Women in farming- stories of courage and vulnerability (Part 4)

45 year old Mariamma has been the sole breadwinner of her family for a long time now. She lives near the industrial area in Ramnagara district, with her asthmatic husband of 70 years and their 21 year old handicapped son. Seven years ago, her son’s leg was amputated after an injury. The artificial leg provided by a charitable organization gives him some mobility, though he couldn’t continue studies or pursue a job in the factories nearby. He manages to put in some work in cultivating their inherited land of 1.5 acres.

Mariamma used to work as a house-keeping staff in a factory, earning Rs.7,000 a month, in addition to earning another Rs.8,000 as house-maid in the evenings and weekends. Last year, while going to the factory one day, she fell down from the bus and was severely injured.  Her treatment took away all that she had till then and also made them avail about Rs.300,000 from a bank and their neighbors. Two more grafting surgeries are needed, but expenses are formidable in private hospitals.  Between her accident, husband’s asthma, son’s handicap and daughter’s marriage, the family accumulated huge debts despite Mariamma’s toil in multiple manual jobs for years.

On the 1.5 acres of unirrigated land still in the name of Mariamma’s deceased father-in-law (which means they can’t avail loans and subsidies for cultivating this land), they grow finger millet and horse gram for home use. They also rear silkworms, cultivating mulberry on half an acre of land leased for an annual payment of Rs.10,000. Selling cocoons last year earned them a little more than Rs.8,300. Mariamma’s accident happened when there was a boom in cocoon price and hence couldn’t reap the rare windfall.  They also keep two native cows that give milk for the family and earn Rs.6,000 annually from cow dung. Land and animals together earn a little more than half a lakh every year and around Rs 9,000 worth farm produce for family use. Their expenses on food, festivals and medical treatment far exceed earnings, especially after Mariamma’s accident.  To add to the anguish, there are occasional conflicts with her son-in-law who demands money – a common occurrence in patriarchal communities here.

PArt 4 women story - house

Despite possessing two acres and two cows, this family of just three adults is at loss on how to pull on. Such precarious lives are not too rare among farming communities. Their plight tells us how the inadequacy of public health care along with expensive customs add to farmers’ misery.

Women in farming- stories of courage and vulnerability (Part 3)

Typical sight in the irrigated belt of Ramanagra-Mandya-Mysore stretch will be of lush green paddy fields, swaying blades of sugarcane or shiny mulberry bushes; rows of bamboo stands (chandrike) on the roadside with circles of ivory colored cocoons neatly arranged, as also of cattle and sheep roaming here and there. Coconut palms or bushes of pulses line the boundaries of most fields. Network of long canals run through parts of this landscape. Farmers – usually men on bikes- taking rounds around fields, markets and offices is a common sight. Absence of empty fields imply bounty and even farm labourers seem to be making a decent living. Despite this vibrancy, lives here seem to be vulnerable in many ways – especially to volatile prices.

35 year old Gayathri’s is a landless household of three women, including her mother and younger daughter, Reshma. The threesome live in a village about 35 km away from the town of Ramanagara. Her husband died of tuberculosis six years ago, after a prolonged treatment financed through loans and disposing off their share of ancestral land. Currently she has an outstanding loan of Rs. 85,000 on this account, taken at 2% interest rate per month. This is just one among the many loans that Gayatri has availed. Her elder daughter went away with someone. She spent borrowed money to find her and get the couple married. She also took a gold loan of one lakh from a bank to repair her house and a fourth loan from a women’s self-help group to buy cows.

Gayatri keeps four local-breed cows and two of them yield four litres of milk every day that is sold to the village dairy. Though she cannot grow mulberry anymore as their land has been sold off, she keeps a few chandrike to rear silkworms into cocoons, buying mulberry leaves from her neighbor. ‘Milk’ and ‘silk’ together earned her around Rs. 77,000 last year. In addition to this, Gayatri together with Reshma earned around Rs.30,000 from wage labour.  Thus silk, milk and coolie work support Gayatri in her tight rope walk of life on multiple loans.

silk coccon rearing activity 2

She pays huge amount of interest every month. When silk prices crashed in 2014, even interest payment was halted, accumulating penalty. She wades through such crises by selling cows. When ‘silk’ ditches, as and when trade polices change, milk and cattle save them from starvation and distress. She trusts milk more than silk as its price doesn’t seem to fluctuate much, though it is silk that gives her occasional savings. Gayatri hopes for a secure future for Reshma, who ironically spends more days in wage labour than in school.

Women in farming – stories of courage and vulnerability (Part 2)

In the vast dry landscapes of Yadgir district, the extent of land one owns doesn’t mean much. Apart from the harsh weather, stones buried underneath make it hard to cultivate and produce a decent crop.  If this is what nature bestows, there are others that the society gifts to its’ women. Women from certain castes are not allowed to draw water from the common well. They wait for women from other castes to draw water for them and pour into their pots. Village records show very few holdings owned by women. We wanted to meet women land owners to see how different are their lives compared to those who toil on stony land or graze animals traversing kilometers under blazing sun, without ownership or a say in managing these assets.  There was four acres in Parvathamma’s name. We made two brief visits to her house within a week’s time, before she agreed for a chat under the tree near her field.

About 40 years old, Parvathamma is the second wife of 60 year old Muniappa. Muniappa married Parvathamma 20 years ago as his first wife didn’t bear children; though the family remain childless. He has been an alcoholic and too weak to do any work. When he sold some of his inherited land to the sahukar in order to pay off debts, Muniappa registered four acres of land in Parvathamma’s name and five acres in the name of his first wife.


Though there are nine acres between the two wives, Parvathamma’s share of four acres has been encroached by Muniappa’s stepbrother, who works for a local politician. A few years ago, he threatened aging Muniappa and forcefully started cultivating Parvathamma’s land.  Since then, Muniappa’s family hasn’t stepped on this piece of land, though Parvathamma continues to pay the land tax. This explained their reluctance to talk to us as we started the conversation from women land owners. Though we introduced ourselves as agricultural researchers, a faint hope that we may be of some help later made them sit down with us for a couple of hours.

This family of three aging adults rely on share cropping of jowar in five acres of dry land, which fetches around Rs 40,000 annually. The two women supplement around 10,000 to this, doing farm labour (for Rs.100 a day) while taking turns to look after Muniappa. They don’t get work under the employment guarantee scheme, though a job card has been issued some time back. Annually this family needs a minimum of Rs. 30,000 for medical expenses, Rs. 30,000 for farm expenses and Rs. 15,000 for running the kitchen.

A crop loan of Rs. 65,000 taken several years ago is still outstanding. Though they keep paying the interest amount, outstanding principal makes them ineligible for a fresh loan from the bank and force them to approach private lenders to meet farm expenses. Lot of people from their village go to Bangalore during dry months in search of construction work, in order to pay back loans. Parvathamma is disappointed that they can’t do it, as they are always worried about their land and Muniappa’s health. She occasionally visits relatives when they work in Bangalore and likes the life there. This foregone opportunity or the discrimination she faces at the village well are not major concerns for Parvathamma. Cultivating her land, affordable treatment for Muniappa and getting enough wage work in the village form her wish list. Quite reasonably, she shudders at the prospect of being a child less and landless old widow in the village!

Women in farming – stories of courage and vulnerability (Part 1)

In a largely patriarchal rural society, most women do not own any land in their name. Nevertheless, women of small holdings work intensively on the farm. But they take charge of decisions only in distress situations – when men are un-well to work, when they migrate, die or abscond. As alcoholic, polygamous and /or sick husbands accumulate financial burden, many rural women learn to live with money lenders’ knocks at their doors while providing for the entire family including children and the aged. Childlessness and ‘son’ less ness for a rural woman pose another trauma of many dimensions – the prospect of being subservient to others in an already impoverished life and of being deserted during the sun set years, loom large. To top all of these, old age arrives early in these women’s lives exposed to harsh elements and domestic violence. We bring lives of a few such women to your attention.

Lakshmamma’s village is about 40 kilometres to the North of Bangalore, where she lives with her son. Her daughter stays closer to the city with Lakshmamma’s mother, studying in a school there. Lakshmamma was married off at an early-age, to an alcoholic. She moved to the city with her children and worked as a housekeeper in a college. End of domestic violence for Lakshmammma came with the sudden death of her drunken husband who was found dead on the road side near his village. She was landless till she won the battle to get hold of her husband’s share of the family land – 1.20 acres.


Lakshmamma cultivates this piece of land, rears two cows and a few goats. She takes help only for ploughing the field. Maize and beans from her field are enough only for home use. Ragi she sells for about 20,000 in a successful year. Lakshmamma brought up her son, repaired her house, finances her daughter’s education and supports her mother too. Her son is now enrolled for an undergraduate course, financing his studies by a part time job at a cafe, earning Rs.3,000 a month. Lakshmamma is paying back Rs. 90,000 of gold-loan taken from a bank for meeting medical expenses as also more than Rs.50,000 taken from a nationalized bank and a women’s Self Help Group (SHG) to buy cows.  Income from dairying and the café job of her son are thanks to the growing city close by.  But the city doesn’t seem to fetch any consistent income worth mentioning from whatever she raises on her land, especially since she cannot go to markets in search of reasonable price, given the small quantities she produces as well as the cost of transport.

It was late afternoon when we reached Lakshmamma’s house. By evening, she got up for cleaning the cow shed and cows. We accompanied her to the field and to the dairy. After dumping the dung in the field we came back home for milking. Walking with the milk can, she was talking about hope – of her son getting a better job, when she wouldn’t need to work this hard. Offering and sipping tea made from the fresh milk, she asked if we could help her son find a good job. Before we could figure out how to express our helplessness, she quickly moved on about her intention to avail new loans for buying more cows!

Voices from the margins

Urban and rural social spaces in India are witnessing sea-change in their natural environment, population, infrastructure and culture. India’s development strategy with economic growth as its fulcrum catalyzes the transition of geographies into markets, places of seasonal employment and lifestyle models for rural India. This has brought with it tectonic shifts in rural life and aspirations. Dwellers in these spaces knowingly or otherwise also participate in the process. The one beneficiary of development – urban India – remain oblivious or ambivalent about its extended role in changing rural life. ‘Voices from the margins’ is an attempt to mirror a few transitioning rural lives tucked away from the glitz and glamour of the cities.

Majority of rural Indians are small farmers. They eke out a living by engaging in multiple activities – cultivating own/ leased land, working as wage labour in other farms, tending to/grazing livestock, partaking in government schemes like MGNREGS and also seasonally joining the ‘reserve army of labour’ building India’s cities. A small farmer chooses a combo of any of the above depending on the options available and health status of the family.

cocoon rearing (3)

Many among the masons, security guards, housekeepers, construction labourers and even skilled workers in the city have one leg still in their native rural – pitching in farm operations during monsoons or ploughing in some capital for farming, health care or towards festivals and ceremonies.  A more diverse livelihood basket and multiple locations of work of a typical rural family mean that even those rural populace traditionally engaged in  non-farming occupations (e.g. blacksmiths, weavers, plough makers, folk musicians etc.) find insignificant engagement in their native places. Debts incurred for high-cost low -profit farming, costly health care, money intensive rituals and ceremonies determine the degree of anguish faced by a small farm holder in rural India.

This write up resonates a sample of voices heard during our interactions with more than 200 small farmers in different parts of Karnataka during the period 2013 to 2016, while studying impacts of diverse urbanisation processes on farmers. ‘Voices from the margins’ thus brings a small subset of narratives on vulnerability from a transitioning rural Karnataka.

Following this introduction we intend to bring out stories around the axes of health and debt. The second part will be about the lives of four single women farmers. The third part will be woven around culture, customs and aspirations. It is important to remember that vulnerabilities of small holders play hand in hand with yield and price fluctuations in a weakening agro-ecology and a volatile globalized market.

Hope you like the blog and find it meaningful.

This post is contributed by Seema Purushothaman (Faculty, School of Development, Azim Premji University, Bangalore, India). Seema can be contacted at seema.purushothaman@apu.edu.in OR seema.purushothaman@gmail.com