Agriculture & COVID-19: Pro Women Farmer Policies Needed

Agriculture & COVID-19: Pro Women Farmer Policies Needed

A two-week survey conducted during the lockdown by Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI) and Centre for Sustainable Agriculture (CSA) revealed that 60% of farmers in India suffered yield loss on their harvest. And the worst impact  of the lockdown (essential to flatten the COVID-19 curve) is on small and marginal farmers. On small and marginal farmers like Sarojini Devi.

Sarojini Devi, a 40 year old marginal farmer in Rampurwa village in Lakhimpur Kheri, owns two bigha of land. She and her family of six (husband and four sons) are dependent on her farming and the husband, Munna Lal’s, income as a migrant worker. She had grown torai (sponge gourd), sugar beet, and radish in her field but due to the lockdown she was unable to take her produce to the Mandi and sell it there.

The Mandi was shut almost entirely during the peak vegetable season. In fact, her problems started in March when shops started shutting down and she was unable to buy pesticides for her vegetables; she lost some to a pest attack. Last year around the same time she had made Rs 20,000 from selling 10 quintals of torai; this year she was able to earn only Rs 7000. The rates per quintal dropped from Rs 10 in April to Rs 5 in May. She was unable to get a decent price for her beet — what she sold for Rs 30 per kg last year (300 kgs), she was hardly able to get Rs 10 this year. The radish were left in the field and had to be finally fed to the cattle.

“Most of the vegetables are consumed during the marriage season. Due to the lockdown, there were no marriages and no takers for my vegetables. I had to sell it at whatever price I was getting at the village. If I waited for the Mandi to open, I would have got nothing.” Last year Sarojini had taken some land on contract and grown some rice and wheat as well. But she couldn’t this year because of money problems. In fact, it was due to financial constraints, that her eldest son left for Haryana soon after his 10th exam to work as a farm labourer. He managed to work for 25 days in a mustard field and earn Rs 12000, before the lockdown put an end to that and he had to return home once he and the other labourers started running out of food and money.

This Sarojini Devi story is a lived experience of millions of small and marginal farmers across the country where they have had to sell their produce at throwaway prices and some even ended up just throwing away their crops due to the lockdown. Her village — 75 families — and all women farmers growing vegetables together bore a cumulative loss of Rs 2.5 lakh this season. But this could have been worse, had the women farmers in her village not adopted climate-resilient agricultural practices over the last few years.  This was made possible with the work that Oxfam India and AIM Trust carried out with women farmers in Sarojini’s village.

Women farmer groups were formed; Sarojini was a part of one such 10-member group ‘Santoshi Mahila Samooh’. Oxfam India-AIM Trust set up a resource centre which provided irrigation pipes, spray machines and drums for making organic pesticides for a rent. Since the Centre was set up, over 60 women farmers have benefitted; the Centre earned around Rs 7000 through rent which was used to purchase additional resources and to make it a more self-sustainable entity. Last year they managed to receive the Rs 6000 through the Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi Yojana as well.     

These women farmers groups were linked with the UP State Livelihood Mission. They received a revolving fund of Rs 15000 for group agricultural activities and in February 2020, Sarojini’s group received Rs 1,10,000 as Community Investment Fund. Since the lockdown, AIM Trust has  been working very closely to link the groups with different government programmes to mitigate losses. And this is how they were able to receive 35 Kg ration through PDS and Rs 500 for a period of 3 months in their Jan Dhan account.

The training over the last couple of years, the resource centres, the climate-resilient agricultural practices helped the women farmers mitigate losses during the lockdown. They also received groundnut seeds from the agriculture department. AIM Trust and Oxfam India stepped in to provide masks and orient the farmers on physical distancing; the health department was roped in to sanitise the village.

Though the state government, in order to minimise the losses of the farmers, allowed harvesting from April 5, there is much more that the state needs to do. Farmers have suffered huge financial losses due to the lockdown. This pandemic should be seen as an opportune moment to launch some pro-women farmer initiatives.

80% of farm work is done by women and yet they are unable to benefit from any of the agriculture schemes because they don’t own land. For the small and marginal farmers this becomes a huge stumbling block as the men who can avail these schemes at the right time are often working as migrant labourers in other states. It is important that women farmers are recognised as farmers and given equal powers.   

For one, women farmers should be given joint land ownership so that they can benefit from different agriculture schemes directly, instead of through their husbands (most of who have migrated to other states for work). Second, a supply chain for vegetables should be established wherein the procurement facilities are set up in the village for the ease of women farmers. The women farmers of Rampurwa have demanded a local market in Mitauli with proper, separate toilet facilities for women farmers.

In fact, the women farmers groups have written to the Governor for the setting up of the local market. The response is awaited. Since the majority of farm work is done by women, it is time to make some policy changes to provide the same status to a woman farmer as is given to man.

Inputs by Ran Vijay Rai, Coordinator, Prosperity through Resilient Agriculture Project (AIM Trust)

Photograph: Rishi Srivastava


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