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Inequality deepens climate challenge for India's women farmers

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Tue, 30 Oct 2012 09:41 GMT
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HYDERABAD, India (AlertNet) - Being a women farmer in India isn’t easy at the best of times, due to unequal land rights, a lack of training and limited access to affordable credit. Now changing climate patterns are making it even harder.

Women are in a weaker position when it comes to dealing with the droughts and erratic rainfall that have cut their yields in recent years – especially as many are marginal farmers with less than 3 acres (1.2 hectares)  of land.

Anima Mitra, a 42-year-old marginal farmer from Sonamara, a village in India’s remote northeast region, is angry that in the 2011 government census, an official recorded her as “a housewife without an occupation”, even though she has grown food for her family for the past 20 years.

“As sharecroppers, we farm others’ land and take 50 percent of the harvest. But since my husband’s death three years ago, the land owners are refusing to let me till. They say I am incapable of doing it on my own,” sighs Mitra.

Women are also excluded from meetings and workshops organised by the local council to inform farmers about new agricultural schemes and train them in innovative methods, she adds.

Such neglect persists despite the fact that 70 percent of India’s working women are engaged in agriculture, and they make up 30 percent of the agricultural labour force.

Budhan Bai, 53, another marginal farmer from central India, has a different complaint. Her state, Chhattisgarh, has witnessed successive failed monsoon rains, and falling yields have forced her to stop cultivating rice and shift to more drought-tolerant sweet potato. But selling her produce is a problem.

“Nobody in our village eats sweet potato every day. The district market is too far away. So I have to sell to retailers who pay only Rs10 (around $0.20) per kilo, which is half the market price. If the government could buy my produce like it buys rice and wheat, I wouldn’t struggle so much,” she explains bitterly.

STATES SLOW TO ACT

Mohani Devi, Bai’s neighbour, nods in agreement. She started growing a pulse called red gram (pigeon pea) three years ago, taking out a loan of Rs15,000 ($279) from a private money lender to buy seeds. She is now having trouble paying back her debt.

“In the beginning, the interest was 15 percent, but later the lender increased it to 20 percent. He says many people have borrowed money and left the village without paying him back. So he didn’t have a choice but to increase the interest rate for others,” she says.

The government was too slow to declare the area as drought-affected, and relief packages with free seeds have yet to arrive, she says. If the aid had come sooner, she wouldn’t have needed the loan.

Bureaucracy is unlikely to get much quicker. But experts say Indian states could try buying a wider range of agricultural produce at a fixed price - at least in disaster-prone districts - to help farmers cope better with climate extremes.

Subramaniam Kannaiyan, head of the Tamil Nadu Farmers Association, a union of over 5,000 small and marginal farmers in south India, argues that agriculture should be dealt with at the state level.

“Each state can make its own needs assessment and take action to address a climatic disaster like a failed monsoon, drought or flood. Unfortunately most states just wait for the centre to take the first step,” he says.

Yet even the national government has no comprehensive strategy to help farmers adapt to climate change. The inadequate response means communities are often left to find their own ways of coping with fast-changing climate conditions.

TRADITIONAL KNOWLEDGE

For 45-year-old Muthuni Farka, a Kond tribal woman from Baraipadar village in eastern India, that’s where the early warning mechanism used for centuries by her hunter-gatherer tribe is invaluable.

“There are many ways we can predict a natural disaster,” she says. Signs of a below-normal monsoon include fewer honey bees, birds building their nests on low tree branches and reduced bamboo flowering.  

“If we read these signs well, we know that it will be wise to grow crops that do not require much water because, without rain, we have no other way to water our fields,” says the farmer, who has 2.5 acres of land.

Farka and her community are also getting support from Debjeet Sarangi, an agriculturist with Living Farms, an NGO that promotes organic production. The Konds were introduced to rice cultivation by the government in the mid-1990s, but now there is less rain, Sarangi is advising them to start growing millet again, their staple diet for centuries.

“They have this great early warning mechanism and we are coordinating with them to select crops on the basis of the predictions,” he explains. “At the same time, we are training local women to farm without any chemical inputs. The idea is to increase the soil health, while keeping the production cost low.”

Besides millet, Farka also grows arum (an edible tuber), sweet potato and oilseed. “Things are far better than they were five years ago. We were starving then,” she says.

Sarangi believes the government should use the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) - a scheme that provides 100 days’ work per year to villagers living below the poverty line - to support agricultural adaptation projects like rainwater harvesting, community plantations and multi-purpose crop cultivation. “But that would need a strong political will and a well-coordinated effort,” he adds.

SUSTAINABLE APPROACH

The southern state of Andhra Pradesh is setting an example. Here, over a million women in around 8,000 villages are earning a living through pesticide-free, collective farming under a programme called Community Managed Sustainable Agriculture (CMSA).

Launched in 2004, its basic goal was to eliminate poverty. But it has also helped reclaim thousands of acres of degraded land and keep rural migration in check, according to its director D V Rayudu.

As a lower-caste Dalit, Sujathamma Begary from Malchelma village had always been a landless farm worker. But since joining the CMSA early this year, the 36-year-old has become the co-owner of a three-acre farm with four other neighbours.

The government gave them a loan to buy the land and provided free seeds, besides training them in multi-cropping, composting and making organic pesticide. A mother of two toddlers, Begary is not only proud to be recognised as a farmer, but also happy that her family is now better nourished.

“For 20 years, I was just a farm labourer. Today, I am a farmer who can feed her children green vegetables,” she says with moist eyes.

Her partner Sangamma explains how they use a rotational method to grow 22 crops, including corn, pigeon pea and a variety of beans and gourds, alongside marigold and hibiscus flowers.

“We sell the flowers in the local market and earn a little money every day. For pest control, we plant castor and also spray neem extract mixed with cow’s urine. Since our production cost is very low, we hope to repay the loan in two years’ time,” she says confidently.

Rayudu says the CMSA’s biggest success is improving the position of women farmers, especially from marginalised communities, and young woman are particularly enthusiatic about it.

“We are aiming to bring in a new green revolution and we cannot achieve this by excluding women who are at the root of our food production,” he told AlertNet. “I believe that  other states can also adopt this model to bring women’s empowerment.”

Stella Paul is an environment and development journalist based in Hyderabad, India. Twitter: @stellasglobe

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