Women farmers and agrarian distress

Image source: Makkam report

In January 2017, members of the Tamil Nadu Federation of Women Farmers’ Rights, a unit of Mahila Kisan Adhikar Manch (MAKAAM), conducted a field study to document the impact of the drought-induced rural distress on woman farmers. The report describes the situation in Tamil Nadu as a “famine”. Some contributing factors are concentration of ownership of arable land among fewer landlords, and destruction of water resources through sand mining and activities of breweries. Within this dire situation the report discusses the additional problems faced by women farmers arising out of lack of land ownership.

According to the report, the Federation is “an Alliance of networks, campaigns, movements, organisations, people’s collectives and individuals who advocate, for the Right to Livelihood of women farmers , particularly the dalits, adivasis, single women, differently abled and displaced.”
The role of women farmers in usually ignored when discussing the agrarian economy. This is partly because the identity of farmer is linked to land ownership. But according to report, despite 74% of the rural women workforce being engaged in agriculture (as against 59% of the male workforce) only 12.69% are legally recognized as farmers. This makes most statistics about the agrarian sector problematic. In the case of farmer suicides, women farmers are not included in the tally – but they might be classified as ‘housewife’.

Land ownership is also becoming more concentrated in the hands of the rich – 10% of people own 55% of arable land in the state, according to the report. The report goes to say that “in Tanjavur district alone 28,862 new trusts with 1,98,270 acres of land were created by landlords in order to circumvent the ceiling acts”.
It is this context that a 7-member team covered 13 villages over 5 districts – Thiruvannamalai, Villupuram, Thiruvarur, Nagapattinam, Thanjavur and Pudukottai. Various interviews are recorded with women, most of them recent widows. Most of them were informally leasing land or owned less than 3 acres. The findings of the study are very disturbing.

It describes the situation in Tamil Nadu as a “famine”. Most of the affected are dalits or MBCs. Local sandmining and liquor distilleries and breweries are responsible for large amounts of water being sucked out of the groundwater table. It found that the average expenditure per acre exceeds Rs. 26,000 while the Chief Minister of the state had announced at the time only Rs. 5000 as compensation for the loss of crops. Many of them will not even get this amount as they are not legal owners of the land. Many of the women had dependent children, either in school, college or unemployed, and they have no resources to fight for life-saving compensation from the government. Therefore, immediate relief in the form of compensation and jobs were demanded.
In the longer term, the recognition of women as farmers, the reinvigoration of water bodies and irrigation systems, participatory committees with equal women representation for provision of services to the most marginalized, efforts to protect groundwater from salinization and a broad water mapping initiative are some of the required interventions.

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