Parvathi’s story is tirelessly monotonous. She is among the tens of thousands of women agricultural labourers who have been severely affected by the water crisis looming large over Tamil Nadu. She is among the tens of thousands of women who have to walk several miles to fetch a pail of water. She is among the tens of thousands of women whose existences are so fragile that they don’t count.
In a country that hardly considers women as farmers, Parvathis do not exist. The deaths of their husbands do not matter.
Parvathi was all of 9 years old, when she started working as an agricultural labourer in Chengam village in Thiruvannamalai district. At 57, she is still landless, toiling on leased land and draws a blank when questioned about her future. This January, she lost her husband, Thangavelu, to severe drought that has hit Tamil Nadu. He collapsed of cardiac arrest after witnessing a crop failure. Parvathi says he was under huge pressure to repay Rs 50,000 which he had taken for five percent interest. They were cultivating on a two-acre land taken for lease for the last five years and there has been no yield for the last three years. With a widowed daughter and unsupportive son, Parvathi pins her hopes on farming and cattle rearing. Both look bleak today.
According to the Tamil Nadu Federation of Women Farmer Rights, out of the total economically active women in the state, 65.5 percent engaged in agriculture. Women constitute 37 percent of the total agricultural workforce in the state. About 60-80% of food production and 90% of dairy products are produced by women producers. On an average, a woman spends nearly 3,300 hours in the field in a crop season as against 1,860 hours by a man. They also engage in important on-farm activities that are not solely cultivation-oriented. The tasks of keeping milch animals, small ruminants and backyard poultry are typically performed by women in the household. Yet, women are not recognised as farmers.
In India, legal recognition of farmers comes from land ownership. According to the agriculture census of 2010-11, only 12.69 percent of rural women have operational land ownership. This includes land lease data which makes the actual ownership abysmally low. The lack of land ownership and recognition as farmer poses many problems and limitations to women farmers that include access to government schemes and subsidies. Activists also say gender wage gap is highest in agricultural sector. Men earn 162 times higher than women for similar kind of job.
Such insurmountable hardships never deter women from seeking out to their lands. For many of them like Parvathi, it is all they know – it is all their life is all about.
In the wake of the severe water crisis that the State is facing, several women agricultural labourers in the delta districts have been wooed by local agents to shift ‘professions’. From construction work to menial jobs in fishing industry, there are many available. But P Padmavathi, former CPI MLA who works with agricultural women labourers, says they find it difficult to adapt themselves to any other work apart from farming. She says, “They cannot survive in construction industry; they find it difficult to work in fishing industry. They come back to their villages even if it means travelling several miles to find work. Work is becoming scarce but still available in lands which use bore wells.”
Most women dont mind waking up at four AM in the morning or taking two buses to reach their ‘workplace.’ They still prefer to work on land than carrying bricks on their heads. It is not as much about the difficulty of the labour as about the essence of their relationship with the land. “See if our men collapse just at the sight of parched fields, at the sight of failed crops, it is not only because it means monetary losses to them. It is because for them the land, the crops are parts of their lives, their families. It breaks them to see the crops fail. Our women are more resilient but their connection to environment is even deeper, stronger. Why she couldn’t leave the land nor put up with any injustice to her land,” Padmavathi reasons.
A reasoning that well extends to women of Idinthakarai too, who along with S P Udayakumar, spearheaded the protests against Koodankulam nuclear plant in Tamil Nadu. Padmavathi points to a wide range of examples from Chipko movement, the forest conservation movement of the 70s to the anti-Coke protests in Plachimada led by Mayilamma in the early 2000s. “A woman is the first human being to feel threatened if the environment in her place is threatened. From water to food, it has always been a woman’s responsibility so she instinctively reacts to a threat even if she has not been directly involved with the environment” Padmavathi says. Sundari and Mildred of Idinthakarai are only latest additions to this long list of women who have led such protests.
Like many women farmers, Mildred was a homemaker content with cooking different types of fish for her little family till a nuclear reactor in the vicinity of their little, picturesque coastal village Idinthakarai threatened to disrupt their peaceful lives. Since 2011, Mildred has been a part of the anti nuclear protests after the Koodankulam nuclear plant came up in her vicinity. She has been travelling in connection to that ever since. For someone who has never stepped out of Tirunelveli district, the anti nuclear struggle was a very powerfully defining turn. Her first trip to Chennai was to hand over a memorandum to several political leaders against the plant. Sometime last year, she visited Mumbai in connection with a book launch – again a first. “These places are stunning, I tell you” she once told me. I asked her if she was enjoying this ‘newfound’ independence in her life but Mildred seemed to shoot the idea down. “I was very independent in my own land, with my own sea always. This reactor is threatening my independence. It is threatening the dignity of my life. How can I not protest it?” she asked me back. It never mattered that she has never been into the sea, never caught a fish. “It is still my sea, I have grown up with it, grown up in it. How can I let it go?” she asks.
There is a common thread in the questions Parvathi of Chengam and Mildred of Idinthakarai pose. This quest for saving their land and water to lead a dignified living binds them together. The questions these women pose, will hopefully lead to answers, some day.
All of June, indianexpress.com will put out special stories with a gender lens, each looking at these intersections critically to assess how gender sensitive/inclusive anything in India is. Help us find more such stories using #GenderAnd in your conversations. You can read our reportage, here.