Rural Women and Farm Bills: A SHG Perspective

Indian Farming System and Rural Women
Agriculture, the largest source of livelihood, accounted for 23% contribution in GDP where 70% of rural households still primarily dependent on agriculture for their livelihood. Rural women can be considered as the main driving force of Indian Agriculture, as they constitute 43% of the labor force in Indian agriculture. They are also responsible for 20% of the total agricultural production. However, only 12.8% of the operational land holding was owned by women against the operational land holding of 25.7% by women in marginal and small landholdings categories (Census 2011). Rural women also take care of the farming at home when male farmers (small and marginal) moves out to the other cities/states/countries for better earning and is hardly acknowledged and accounted for with rural women farmer’s database of the country. Rural women play a multi-dimensional role in agriculture, from sowing, weeding, harvesting to storage. The dual responsibility of rural women managing farms and family puts them at severe health and economic disadvantage compared to the men. Along with agriculture, rural women are often seen managing local retail shops, selling vegetables to local haats, and handling other non-farms activities. Despite their heavy involvement in agriculture and allied activities, their efforts are marginalized; even they are not often recognized as farmers. Gender stereotype related to family properties still prevails in rural areas. Denial of land ownership refrains women to approach institutional loans, which further reduces their productivity.

Farm Bills and Rural Women
The recent intervention of the Government of India in the form of three new farm bills viz The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce
(Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, 2020, The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, 2020, The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill, 2020. These bills promise to change the way in which agricultural produce is marketed, sold, and stored. The fact shows that only 12% of all farm produce is sold to cooperatives and other organized procurement channels, leaving many smallholders reliant on complex, unpredictable, and often exploitative intermediary-driven markets. The situation is even more complicated for women farmers. There is lacuna in mainstream extension and agriculture support services as they are not tailored for these women, limiting their capacity to access improved production inputs and technology. These voids also show the opportunity associated with the farm’s bills in the context of rural women empowerment. Before implementing off-APMC trade or contract farming, it is mandatory to ensure production and productivity and then the proper cushioning mechanism to mitigate these bills’ potential risks if they arise in the future. Now, the question arises, how rural women workforce can facilitate the effective implementation of these bills at the ground level, how they may be engaged to get the opportunities created by these bills, and how they may address the risks associated with it?

Underpinning SHG Framework with Farm Bills
To effectuate new farm bills at the ground level, it is mandated to address the larger proportion of women producers. This seems difficult until we are not bringing SHGs under the umbrella of FPCs/FPO and cooperatives and further connect with the opportunities created by these bills across the value chain. SHGs are proven to leverages the program to deliver an intensive and targeted capacity-building of small women farmers and streamline access to credit for farm needs at the ground level. In the recent budget 2020, the Centre announced 7000-1000 crore for the Formation and Promotion of 10,000 Farmer Producer Organizations (FPOs). There are currently some 5,000 FPOs in the agriculture sector, out of which less than 1,000 are functional (NABARD, 2019 Farmer Producers’ Organizations (FPOs): Status, Issues & Suggested Policy Reforms). Also, we could not observe any strong provisions in women-based Producer Groups (PGs) and women-based farmer producer companies. There is an opportunity to connect women producer groups across the value chain and with NABARD, Small Farmers Agri-Business Consortium (SFAC), and National Cooperative Development Corporation (NCDC) and bringing the farm bill into action for the real owner of this sector. Transforming SHGs into FPC can be expected to increase their mobility, knowledge about the market research and related information, know-how of new technology, and innovative information. Having a common facility center (CFC) by converging SHGs with the FPC can boost the current production mechanism by ensuring women members’ faith in investing in the equity. Getting the benefits as a company and as a cooperative, the FPCs can help associated women for e-trading, collectively managing a community warehouse, setting their enterprise, branding, and packaging, access to diversified market, managing transport and logistics, and redressing disputes associated with the same (fig.1). The second farm bill assures secured price for the products before procuring harvest by adopting contract farming. Small and marginal women farmers are relatively less educated, lack resources, and deprived of contract-related knowledge. Large corporate buyers could easily exploit them. Uncertainty related to production and Ambiguous terms and conditions of the agreements can victimize women. To get the scale of production, SHG driven FPCs can intervene collectively, manage resources for the production, use high-quality inputs to ensure productivity and quality, primary collection, grading, and sorting farm produce at the village level, and enable better returns through real-time and transparent price discovery systems backing with government schemes related to crop insurance in case of unpredictable failure of the crop. This allows women farmer-owned FPCs and PGs to gain a larger share of the price spread between wholesale markets and farm-gate, subsequently higher per-unit price realization. FPCs can also leverage the essential commodity Bill, 2020, collectively. The member can
cooperatively manage a community-based warehouse and storage structure with the help of supporting schemes and subsidies, which seems to be impossible for a single woman farmer. It will allow them to conserve their surplus at a high production and sell at competitive prices when the market gets stabilized.

Fig.1 Framework for SHG based producer company integrating with farm bills (Author’s compilation)

Way forward
SHGs, as a company, have rolled out several interventions focused on strengthening agriculture value chains by building FPOs and PGs’ capacity. DAY-NRLM promotes FPOs by mobilizing women farmers; so far, 131 registered FPOs have been promoted under this Mission (PIB, July 2019). Aranyaka Agri Producer Company Limited, an Agro-based company run exclusively by SHG women of JEEViKA, help women farmers to access markets for their maize at a fairer price. The involvement helped its member emerge as successful business leaders. They gained confidence, control over income, and entitlement. Thennala Agro farmers producer Company Ltd is managed by the women member of Kudumbashree SHG, where women are involved in the production and sales of good quality organic rice under the brand “Thennala rice.” Kudumbashree women dairy farmers own Imashree Milk Producer Company Ltd (Idukki) to provide standard quality dairy products at competitive rates. The company started supplying fodder to member farmers. Also, the company is giving pieces of training to the member farmers in scientific cattle rearing. The company is manufacturing value-added products and bio manures at the cluster level.

The exclusive FPC-based platform meant that the farm bills could tap into a hitherto largely overlooked segment of women farmers. SHG based Farmer Producers in Kerala, Karnataka, and Bihar collectives have successfully demonstrated collectivization’s potential to access cheaper resources, improve bargaining power, and get access to diversified markets, catalyzing a curative effect in local market practices. There is much to gain for the FPCs if they converse with local SHGs, and this might help these bills get connected with the most marginalized section of India’s farming community.

-Written by Ms. Shifa Shahin and Dr. P. K.Singh; ARF Group Members