There was a time when women’s work in agriculture and animal husbandry was rarely counted. But according to the 2015-16 Agriculture Census, 11.72 per cent of the total operated area in the country was operated by female holders. Civil society assessments suggest that three-fourths of the full-time workers on farms are women because men move to cities for higher wages. Yet, there was little attention to empowering women in agriculture. The Rural Livelihood Mission initiated a Mahila Kisan Sashaktikaran Pariyojana (MKSP) in 2010-11 to ‘meet the specific needs of women farmers’.
Over the last decade, 1.74 crore women farmers have joined the Livelihood Mission’s work. The efforts are focused on small and marginal women producers, mostly in rain-fed areas, with a household-centric approach. They are taught risk mitigation, increasing incomes, reducing cost and sustainability. The thrust is on agro-ecological practices, Non-Timber Forest Produce (NTFPs), livestock, skill-based enterprise and value chain activities.
The Brahmastra of farming
Over 60,000 Krishi and Pashu Sakhis, working as women Community Resource Persons (CRPs), who have themselves come out of poverty, have been developed as agents of change through intensive capacity building in partnership with national and state resource persons and institutions such as Krishi Vigyan Kendras. Farmers’ Field Schools (Krishi and Pashu Pathshalas) have partnered with women’s collectives. Seed preservation, seed rotation, and seed treatment by brine solution, cow urine, beejamrut (cow dung, cow urine and lime), and Trichoderma (bio fungicide) have been tried.
Women farmers were trained in these farmer schools. The programme aimed to cover all aspects of agriculture, including the promotion of soil moisture, conservation, and soil nutrient management practices like using vermicompost and jeevamrut (cow dung, urine and mud). Digging ridge and furrow, trenches, corner pits, and farm ponds for in situ moisture conservation, and crop protection through trap crop, yellow sticky trap, Brahmastra (fermented tobacco leaves), Agneyastra (neem, garlic, cow urine and Besharam leaves), and Neemastra were encouraged. Women also received kitchen garden kits.
There were also concerted efforts, since 2014-15, to converge this work with the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), under which over 60 per cent of the budget was spent on agriculture and allied activities. Ashok Pankaj’s 2017 study highlighted how individual beneficiary schemes went up from a fifth of the works taken up in 2012-14 to two-thirds (67.71 per cent) in 2019-20. While suggesting how MGNREGS can be re-engineered for doubling farmers’ incomes, the study in six districts of Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu confirmed the major gains in incomes of these households as a consequence of this thrust. The landless farmers with household gardens could also take up animal sheds and 90 days of wage work under the Pradhan Mantri Awaas Yojana. So, the landless were also not left out.
This led to a meteoric increase in income-generating durable assets as compared to the MGREGS of 2005-2014. In the eight years from 2014 to 2022, 35.76 lakh farm ponds, 307.16 lakh natural resource management works, 21.01 lakh horticulture works, 67.03 lakh plantations, 11.38 lakh check dams, 10.87 lakh dug wells, 11.90 lakh cattle sheds, 16.62 lakh NADEP vermicompost pits, 49.99 lakh water conservation structures, and a total of 377.08 lakh individual beneficiary works came up. This number was only 26.58 lakh for 2005-2014. Sikkim’s organic story, Madhya Pradesh’s agricultural improvements, Jharkhand’s vegetables, fruits and animal resources thrust, Odisha’s innovative NTFP and mango-related initiatives, Rajasthan’s water management, Andhra Pradesh’s natural farming, Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh’s efforts at Prakritik Kheti have all gained from such social capital, convergence and credit.
It is not that 2014-2022 did not have rainfall deficient districts; it is just that rain-fed areas are better prepared than before. From river rejuvenation efforts in Uttar Pradesh’s Banda to revival of tanks in Uttarakhand’s Udham Singh Nagar, a silent revolution in water management is underway, even though the challenge is herculean in many parts of India. Documentation of such efforts by IITs in three volumes of successes under MGNREGS and its contribution to rain-fed agriculture, confirms the gains.
Taking women forward
The thrust on convergence reflects in the 24,520 custom hiring centres for agricultural operations, managed by women’s collectives, 84,550 banking correspondent sakhis as CRPs, Rs 5.20 lakh crore bank Linkage with a little over 2 per cent NPA, 2.08 lakh start-up village enterprises, 2165 women-managed public transport, and so on. Mapping SHG accounts to individual ones, formalisation of SHG groups for financial purposes, and creating credit histories will enable higher-order loan eligibility, especially for working capital for such groups.
The entire initiative has been independently evaluated by the University of Stanford (2019), Institute of Rural Management Anand (2018), Institute of Economic Growth (2017), A.C. Nielsen (2019) and others. They all clearly establish gains in incomes due to diversified livelihoods of women farmers. The 6,595 households, 173 SHGs, 162 Community Resource Persons and 306 village-based Nielsen study across eight States (Rajasthan, Chhatisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Assam) in 2019 provide the following findings.
- Householdswith women farmers trained report 1.3 times more income from agriculture than others.
- Dietary diversity was better in intervention villages.
- Adoption of Agro-Ecological Practices like land preparation, soil and plant nutrition management and plant protection were more in treatment villages (59 per cent).
- Three major veterinary services received for the livestock (through Pashu Sakhi) were medicines, vaccination and deworming.
- In treatment households, income from livestock was more than others(2.5 times).
- In the majority of households, livestock is a secondary activity. Butin the treatment households, the majority had multiple sources of livelihood.
The lessons on natural farming and climate resilience based on all the studies are as follows–
- Sustainable agricultural practices are possible through intensive hand-holding in a community.
- Convergence with the social capital of women’s collectives substantially increases incomes in a few years.
- Animal resources are a source of major income gains but require new practices and implementation.
- Multiple livelihoods are the way landless, poor marginal and small farmers can improve their incomes. A single-crop system is not the way out.
- Cost of agriculture and use of chemical fertilisers comes down with extensive use of bio-fertilisers and biopesticides. However, productivity gains from agriculture remain modest, but sustainable.
- Credit availability and linkage of women’s collectives with initiatives of all concerned departments (agriculture, horticulture, animal resources, forests, etc.) facilitates effective use of public resources and returns therefrom.
- We cannot be purists when it comes to natural farming because there are distinct effective sustainable agricultural practices that hold the key to improvingsoil health. Let a thousand flowers bloom than preach only one set of purist practices. Improved soil health and climate resilience require a multi-sectoral diversified livelihood thrust.
- Evidence-based approach is the way forward, besides community connect, use of technology, hand-holding by CRPs, and assessing last-mile challenges.
Amarjeet Sinha is a retired civil servant. Views are personal.