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SRI: A practice that transforms the lives of women

Globally, around a billion people are engaged in rice farming and around half of them are women. They continue to carry out their work mostly barefoot, with their primary tools being their hands. An agro-ecological approach like SRI has reduced the overall burden on the bodies of these women.

I grew up eating rice and experiencing culture and agriculture of rice from my childhood. I observed how farmers/labourers, mostly women, perform backbreaking work in hot, humid, wet or cold conditions for many days in bent posture besides doing lot of other work. ‘Rice grows on women’s backs’ as women provide 27 to 84% of labour to grow rice, often unpaid and unacknowledged.

Women carry loads of seedlings from nursery to the main field
Women carry loads of seedlings from nursery to the main field

Labourers are the actual catalysts who invest their bodies to make other inputs work. Unfortunately, that capital is diminished over time instead of getting enriched. Globally, around a billion people are engaged in rice farming and around half of them are women who use their bodies to feed us! Half a billion and more women is a tremendous population to be engaged with and to be impacted by any technology. Yet, for centuries, the nature of women’s labour in rice farming has remained essentially inelastic. They still carry out their work mostly barefoot, with their primary tools being their hands, supplemented by hand hoes or sickles. Further, disease, malnourishment, household and other work go hand in hand. In this context, can we afford to ignore the critical issues of gender and body while understanding a rice production system like SRI?

Experience of work in a changed working condition

SRI is an agroecologically-based method for growing rice that enables farmers to achieve higher yields with less water, seed and agrochemicals, and generally less labour. Its major recommendations include planting of younger seedlings at wider spacing, frequent weeding, preferably mechanically, maintaining a non-flooded moist field condition and managing soil health organically which largely contrasts farmers’ practices and beliefs. These contrasting practices and associated work conditions create differential bodily experiences. How exactly the activities are done will show why the differential implications emerge which are explained below and the quantitative details are given in Table 1.

To comprehend the experience of work in a changed working condition, focus was on several parameters – work environment, and time spent in that environment; postures, and time spent in these postures; volume and weight of materials handled; area of work (e.g., size of nursery); distance that labourers walk and gendered work participation.

It takes women around 130-160 hours/acre to weed in bending position while using a mechanical weeder takes 16-25 hours/acre.

In SRI, wider spacing is used reducing the plant population drastically. This implies reduced use of seeds (2-3 kgs/acre) and a smaller nursery to raise the seedlings. A smaller nursery also means reduced total workload. Moreover, as younger seedlings are transplanted (8-15 days) which need to be removed carefully and planted as soon as possible, nurseries are prepared very close to the main field. This reduces the distance in walking from nursery to main field carrying the seedlings. Also, weight of seedlings become lighter with reduction in age of seedlings and number of seedlings. Since lesser number of seedlings are transplanted per hill (1-2), the labourers do not have to remain inside the mud for longer hours.

Use of weeder is quite common in SRI paddy, as the wider spacing results in more weed growth, difficult to control manually as that takes longer hours. Use of a weeder besides controlling weeds also actively aerates the soil contributing to promotion of root growth and beneficial soil organisms. Use of the weeder enables women to move from a permanently bent position to erect posture. The overall burden on their bodies was reduced because of adjustments to work-rest rhythms, reduced work hours, changing from bending to erect posture, remaining in the flooded condition for lesser hours and increased participation of men in mechanical weeding.

Paddy transplanting is exclusively done by women
Paddy transplanting is exclusively done by women

Table 1: Comparison of tasks carried out by women

Tasks
SRI
Conventional
Nursery Management
3-5 kg seeds for 1 acre.
Much smaller nursery size to sow and manage.
Nurseries are not necessarily flooded.
30-40 kg seeds for 1 acre.
Bigger nursery to till, apply manure, sow and manage. Nurseries often have several inches of water.
Uprooting Seedlings uprooted 8-15 days after sowing
(thus much less time needed to manage the
nursery).
Seedlings removed carefully with soil, then carried to the field for immediate transplanting.
Seedlings uprooted 30+ days after sowing.

Women pull up seedlings in bending postures, or sitting in the flooded nurseries, cleaning the soil from the roots, then bundle the seedlings. Larger numbers of older, heavier seedlings require a lot more energy and time to pull up.

Seedling Transport Containers of seedlings weigh around 5-6 kg, or at most 13-15 kg, if older.

Total weight transported is 80-145 kg per acre and up to 200-250 kg if the seedlings are slightly older due to various reasons.

It takes 7-25 hours to uproot and transport seedlings. SRI farmers often raise nurseries inside or near the main field, so they make fewer trips and walk less distance.

Bundles are transported to main fields to be transplanted. Men carry bundles weighing between 8-100 kg; women carry 7-30 kg depending on the transport method.

Total weight transported is 400 to 1,200 kg of seedlings per acre, often at some distance, on people’s heads, shoulders, slings, and bicycles and spread over the field.

It takes 80-150 hours to uproot and transport seedlings to the main fields.

Transplanting

Seedlings women hold in their hand while transplanting, weigh 150-300 grams. They insert the young seedlings into the mud at wide spacing, at an average rate of 6-10 nos. /minute.
It takes 70-90 hours per acre to transplant the seedlings.

Women hold more and older seedlings weighing

1-1.5 kg. Women plunge their hands and wrists deep
into the mud 40-50 times/minute inserting seedlings at
random and close spacing.
It takes 120-150 hours per acre to transplant the seedlings.

Weeding

Weeding with a mechanical weeder takes 16-25 hours/acre. Farmers normally do weeding 2-3 times.
A one-time supplementary manual weeding may take another 5-9 hours depending upon weed growth.

It takes women around 130-160 hours/ acre to weed in bending position.

Benefits of SRI depend upon the extent to which the recommended practices are followed. In farmers’ situation, it is not always possible to follow all the recommendations every year. For instance, most elderly women continued to do manual weeding instead of using weeders, hence they experienced no reduction in pain when weeding. But, they reported less pain with removing and transporting SRI seedlings, fewer and lighter, from the nursery. And while farmers were generally happier about SRI methods producing more rice, labourers reported that the harvested bundles of (SRI) rice were heavier to handle.

As Table 1 shows, SRI fundamentally changes the conditions under which women have to work. With SRI practices, rice fields are no longer kept continuously flooded, which reduces or eliminates women’s prolonged exposure to water-borne disease vectors. In conventional cultivation of flooded rice, women normally spend about 400-500 hours/acre in bent postures in flooded fields on uprooting and transporting of seedlings, transplanting and weeding. When fields remain flooded and women work in that wet condition for very long time, vulnerability to diseases increases tremendously which has its toll on their health, working ability and income, drains out their money on health care, sometimes making them indebted.

Women also reported about reduction in infections in hands and legs and severity of body pain, getting more time to cook, eat and rest well on the days when they work in SRI fields. Major reasons pointed out were that they do not have to put their hands and legs in the flooded fields for long hours, reduction in workload due to men’s participation in some of the activities like mechanical weeding, reduction in work hour, volume of work and changes in postures.

Need for attention

An agro-ecological approach like SRI does not push the already disadvantageous segment of the population further to poverty and illness. There is very little discussion and literature on this particular aspect of rice production, and further research is essential. Similarly, it draws attention of extension agencies should involve both men and women in the design and development and application of technologies / tools considering the impact on the bodies of the labourers. If they thrive, our agriculture thrives and vice versa. Eco logic of SRI has a body logic too, which needs to be paid attention to, if we are seriously concerned about our toiling women.

Acknowledgement: Olivia Vent and Dr. Norman Uphoff for their encouragement and feedback, Wageningen University – NWO-WOTRO, Netherlands for supporting my research, all the persons who shared their knowledge and my colleagues at Sambhav, Odisha, India.

Sabarmatee Tiki works with Sambhav, a grassroots-level NGO focusing on environmental and gender issues in Odisha, India, and is pursuing her PhD at Wageningen University, The Netherlands (sabarmatee@gmail.com).