Raigad is rather green during the monsoon months. To the southeast of Mumbai, the district is peppered with coconut trees and flanked by the western ghats range of mountains, which are on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. Majority of vegetables and some food grains for Mumbai’s 30 million people are sourced from Raigad.
In April, after losing her job in a Mumbai beauty parlour, Sujata Gawde returned to her village in Raigad. She has been working in her uncle’s paddy fields since then. Gawde, along with seven other women in her extended family, does all the farm work – from sowing seeds to harvesting the produce – other than driving the tracker to plough the land.
Traditionally, farm work that women have done have not mechanised as much as the work men have done. This has meant more and more women work on the fields, while men were slowly being replaced by machines.
Almost 84% of women in rural India depend on agriculture for their livelihood. Between 2001 and 2011, female workforce in agriculture increased from around 54% to 63%, while the male workforce decreased by 9% to 37%, for the same period.
A good indicator of how indispensable women are to the Indian agricultural sector is government-funded child care facility.
Anganwadis – or village child care centres – are run by government appointed and trained women who care for children when the women work. They were started in 1975 as part of the Integrated Child Development Services program to combat child hunger and malnutrition. Such centres are not very common in urban India.
Despite all this, women’s contribution to agriculture and food security is rarely recognised. There are many reasons for this.
First, the lands are owned by men. Less than 13 % women own any land. So, the benefits of land ownership are reaped by men, while women toil away.
Second, men are at the forefront of selling farm produce in markets and taking money back home. Therefore, women become the ‘invisible’ farm workers who put food on the plates of all Indians.
The lockdown made matters worse for female farmers in India. Here’s how.
The nature of employment changed after COVID-19 hit. When a strict lockdown was announced in March, economic activities in the country came to a standstill and the unemployment rate shot up to 23.5% in April and May. As the country began to open up and businesses re-started, the rate went down around 11% and still hovers around that figure.
The strict nation-wide lockdown was announced with only a four-hour heads up. Buses, trains and flights were suspended. People were stuck where they were without a clear indication of how long might have to stay put. This started what some have called the greatest migration since the subcontinent’s partition in 1947 when about 15 million people were displaced.
Most daily wage workers who had migrated to the cities could not afford to live in them without sufficient financial support. They needed to return to their villages for sustenance. People walked back thousands of miles to their villages. Many died on the way. But, those who managed to survive reached their villages to mainly work on farm lands.
As a result, since August, there are many more farmers than salaried jobs. According to the Centre for Monitoring the Indian Economy, farmers and daily wage earners together account for nearly two-thirds of the Indian working population.
22-year-old Gawde returned to her village packed in a private minivan with 14 others. She used to send money to her family back in the village, since she was unemployed, she became financially dependant on them. “I wanted to ensure I am not a burden on my family,” she said and hence decided to take up the farm job. Although she slogs for about 10 hours a day, even when it rains incessantly, it is not considered ‘work’ because she is paid a lot less than what she used to make. “What I used to spend in a week earlier is what I earn now if I slog for a month,” she said. And her pay is irregular as she has not been paid for two weeks in August at all.
With more and more people returning to their villages, competition for farm work has increased, pulling the wages down considerably
This is not new for her family. Her mother, Lalita Gawde, takes care of all the household chores and spends an average of six hours in the fields. “But, her contribution to the household is never credited,” said Gawde. “And now I know how that feels.”
Published in: Forbes
Published on: September 21 2020