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Seeds of change

By Aparna Pallavi

Devastating changes in agriculture have sidelined the skills of many women farmers in Vidarbha. Commercial seeds in packets have made traditional sorting and storing practices obsolete, machines have taken the place of sowing work, and gas cylinders have replaced cowdung cakes. The women of a village of adivasis talk about how their work has 'disappeared'

“There is quite a difference between our payili (a traditional measure of about 1.25 kg) and their kilogram,” exclaims Lakshmibai Tekam. She is trying to explain how agriculture has changed, especially for women, in the last few years.

The tiny adivasi village of Nimni in Yavatmal district in Vidarbha may look like the unchanging rural location of legends -- aesthetic houses built of natural materials, spacious courtyards, pumpkin vines going up walls, and the smiling faces of the adivasis . But farmer Laloo Dhadanje did commit suicide in this village.

As it turns out, things really have changed. The changes in agricultural policy (manifest, for example, in low minimum support prices for cotton) and practices of the last decade, in this region of Maharashtra , have irrevocably changed the lives of the women whose skills sustained agriculture.

“We women have less work now,” Lakshmibai says. “Seeds come in thailis (bags)… but god, I wonder what makes them so expensive! When I was younger, we used to give away a few payilis of seeds to anyone without so much as thinking!” She is referring to the new, often genetically modified seeds of multinational as well as national corporations that have now flooded the market, and which many farmers are forced or beguiled into buying.

In village Kawthal in Washim district, elderly Shantabai Mashidkar is more explicit: “You see, modern agriculture has taken away women's work. The biggest change is in seeds. Seeds used to be the woman's domain. When I was young, selecting and storing seeds were women's jobs. We used to select the best seeds, mix them with ash and store them in special small kangis (covered bamboo baskets) plastered over with cowdung and mud. Once packed, the seeds would remain in a perfect state of preservation till the next sowing season. The men would ask women for seeds when the sowing season came. Now, seeds come in packets. So women no longer have the work of selecting seeds. Now we women are only labourers -- weeding and harvesting. We make no decisions.”

The changes in agriculture do not translate into an easy-to-define experience for women. On the one hand there is talk of the ‘feminisation' of agriculture as more and more men migrate looking for work, or commit suicide, leaving the women to manage the land and shoulder several burdens. On the other hand, women are finding their traditional agricultural knowledge and practices being fast rendered obsolete, replaced by readymade commercial alternatives.

Dorli, a village in Wardha district, put itself up for ‘sale' in December 2005 to protest against the condition of farming communities. One of the villagers' demands at the time of the agitation was work for the women rendered jobless by the pressures of commercial agriculture. Nothing came of the agitation because officials and politicians ignored the demands. Almost two years later, the situation is much the same -- the women of the village remain unemployed.

The village's only woman panchayat member, Sujata Halule, says: “Our women are now employed only for a few months of the year during the harvest season. One of the main sources of livelihood for the women of our village was our livestock -- cows, goats and other animals. But due to heavy debt and the rising cost of fodder we have been forced to sell off a majority of our animals, over the years.”

The elderly women are the most vocal about the changes in agriculture. Durga Jarunde, who belongs to a farming family but works as a farm labourer when she can get work, says: “There used to be so much work on the farm. At the time of sowing, we would be busy with the sowing work. Now there are seeders for sowing. When we went to the farm for weeding work, we would keep an eye on the crop, to see which seeds to store for the next season. At harvest time we would make bamboo, mud and dung compartments for storing grain. And there was the ‘milk work' (making butter and ghee) all the year round.”

“Months before the harvest season came around,” says elderly Sukumabai, mother of a farmer, now bent and gaunt with age, “actually as soon as the rains were over and the sun was good, we would start preparing gobaris (cowdung cakes). The ash from the cakes was mixed with the grain as a preservative. And the grain would stay free of pests for the whole year. But now there are no cows, and no cowdung.”

“As children we would go collecting biba to put in the grain,” says Sunita Pandit (biba is a local fruit used as a pest repellent in grain). But now, say the women, preserving grain is a thing of the past. “The jowar that we harvest from certified seeds catches pests in barely four months, no matter how much ‘powder' (chemical pest repellents) we add,” Anita Halule says. “We try to sell off most of our grain as soon as possible, keeping only enough for food. But even that gets spoilt sometimes, and then we have to buy grain at higher prices.”

Many other intricate links to the farming economy have also been disturbed. For example, gas cylinders have replaced cowdung cakes as fuel for cooking fires. Shobha Jarunde says: “Now we have to regularly buy cylinders. In my mother-in-law's time most of our cooking was done on cowdung cakes. If we ran out, we would buy some wood.” Shobha's family now has just two bullocks and a buffalo. Fifteen years ago, they had 20-25 cattle. The cylinders have reduced the women's work burden of making cowdung cakes, but added to the family's expenses and dependence on commodities bought from the market.

Some of the younger women of the village say they would like to start self-help (micro-credit) groups and small-scale businesses, such as tailoring or making washing powder. In the face of redundancy, the women of this community, repositories of invaluable skills, are likely to increasingly turn to such alternative livelihood options. The dispossession, the distancing of a community and of its women from their land, knowledge, traditional livelihoods, and critical status in the agricultural cycle, continues.

(Aparna Pallavi is a freelance development journalist based in Nagpur . She is working on a project titled ‘Feminine face of the Vidarbha agrarian crisis', under a National Foundation for India fellowship)

InfoChange News & Features, September 2007