Indian Women Grow Their Own Future
Hardnews|March 2018

Associations of women farmers who manage, and may own, family land and grow food rather than cash crops, are changing parts of India and earning new respect

Jack Fereday

SHAILA SHIKRANT, 38, sat in the shade of her small house with her neighbours around her, filling bowls with rice, wheat, corn, peas, peanuts, sesame, chickpeas, lentils and fenugreek. These represent a small revolution, since she grew them herself.

Shikrant lives in Masla, a village of 800 households in the Marathwada region of Maharashtra state, 500 km from Mumbai. Marathwada has had extreme heatwaves and faces a severe agricultural crisis, since repeated droughts and chronic debt have driven many farmers to suicide in the last few years. This is a nationwide problem: every year since 2013, some 12,000 farmers across India have killed themselves, according to government figures submitted to the supreme court in 2017.

There has also been a failure of agricultural strategy over the last decade, as food crops have gradually been abandoned in favour of cash crops such as sugarcane, which is more profitable but needs a huge volume of water. The government says the area in Marathwada under sugar cane cultivation grew from 300,000 to 1m hectares between 2004 and 2014, taking 70% of the region’s irrigation water. Shikrant said: ‘We had five hectares of land, and that was all we grew. So when we ran short of water, we lost everything – we had no money to eat.’ She rubbed the pulses gently to shell them.

The other women listened attentively; since the wave of suicides in 2014, they have all followed Shikrant into sustainable agriculture. ‘I asked my husband to let me have one hectare where I could grow crops that didn’t need so much water. I wanted to have something to feed my family in case the cane crop failed, and I wanted to go back to traditional methods, using natural fertilisers. He was sceptical at first, but in the end he agreed. And when he saw the results, a year later, he let me have half of our land.’

‘IT’S ALL IN MY OWN NAME’

The crops soon exceeded Shikrant’s expectations. She was able to feed her family, and selling the surplus doubled the family’s annual income, which is now $7,500, while the average income for farmers in the region is $2,000. She has continued to diversify, buying livestock, which provides fertiliser, and selling organic seed in Mumbai. Her latest achievement is registering her agricultural enterprise: ‘It’s all in my own name.’ Her neighbours admire her, and thanks to her advice, have gained new status in their own families. One woman couldn’t quite believe it: ‘When we told our husbands and our in-laws that we wanted to manage some of the land, they laughed at us. But now we earn more than they do, and they look at us quite differently.’

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