KOLKATA (Women’s Feature Service): Agriculture is hard work. And contrary to the general perception, women, rather than the men, do most of the farm work. In fact, their contribution to the India’s total agricultural production is about 60 per cent. From helping to prepare the land, to sowing and harvesting the crop, to looking into its processing and storage, Gouri Mondal, 45, of Pathar Pratima village in South 24 Parganas district of West Bengal does all the work on her husband’s two bigha farm. What is more, she even takes care of the seed collection and preservation. But Mondal’s role is not just limited to tilling and caring for the land; she is also making her presence felt as the recently-elected state committee member of the Kisan Swaraj Samity (KSS) in Bengal.

More and more women farmers like Mondal are now coming forward and taking their place within farming organisations, participating in the discussions and voicing their concerns. Of the over 200 farmers from nine districts in West Bengal that participated in a meeting of the KSS held in Kolkata in May this year, 30 per cent were women cultivators. “Such meetings give us the opportunity to interact with other farmers and discuss our problems. We can identify common concerns and lobby for better policies to address them. For instance, at the KSS meeting it was found that improper or delayed seed distribution by the government was a major problem for all the farmers. It is our entitlement but most of us are deprived of good seeds at the right time due to poor management of the seed distribution process,” states Sarbani Bera, 38, of Paharchan village in East Midnapore district.

Mondal and Bera are among those farmers who have gone back to using organic fertilisers with the guidance and support of non-government organisations that are working together under the Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture (ASHA) network. “We were using inorganic fertilisers for our paddy crop but when soil fertility was destroyed due to floods some years ago, the land was rendered useless. I learnt to make and use organic fertiliser to restore soil fertility,” shares Mondal.

The ASHA network supports the Kisan Swaraj policy based on economic sustainability of agriculture-based livelihoods, ecological sustainability to preserve the productive natural resources, people’s control over agricultural resources including land, water, forest, seed and knowledge, and ensuring non-toxic, diverse, nutritious and adequate food for all Indians, according to Chandrani Das of Development Research Communication and Services Centre (DRCSC), a participating non-government organisation.

Aparna Mondal, 36, of Paargumti village in North 24 Parganas district points out that with the DRCSC’s support she switched to organic seeds to ensure maximum production from her one bigha land. “I learnt how to collect the seeds and preserve them using organic preservatives like charcoal and neem leaves. Apart from that I am making my own organic fertiliser from cow dung,” she says.

This industrious farmer has a sustainable agriculture-based livelihood system in place, “I started off with integrated farming at a small scale, growing vegetables in the kitchen garden and cultivating fish in my pond. Today, I make an annual profit of Rs 10,000 from fish cultivation alone. The hone-grown vegetables provide nutritious food for the family and I sell the extras for cash.”

Most women cultivators see the shortage of water as a major issue. “The rains have become undependable so we tap water from the local ponds when the monsoons fail us. We need the government to seriously look into the irrigation issues, rainwater harvesting and laying of canals to ensure steady water supply to the fields,” says Poornima Sarkar, 34, from Basirhat in North 24 Parganas district.

Sarkar and her husband, Mangal, grow paddy on two bighas of leased land using the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) and only organic fertiliser. “My father-in-law used to grow paddy on a lot of leased land in early 2000s. But we realised that increased use of inorganic fertilisers was destroying soil fertility. So my husband and I took on another two bighas where we use only organic fertiliser and SRI as we were trained by the DRCSC. We are getting good yield now,” she elaborates.

The lack of proper irrigation facilities comes up for discussion at all farmer meetings. “All of us are facing the same problem. Monsoons are increasingly becoming erratic making rain-fed agriculture unviable. Water from local ponds is often used for irrigating the paddy fields but that is always inadequate. We want the government to seriously look into finding long-term solutions for the irrigation of farm lands,” says Meera Kar, 52, another member of the KSS from Moorakberia village in Howrah district.

According to Alpana Bhakta, 37, a KSS member from Paschimpotol village in East Midnapore district, all district committees of the KSS are encouraged to prepare a list of local demands within the context of state and national demands simply because it recongnises the fact that every region has its own requirements dependent on specific climatic conditions and availability of natural resources. With these inputs and in keeping with the Kisan Swaraj policies, the KSS has prepared a farmers’ charter of demands.

One of the main demands is the need for government focus on bringing about economic sustainability in farming. Explains Gouri Mondal, “The government has to ensure income security for farmers and see to it that financial support systems like subsidies, credit and insurance, benefit a larger number of farmers. Small farmers like us often get marginalised in such systems.”

The other significant demand is related to the pricing policies for crops like paddy. “Pricing should take into account the real costs of production like land and water use, management expenses, farm inputs such as composting and seeds as well as family labour. For farmers, too, the cost of living has been steadily rising. Health and education account for a major chunk of the expenses. With declining government support in these areas, it has severely hit our domestic budget making tough to make ends meet,” she adds.

Moina Khatun, 25, of North 24 Parganas, has enrolled for a Master’s degree in Political Science at the Rabindra Bharati University. Yet, she considers herself a farmer first, working alongside her mother Hasina Bibi on 12 cottahs (1 cottah = 720 sq ft) of leased land. “I want a kisan credit card and access and control over productive resources like water, land, seed and forest. We use them the most, so we should have the decision-making powers as well,” she asserts, adding, “Issues related to pesticide poisoning and bio-safety measures in the context of genetically modified crops like Bt brinjal need to be resolved quickly as well.”

The women farmers who are part of the KSS – and participated in the meeting in Kolkata –actively back two proposals: one that takes into account the detrimental effects of Bangladesh’s approval to limited trials of Bt brinjal on Indian agriculture, and another that opposes the ushering in of a green revolution in Eastern India. Clearly, women agriculturists today have an opinion that they are not afraid to voice out loud. They are not merely content with doing the lion’s share of farming work; they are ready to demand the right to take charge of decision-making.

(Women's Feature Service)