Tilling and toiling the organic way

Do you consider agriculture in India a male occupation? Think again. The fact is that 79 per cent of working women are agricultural workers.

Yet, because women are still seen as labourers rather than farmers – only nine per cent own land – they are not considered as farmers. But change is taking place. Women farmers, sole proprietors of their agricultural land, are transforming ground realities gradually. Take Malleswari and Lakshmidevamma, determined women from a semi-arid district in south-central Andhra Pradesh.

Toils for her land

Malleswari shares her story, “My family has been in farming for generations and I, myself, am passionate about agriculture and have been involved in it since my childhood. After I married my maternal uncle, he transferred 4 acres to my name. For the last 12 years, I have led a group of 10 women farmers who all have pattas (titles) to land. As a group we do not use artificial fertilisers or pesticides.”

Organic-oriented women

Malleswari has educated herself about natural methods of farming. Not only are she and her women farmer colleagues reviving traditional methods of cultivation, they have switched to natural fertilisers and vermicomposting. According to Malleswari, male farmers prefer mechanised agriculture and chemical fertilisers because they require less effort. Observes Malleswari, “Spraying artificial fertilisers increases the expense per acre greatly – vermicompost, in contrast, reduces expenses by almost a third.” She has also learnt that chemical fertilisers and insecticides on crops could harm children, besides reducing the overall nutritional value of vegetables, fruits, grains and other edibles. Women, because of their caring responsibilities, are much faster at understanding the advantages of organic farming.

The natural methods

In Pamaluru village in the same district, another earth warrior, Lakshmidevamma, soldiers on. She is the only woman among 12 organic farmers in her village and has many an agricultural tip to share.  Says Lakshmidevamma, “I have never used chemical fertilisers on my farm and we began talking about the merits of natural fertilisers at weekly meetings with small groups of largely women farmers and also distributed leaflets containing relevant information. To prove our point, we cultivated crops on a 0.75 acre plot applying natural fertilisers which cost less than a thousand rupees. In contrast, we pointed out that spraying artificial fertilisers five times a day cost around five thousand.” Lakshmidevamma and other women farmers earn some extra money from selling their fertilisers, as well as their organic food grains and oil.

They need to own it

For Lakshmidevamma, Malleswari and many other women, there is always something more to learn. They have also come to believe that financial independence and land ownership are central if women are to tackle abusive spouses or a violent family situation.
The one issue that rankles with them, however, is lack of government support. Observes Aditi Kapoor, Director (Policy Advocacy and Partnership), Alternative Futures, who has interacted closely with these women farmers, “Women labouring on farms are considered as mere workers and not as knowledge bearers. Most government programmes do not address their specific requirements. For instance, their need for tank silt instead of artificial fertilisers is hardly known or met. The contribution of women through kitchen gardens and small poultry farms is rarely recognised. Women do not get subsidised seeds or loans easily as the land is not in their name.”

Some support needed

According to Kapoor, it is high time that the government at all levels deal with women in agriculture directly and include them as decision makers and participants in policy creation and implementation. She says, “Women leaders need training, not just in participating in gram panchayat administration but also in thematic areas like agriculture, animal husbandry, and horticulture.” This is precisely the approach that farmers like Malleswari and Lakshmidevamma, are seeking. They want the government to facilitate the formation of women farmer groups and support their entry into agricultural co-operatives irrespective of land ownership.

They also argue that government banks and lending organisations must step forward and provide subsidies for organic farming and insurance against crop loss. These steps are crucial if these women farmers, working hard to evolve an important alternative model of sustainable agriculture, are to reap a rich harvest.

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