demands for land rights or other benefits are made for the household as the unit. Women have fought bravely along with their partners to protect and enhance the households’ livelihood space. But their participation in struggles does not automatically grant them equal status in the household or in the village society at large. The structures of dominance and inequality and gender relations within the household and in the society remain unaddressed during and after the struggles. Women’s struggles against patriarchal economic and social relations have to be fought independently. It is important that along with political and social empowerment women are given equal position in household production structures, in the village economy and beyond. Women’s land rights are indeed a central issue in the unfair and warped agrarian structure and should be addressed on a priority basis in any programme which sets out to resolve the agrarian crisis.

Having emphasised the need to prioritise the agenda of securing economic space for women, it is necessary to examine the overall agrarian structure within which this economic space has to be secured. As we mentioned in section I, only seven per cent of the rural households have land holdings bigger than two hectares. Ninety-three per cent households have either no land or have holdings which are not viable. Especially, the economic space available to agricultural labour households, share croppers and marginal farmer households is very small. So far as women’s rights are concerned, getting a minuscule share from minuscule whole is no solution.

As we spelt out in section I, the economic space of these households has to be expanded by pooling their resources together and pooling their labour together. As a first step, expansion of economic space requires converting individual spaces into a collective space. Women, who stand in the front ranks when militant struggles are undertaken against the feudal lords, state authorities and corporate units, can also take up a vanguard position in this revolutionary move of converting individual economic spaces into a collective space.

In both initiatives, that is, pooling land together for joint production and pooling labour together to form a labour collective, women farmers and women workers will come forward more willingly than men. When de-facto control of land comes to a woman, on which there is a loan and there is not enough family support, then an offer of collective venture is generally received enthusiastically. It offers the security and support that she needs. As women do not have the experience of individual ownership of land, they have less hesitation in joining a collective than men.

In the case of labour collectives also women’s response will be more enthusiastic. In agri-culture, the division of work between men and women is such that men do individual work like ploughing, irrigation and marketing and women do work in a team like planting, weeding and harvesting. A broadbased movement to form labour collectives is more plausible among women than men.

Our expectation that women by virtue of being in a weaker position are better placed to take a lead in the formation of a collective economic base is not just an empty conjecture. The expectation is based on the specific performance of collective farming by the rural women in Kerala under the Kudumbashree Mission.

Kudumbashree means glory of the family. The programme started in Kerala in 1998 as a poverty alleviation programme. Poor women were first persuaded to form neighbourhood groups which were thrift and savings groups. Neighbourhood groups were federated as Area Development Societies at the ward level and then as Community Development Societies at the Panchayat level. The three-tier structure is coordinated at the district and then at the State level. The proramme now covers all the districts of Kerala and has four million members.

Apart from thrift and savings, the women in the neighbourhood groups are encouraged to take various income-generating activities. The activities range from small-scale manufacturing to conducting weekly markets to providing eating joints and transport service and so on. One of the very important income-generating activities taken up by Kudumbashree women is farming on a collective basis. Joint farm operations have been taken up by around two lakh women. They are cultivating around 30 thousand hectares of land spread across the entire State. Most of these women belong to landless labour households or small farmers’ households. Generally, four to 10 women get together to form a Joint Liability Group directed under the NABARD scheme. They either pool together their households’ small holdings or jointly lease in land from a third party. In Kerala in every village, one finds land which is lying fallow because the landowner is either not interested in farming or is unable to do so because of lack of resources.

Women’s groups lease in these fallow holdings and work hard to make them cultivable. With their scanty resources they have worked wonders on Kerala’s agrarian scene. They lead the organic cultivation of vegetables, they grow special varieties of banana, they build a green army of women workers to revive paddy fields. These are material achievements in agriculture, but more importantly this experiment of collective farming or other group work has radically transformed their world view. They have acquired immense confidence in their capability to handle any contingency collectively. Their universe has extended far beyond their immediate family. It, of course, includes their fellow workers irrespective of caste and religious differences. But their extended universe also encompasses Kudumbashree members across the State, the village people in general and in a way all those people who belong to the underprivileged community. They express solidarity among themselves and with others. It makes them feel stronger. They put in all their might in rebuilding flood-ravaged Kerala. They came all the way to Delhi to express solidarity with the Rohingya refugees. Kudmbashree women willingly include transgenders in their community. One looks forward to the growth in their strength and their progressive thinking.


We have argued that women workers in agriculture have revolutionary potential not just to protect and enhance their land rights within the given institutional arrangements but to transcend to an alternative institutional arrangement in land ownership and operations. Further, forming a collective economic base is pivotal in translating this potential into a meaningful programme. We argue this fully knowing the limitations of collective entre-preneurship or cooperatives in a capitalist economy where the state represents the capitalist ruling class.

However, living in a Third World country and witnessing the shrinking working class surrounded by a vast unorganised sector we are convinced that allies have to be found from this reserve army of labour. Women in agriculture constitute an important ally. True, the Kudumbashree performance cannot be replicated everywhere. The Kudumbashree mission gets state support with the Left Front heading the government alternatively. This support is not available in other States. But women will evolve their own path depending on the specific constraints they face and the specific strengths that they have.

In the end we request you to consider the above analysis and the suggested programme keeping in mind the famous quote from Che Guevara:

‘be realistic—demand the impossible.’

S.P. Shukla is the President of the Joshi-Adhikari Institute of Social Studies, New Delhi and a former Member, Planning Commission. Jaya Mehta and Vineet Tiwari have been working on various aspects of the agrarian crisis for the last one decade. Both are associated with the Joshi-Adhikari Institute of Social Studies.

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