India: Agricultural Poverty and Women Print E-mail
Monday July 11 2005

The plight of women farmers

By Jayati Ghosh

When analysts talk of the economic empowerment of women, they rarely focus on problems in agriculture, which is still implicitly seen as a male domain. Most of the women employed in India are engaged in agriculture, whether as workers in household farms owned or tenanted by their families, or as wage workers. Yet it is precisely livelihood in agriculture that has tended to become more volatile and insecure in recent years, and women cultivators have therefore also been negatively affected.

Despite some efforts by the Central government and some state governments over the past year, agriculture in India remains in an advanced state of crisis. The burden of this crisis has fallen disproportionately on small and marginal farmers, tenant farmers and rural labourers. The most extreme manifestation of this crisis is in the suicides by farmers, who are typically driven to this desperate act by the inability to repay debt incurred in the process of cultivation, which has become a volatile and economically less viable activity.

But this is only the tip of the iceberg of generalised rural distress which has also been expressed in severe cases in kidney sales and hunger deaths in certain areas. The problems of farming are evident, ranging from frequent droughts and soil degeneration, to lack of institutional credit and insurance leading to excessive reliance on private moneylenders, problems in accessing reliable and reasonably priced inputs to problems of marketing and high volatility of crop prices.

But the crisis is also reflected in other features of the rural economy: the decline in agricultural employment and stagnation of other employment, leading to reduced food consumption and forced migration of workers; the evident decline in per capita calorie consumption even among the poor.

There are several factors behind this: the deceleration in most agricultural production; the rise in cultivation costs (also associated with rising prices of fertiliser and more commercialisation of increasingly expensive inputs such as seeds and pesticides); the enhanced threat of import competition, which has led to price volatility and depressed crop prices even when domestic harvested output has been lower; the decline in institutional credit forcing cultivators to seek more expensive credit from informal sources.

Production indicators give the first indication of the problem. For several decades before the Nineties, the Indian economy experienced a secular growth rate of food grain production of around 2.5 per cent per annum, which was a little higher than the population growth rate. Over the Eighties, there was an acceleration of the growth in output, with all food grains except coarse cereals and oilseeds all showing relatively high rates of growth, led by yield increases rather than acreage expansion.

However, the subsequent period has shown a decline in rate of output growth for every single one of the major crop categories. Over the Nineties, the growth rate of food grain production dropped to 1.66 per cent per annum, which was lower than the population growth rate of 1.9 per cent in the same period. This was not only the lowest average rate since the mid-Fifties, but also was a major slowdown compared with the earlier decades. Meanwhile, in the last five years, per capita total agricultural production (including non-food grain crops) has also fallen.

The fall in production cannot be blamed on lack of area expansion, because the Nineties actually experienced a more rapid rate of area expansion than the Eighties, for most crops. (The exception is traditional staple food grains, for which cultivated area declined.) Rather, it was the collapse in yield growth that explained the deceleration in output growth.

To some extent this reflected the easing down of the process of spread of Green Revolution techniques to other regions (particularly the eastern region) that had marked the Eighties. The most significant deceleration was to be found in food grains. Aggregate food grain production has been largely stagnant over the past few years.

Overall agricultural production probably grew at around 3.5 and 2.2 per cent per annum during the Eighties and Nineties respectively. Adjusted for terms of trade, farm real income growth was around 4.5 and 2.5 per cent per annum during these two periods. This implies that in terms of per capita of rural population, annual growth of income and output during the Nineties were around 1 and 0.5 per cent respectively. In addition, there has been virtually no growth in per capita agricultural output and incomes after 1996-97, according to any series.

Rates of growth of farm business incomes, according to official Cost of Production estimates, declined from 3.6 per cent per annum in the Eighties to 1.5 per cent per annum in the Nineties. Therefore, it is likely that per capita agricultural real incomes have actually declined after 1996-97 due to both very low yield growth for most crops and substantial terms of trade loss for non-cereal crops.

This implies a significant shift in income distribution in the economy away from agriculture. Nevertheless, agriculture continues to account for nearly two-thirds of the working population in the rural areas, and 70 per cent of rural women?s employment.

The real concern in the food and agriculture sector at present is the dismal government performance in terms of the two most important aims of its stated strategy towards this sector: that of providing food security to the population as a whole, and of providing livelihood security to cultivators.

Farmers, including women cultivators, are being squeezed by rising costs of inputs, reduction of subsidies, and reduced public investment in the rural areas, even as they are being asked to compete with agricultural imports from developed countries, which are themselves based on high and rising real levels of actual subsidy. Women farmers are typically more adversely affected since they are usually denied not only land titles, but also access to subsidised inputs, institutional credit, etc., which require these titles, and therefore have higher cultivation costs.

All these processes in turn impact on the demand for agricultural labour, and since women are also heavily involved in this type of activity, it necessarily affects them negatively as well. Given the existing gender inequalities in society, the livelihood crisis of the farming community in general has disproportionate adverse effects on women and girl children not only in farming families, but even among those engaged in non-agricultural activities. So it is probably time for those concerned with gender issues to focus particularly on the plight of women farmers.