This story is a result of a media fellowship conducted by ILC member Working Group for Women and Land Ownership (WGWLO) and Behanbox from March to June 2021. The story has been edited by ILC Asia and the original version can be found here.
Ahmedabad: Lassu Ben, 38, is an outspoken and resolute woman but even she sometimes hesitates to trade with the men at the local farm market. ‘Bahas mat karo (don’t argue)’ is a snub commonly thrown at this farmer from the Rabari community, from Nayatvada village of Radhanpur block in Gujarat’s Patan district.
“If I were a man, it would have been easier,” says Lassu Ben. Before they were married, her husband Sunda Bhai Rabari was a farm worker. Then Lassu got some land from her parents and bought some more. Today, the couple together own 6 bighas of land (1 bigha = 0.16 hectares). Lassu also tills 23 bigha on bhag (sharecropping) basis.
“The landowners here vie for a share-cropping arrangement with Lassu. She gets good income for the owners,” says Sejal Ben Rabari, a mahila kisan sakhi (friend of women farmers) who works with the Working Group for Women and Land Ownership (WGWLO), a Gujarat-based network focussed on women’s land rights.
But Lassu is a rare case of a woman who participates in all aspects of decision-making in agriculture, from production to marketing, in Gujarat or any other part of India. Few women farmers access the mandis (markets) run by the Agricultural Produce Market Committees (APMC).
In March 2021, BehanBox undertook a survey across 18 villages, seven blocks and five districts of Gujarat to study women’s participation in agricultural marketing. We found that gender prejudices and current agricultural policies have kept women out of the markets.
Of the 55 women we interviewed, only seven (13%) had access to the state’s mandis. And even those who go to the market to trade either take male family members along or schedule their visits during lean hours when fewer men are around. Not only that, the men in their family are often taunted for their presence in the market.
Women’s involvement in agriculture has increased, their ownership of land is also seeing an uptick. However, this may not improve their bargaining power and the exercise of free choice in the sale of their produce, if market policies are not amended.
Gender discrimination in the market, however, began to be debated only after the government passed, in September 2020, three farm laws that could change the face of Indian agriculture. One of these was the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020. The Gujarat government passed an ordinance amending the Gujarat Agricultural Produce Market Act in May 2020, followed by the passage of an amendment in the assembly in September 2020.
The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020 bypasses the state-controlled APMC regime. In doing so, it not only denies states the right to levy fees on the purchase or sale of produce outside the APMC-run mandis but also does away with the state oversight of agricultural trade. This could put an end to a transparent price discovery system and affect the interests of women farmers, most of whom do small and marginal agriculture and tend to sell their produce outside the mandi.
“We started talking to women about the issue to understand how this new law would affect them,” said Shilpa Vasavada, a member of the Mahila Kisan Adhikar Manch (MAKAAM), a nationwide informal forum for women farmers’ rights, and the WGWLO network.
Women have more agency in tribal pockets
Of the 55 women interviewed across five districts, four were from Patan (Radhanpur block), 19 from Surendranagar (Patdi and Dhrangadhra blocks), three from Bhavnagar (Talaja and Gogha blocks), 24 from Ahmedabad (Dholera, Bavla and Sanand blocks) and five from Navsari (Vansda block, which is a tribal pocket).
Of the seven women who said they visited mandis, four were from Patan, two from Surendranagar and one from Ahmedabad
“I expected an even lower number,” said Dr Itishree Pattnaik, Assistant Professor at the Gujarat Institute of Development Research, Ahmedabad, reacting to the findings of the survey. Vasavada too agreed that social norms in the state discourage women from trading in the markets.
“While women not accessing the market is observed across the tribal and non-tribal areas of Gujarat, the trend is rooted in the societal norms of the non-tribal belt, which comprises North Gujarat, Kutch and Saurashtra region,” says Vasavada. The survey established this too. The responses from women in the non-tribal districts showed strong links between their lack of control over the produce and regressive social customs.
‘Only men go’
Why do women refrain from visiting APMC mandis? Societal norms, the presence of middlemen and lack of enough surplus to sell were some reasons stated by the women farmers. Of the total 50 responses (some women provided multiple reasons), 32 were along the lines of “Only men go to mandis” or “Women don’t go there”.
Geeta Ben Rabari, the vice-chairperson of Bechraji APMC in Mehsana district, provides another insight into how patriarchal communities discourage women from participating in agricultural trade: They shame the male relatives of women who visit mandis. “Mahila mandi aati hai, toh sab us ghar ke purush ko taane marte hain (If women come to the APMC mandi, the men of their household are jeered at),” says Rabari.
The 32 responses clubbed as ‘societal norm’ in the chart above were from non-tribal areas. Two women cited ‘house chores’ as the reason why they avoided going to mandis but Vasavada reads these as an extension of entrenched social norms.
“They (women) may rationalise it (not going to the APMC) with statements like ‘Ghar pe kaam hai (I have work at home)’ or ‘if I go to the mandi, who will take care of the chores.’ But the norm is so deeply internalised that women don’t realise that going to the APMC or being involved in marketing is a possibility,” says Vasavada.
During a group discussion in Dhrangadhra, women farmers chuckled and shrugged off the idea of going to the market with “Hamara wahan kya kaam? (what work do we have there)”.
Land ownership and access to APMC
In India, close to 75% of rural women are engaged in agriculture but only 13.96% women own land, according to the agriculture census 2015-16. In Gujarat, 16.4% women have operational holding according to the data.
Of the women who said they visited the APMC, all own land either individually or jointly with their husbands, except two Rabari women from Radhanpur who do bhag kheti (crop sharing) on land owned by others.
A 2012 study said that the lack of asset ownership compromises women’s bargaining power. However, the correlation between land ownership and access to APMC is tenuous -- land ownership alone cannot ensure empowerment, women’s status within the household, customary practices, their own interpretation of their rights and the complex systems of statutory law, all have a role to play.
Of the 55 women we interviewed, twelve own land singly or jointly with husbands but only five of these go to mandis. Pattanaik’s reading of the result throws more nuanced light on the impact of land ownership as a means to increase agency and control. “Land ownership is essential, but it is only the first stage of empowerment. This realisation that the right to own land is a need beyond the level of household, that it extends to an individual, is quite recent. We are yet to see the clear linkage between land ownership and intra-house decision making.”
Women farmers set to lose more with changes in APMC regime
Despite the social barriers to accessing the mandi, almost all women we met knew the ‘teka bhav’ or the Minimum Support Price (MSP) for their produce. But the bargaining power that women have with the price signals through the APMC system will be compromised with the changed laws.
The premise that all farmers have equal access to internet and transport facilities and are ‘free’ to choose where and who to sell is flawed, we found. Women farmers, especially, have limited mobility and would have benefited from proximal markets with an oversight to protect them, highlighted MAKAAM in its statement on the new farm laws.
The example of Geeta Ben Rabari suggests that having more active women traders could also help. Exposure, familiarity and ease of use play a big role in furthering women’s agency. But with the new farm laws, bigger players not known to the farmers will come into the agricultural trade, discouraging women.
There is a long way to go when it comes to women’s active, meaningful, and effective participation in agriculture, showed the survey and the discussions with women, academics and activists. Customary practices are restrictive, as we said. And agricultural policies are not doing enough to encourage women to visit APMC mandis.