Despite the odds, a group of women farmers in the Indian state of Haryana persevered to become success stories after empowering themselves and others in their communities.
HARYANA, INDIA – Jaibuna, 45, spends each day on her farmland, a sloped field in Biwan village near the Haryana-Rajasthan border in north India, overlooking the Aravalli mountains.
She plants and harvests multiple crops at once: broccoli, tomatoes, onions, potatoes, eggplant, gourd, beet root, and chili pepper.
With monsoons around the corner, she checks the produce every morning for any disease.
A mother of eight children — four sons and four daughters — Jaibuna is a smallholder landless multi-layer farmer. Multi-layer farming is a process of growing different types of crops, mostly vegetables and fruits on the same land and at the same time.
After her husband’s death in 2018 due to a lung infection, she quickly learned farming. Her husband, Khursheed Ahmed, farmed for years on rented land.
Ahmed, who previously worked as a labourer in mines near his village, developed tuberculosis. When mining in the Aravalli mountain range was banned by the Supreme Court of India in 2002, Ahmed switched to farming.
But life was difficult for his family.
“And when he died, he left nothing behind for us,” Jaibuna says.
This meant Jaibuna had to defy generations-old cultural norms to socially isolate herself after being widowed.
“I chose to take control of my life and make my own decisions.”
Jaibuna, who prefers not to use her husband’s last name, now grows a variety of vegetables on the same plot in all four seasons.
In 2018-2019, Jaibuna was the first woman farmer in Haryana state to get land on a lease for cultivation.
Before her, there were cultural and societal barriers against passing ownership of land, either temporary or permanent, to women.
Out of 110 households in her village, more than 80 young women have been widowed. Most of the men have died of tuberculosis after having worked for years in mining quarries.
Speaking about tuberculosis is a social stigma here. Yet, women do not want the new generation to shoulder the burden of their economic requirements.
Instead, they are taking a lead in earning a sustainable income through farming for their families. Cases like these have been celebrated in popular discourse as feminisation of agriculture.
But, such agrarian practices — where women’s growing contribution of labour in agriculture has substantially increased — undermine women’s wellbeing in the long run, in what researchers in India call feminisation of agrarian distress.
In fact, according to Oxfam, one-third of female farmers in India are unpaid labourers on family farms owned by their parents, husbands, or in-laws.
The World Bank has made gender equity in the agriculture and food sector a specific goal and is working to expand women’s access to land and rural finance.
Farmers in India have been at the receiving end of a severe agrarian crisis: rising debt following failed harvests, declining plot sizes, water scarcity, falling prices of agricultural yield and degraded soils.
As a result, many have been forced to take their own lives. Indian farmers recorded the highest number of suicides in the past five years, with a 3.4 percent increase in the number of cases in 2019 from 2018, according to National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB).
Bankruptcy and poverty have been flagged by the NCRB as the principal reasons for the incidence of suicides among farmers.
Against this grim backdrop, thousands of farmers have been camping at several locations near the capital in Delhi since last November, demanding the repeal of three new farm laws introduced by the government while demanding a legal guarantee on Minimum Support Prices (MSP) for their crops.
For farmer leaders, the new laws favour market forces and must go.
Nevertheless, she persisted
Jaibuna formed a self-help group, Farhan Mahila Samoh (Farhan Women Farmers Group), with 11 women; four of whom are widows.
The group rented nine acres of land for two years at a cost of 360,000 INR ($4,854) from the Haryana State Rural Livelihood Mission (HSRLM) and repaid the loans.
Indian women own just 12.8 per cent of the country’s land, with 73.2 percent of rural female workers engaged in agriculture, according to an index created by the Bhubaneswar-based Center for Land Governance.
Meanwhile, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations’ (FAO) gender and land rights database states that women make up 32 percent of the agricultural labour force in India and contribute around 66 percent to farm production.
Another Oxfam study assessed that women log 3,300 hours of work on farm labour during a crop season compared to the 1,860 hours logged by men.
Women are the fastest growing group of new farmers in India, says Naveen Lathar, Program Director at Amarjeet Kaur, Bacchttar Singh, Sandhu (ABS) Foundation, an NGO in Haryana.
The Indian Agricultural Research Institute in Delhi gave Jaibuna and others the necessary technical support while the ABS Foundation gave them training in organic farming.
“If a man farms, his family eats,” says Lathar.“But a woman by nature tends to feed the entire community.”
Lack of access to land, financing, training, and conducive working conditions, and equal treatment by men has always been a challenge.
“Things are never supportive in deeply conservative and patriarchal societies and Haryana is no exception,” says Lathar.
In April, the ABS Foundation facilitated 100 women farmers in selling their produce. Around 30 are directly involved in the trade who sell on the roadside from Sonkh to Tapkan village in Haryana’s Mewat district.
“During the lockdown, customers from the city would come to the nearby villages to purchase vegetables,” Lathar says.
“That reality struck us. And we started a WhatsApp group where we shared a live location with our customers who were stationed in the district headquarters.”
The customers range from bank employees to district administration officials to hospital and medical college staff and police.
Due to growing demand, the market still operates on the roadside.
“Multi-layer farming is beneficial to small-scale farmers,” says Lathar. “If one vegetable perishes, there are others to earn from.”
India has witnessed its biggest economic contraction in the last 24 years, according to India’s National Statistical Office. The economy shrunk by 23.9 percent in the first quarter of the 2020-21 fiscal year compared to 5.2 percent growth in the first quarter of 2019-20.
Even before the pandemic hit, India’s economy was ailing. Unemployment hit a four-decade high in 2019 and millions were falling back into poverty.
Makeena Nazim, 42, is another woman farmer who sells her vegetables on the roadside.
Her biggest worry was the market and her vegetables perishing if the produce was not sold in the city.
“We have divided our one acre of land into many segments,” says Nazim. “We grow different organic vegetable varieties like beetroot, tomatoes, and spinach.”
Nazim also grows four colours of rare chili pepper, sold at an average of 100 INR ($1.35) per kilogram compared to the regular green chili variety which sells at 10 INR ($0.13).
The large-size beetroot that she grows sells at 150 INR ($2) compared to what normally sells 30 INR ($0.40).
When Covid-19 hit India, triggering an economic recession followed by two consecutive unannounced lockdowns, it transformed the way Jaibuna and the rest of her group would make a living.
Before the pandemic, the women used to hire a common vehicle and transport their produce to Faridabad and other major markets in Delhi, says Jaibuna.
“But then everything came to a grinding halt and we had nowhere to go,” she says.
“But we did not lose hope. We started the roadside market a few kilometres away from our village and we earned double [what we did] before.”
Jaibuna earns 1,000 INR ($13.50) on average a day. With this income she looks after her family, while keeping her group as well as each other’s families safe by following prescribed Covid protocols.
The large-scale farmers here focus on paddy and wheat cultivation, ignoring new forms and methods of cultivation. But, Jaibuna and Nazim have become local success stories who have empowered themselves while helping other women gain a voice and influence within their families and communities.
Imran Khan, a multimedia content producer with Mewat Radio, a community radio station that reaches 168 villages and over 550,000 people, says that they received hundreds of calls from women farmers during the pandemic via their farmer-focused program, ‘khet khaliyan ki baat’.
“Initially, women were nervous to go out into their fields due to the fear of the virus,” says Khan.
“But women are always enthusiastic to learn. We tried to give them confidence by making them aware of safety guidelines. Experts helped them specifically through our phone-in feature of the program.”
Some of the common concerns were how to increase crop production, crop disease, organic farming, and irrigation and sowing, says Khan.
For Jaibuna, to empower other women in her village is only possible by learning new farming technologies and increasing crop production to become successful farmers.
Jaibuna says with their new roles, they are redefining gender roles in a patriarchal society where their primary role has been to look after children and remain at home.
“Women always helped men in agriculture. But their role is invisible till they are equally recognised as farmers,” she says.
“I now earn for my family, make decisions on how to increase food sustainability and plan how to uplift the education of our children in the village, especially girls.”