The empowerment of women farmers must precede any attempts at agricultural reforms that aim to kick-start a slumping Indian economy
In Maharashtra's 2019 Assembly elections, the Vidarbha constituencies presented interesting trends. The region is important politically not just for the stalwarts who contest from there but also for the development issues it represents.
More than three lakh farmers have committed suicide in India between 1991 and 2015. Maharashtra has been affected the worst with around 15,000 farmer suicides during 2013-2018, according to data retrieved under Right to Information.
The state houses Mumbai, the country's financial hub but suffers chronic agricultural distress resulting in rampant farmer suicides.
Regional variations between western and eastern Maharashtra and the consequent inter and intra-regional inequalities, add to the dichotomous character of the geography. While western Maharashtra is rich in sugarcane and profitable crops, eastern Maharashtra — which includes Vidarbha — has largely remained at the fringes of agricultural prosperity and economic development.
In the macro context of such agricultural distress, one point that requires imminent attention is the hitherto invisible female face of the crisis, the plight of women in agriculture, women labourers, women farmers (in case of land ownership), widows and adolescent girls.
Field observations from Wardha
Nani Tulsiram (40) from Deoli in Wardha lost her husband in November of 2018. Tulsiram Yadavram Sohyam consumed pesticide on another person's field, leaving behind his mother, two children aged 19 and 21 and his wife. A loan of Rs 19,000 was outstanding.
On discussing whether Nani was aware of the access to the six acres that the family owned, she said the administrative representatives came for paperwork and land title would be in her name soon.
This is in accordance with a Maharashtra government resolution, which called for land transfers / land titles to the widow of the farmer who committed suicide. This is an important step to expedite the process of recognising women in agriculture as 'farmers' so that they can avail the benefits of farmer welfare programmes, loan assistance and access to agricultural extension services.
Wardha district has suffered one among the largest spate of suicides, according to several agencies in Nagpur division (comprising Nagpur, Wardha, Bhandara, Gondia, Chandrapur, and Gadchiroli districts).
Merely two-three hours away from Nagpur, Wardha is yet to benefit from economic dividends of growth and development; little seems to have trickled down to farmers.
Hitavada recently pegged the number of farm suicides in the division at 4,158 since 2001. Wardha alone accounted for 1,708 of them.
That has been the trend despite the region being the launchpad of the PM Relief Fund programme in 2006.
In 2016, 109 farmers from the district wrote to the Government of Maharashtra seeking to commit suicide due to crop failure, Live Mint reported.
The Wardha administration estimated the total number of suicides in the district around 630 (2014-2018). Of them, 464 cases were found eligible for relief by a committee headed by the district collector.
Forty-six cases of women or girls committing suicide were reported between 2015 and mid-2019, depicting the rising and hidden problem of women taking their own lives.
There is awareness about new government regulations guaranteeing land transfers but faster implementation was needed to assist the likes of Tulsiram. The district administration has started a counselling centre.
Despite several Central and state-level measures, however, the issue of farm suicides is mired with several structural problems. This makes redressal difficult and some exclusion errors exacerbate the gender divide.
What exclusion errors
Consider the fact that data on farm suicides was initially missing in reports released by the National Crime Records Bureau. The lack of estimates manifests the agricultural crisis that the country is reeling under. In such a scenario, it is difficult to estimate the gravity of the problem, let alone arriving at gender-segregated data.
Second, the female face of the problem remains hidden. According to the Agriculture Census 2015, 88.46 per cent of rural women are employed by agriculture, the highest in the country, in Maharashtra.
India also has the highest number of widows — more than 46 million — according to the Loomba Foundation.
According to statistics quoted by the BBC in 2014, there were more than 53,000 farm widows in Maharashtra, of whom around 10,600 were in Vidarbha, mired in livelihood issues for thousands of cotton farmers, acute agrarian distress and psychological shocks.
The absence of property ownership and transfer, or inheritance, rights to women plague farm widows. They are affected by various cultural and local norms despite successive legislation such as the Hindu Succession Amendment Act (HSAA), 2005.
According to a 2018 study by Mahila Kisan Adhikar Manch (MAKAAM), 40 per cent of women widowed due to suicides (2012-2018) did not receive rights to their farmland. Only 34 per cent of the respondents received pension regularly.
Third, the number of farm suicides by women remains uncertain as the titular definition of a woman farmer remains ambiguous. In the absence of land titles or rights, women are not classified as
farmers. With no titles to their names, they are excluded from entitlements and benefits of government schemes.
In the absence of any economic security, adolescent girls and school-going girls face barriers in education, as pointed out by several on-ground observations.
Increasingly a greater number of women and girls are committing suicide due to agricultural distress. In order to arrive at holistic agricultural policy-level solutions, it is imperative for policymakers and governments to understand the female face of the farmer suicide conundrum.
Despite doing almost 60-80 per cent of farm work, Indian women owned only 13 per cent of the land, Oxfam reported in 2013. They constituted 73.2 per cent of the agricultural workforce, India Spend claimed.
Measures such as loan waivers are but band-aid solutions to a larger malaise of agricultural distress.
Economic empowerment of women by recognising them as farmers is the foremost step to enabling distributive justice in agriculture.
Without empowering women in farming by recognising them as farmers and giving them land rights, agriculture can't be sustained and neither can the economy.
Swasti Pachauri is a social sector consultant who has worked as Prime Minister's Rural Development Fellow in Seoni district of Madhya Pradesh, India. Views expressed are strictly personal