By Kalpana Sharma
After a poor monsoon season, much of India now appears to be headed into a serious drought.
In more than 12,000 villages in Maharashtra state, crops have withered. Farmers are struggling. And the summer heat has not yet even arrived.
The state government has already predicted that this will be the worst drought since 1972, a drought that many people have forgotten but not those who till the land and know the price it extracted from them.
Often, in the media, the face of the farmer afflicted by this drying up of land is almost always that of a man. Forgotten most of the time is the fact that the bulk of work done on farms across India is by women.
Seventy-nine per cent of rural women are agricultural workers; fewer rural men, sixty-three per cent, work on land.
Despite this reality, only a tiny percentage of women actually own the agricultural land they depend on.
The untold story of Indian agriculture is not just one of mismanagement — of water and other resources — but also of the refusal to acknowledge women’s contribution to agriculture.
A telling example of this is the dairy industry. According to some estimates, 93 per cent of dairy products are attributed to the work of women. An estimated 15 million women are involved in the dairy industry. They tend the cattle, collect fodder, collect and deliver the dairy products for further processing. Yet, few of them actually own cattle or land. As a result, the men and not the women who do the work usually take the benefits extended by the government to dairy farmers.
The majority of agricultural assets — land, machinery, money and credit — remains firmly in the hands of men. The irony is that despite several policies, where women are supposed to be joint holders with the men of land, or even sole owners, many women are not even aware that they own the land. No one, least of all the men, have bothered to inform them.
Why is any of this important? After all, these are agricultural families where everyone works. What does it matter if women work longer hours than the men? Why is it so important for them to be owners of the land they till? If the men own the land, does that not automatically mean they too are the owners?
A woman without an economic standing stands little chance of asserting her rights not just as a woman but as a human being. Of course, even women with independent economic means are not necessarily respected or heeded. But they have a greater chance to make choices than those who are forced into dependence and as a corollary to that, subservience.
Let us begin by accepting that women are farmers, that they should get the benefits extended to all farmers and that it is pointless talking about ending both violence against women and extreme poverty without seeing and recognizing women’s work and contribution to agriculture.