In India, the world leader in annual milk production at 100 million tonnes, an estimated 75 million women are involved in growing or collecting the fodder and feed essential for the dairy animals to produce more milk. In contrast, hardly 100,000 dairy farmers are involved in producing nearly 70 million tonnes of milk in the US. This is a good illustration of what Mahatma Gandhi described as “production by masses”, in contrast to the “mass production” technologies of the West. There are two important implications. First, we must improve the productivity and profitability of mass production technologies through labour diversification and not displacement. Second, we must mainstream gender considerations in all areas of agricultural research, education and extension. In other words, agricultural strategies should become pro-poor, pro-women and pro-nature.
Feminization of poverty and agriculture is increasingly becoming a reality. The National Commission on Farmers has dealt with this issue in detail and has urged that appropriate support services including crèches and day-care centres, should be provided to women farmers and farm labour. The National Academy of Agricultural Sciences has prepared a policy paper for the technological empowerment of women in agriculture (Swaminathan, M.S. (Ed.) 2007, Agriculture Cannot Wait, Academic Publishers). Its recommendations should become part of the research and education strategies of our agricultural institutes. Rural women can master new technologies, whether it is hybrid seed production or induced breeding in fish, or information and communication technologies, provided the methodology of training is learning by doing, a method I term “techniracy”.
Our food security challenge today is not only increasing production but, more importantly, enhancing the purchasing power of the rural and urban poor. We need a paradigm shift from unskilled to skilled work in the case of the poor, particularly women, so that there can be addition to the economic value of their time and labour.
Small-scale farming and micro-retail constitute the largest self-employment sector in the country. In both, women play a significant role. Development programmes which could affect their work and income security adversely should be avoided. At the same time, management tools which can confer on small producers the power and economy of scale should be introduced so that their economic survival can be safeguarded. The self-help group (SHG) movement, along with cooperatives, can provide such power of scale both—in the production and marketing phases of farm enterprise.
Last-mile and last-person connectivity has now become possible thanks to new technologies such as the cellphone. It is important to give greater attention to capacity building and content creation. A priority step should relate to the empowerment of rural families with knowledge relating to their entitlements. Knowledge is the key to social and economic development. The goals of “Literacy, health and food for all” can be achieved soon through innovative applications of information and communication technologies (ICT) by, for example, imparting adult literacy to the workers employed under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme.
The village resource centres being established by the Indian Space Research Organization at the block level enlarge the technological opportunities available to rural families in areas such as health care, natural resources management and disaster management. There is an urgent need for public-private-people partnerships to reduce the transaction costs and non-performing assets of rural credit through ICT-supported credit and extension initiatives by banks and the corporate sector.
The partnerships should result in socially sustainable and financially viable models of rural digital empowerment. Gram Sabhas should be fully involved in providing policy oversight at the village level. At least one woman and one male member of every panchayat should be trained as knowledge managers. The Jamsetji Tata National Virtual Academy for Rural Prosperity, which represents the celebration of rural genius and creativity, can play a big role in this.
Numerous studies have been made of the causes of farmers’ suicides. The most important cause is the non-remunerative and risk-prone nature of farming, which leads to chronic indebtedness. While the structural dimensions of this sad phase in our agricultural history, such as credit reform and pricing of farm produce, particularly cotton, are receiving attention, the human dimension relating to the widows and children belonging to the affected families needs greater and urgent attention.
The widows are predominantly young. They have some rain fed land ranging from 2 acres to 10 acres. Land is becoming the most precious asset in our country. These women need to be enabled to farm their land in an economically sustainable manner.
Based on extensive consultations with the affected women, I have launched a Federation of Women Farmers for Sustainable Livelihoods, consisting of about 1,000 women farmers to begin with. To give the power and economy of scale to such women farmers cultivating small holdings, they will be assisted to form SHGs.
Every women-farmer SHG will be supported by a gyan chaupal (village knowledge centre) and will be provided with an entitlements pass book, with information on all the schemes, government, non-government and banks, that they can access. These chaupals will be operated primarily by the women/children of the families where farmers committed suicides.
For the purpose of imparting the necessary skills, a Women Farmer Capacity Building and Mentoring Centre will be established in Wardha. The aim is to bring about a paradigm shift from unskilled to skilled work. Our hard-working farm women and men have helped the country to achieve a fair degree of self-sufficiency in food. Our agriculture is, however, currently at the cross-roads. If farm ecology and economics go wrong, nothing else can go right in agriculture. Farmers need life-saving support in the areas of conservation farming and work and income security.
“Jai Kisan” should not remain merely a slogan. Mahatma Gandhi, during a visit to the National Dairy Research Institute in Bangalore in the early 1930s, indicated his profession in the visitors’ book of the institute, as “farmer”. He thus signalled that farming is the noblest of professions. Revival of this spirit is the pathway to our agricultural salvation.
M.S. Swaminathan is member of Parliament and chairman, MS Swaminathan Research Foundation.