Role of Women in Indian Agriculture

- Dr Kilaru Purnachandra Rao

Women are known to have played a key role in the domestication of plants and animals. While men were largely engaged in hunting and gathering, women were selecting useful plants, growing them and saving seeds for re-planting. As societies graduated from hunting and gathering to settled agriculture and from tribal societies to feudal rule, knowledge of agriculture increased but property relations worsened. In the tribal societies, land was communally owned and right to cultivate was rotated among the inhabitants of the tribe. But feudal societies were controlled progressively by tribal chiefs, army commanders and kings. Intense fighting between kings for control of larger chunks of land, led to huge loss of males and formation of bigger empires and creation of massive armies. Victorious hordes of soldiers plundered and looted valuable movable properties, occupied land and women who were widowed. Women along with land became assets to be owned. Those who could raise larger and powerful armies became emperors . Their courtiers started praising their valor and bestowed them with all the virtues, finally deifying them. To perpetuate their family rules, their cronies depicted them as messengers and incarnations of God.

The link between rulers, who rule the physical world and gods who rule the world beyond life (temporal world) got strengthened through a web of stories and the opponents of the king were painted as ‘demons’, vicious people and uncivilized barbarians. The set of exploitative rules gradually attained the status of religion which should be obeyed by all the subjects of the kingdom. According to Ramayan written byValmiki, Dasarath, supposedly the father of Rama, had three principal wives and 365 other wives. Rama, who is born after Kausalya drank ‘payasam’ (beyond logic but mortals should not question the divine acts), Sita is supposed to born from earth, who is bestowed the status of Bhoodevi, a consort of Vishnu who lies on a large serpent in the sea of milk (definitely Google earth can’t find it, nor astronomers ever found it). It is strange that land which is a female god can’t be owned by women in a Patriarchial society. There are a few vestiges of Matriarchial society in parts of Kerala, Meghalaya and a few other places where land ownership right passes to daughters and not to sons. In the hill states of Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and North east, all farm operations are performed by women, but land is owned by men and they only perform ploughing and marketing. All through the feudal ages, land is owned by war lords who fleece the tenants and collect exorbitant rents and pay a part of the booty to the kings and emperors to maintain huge armies. Frequent wars and rebellions killed men, causing women outnumbering men. The relative bargaining power of women was low and they always had to seek the protection from some powerful man or the other.

A few reforms by some progressive rulers limited the rent collection and bestowed the right on common property resources to village communities in some parts of the country. After the advent of Europeans brought the concepts of democracy, freedom and right to property in to the society, peasants led many struggles to reduce the rents and bestow partial rights to tenants.

Post-independence developments

But much of the land reforms took place only after Independence. Abolition of Zamindari system, granting of rights to tenants and imposition of ceiling on land holdings partially broke the concentration of land ownership. But it is explosion of rural population that caused a reduction in the operational holding due to sub-division. About 86 per cent of the holdings are less than 2 hectares each in size. The average operational holding is tending to less than one hectare. Land is no more a source of employment and has become a store of value. Urban rich and traders are poaching on land and are buying huge chunks of land. Small holdings are unable to support the farmer families. But high prices of land are providing an exit route to farmers. They are selling land and using the proceeds to establish small businesses in the urban areas.

But the status of women has not improved in terms of land ownership. Out of the total land operated in the country, 85% is inherited. Out of this sub-group, 83% is inherited by males. Only two per cent is inherited by females. But women constitute 42 per cent of the total agricultural labor force in the country. 80% of the all economically active women in India are employed by agriculture. 85% of rural women are employed in agriculture, but only 12.8 per cent of them own some land. With many men migrating to towns and cities for work, there is increasing feminization of agriculture in the country. Due to the strong family system in India, women are able to enjoy a share in the farm income, although they do not own much land. According to 2011 census, 53% of women are working as agricultural labor. 24% are characterized as cultivators, although most of the land is owned by male members. Despite minimum wage laws, women are paid less for their work relative to males. Some crops like vegetables, flowers, cotton, groundnut are characterized as ‘female crops’, as they are employed for more number of days than the males. Certain operations like nursery management, sowing, transplantation, weeding, irrigation, fertilizer application, plant protection, harvesting, winnowing etc., are primarily performed by them. In case of livestock management, they are engaged in watering the animals, milking, fodder collection, preparation of dung cakes, milk shed cleaning, collection of farm yard manure, poultry rearing etc., In fact, they are turning out as much work as their male counterparts. But they neither own much land nor earn decent incomes. This is not unique to India only. Globally, 400 million women are engaged in agriculture. But they lack equal rights in 90 countries of the world.

When NTR was Chief Minister, an act was passed granting equal share in property for daughters just like sons in the ancestral property. Recently, Supreme Court also gave a verdict that women should be given equal share in property like men. Passing laws is one aspect, but their implementation requires social awareness and change. Women movements need to focus more attention on the implementation of laws and court verdicts. Things are changing but slowly. When I joined B. Sc (Ag) course in 1964, there were only three girls out of a class of 144. Today, women students outnumber men in many agricultural universities. When I started PG Diploma in Agri-business Management in 1996 at the National Institute for the Management of Agricultural Extension Management, it was difficult to place women students as private companies were hesitant that women can’t do field work. Today, women are holding many responsible positions in Agricultural Research, Teaching and Extension.

International Women’s day on March 8, 2021 should review the position of women in Agricultural sector. So far, it focused on rights of urban women. It is time that they should address the problems of women in Agriculture.


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