Feminization of Agriculture in the Himalayas

“If women were given equal access to resources as men, agricultural yield in developing countries could feed at least 100 million more undernourished people.”- Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)

“From chopping wood for firewood to fodder collection for cattle to irrigation, laying of manure or reaping or any form of tillage, everything is done by us,” said Chandrakala Tamta, a 30-year-old farmer in Kakar Khateri in Champawat in Uttarakhand, in an interview to Mint in 2015. “Everything is done by hand, there are no machines,” she continues, “in Uttarakhand, the woman is the machine.”

Chandrakala Tamta’s story is not very different from the rest of Indian women farmers. According to the lapsed Women Farmers’ Entitlements Bill of 2011, women form 50 percent of all Indian farmers, a hefty percentage. The Census data claims that in Uttarakhand alone, 64 percent of the women identified themselves as cultivators and 8.84 percent as agricultural laborers. It is interesting to note that only 28.82 percent of men identified themselves as cultivators and 11.23 percent as agricultural laborers! 

Around 55 percent of India’s population is dependent on agriculture and agriculture remains the dominant employment providing sector in our country. But, we often fail to recognize the ‘invisible farmers’ of our country—the female farmers—who have equally contributed to our agricultural growth. In fact, rural women have been engaged in agricultural production since the very invention of agriculture.Yes, the type and depth of this participation has varied widely over regions and generations. In some countries in Africa and Asia, almost half of the labor force is women. Same is the case for the Himalayan states of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, but we often forget these invisible farmers. This trend, which is not a new phenomenon, is termed as “feminization of agriculture”. The term could refer to both, women as independent producers as well as agricultural wage workers. However, much of the women in agriculture work as unremunerated family workers, who are rarely recognized and often forgotten.

Agriculture in the Himalayan Region

The role of agriculture in the Himalayan region is undeniable. Subsistence agriculture constitutes the major source of livelihood in the rural areas here with very low productivity of agriculture. The Himalayan states are some of the most ecologically fragile and densely populated mountain states in the world. This exposes the region to severe limitations on the carrying capacity of the natural resource base and leads to unprecedented resource depletion as well climate change related vulnerabilities. Rising poverty, lack of livelihood opportunities, the decline in agricultural productivity and extreme weather events and natural disasters have led to a large-scale emigration from the region. The emigrants mostly comprise of young men. This migration is so high that the villages of Uttarakhand are often termed as “depopulated”, turning into ghost villages with no local youth and leaving only the elderly and women behind. Around 950 villages have become completely depopulated in Uttarakhand alone, and over 3500 villages are left with a population of as few as 50 or even lesser!

Kalyan Paul, co-founder of the Pan Himalayan Grassroots Development Foundation, an organization based in Almora, Uttarakhand, in an interview to the Pulitzer Centre said, “the average farmer is a 50-plus-year-old woman in the hills”. After the men migrate out to the cities for better opportunities, the womenfolk hold onto the family land and not let it waste away. At a time when land remains the most significant asset, when battles are fought and when identities are being shaped because of land, these women farmers are doing the best that they can. They have completely changed the demography of the agrarian sector, and have redefined the mode of production by shifting from traditional means to regenerative and organic farming techniques. Organic products catered to most of the metropolitan and bigger cities of the country come from these women dominated agrarian states. According to a study by the FAO, a pair of bullocks on a one-hectare farm works a bit over 1,000 hours a year, a man, if he’s still on the farm, might work about 1,200 hours. What about a woman? 3,485 hours!

Is this the dawn of a new era?

According to the NSSO Employment and Unemployment Survey of 1999–00 and 2004–05, the share of Indian male population in agriculture has declined from 61 percent to 58 percent whereas the share of women workers has increased from 38 percent to 41 percent. This includes both farmers as well as agricultural laborers. The share of women’s participation increases further when we include the allied sectors of agriculture like livestock, poultry, fisheries and water conservation. If we consider only the rural population, nearly 84 percent of women workers are engaged in agriculture, compared to 67 percent of men (Srivastava and Srivastava, 2009).

For the Himalayan states, the share of women in the workforce engaged in agriculture as of 2011 is 55 percent in Himachal Pradesh and 49 percent in Uttarakhand, higher as compared to the southern states of the country like Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Hence, the role of female cultivators in this region is undeniable, with the wave of “feminization of agriculture” shaping the socio-cultural life of the region. But, does it guarantee equal ownership of agricultural land?

Feminization of labour, however, does not necessarily mean empowerment of women. Women are still not the land-owners of the very land they cultivate. Himalayan women are especially vulnerable to the effects of environmental changes due to biased power relations in favor of men, unequal distribution of land and unfair cultural and social norms. Women are more likely to be affected by natural disasters primarily due to lack of preparedness, information and exposure.

The burden of work of the women also increases, as women now have to work equally in both the sectors- domestic as well the agricultural sector, a double shift. This is subsequently leading to a new phenomenon of “feminization of rural poverty”. The triple role of women in production, reproduction and development gives rise to the argument of excessive workload and the subsequent deterioration of women’s health and physical ability. Lack of access to health services, medicines and improper health infrastructure further worsen the situation of mountain women. The role of women of these regions in the public sphere remains more or less like in the rest of the country, reduced and neglected. The market is mostly male dominated, and both caste and gender drive the market relations. Women have some say in the decision-making on the family farm but it is the men who drive most of the market related decisions like investments and credit that are not related to farming, since these issues lie outside the household

Socio-cultural Impacts

The out-migration of males has undoubtedly increased the burden and responsibility for the women. The women are left with the sole responsibility of household tasks, outdoor resource development and reproduction. This has led to deteriorating health of women. The women are also more susceptible to environmental degradation and climate change. Research claims that despite the positive changes that are transforming the lives of rural women, women’s access to education, information, communication and health facilities and participation in decision-making process still remains at a very low level in most of the villages in this region. But there are positives as well. The remittances of the out-migration of the male population are leading to various socio-economic developments of the women with an increase in women’s education rate and a decline in girl school dropout rate. The male out-migration has also made the women more independent. Women have also learnt to respond to environmental and climate changes. But the unfair distribution of land and the skewed power-relations may continue to hamper the rural women of the region.

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