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.
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, 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.
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.
“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