New Delhi, May 20 - Women farmers will determine India's agrarian and rural economy in the years to come and the government must have a centrally-sponsored development fund for them, says renowned agricultural scientist and MP M.S. Swaminathan.
Over the years a feminisation of India's agriculture has taken place with men increasingly migrating to urban centres for work. Women now constitute more than 50 percent of Indian farmers and about 60 percent of the agricultural workforce.
Women are also forced to take to farming after their husbands, unable to cope with the debt burden, commit suicide.India has seen 256,913 farmers' suicides in the past 16 years since 1995 when the National Crime Records Bureau began recording farm suicide data. The figure could go up as reports of suicides come in from the nooks and crannies, despite the government's claim to the contrary.
"Suicides are expression of despair. The money lenders create different kinds of pressure and the troubled farmer ends his life, but the problem does not end with it," said Swaminathan.
"His family that is left behind, the widow and children, face even more problems."
And due to lack of land rights and access to credit, the widows face a worse situation as they cannot even cultivate the land.
"Women mostly don't have the land "pattas" (registrations) in their name. So they cannot get institutional credit. The money lenders don't give them money and moreover, as land is not in the woman's name, the in-laws try to snatch it away," Swaminathan told IANS in an interview.
The agriculture sector employs 80 percent of all economically active women. About 18 percent of the farm families in India are reported to be headed by women, according to the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) data.
That is why, Swaminathan says, safeguarding women farmers' rights has become all the more important.
"After visiting several widows of farmers who committed suicide in Vidarbha (Maharashtra), I felt safeguarding women farmers' right needs legislative attention as the social and traditional structure is against them."
On his suggestion, the government formulated a "Mahila Kisan Sashaktikaran Pariyojana" (women farmers' empowerment programme). But the veteran agri-expert is not satisfied with its progress as it has been made a part of the National Rural livelihood Mission (NRlM).
"The programme was made a sub-component of another programme. I am not very happy with its progress," Swaminathan stated.
Swaminathan is pleading for a central agriculture development fund for women farmers and has moved a private member's bill in the Rajya Sabha that seeks access to water, credit and inputs for women farmers.
On the agriculture sector as a whole, Swaminathan told IANS: "The present situation is both bright and dark. We are doing well in producing rice and wheat. But when it comes to other crops, even after the government fixes minimum support price, there are no procurement agencies, and farmers are left in doldrums."
He also said that the gap in planning and implementation is barring farmers from reaping the benefits of government plans.
"Farming is a life-saving activity. If farmers are taking their lives, there is something seriously amiss. We need to address this," he said.
Following more farmers' suicides, Swaminathan has supported introduction of an interest-free microfinance (IFMF) system in districts.
The government of India has identified 35 districts as areas of agricultural distress (with farmers' suicide in large numbers) and labelled these as "agrarian hotspots".
He says there is an urgent need to try out the IFMF model in these areas, with contextual approach and strategies.
(Anjali Ojha can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)