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