De-Feminisation of Indian Agriculture

These days, very often, we get to hear about “feminisation of agriculture” in India in policy-making circles, apart from the academic and activist circles. Media headlines buzzed with this concept last year, after the Economic Survey of 2018 made a mention of this. “Move over men, Economic Survey 2018 talks about feminisation of agriculture”, said one headline, and “Need women centric policy with feminisation of agriculture” said another. While there is no contention on the need for women-centric agriculture policies, this article will discuss whether there is indeed a “feminisation” of Indian agriculture, and if so, in what areas.

In Vol.2 of the Economic Survey 2017-18, on page 104, there is a box item which begins by stating that “with growing rural to urban migration by men, there is ‘feminisation’ of agriculture sector, with increasing number of women in multiple roles as cultivators, entrepreneurs and labourers”. That is the only reference to this so-called feminisation phenomenon, without any data supporting this claim. That is not to take away from the right arguments in this box article which also state that “with women predominant at all levels – production, pre-harvest, post-harvest processing, packaging, marketing – of the agricultural value chain, to increase productivity in agriculture, it is imperative to adopt gender specific interventions. An “inclusive transformative agricultural policy” should aim at gender-specific interventions to raise productivity of small farm holdings, integrate women as active agents in rural transformation, and engage men and women in extension services with gender expertise”.

What is feminisation of agriculture? Feminisation of agriculture is seen as a broadening and deepening of the involvement of women in agriculture. It is understood as a measurable increase of women’s participation in the agricultural sector. This is either an increase in the percentage of women in the agricultural workforce within overall female workforce, or an increase of women relative to men, because fewer men are working in agriculture. It is also sometimes seen as women taking over those gendered agricultural tasks which were once done only by men. Another aspect to “feminisation” can be understood to be explicit visibilisation of women’s involvement and participation in agriculture.

Macro-data points to “de-feminisation”: While it might indeed be true that there is feminisation in the above sense in some pockets of India, with men migrating out of agriculture, or even from villages in search of, or responding to opportunities outside agriculture or in urban centres, the national picture based on macro-economic data belies any feminisation phenomenon in India. The NSSO and Census data clearly point towards a de-feminisation of our agriculture, whereas it is only the quinquennial Agriculture Census surveys which point to some slow feminisation trends when it comes to the picture of operational land holdings.

NSSO data: A monograph by Vikas Rawal and Partha Saha (2015) called “Women’s Employment in India – What do recent NSS Surveys of Employment and Unemployment Show?” looked at trends in employment of women between 1999-2000 and 2011-12, using the 55th, 66th and 68th rounds of NSSO’s Employment and Unemployment Surveys (keeping out the 61st Round)[1]. The following are the main points and conclusions of Rawal and Saha:

  • It is well noted that a smaller proportion of working age women are in the work force than working age men – but it is noteworthy that the gap between work participation rates among men and women increased significantly between 1999-2000 and 2011-12 (the difference grew to over 48 percentage points in 2011-12 compared to 44 percentage points in 1999).
  • This is mainly due to collapse of rural employment, which has particularly hit rural women as women are primarily employed in rural areas, with limited opportunities in an urban economy.
  • The contraction of employment among rural women was driven almost entirely by a drop in availability of employment in agriculture, which is the mainstay of women workers in rural India. In 1999-2000, about 41 per cent of rural working-age women were employed in agriculture. This fell to less than 28 per cent in 2011-12. The small increase in other sectors was too small compared to the steep decline in work availability for women in agriculture. In contrast, employment for men declined by 11 percentage points in agriculture and increased by about 6 percentage points in construction in the same time period.
  • The sharp decline in proportion of women who were self-employed was primarily driven by a sharp increase in landlessness among rural households, which drove a large proportion of women who worked on their own lands out of the labour force (a decline from 22.8% in 1999-2000 to 17.7% in 2011-12 of proportion of working-age women who worked on their own household landholdings).
  • There was also a decline in the proportion of working age women who worked as wage labourers in agriculture declined from 18 percent in 1999-2000 to less than 10 per cent in 2011-12. The authors assume that greater adoption of labour displacing technology (in particular, increasing use of machines and weedicides), caused by increasing concentration of landholdings and increasing cost advantage of using labour displacing techniques, among other factors, may have been an important factor behind the decline in overall level of labour absorption in agriculture.

Coupled with barriers to mobility of women workers, including safety, these push factors in agriculture have led to a decline in employment of women. This then, is clearly a de-feminisation of agriculture in India, and not feminisation.

Meanwhile, the ones getting pushed out of this “counted” workforce are reporting themselves to be primarily engaged in household work. In the NSSO categories, Code 92 and 93 represent this “household work” and as Rawal & Saha point out, the clear distinction between these two is not very apparent. Here, maintenance of Kitchen Gardens, work in household poultry and dairy, food gathering, food processing etc., are all listed. The number of women workers in these categories has swelled and corresponds very well to the decline in the ‘counted’ workers, who themselves were invisible as Farmers even though they were counted in the SNA (system of national accounts). “About 45 per cent of the rural household worker women were engaged in various activities for obtaining food for the household. About 24 per cent rural household workers worked in maintenance of kitchen gardens for household use, about 22 per cent regularly worked to maintain household animal resources, about 19 per cent were engaged in collection of food, and about 14 per cent regularly worked in specified food processing activities”, as per Rawal & Saha. Going by the definition of a FARMER as per the National Policy for Farmers in India (2007), all these women are indeed Farmers, but not recognised or supported as such.

Census 2011: The other source of data which is reflecting the de-feminisation trends in Indian agriculture is the Census data. Here, the population data is further presented as a segment called “Workers”. As per Census 2011, 39.79% of India’s population is classified as Working Population – within this, 53.26% was male workers and 25.51% was female. In Rural India, the working population was 41.83% of the total population with 53.03% of men being ‘workers’ and 30.02 women in the population classified as ‘workers’. In 2001, the corresponding figures were 52.11 for men and 30.79 for women (this is the work participation rate).

Within Workers, for those engaged in Agriculture, there are two categories used based on self-reporting from the workers in the household – Cultivators, who are those who take a risk for the agricultural enterprise they are undertaking, and Agriculture Labourers, who are working in agriculture without any risk but for (daily) wage earnings.

Here, the following is the picture in absolute numbers and percentages between 2001 and 2011 of Cultivators and Agriculture Labourers, men and women.

  2001 Census 2011 Census
  Total Male Female Total Male Female
Cultivators, absolute Nos. 127312851 85416498 41896353 118692640 82706724 35985916
Out of total cultivators 100 67.1 32.9 100 69.7 30.3
Agri Labourers, absolute Nos 106775330 57329100 49446230 144329833 82740351 61589482
Out of total agriculture labourers 100 53.7 46.3 100 57.33 42.67
TOTAL workers in Agriculture 234088181 142745598 91342583 263022473 165447075 97575398
Out of total workers in agriculture 100.0 61.0 39.0 100 63 37
Cultivators’ percentage within M/F 60% 46% 50% 37%

Source: compiled by the author from Census 2001 and 2011 data

It can be seen clearly that out of the total workers in agriculture, 39% were women in 2001, and 61% were men. However, one decade later, out of the total workers in agriculture, only 37% were women and 63% were men. This then, is a taking over by men of the proportion of space that women used to occupy in this field, and is de-feminisation. Within male workers, while 60% used to be Cultivators as per Census 2001, by 2011, this percentage fell to 50%. Amongst women in agriculture, while 46% reported themselves as Cultivators in 2001, by 2011, this proportion fell to only 37%.

Agriculture Census 2015-16: It appears that this is the only macro data set that is pointing towards feminisation of Indian agriculture.  Here, number of female-operated operational holdings in India have increased to 13.87% of all operational holdings at the all India level (2.02 crore holdings, when compared to men with 12.52 crore holdings). In 2010-11 Agriculture Census, it was 12.79%, which itself increased from 11.70% in 2005-06. The female-operated area in India in 2015-16 stood at 11.57% of all operational area, up from 10.36% in 2010-11. In absolute numbers, this is 1.82 crore hectares, while men operated 13.7 crore hectares. In terms of average landholding size, men held 1.10 hectares while women held 0.90 hectares as per Agriculture Census 2015-16.

Masculinisation of Agriculture:

As agriculture gets more oriented towards markets both at the input and output end, it is not difficult to imagine that in an already asymmetrical access that exists to markets, due to a variety of socio-cultural-economic reasons, men are likely to take over more and more decision-making spaces – which seed to sow, which brand to opt for, which chemical to use, who to bring credit from to finance cultivation costs, where to sell, at what price and even what to do with the income that comes into his hand. Patriarchal norms that govern mobility, education levels, capacity to interface with the external world etc., push women to more marginal roles in this market-oriented paradigm of farming. Meanwhile, monocropping that goes with such market orientation would increase the burden of practical needs of women in terms of food and fodder security.

While farming does not constitute only cultivation, but is also about livestock farming too, which is increasingly contributing more incomes to Indian agricultural households, though women put in more work than men in livestock rearing too, their assertive presence is not concomitant or more at least in this sector. Dairy cooperatives often have more men as members, and this is all the more so at the governance level of these cooperatives and their federations.

In the recent past, evidence is emerging that with good investments that are going into FPOs, but with gender blindness that accompanies them, there might be an inadvertent widening of the gap between men and women farmers on numerous fronts.

RECOGNISE AND ADDRESS THIS DE-FEMINISATION: It is time that policy makers and grassroots workers both paid more attention to this de-feminisation trends in Indian agriculture. Part of the problem lies in women who are retreating into household (unpaid) work not being counted as Workers. The fact that they are being pushed back is a problem in itself, but explicitly identifying them as Farmers even in their household roles is important, so that they receive various services and support systems from the government. Another important part of the problem is that women who were earlier counted as workers in agriculture, are also losing their space to men.

Women farmers’ groups have been asking for a complete registry of all women farmers in this country, through a process of self and multiple identification of all women farmers (the woman herself opting to call herself as an agricultural worker and/or tenant cultivator and/or land owner farmer and/or livestock farmer and/or forest-dependent farmer, and/or beekeeper and/or primary processor etc. etc).  This is the only way that explicit identity and recognition can be provided to all women farmers, and access to various entitlements ensured for them, so that they find their farming viable and dignifying.

  • Kavitha Kuruganti is one of the Convenors of Alliance for Sustainable & Holistic Agriculture (ASHA) and is also associated with Mahila Kisan Adhikaar Manch (MAKAAM). This is a piece written for Farmers Forum, February-March 2019

[1] Vikas Rawal and Partha Saha (2015):  Women’s Employment in India – what do recent NSS surveys of employment and unemployment show? – Society for Social and Economic Research Monograph 15/1


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