May 17 2013

Show Me Your Palms, Sister

By Swati Bhattacharjee – a chief reporter-district for the Bengali newspaper “Ananda Bazar Patrika.” This is an excerpt from her original article which was published as an Op-ed in Bengali on 14th April.

Two women in West Bengal, India broke a significant, if invisible barrier in March. They were awarded the Krishni Ratna (Jewel of Agriculture) prize by the Government of West Bengal.

Chandarani Karan, 52, and Fulmani Hasda, 27, were among the 341 recipients of this year’s award. The other 339 recipients were men.

Chanda took over management of her family’s land when she was 17 and her father passed away. After receiving the award, she recalled her classmates teasing her at college, “They would tell me, ‘Show us your palm sister. Let us check if you really dig soil with the spade”.

Both women used new agricultural techniques to dramatically improve productivity and are now seen as leaders in the agricultural community of West Bengal.

Wonderful news. But consider the fact that hundreds of millions of women are engaged in agricultural work across rural India. In fact, women spend more hours in agricultural work than men. Data from several states have shown that, planting, transplanting, de-weeding, harvesting and thrashing are almost entirely done by women. Researchers have shown that in Rajasthan, Maharastra and Madhya Pradesh, hired women laborers and women of the household together do more than half of the work in agriculture. In orchards, cotton and ground nut cultivation, the bulk of the labor is all by women. Nevertheless, women are routinely thought of not as farmers, but as the “farmer’s wife.”

Why are they considered the farmer’s wife and not the farmer? One reason may be their lack of land ownership.

No land, no recognition as farmer.

SurojitMaiti, a leader of the Baradabar Primary Agricultural Cooperative said, “Our Cooperative has 2000+ members. But women members and credit taken by them is minimal. The reason is women do not have land.”

Likewise, Partha Kar is the head of agricultural credit of United Bank of India, the lead Bank in West Bengal. He told me that 15% of agricultural credit is in the name of women in this state. He said, “It’s only when women have land either in single or joint names or if the husband’s age is beyond loan eligibility limit, we get applications from women.”

One can sense the severity of the problem. Even Fulmani does not own any land. She tills land legally owned and controlled by her husband and father-in-law.

Chanda’s case is likewise illustrative. She did not marry because she wanted to be “independent.” She knew any traditional marriage would involve her leaving her birth home and the farm she has saved with her own two hands, to move to her new husband’s farm. “I fought with my mother against her plan for my marriage.” Now, Chanda, her brother, and mother till 6 acres of land, of which a little less than 2 acres are in her own name.

“Women’s labor is the property of her family,” explained Indian feminist economist Nirmala Banerjee. “Her labor can be extracted by the family. The state looks at the family as the unit of social security. That is why women’s assetlessness within the family does not become visible.”

But slowly, things are beginning to change. The last two decades of liberalization saw an increase in the number of men migrating to urban areas to look for work which forced a simultaneous increase of women agricultural labor. But not just labor. Women increasingly have to manage the farm, and that often gives them control over assets.

Consider prize winner Fulmani Hasda, a tribal woman who lives about an hour’s drive from the nearest town. Hasda, has opened her first bank account and deposited the prize money of Rs. 10,000 ($184). She said that she will invest the money in land. She asked her husband to partition some land in her name. Indrajit, her husband, has agreed.

Her husband  asked me in a whisper, “Will my wife obey me after that?”




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