Features | October 21, 2017

Women farmers are leading northern India from subsistence to regeneration

Esha Chhabra
Guest Author

Esha Chhabra

ALMORA DISTRICT, UTTARAKHAND — Shanti Devi is racing around her farm in her sari, shooting at monkeys with a slingshot. Her tiny plot, at nearly 7,000 feet, has a glorious view across a tiered valley to the Himalayas. She grows herbs, onions and potatoes, and looks after wild apricot trees.

Devi works the farm alone — her husband works in a nearby village and her children work at jobs in Delhi. For additional income, she sells apricot shells to a local non-profit, which turns them into beauty products for markets in north India and Delhi. Her goal is simple: She wants to earn enough on the farm so her family can afford to return. Monkeys that pillage the fruit deprive her of income she badly needs.

“If they eat it all, what will I have left over?” she asks in Hindi.

Those women are not letting their farms and villages slide into neglect. Rather, these unlikely entrepreneurs are leading a rural revival. Devi is part of a grassroots, women-led movement that is finding new sources of income. They are restoring the land with regenerative farming techniques that supply the country’s metro areas with organic products, medicinal plants and herbs.

Working cooperatively and newly networked with India’s urban centers and global markets, small-scale farmers, primarily women, represent a new force in Indian agriculture. Growing these women-led efforts will be an important part of meeting Sustainable Development Goal №13 for climate action (including “Strengthen resilience and adaptive capacity to climate-related hazards”) and №15 for “Life on Land” (including “promote the implementation of sustainable management of all types of forests, halt deforestation, restore degraded forests”).

Increasingly, rural households are fragmented, as women work the farms while husbands and children, like Devi’s, leave for better-paying jobs in the cities. This leaves women as the dominant force in the countryside. More than 70 percent of women in the state work in agriculture, says Anita Paul, Kalyan’s wife and co-founder of the Pan Himalayan Grassroots Development Foundation. While in the country as a whole, nearly half of all self-employed farmers are women. The development community calls this trend, “the feminization of agriculture.”

“The feminization of agriculture has been proceeding gradually and incrementally,” says Anirudh Krishna, a professor of public policy at Duke University and the author of The Broken Ladder, a new book documenting the challenges of modern-day India. “It was known a generation earlier. But its extent has become vastly larger.”

Sugandha Munshi, a gender specialist at the International Rice Institute and a native of Bihar, one of India’s poorest states, has traversed the country, meeting with women farmers to understand their challenges and identify solutions. She sees a change happening: the government of India is finally recognizing these female farmers because the United Nations appointed October 15th as International Day of the Female Farmer — a gesture, she says, “gives a lot of hope” to women farmers whom she refers to as the “unsung heroes of Indian agriculture.”

Beyond government recognition, grassroots movements, led by self-help groups, Munshi notes, “are bringing [a] silent revolution in this context. When the women farmers come together they have better bargaining power.”

The women in the company come from more than 200 villages across the Gagas and the Kosi river basins. They have formed self-help groups of 10 to 20 women who convene regularly to help each other with financial issues, to lend money through a collective fund, and to educate one another on day-to-day matters such as farming, sanitation, and water collection.

Besant Devi, a member of Mahila Umang, has seen the effects first-hand. A decade ago, before joining the cooperative, she says, her family had no food at home, three children to feed, and debt of 20,000 Rs. (about $300). Today, thanks to the help of Mahila Umang, she’s been able to erase that debt. She makes pickles and preserves with local fruits such as apricots, plums, apples, and pears.

Mahila Umang is one of the largest cooperatives in the region and employs the most women. Other grassroots organizations such as Aarohi and Chirag also promote organic farm-based products from Uttarakhand.

The cooperatives promote the organic nature of traditional agriculture in the hills; local farmers were often too poor to buy chemical fertilizers and pesticides. In addition, there’s a concerted effort to encourage organic methods when cultivating new crops. Nearby states such as Sikkim, Himachal Pradesh, and Meghalaya have adopted state-level legislation and programs to encourage organic farming techniques. Sikkim, a small eastern state, was the first to go 100 percent organic under mandates from the local government. Given its small size and single-party politics, it was an easier conversion than large, sprawling regions such as Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh.

“Everyone in Bangalore, Delhi, Mumbai is waking up to organic. So this could be the right opportunity to save the hills and get some of these kids to come back,” Paul says.

Once dense oak forests, the hills have seen a change in their ecology, which is making farming harder and putting greater burden on the ecosystem. Photo Credit: Esha Chhabra
Women farmers in Uttarakhand. Photo Credit: Esha Chhabra

Rural revival

In northern India, as you weave up the winding roads and leave the plains of Uttar Pradesh behind, small plots of land appear, carved into the sides of mountains. Again and again, you see women bent over, dressed in saris and wrapped in shawls, tending to grain fields of amaranth, rye and barley. On these compact plots, often less than a hectare, these women try to grow as much as possible.

Like many of them, Devi is alone on her farm for most of the year while her family are away working at their non-farming jobs, “anything that would make them more money than this,” she says. Their absence is bittersweet, she says. They are making a good living, but they have to leave the farm to do it.

Her small plot produces barely enough for her to eat. A local non-profit, Aarohi, makes it possible for her to bring in a little extra income by buying wild apricots that she gathers from her land. Aarohi pays Devi by the kilogram and processes the apricot shells for facial and body scrubs and the seeds into an oil. In addition to giving local women a small supplemental income, the non-profit uses proceeds from the sales to help finance a health-care program for women in the Almora district.

If farming is ever going to attract men and young back to the land, it will depend on women like Devi to make it a successful, alluring model.

The reporting for this story was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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