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Indian women in the Age of Globalisation

By N P Chekkutty

'Impact of WTO on Women in Agriculture', released in January 2005, studies the plight of rural Indian women through public hearings in Punjab, West Bengal, Karnataka and Bundelkhand. This is the first such assessment of the gender impact of the WTO and the globalisation of agriculture

 'Impact of WTO on Women in Agriculture' is a major study on the plight of rural Indian women, conducted by Diverse Women for Diversity -- the gender programme of the Research Foundation of Science, Technology and Ecology, New Delhi -- for the National Commission for Women (NCW). NCW chairperson Poornima Advani (who left office last month) released the report in January 2005, perhaps the last major work undertaken by the commission under her guidance.

The research project, conducted in combination with pubic hearings from various parts of the country, offers an in-depth analysis of the impact of WTO policies on women in India. The public hearings focused on issues like the shift of knowledge and control over seeds and biodiversity from women to multinational corporations and trade liberalisation of agriculture leading to large-scale loss of livelihood, employment and entitlement, and hunger.

The NCW chairperson, in the foreword, points out that the Agreement on Agriculture (AoA), which is part of the WTO agreement, is unequal and unfair as it allows massive subsidies to the farm sector in the rich North, leading to the artificial dumping of cheap products on the poor South, destroying livelihoods and incomes. Advani notes that most farm operations in India are traditionally women-centred; our food security depends mainly on the work of women, women's knowledge and women's skills in varied operations like seed-saving, agricultural production, food processing, local marketing and cooking. Women are the providers of food and custodians of our crop biodiversity heritage and food diversity.

But this scenario is being undermined and a male-dominated, corporate-oriented new food culture is being imposed on the country thanks to the new global order under the World Trade Organisation. The Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs) agreement would transfer control over knowledge of seed and biodiversity from rural women to global corporations, while the corporatised agriculture promoted by the AoA would deprive women of their livelihoods in food production and food processing.

The study, conducted after public hearings in Punjab, West Bengal, Karnataka and Bundelkhand, is the first such assessment of the gender impact of the WTO and the globalisation of agriculture.

The well researched 205-page report has two parts -- the first an overview and the second case studies and reports on the jan sunwais . It also contains detailed recommendations on the basis of extensive field studies, besides a 14-point charter of the National Alliance for Women's Food Rights, comprising various women's organizations that assert that our food rights as enacted in the Constitution shall be protected under any economic regime and by all governments, notwithstanding a change in government policies.

The first part makes a study of the pivotal role traditionally played by women in Indian agriculture and the recent decline in their status mainly due to the shift in policy making agriculture a commercial operation run along corporate lines.

The impacts are generally categorised into:

  • The traditional central role of women in the foodchain, from seed-keeping to food-making, is being broken with the onset of the globalised food industry led by multinational giants. This has been ensured through the three major WTO agreements -- the TRIPs, the AoA and the Sanitary And Phyto Sanitary agreement (SAP).
  • As globalisation shifts agriculture to a capital-intensive chemical-intensive system, women bear the disproportionate costs of both displacement and health hazards.
  • Women carry the heavier work burden in food production, but because of gender discrimination they get lower returns for their work. When the WTO destroys rural livelihoods it is women who lose the most. When the WTO allows dumping, which leads to a drop in farm product prices, women are hit the hardest because their incomes go down further.
  • As the income of farmers in general and women in particular are eroded they are displaced from productive roles, and the patriarchal power system that controls the assets further erodes the status of women leading to their marginalisation and increased violence against them.

The study makes a detailed analysis of patterns of violence against women across the country, over the past few years, and finds that there has been a spurt in the various forms of violence against women like rape, female foeticide, dowry deaths and trafficking in women, etc, as the impact of shifts in the rural economy is felt. It also points out that women are the ultimate sufferers of increased incidents of farm suicides as they are left to look after the household with no assets and the burden of indebtedness on their shoulders.

All these four aspects are taken up in detail, with case studies and data analysis, which brings the conclusion that there is urgent need for specific action programmes focusing on women. Studies prove that, in the past five to seven years, there has been a steady decline in employment opportunities in the rural sector ranging from 20% to as much as 77%. This has resulted in men migrating to other areas in search of work, leaving a lot of the farm operations to women who are paid much less for their work, often less than half of what men get.

The average daily wage for a farm worker across India is as follows: Haryana: Male Rs 50-60, female Rs 25-30; Saharanpur (UP): Male Rs 60, female Rs 35-40; North 24 Parganas (WB): Male Rs 40 (six-hour work), female Rs 25 (six-hour work); Andhra Pradesh: Male Rs 40-50, female Rs 25-30.

Another impact of the commercialisation of agriculture is increased consumerism even among rural households, leading to aggressive demands for dowry both in the form of cash and assets. A study on women's land rights in West Bengal found that 39.9% of households surveyed had sold land to raise money to pay dowry. It also found that of these families, 79% were Muslims (a community that does not traditionally practise dowry) showing how deeply entrenched the practice has become.

The introduction of herbicides and weedicides, as part of commercial farm operations, has badly affected women, as they have a monopoly over weeding and hoeing. Women farm workers are also more exposed to health hazards like gynaecological infections, arthritis, and intestinal and parasitic infections, with no medical allowances for treatment, due to the increased use of ago-chemicals.

Instead of helping women, new technologies in the farm sector are working to their disadvantage. For example, the introduction of biological technologies to develop high-yielding varieties and tissue culture technology are robbing women employed in farm nurseries of their jobs. This is a process that will only worsen in the coming days, the report says.

The study looks at various farm sectors and sees the disastrous impact of globalisation everywhere. In the plantation sector, it says, tea plantation workers in Kerala, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu are facing starvation following the closure of several small and medium plantations. The reasons: unrestricted imports and a sharp decline in international tea prices.

A substantial part of farm operations in Kerala involves various types of plantations including tea, rubber and coconuts. Ever since economic liberalisation became the development mantra, the report states, Kerala has been at the receiving end. Flooded with cheap, highly subsidised agricultural imports, Kerala's agrarian economy has been thrown out of gear. Whether it is imports of palm oil, rubber, coffee or tea, almost every aspect of the state's socio-economy has been negatively impacted.

The report paints a gloomy picture and insists there is urgent need to review our policies and re-work our strategies to stop a disaster from happening in the Indian countryside. Sabitri, a woman from Bhelwara village in Bishnugarh, Madhya Pradesh, sums up the rural Indian experience in the following words: " K het kharab ho gaya," she says , "labh ke liye purana dhan dhod diya." (Our fields are now spoilt. For profit, people have thrown out our ancient assets.)

This is a sentiment echoed at all the jan sunwais , whether in Punjab in the north, Bengal in east, Karnataka in the south or Bundelkhand in middle India.

(N P Chekkutty is a senior journalist based in Delhi)

InfoChange News & Features, February 2005