The Growing Weight On India's Women Farmers

As more men are migrating into cities in search of a living, women are left with all the weight of the farming and family. That is not a sustainable model.

A woman farmer in India
A woman farmer in India
Anirudh Krishna*

NEW DELHI — Is it surprising to know that on any given day, the people working India's hundreds of thousands of family farms are mostly women? Some older folks and children are also seen in the fields, but there is an acute shortage of younger men in India's hinterland.

Driven by a creeping crisis in agriculture, rural men have sought work in the millions in India's cities. Working as construction laborers, lorry loaders, parking attendants, security guards, rickshaw pullers, domestic servants and street vendors, they earn the pittances that are necessary to hold the village family together. But while it provides them with these small sources of income, the city does not lay out a welcome mat for low-paid rural workers.

Most men who come in from villages to work in India's cities survive in pitiful conditions, living in crude shacks or ten to a room in rented tenements. There is no secure place to live nor a steady job for the vast majority. The only realistic option is to leave the family behind in the village — where the next generation of mazdoors (laborers) is raised by de facto female-headed families.

Official statistics severely under-report the number of rural-to-urban migrants in India, but unofficial estimates put this number at anywhere from 100 to 200 million people — the combined population of France, Belgium and Germany. Most of them are younger men, separated from their families. Almost as many women are left behind to take care of the farm, the older folks and the children.

Women who had never before stepped out of their village homes are having to deal with new challenges of getting their Aadhaar Indian national identity cards made, rations issued and hospital visits, of dealing with officials in distant places. Most of these women have very little education. In addition to undertaking what has traditionally been men's work, they are also responsible for what are regarded as women's duties. It's a double burden.

This hollowing out of rural areas, the feminisation of agriculture, has been brought about by a steadily deepening crisis in household economies. Agriculture accounted for more than two-thirds of the average farm family's income in the 1980s, but today this share is closer to 30%. Meanwhile new needs have arisen, especially in education and healthcare.

The way in which the average rural family has been dealing with this situation is by sending its young adults, especially men, to make extra money by laboring in the cities, where the economy is booming. Life isn't easy for these men or for their families that are left-behind. But there isn't any other realistic option.

Relatively few of the rural men, less than one-third according to some estimates, who migrate in search of work are able to acquire a regular position in cities. The rest are short or medium-term migrants, who stay for a few weeks or months at a time, returning to their villages, most often, at the times of sowing and harvesting. In the interim, all other agricultural activities, including intercropping, weeding, fertilizing, watering and raising animals are left to the women.

Few young men growing up in villages express any interest in a farming life. More and more, agriculture is coming to be seen as women's work, abhorred and abjured by young men of the village, especially those who have acquired more than a few years of education. They, too, join the growing stream of migrants to cities near and far, their wives handling the homestead and almost single-handedly rearing the children.

Why would a young man abandon the security?

The problem, of course, is a severe lack of economic opportunities in rural areas, for if a decent job was to be had in or near one's village, then why would a young man abandon the security of his home in exchange for a hovel in the city? But decent jobs are few and far between, especially in rural areas.

The city-centric nature of India's growth has led to this situation in which rural families have been broken apart, with the men becoming itinerant migrants and the women becoming the family heads and the agriculturists. But even in the cities, the jobs that are available to most rural migrants are of an irregular and low-paid nature. Certainly, the number of software engineers — epitomizing India's growth story — has quintupled, increasing from 28,000 to 160,000 between 1993 and 2005. But the number of these good jobs is dwarfed by the number of low-paid and informal workers. Over the same period, the number of construction workers, mostly informally employed mazdoors, skyrocketed from 5.4 million to 13.3 million, constituted in most part by the stream of distress-driven rural workers.

Reversing this trend is important, for stable families hold the key to social stability in the nation. The country's future needs to be envisaged as comprising not just Mumbai, Bengaluru and New Delhi, but also its more than 500,000 villages, creating better jobs and higher-quality infrastructure in rural India. An army of tens of millions of rootless men in cities, accompanied by an equal-sized army of women left behind in villages, does not provide the basis of a secure and stable future for the nation.

*Anirudh Krishna is a professor of public policy and political science at Duke University, and author of "The Broken Ladder: The Paradox and Potential of India's One-Billion."

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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