She is on a mission to conserve water

She is on a mission to conserve water

The women of Anantapur district burn their backs by toiling on their lands, despite hardly any results, while the government turns a blind eye to it, observes Pushpa Achanta

In Anantapur district of south western Andhra Pradesh being a farmer is all about hard, backbreaking work and no rewards. Severe water scarcity has ensured that crop failures and debt traps are a part of everyday life. In fact, in the last 15 years, this region has only seen two successful harvests.

According to C Bhanuja, the feisty founder and president of the Rural and Environment Development Society, a non-governmental organisation based in Kadiri mandal (a revenue sub-division) of Anantapur, “Ever since 2004, incidents of farmer suicides have been occurring with alarming regularity. Some women too have succumbed to the pressure of repaying the loans taken by their deceased husbands. There are over 3300 women headed households in the district today and all of them have been confronted by parched lands.”

Guidance needed

With around 553 mm of rain annually, local farmers mainly rely on ground water for irrigation. What these marginalised farmers, women in particular, need desperately are strategies that can enable them to adapt to the water crisis they are facing.
Says Bhanuja, “Even though suicides and distress migration of farmers and agricultural workers to construction sites and other industries in the unorganised sector in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka has become common, the state government does not seem to be interested in taking sufficient proactive steps, such as providing easy credit or building infrastructure for water conservation. Of course, the introduction of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) has reduced the outward seasonal movement of local farmers from 50 per cent to 30 per cent in Anantapur, but the administration needs to shift focus from providing immediate relief to long term rehabilitation.”

Womanly toiling

While most marginal and small farmers are finding it tough to keep their land productive, for women the challenges are far greater because they are not considered competent enough to make independent decisions in terms of the kind of crops that needs to be cultivated or the techniques that would work. For instance, when Nageswaramma, 35, who has two acres of agricultural land in her name, wanted to follow non-pesticide management (NPM), which involves the use of inexpensive natural alternatives to artificial pesticides on her farm, her husband ended up destroying the crops to assert his control and prove a point. Undeterred, she sowed the seeds once again and reaped a good harvest without having to invest a bomb on chemical fertilisers and pesticides.

Government’s apathy

But if women who possess land have to strive to prove their mettle, imagine what the situation must be like for the wives of men, who have committed suicide. “From 2008-09, I have observed the condition of women compelled to assume responsibilities of their households after their husbands took their own lives fearing creditors. Such women lack financial resources as the land titles are not in their names and they cannot resort to alternatives like dairy farming as cattle grazing lands are minimal. Typically, their marital and natal families disown them, although members of their husband’s family wait to grab the monetary benefit that the widows are entitled to. Some of these widows face abuse from the men in their marital households and can even end up trafficked for sex or physical labour. Although the government must pay a compensation of Rs 50,000 initially and rupees one lakh later, the delays are inordinately long,” states Bhanuja.

Unheard pleas

Clearly, not only has the government been slow in implementing policies for aiding farmers, it has also overlooked pertinent recommendations from farmer groups, agricultural scientists and other stakeholders. Fortunately for the farming community of Anantpur, however, there has been some help at hand through the Rural and Environment Development Society (REDS). It has facilitated the formation of Water User Groups in Kadiri and Nallamada mandals and even promoted the cultivation of foods and vegetables that do not require much water or soil nutrients.

Ingenious solutions

To promote optimal use of available water, REDS has collaborated with the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture (CSA), a Hyderabad-based non-profit. Under this initiative, water is collected from five or six bore wells and then distributed among nearly 15 farmers. Around 69 farmers, including seven women who have a patta (land title) in their name, have adopted this practice, and also of joint water sprinkler usage. Apart from this, Bhanuja and her associates have urged the government to implement provisions under the MGNREGA. Pragmatic and crucial measures like these are imperative if women are to gain recognition as farmers rather than as landless labourers.

Climate change has had the worst impact on the lives of agrarian communities. Women farmers, in particular, need appropriate adaptation strategies so that they can cope during the tough times.

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