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Gaining identity as farmers – A case of women collectives in Kerala

The  Kerala State  provides a different picture  of  the success  of women in farming. Collective power of women groups, integration of local self governments and proactive credit schemes have enabled landless women to emerge as commercial organic farmers  in Kerala. Women are now visible  as  major farmers in the State, cultivating  large areas  of paddy, vegetables, banana and tuber crops, on a group basis. A large number of women are gaining identity as “farmers” under these women collectives.

Women working in the rice fields
Women working in the rice fields

The socio economic transformation during the last three decades has resulted in large scale conversion of paddy fields for non farming uses in Kerala.  Factors like increasing labour cost, lack of effective  market support and resulting low returns and frequent vagaries of climate   had created a disinterest among land owning farmers to continue farming. Large patches of paddy lands have been left fallow. This has resulted in reduction of employment opportunities in the farming sector, which has affected the women farm workers  and their families severely. Traditionally, women have been  the major partners of  the  Kerala’s farming system. Most of them are either engaged as unpaid family workers in their family farms or  engaged  as paid workers in other farmers.

One of the major constraints in general, the women groups across the State face is the non-availability of land for farming.  Most of the land owners are afraid of losing their right on land by leasing out.  In Kerala, there is a total ban on leasing of land for cultivation as part of the Land Reforms Act.  But various types of informal leasing and hiring out do exist in practice. Even in such informal leasing arrangements, most of the owners are not ready to allow the women groups to use the land for farming.  This is a constraint which seriously affects the sustainability of women’s participation in farming.

Farming livelihoods that excluded women, in fact served as  an  ideal  opportunity  for  the Government of Kerala. Women, as groups, were motivated to take up farming, utilizing  micro credit and  hired fallow lands in their localities, through the Kudumbashree programme of the government.

Kudumbashree programme

Kudumbashree, the State Poverty Eradication  Mission of Kerala,  started in 1998,  has established  State-wide base of community organizations of women   to work in tandem  with local self governments for poverty eradication  through  socio- economic development and women empowerment. In each Local Self Government (LSG) Unit – Gram Panchayath or Urban Local Body, the Kudumbashree has a  federated  structure  of three tiers – Neighborhood Group(NHG), Area Development Society (ADS) and Community Development Society (CDS).

Ten to 20 women from economically weaker families residing in an area of physical proximity, register as NHG at the grassroots. In each ward of the LSG, there is one ADS in which five members from each NHG within the ADS area constitute the General Body. The apex tier of Kudumbashree i.e. the CDS is anchored in the corresponding level LSG unit.

Community Development Society (CDS), the gram panchayath level co-ordination unit of the Kudumbashree Mission, has a great role in the implementaiton of the  system. The unit  mobilizes women members of Kudumbashree  in the  Gram Panchayth to form JLGs,  do  all the paper work for  women groups’  loan application, keep close watch on all JLG  groups (which range from 250 to 300), provide guidance for their activities, do liaison work with the Gram Panchayath and Department of Agriculture, for converging  development programmes, facilitate  technical trainings on crop management  and monitor  timely repayment  of credit by the groups.

The  interface  of the CDS and LSG  enables   participatory  governance, bottom up consolidation of development demands in the community and acts  as a tool  for  the LSG to converge resources for  local development  and  poverty alleviation  from various sources. Credit support is made available for group farming with almost zero interest through the Joint Liability Group (JLG) Scheme of the NABARD. Four to five women take up group farming activities and raise credit on group basis under the JLG Scheme. The credit subsidy support Kudumbashree received from the Mahila Kissan Sasaktheekaran Pariyojana (MKSP) under the National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM) has also played pivotal role in making low interest credit a reality for the women groups, helping them to take up farming.

More than 2.8 lakh women members of low income families organized into 61836 JLGs are now farming in fallow lands. During the current year, the area covered under JLG farming in the State is 38706 hectares.  This also means that these women have brought back farming in around 39000 hectares of land,  most of which is organic too!   The major crops grown are paddy (10934 ha), banana (10648 ha), tubers (8686 ha), vegetables (8476 ha) and other crops (14433 ha).

The collective strength earned by the women under Kudumbashree and the  availability  of credit  at low interest for taking up  farming,  have played a crucial role in transforming the landless women as farmers.

Eco friendly group farming

Most of the members of the women groups are following eco-friendly farming with low chemical inputs, while a considerably large number among them are able to follow organic farming as well. For organic manure, some of them have their own manure production using cow dung, poultry manure, vermi compost, wild plant manure, coir pith compost etc. For pest management, the women groups largely depend on bio inputs produced. The women do feel that eco friendly farming is both cost and labour intensive, without fetching a premium price for their produce.   But some of the women groups expressed their satisfaction for getting opportunity to provide safe food available at cheaper rate to their local communities.

Members packing rice for markets

Some women groups got motivated to take up processing of their produce and to sell value added products. The  Alamkode and  Thennala  panchayaths  have demonstrated their innovative leadership by collecting the paddy produced by the women groups,  getting it milled at local rice mills, and selling  under  their own   brand names- Thennala rice and Puthari Organic Rice of Alamkode. Various rice based products like flakes, rice powder, broken rice etc., are also introduced into market from these two women farmer groups. These initiatives are being supported by NABARD to help them establish as Producer Companies of women farmers.

 Impact

“Now we are farmers and not workers”,  “I could   provide  professional  education  to my children”, “I could buy gold for my daughters’ marriage”, “I own a  two wheeler”, “I could buy land in my name and build a new house”, “I could buy a vehicle for my  husband and support  him to expand his business”,  “I am able to store paddy I produce, which serves for an entire year of rice requirement  to my family”,  “I am respected as an earning member and included in all decision making matters in my family”, “I am approached by my husband to get credit and by neighbours to get development information from the  Panchayath office”. These are some of the voices of the women which reflect the impact of the programme on their lives.

In selected Grama Panchayaths, such as, Annamanada (Thrissur), Alathoor (Palakkad), Alamkode and Thennala (Malappuram), the Panchayath level Kudumbashree Units were able to mobilize  the  support of the  local Panchayath and   Agriculture Office to  set up  the preliminary forms of ‘land banks’  as well  to ensure availability of  land  on lease to the women groups from the land owners who are not ready to cultivate. Awareness meetings with  land owners to explain the need for putting land under cultivation, the readiness of the women groups to take up leased farming and the procedure of leasing out  land  through  Agriculture office  for a definite period like three years, were the enabling factors for the landowners to feel safe about leasing out their land to women farmers.  Most interestingly, in Alamkode and Thennala Panchayaths, the women leaders also function as the Conveners of the Padashekhara Committees (the local paddy farmer’s committee constituted by the Agricultural Department) as well!

The banking agencies, who were reluctant to provide any loan support to women in the past, are now rating these women groups as most credit worthy!  It  will  not be incorrect  to say that the proactive  credit support  rendered through  JLG Scheme and its rigorous  management by  women collectives   are  cornerstones   in  transforming the  women as  commercial farmers in Kerala.

Saviours of the wetland ecosystem

Assured access to inputs and resources can catalyze the poor women to take up farming and  transform them  as  earning and respected  members in  their families  and society. In addition to the collective strength earned by  the women under Kudumbashree, the  availability  of credit  at low interest for taking up  farming,  has played a crucial role in transforming the landless women as farmers.

The women groups have in fact emerged as the “saviours of the wetland ecosystem” of Kerala by sustaining paddy cultivation in paddy fields which were kept fallow for a long period. The women farmers of Kerala  are proudly  showcasing  that they  can provide safe and good quality  food produce to  local people while  earning decent income and leading a good quality life.

Geethakutty P S
Professor and Project Co-ordinator
Centre for Gender Studies in Agriculture
Kerala Agricultural University
Vellanikkara, Thrissur, Kerala
E-mail: geethakutty@gmail.com