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This land is her land

Women are at an obvious disadvantage here, as they have very little ownership or control over assets, particularly land, and nor the flexibility to access wider employment opportunities, including through migration.

Written by Harish Damodaran | Updated: March 19, 2016 1:01 am
A woman farmer in Odisha during the maize harvest last year. Tashi Tobgyal A woman farmer in Odisha during the maize harvest last year. Tashi Tobgyal

Book: Gender Challenges Volumes 1, 2 and 3

Author: Bina Agarwal

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Pages: 1360

Price: RS 3,995

Most economic models treat the “household” as a single entity, whose members share common preferences and interests. It is further assumed that all their incomes and resources are pooled together and allocated by an altruistic family head, who works to maximise the household’s utility. Even government programmes and welfare measures directed at predefined male household heads, be it issuing ration cards or conferring land ownership rights, presuppose that these benefits will be shared equitably with the women and children.

Such “unitary” household models — where the decision-maker is a benevolent despot guided by moral considerations — have, however, come increasingly under challenge even within mainstream economics. The new models, mainly employing the game-theoretic approach, allow for individual differences in preferences
and even conflicts of interest among members. They characterise intra-household interactions as involving some form of “bargaining”, critical to which is the relative power of each member to influence the decision-making process. These can, then, yield a range of cooperative and non-cooperative outcomes.

Gender Challenges Volumes 1, 2 and 3 Gender Challenges Volumes 1, 2 and 3

Bina Agarwal is a rare economist — as opposed to a sociologist or anthropologist — who has sought to explicitly incorporate gender asymmetries not only for a better modelling of household decision-making and intra-family motivations, but also to weave these into public policy formulation. The present three-volume compendium, bringing together a selection of papers written over three decades, bears testimony to her rigorous scholarship and engagement with rural economy issues from a gender perspective.

The bargaining power of any member is a function of her/his “fallback position” or ability to survive outside the family in the event of “cooperation” breaking down. Women are at an obvious disadvantage here, as they have very little ownership or control over assets, particularly land, and nor the flexibility to access wider employment opportunities, including through migration. Their primary, if not sole, responsibility for childcare, the ideology of female seclusion (more so, in rural settings), and vulnerability to sexual abuse automatically limit job mobility options open to adult males.

The weak fallback position and loss of bargaining power becomes most pronounced during droughts and famines, leading even to the dissolution of families. The man’s decision to abandon his wife, according to Agarwal, occurs when the latter’s “entitlements” appear to have collapsed completely. By then, the jewellery and household utensils she may have brought as dowry would already have been disposed of, leaving behind only the land still belonging to the man. In a scenario where there’s a marked decline in her ability to contribute to joint well-being, “non-cooperation by the husband would make sense in the interests of his individual physical survival, and do him no harm in terms of his social survival (he could marry again)”.

But arable land, labour power and other quantifiable economic “endowments” apart, there are also qualitative determinants of women’s negotiating position that game-theoretic “bargaining” models do not factor in. They include social norms and perceptions regarding women’s contributions to the household, which, Agarwal points out, are typically undervalued not just within the family but even in the market. Home-based unwaged work — whether looking after children, managing the kitchen, collecting fodder and firewood or milking animals — is always viewed as less valuable than work that’s physically and monetarily more visible.

Assumptions of women being less productive than men are also institutionalised in the market through systematically lower wages. This, despite evidence that establishes women farmers to be as, if not more, productive than their male counterparts provided they have secure land rights and equal access to credit, agricultural inputs and extension services.

Volume one, in fact, contains interesting work based on gender-disaggregated information from official cost of cultivation data, which Agarwal has used to show how tractors have had little impact on female labour. The reason: they have largely replaced ploughing that was customarily undertaken by males. Similarly, the switch to high-yielding rice varieties has actually increased demand for casual female labour, particularly in transplantation, inter-culture/weeding and harvesting operations. Both contradict popular arguments against the Green Revolution, reflected in gender studies as well.

The unitary household model that sees men as the main/sole economic providers and women as dependents, Agarwal notes, finds legitimacy even in public policymaking. An alternative approach would emphasise enhancing women’s rights in immovable property (the focus of volume two) and systematic efforts at removing male bias in the delivery of welfare schemes and government services (provision of credit support, extension information, marketing and technical assistance, etc).

There are both equity as well as efficiency gains from this, especially when it is known that women’s contribution from their earnings to household maintenance — extending to the incremental effect on child nutrition — is often greater than that of men, who tend to spend more on personal “needs”. So is their record at utilisation and repayment of loans — something that microfinance institutions would vouch for.

Some movement towards more gender-sensitive policy formulation seems visible, though, in recent times, which Agarwal, perhaps, does not fully take note of. This may be driven no less by politicians — from N.T. Rama Rao to Nitish Kumar — who have sought to cultivate a distinct “women vote-bank”. The National Food Security Act now mandates ration cards to be issued in the name of the “eldest woman of the household” (even if this may empower the mother-in-law more than the wife). The programme to ensure universal LPG connections coverage by 2019 should, likewise, partially at least address the woes of rural women, who bear the brunt of using unclean cooking fuels and environmental degradation resulting from the depletion of common property resources (the subject of volume three).

Agarwal has also not sufficiently taken into account the impact of schemes like MGNREGA and a vastly expanded public distribution system, besides rising women’s political participation and the mushrooming of self-help groups, over the last decade. What difference have these made, if any, to women’s empowerment? But that still does not take away from what would undoubtedly qualify as a standard reference work for anybody interested in rural India.

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