Farm Bills to Further Hit Rural Women in Punjab, Weighed Under Debts and Study Calls for Need to Look at Plight of Rural Women Labour in Punjab

As the farmers' agitation continues to rage across India, it is necessary to understand the implication of the contentious farm bills passed recently on the rural labour, particularly the women labour in Punjab, standing at the bottom rung of the social and economic ladder.

Experts believe that this segment of the landless rural population would be the worst hit in the new model of corporate and contract farming that is being promoted by the government.

“Their condition will deteriorate from bad to worse. Their daily wage earnings from agriculture would be hit. Even if they migrate to cities, the urban centres will have nothing to offer to them in terms of employment, housing and social security. One has to understand the nature of employment, work conditions etc. It is true that they face excesses in the villages but they manage to eke out a living and have two square meals. I have been pointing out repeatedly that the harassment and exploitation in the farm sector has to stop,” eminent agriculture expert Dr Gian Singh told The Citizen.

He said that farmer organizations in Punjab are fighting for the rights of farm labour, particularly women labour, on the ground and this is an altogether different struggle going on within the farm sector.

A team of experts under Dr Gian Singh comprising Dharampal, Veerpal Kaur, Jyoti and Gurinder Kaur has come out with a study titled, ‘Levels of Living of Woman Labour Households in Rural Punjab-An Empirical Study’. This paints a gloomy picture.

The study points out, “The woman labour households on an average earned Rs 77198.48 and spent Rs 85621.77 annually in the rural areas of Punjab. Out of the total consumption expenditure, 57.34 percent was spent on non durable items. Because of the excess of consumption expenditure over household income, the average propensity to consume worked out to be 1.11 for an average woman labour household. As a result an average household in the sample incurred a deficit.”

The study that has been recorded in the prestigious ‘Indian Journal of Economics and Development’ further says that as many as 93.71 per cent of woman labour households were under debt. And the average amount of debt recorded per household was recorded at Rs 53916.45.

“The estimated value of their household assets worked out to be Rs 132386.26 out of which 62.93 per cent was only shared by the dwelling houses. To improve the economic conditions of the woman labour households, the central and state governments must take strong initiatives for creating sufficient employment opportunities and should effectively implement the policies meant for them,” the study underlines.

A significant finding of this study is that male members of a large number of such households are hooked to intoxicants and drugs.

Dr Gian Singh pointed out that the incidence of drug and alcohol consumption was found in more than 36 per cent of the households surveyed. He explained, “It is the exceptionally hard nature of their job that drives these men to take intoxicants. The factor behind this is that they cannot afford a rich diet required to do such jobs. This has a very detrimental effect on the women who are subjected to violence. This violence is there if a man is under the influence of alcohol or drugs and also of he is not able to get these substances.”

The poor economic condition of these households drives the men to take cheap variants of synthetic drugs and alcohol. These people are in no position to purchase opium or bhukki (poppy husk) whose consumption is associated with Punjab. They normally take tablets of synthetic drugs and homemade liquor.

“A mass campaign should be launched by the government and non government organizations against the use of intoxicants/drugs in the rural areas,” the study has suggested.

It was also found that the social compulsions compel the woman labour households to spend 14.49 per cent of their income on socio-religious ceremonies. Therefore there is a need for construction of community halls in all the villages for solemnizing such ceremonies.

Coming to the debt that such households incur, the experts have stated, “More than four fifth (81.01 per cent) of the total debt was incurred from non-institutional sources which charged exorbitant rates of interest. To overcome this problem, institutional credit should be made easily available. Besides, the income level of these households needs to be raised.”

The sources from which such households raised non-institutional loans include big farmers, landlords, grocers, small traders and money lenders. Among the institutional sources, it is mainly the micro finance institutions that provided them with loans followed by commercial banks.

The study has also focused on the pitiable living conditions of this segment of the population pointing that the housing conditions are pathetic with no provisions of proper drinking water that leads to various health hazards.

A very large number of respondents (91.84) lived in semi-pucca houses, whereas only 5.70 per cent lived in pucca houses. It is pertinent to note that 2.46 per cent of the respondents had kutcha houses, the investigators found. The experts have pointed that a large number of women labourers are in no position to get their dwellings repaired. “Therefore, the rural housing programme should bring more and more needy and poor people, particularly the women labourers, in its ambit,” the experts have suggested.

The analysis also established a positive relationship between female headed household, and indebtedness. This was because of fewer employment opportunities in surrounding areas of native village and immobility of woman labourers regarding employment. It was observed that the majority of the woman labourers who head households were widows.

It was also found that woman labourers had taken more loans for the purchase of household assets. This proved the hypothesis that higher the value of total assets owned by a woman labourer household more was the magnitude of debt.