Volume 4 of the Extraordinary Work of ‘Ordinary’ People: Beyond Pandemics and Lockdowns
The pandemic and the lockdown that followed brought about a lot of distress among various sections of women farmers and fore grounded the question of women’s unpaid work as never before. The distress was further aggravated due to the disadvantages that women face due to caste, patriarchy, class and other forms of social discrimination. Increased instances of violence have been reported across social groups. However, hunger, lack of incomes and the increased work burden due to lack of food and work opportunities in many ways summarise the plight of women farmers across diverse groups in India.
Women farmers are in engaged in multiple livelihood activities such as cultivation, wage labour, fisheries, livestock, forest work etc. During the pandemic women farmers from each of these sectors found themselves in severe distress. They did not have the money to invest in agricultural inputs, many had not been able to sell their farm produce which was lying in their homes due to lack of storage facilities. Much of the produce was also destroyed as markets remained inaccessible. Minimum support prices have generally been inaccessible to single women farmers who usually market their produce through private traders, but the lockdown period further brought down the prices making it difficult for them to even meet the cost of cultivation. Women forest workers could not sell their non-timber forest produce (NTFP) for the same reasons. Marketing activities of women’s collectives, farmer producer organisations (FPOs) had come to a standstill and they were looking to receive credit and market support for a seamless operation of their activities.
The demand for work was very high and yet public employment programme, Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee (MNREGS) had not opened two months into the lockdown, creating further distress, especially for single women who are the sole earners of the family. Many of them saw themselves competing for wage work with the returning migrants.
Studies done in Maharashtra, Gujarat and several other states by MAKAAM partners showed that a large majority of the women famers had not in fact benefitted from the relief programme announced by the Prime Minister- Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana (PMGKY). Lack of documents, bank accounts, absence of land ownership meant that women remained excluded despite the relief measures. However not all outcomes have been adverse as the stories that we present here tell us.
Despite the adversity we have numerous cases where women farmers and their collectives, innovated and negotiated their way to address the problems of hunger and unemployment.
What the stories tell us
This is a collection of stories of women’s collectives in initiating and taking the lead in ensuring that support is extended by way of food and opportunities of work.
The ten examples are among the many where women’s collectives, village assemblies, or even individual women farmers came forward to extend relief to people. Sometimes they came in to assist the government in relief work but at other times also had to wage battles with the local, state and national governments to ensure that relief be provided. These are examples from the states of Gujarat, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Delhi, and Uttar Pradesh.
These women-led initiatives have shown pathways for grassroots solidarity-based economic initiatives. These are stories of how ordinary people have played extraordinary roles in extending relief, waging battles with the state and mobilizing local communities to act in the face of this adversity.
Self- provisioning and community production and solidarities have been very crucial in these trying times.
Many of the cases also show the way to a non monetised economy and social solidarity. For example, commodities were exchanged for other commodities over money. Panchayats came forward and ensured that work opportunities were created and that relief through food was extended. These examples provide us the space and opportunity to move towards social solidarity economies which allow for reciprocity that results in circulation of goods and services and do not rely on monetary exchanges.
Resilience is a useful concept to discuss the different stories that are documented here. Our use the concept however goes beyond the idea of adapting to circumstances in the absence of choice. The feminist understanding of resilience recognizes the issues of power and social justice and sees resilience as also resourcefulness i.e the ability to innovate for positive outcomes.
We see its usefulness in understanding the human experience of adversity and in informing policy and practice.
A feminist reading of resilience also recognizes the mediating process that are critical for mobilizing agency in the face of adversity such as the present pandemic, but also the pre-existing ones around which society is organized-caste, patriarchy, class etc.
The case studies point out that this resilience or the ability to innovate and adapt in creative ways has been part of a broader process of women’s empowerment. Each of the initiatives tell us a story of the mutually enriching processes between the communities and the organisations that worked with them.
As an alliance MAKAAM actively engaged both on the ground through relief work, but also at different fora- National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) the Niti Ayog, State governments etc. and put forth its recommendations for strengthening public systems related to food and employment. It put forth immediate demands of ensuring that the food distribution system or the PDS should be universal and not be limited to those who have the documents. It should also be expanded to include nutritious food and not just cereals. One of the major demands of MAKAAM has been to expand the public works programme to provide assured employment that includes works that enhance the productive assets of women farmers.
In the long run this could be seen as an opportunity to rebuilding, supporting and strengthening ecologically sound rural livelihoods of women. However, it means that robust investments need to be made in agriculture, water and other commons that women depend on and policies that help to protect and enhance their access to resources and not to dispossess them of it. It calls for a vision that brings focus on to women’s human rights and transforms the current model of development through reimagining and redistribution of power and resources.
We believe that these examples hold important lessons for reviving livelihoods, in a post COVID India in seeking new pathways to strengthen social and economic solidarities.