Consider this. The maize crop sown with great care in the current kharif season in Bansala village, near Orissa’s Khurda district, suddenly faced an uncertain future owing to the unscheduled stoppage of the supply of irrigation water. The women of the village, however, rose to the occasion and showed exceptional enterprise. They decided to carry water in buckets from a near-by pond to save the withering crop, even as men contemplated how to arrange an irrigation pump and water pipes to convey water from the pond to their fields.
This speaks volumes about women’s dedication to farm work. It also validates the notion that women are the true props of Indian agriculture, even though men hog the bulk of the attention and corner the credit. This incident, in fact, is one of the innumerable examples of women’s contribution to agriculture. Various studies and surveys have clearly brought out the fact that women generally do more farm work than men, or even bullocks in some areas. For instance, a study by the UN Food Agriculture Organisation (FAO) indicates that in the Himalayan hills, the time spent by women performing farm operations is more than thrice than that of bullocks and more than twice that of men. It estimates that, on average, women put in 3,485 hours of farm work per hectare per year against 1,064 hours by a pair of bullocks and 1,212 hours by a man.
The trend is almost similar, if not exactly the same, in other regions as well. The Bhubaneswar-based Directorate of Research on Women in Agriculture (DRWA) reckons women’s share of overall labour input in farm production at 55-66 per cent. Their contribution is the highest in fisheries and livestock sectors, estimated at 95 per cent and 58 per cent respectively. The National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) data also puts women’s share of workforce in agriculture, forestry and fisheries at more than 50 per cent in 23 states. It exceeds 70 per cent in states like Chhattisgarh, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh, while in some other states – Punjab, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Kerala – it is below 50 per cent. Under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee programme (MGNREGA), too, roughly half of the workers employed are women.
Ironically, regardless of the stupendous effort put in by women, they do not usually get commensurate returns for it. Farms that are wholly-owned and operated by females have generally been found to have relatively lower yields, about 20 to 30 per cent below normal.
This is attributed chiefly to the insufficient use of cash inputs and inadequate access to information and technology. Acknowledging this, a note prepared by DRWA on the “gender perspective in agriculture” points out that despite contributing 60 per cent or more to agricultural labour, women have limited resources and opportunities that are needed to maximise productivity and, hence, profits from their labour contribution.
Such limitations constrain female farmers’ ability to improve their lives and that of their families, the note adds. To address this problem, DRWA is laying stress on weaving gender concerns into farm-research to facilitate the development of women-friendly agricultural technology that could help reduce the drudgery and fatigue involved in farm work.
Besides, alternative extension strategies are sought to be evolved to effectively reach out to farm women. “The fact is that despite their agricultural obligations, women cannot neglect their homes and household chores. The extension services, therefore, need to keep this critical aspect in view while disseminating information and technology,” says DWRA Director Krishna Srinath. The integration of agricultural extension and home-management can perhaps be more useful from farm women’s viewpoint. They need the right information and technology, at the right time.
This aside, there is a need for greater empowerment of rural women in terms of land ownership rights and access to resources. Some headway is being made in this direction under new welfare initiatives like Mahila Sashaktikaran Yojana (national women empowerment programme) and the National Kisan Mahila Sashaktikaran Programme (national women farmers’ empowerment programme). The new Forest Rights Act also provides for land “pattas” (land titles) in the joint names of the husband and wife. However, much more still needs to be done in this field.