India's women farm workers suffer job losses from climate shocks

A woman farmer drinks water from an earthen pot in a wheat field on the outskirts of Ajmer in the desert Indian state of Rajasthan, April 4, 2015. India is the world's biggest wheat producer after China. REUTERS/Himanshu Sharma

A woman farmer drinks water from an earthen pot in a wheat field on the outskirts of Ajmer in the desert Indian state of Rajasthan, April 4, 2015. India is the world's biggest wheat producer after China. REUTERS/Himanshu Sharma

What’s the context?

Extreme weather - from droughts and floods to heatwaves - are hurting Indian farmworkers, with women the hardest hit

  • Indian women farm workers lose out due to extreme weather
  • Women in agriculture bear brunt but have little recourse
  • Activists say many rural women unaware of government aid

BEED, India - Disabled mother-of-two Devanabai Dhaigude has in recent months regularly gone to bed on an empty stomach, after heavy rains flooded the cotton farm where she worked in western India.

She and several other women lost their shifts in July at the farm in Beed, in Maharashtra state - where they removed weeds for 150 rupees ($1.80) a day - after above-average monsoon rains battered the state.

Without any work, the 35-year-old, who can use only one arm, has resorted to borrowing from a local moneylender in the village of Chopadyachiwadi, as she otherwise cannot afford to buy food for her children every day.

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"Many days, I sleep without having dinner so that my two kids can have food. But how long can I provide food for them with my savings and borrowed money?" she asked, standing outside of her small house built from aluminium sheets.

"I wanted to fix the roof ... as rainwater comes in. But with no work I have to postpone," added Devanabai, who said she had been abandoned by her alcoholic husband earlier this year.

She said she now has no choice but to wait for the harvest season in November in the hope of finding work on other farms.

"I will be at home until that time as no other kind of work is available," Devanabai said. "I feel hopeless and helpless."

She is far from alone. Women working in agriculture across India are being squeezed by a combination of worsening climate change impacts that threaten crops and economic struggles due to the growing cost-of-living crisis and post-pandemic slowdown.

Indian farm worker Devanabai Dhaigude poses for a photo in her village in Maharashtra, India, October 1 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Varsha Torgalkar

Indian farm worker Devanabai Dhaigude poses for a photo in her village in Maharashtra, India, October 1 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Varsha Torgalkar

Indian farm worker Devanabai Dhaigude poses for a photo in her village in Maharashtra, India, October 1 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Varsha Torgalkar

While three-quarters of working women in rural India rely on agriculture to make a living, government data shows, very few are recognised as farmers themselves or own farmland, which means they struggle to secure credit or access government subsidies and aid programmes.

Women played a big role in a major protest by Indian farmers against agricultural reforms last year, calling for more recognition for their role, as well as land rights, credit and subsidies.

As extreme weather events such as drought, floods and heatwaves increase, the country's poorest farm families are under growing pressure, with female farm workers often suffering the most, according to academics and activists.

While men who lose work on farms can move to cities to find new jobs to provide for their families, women are often restricted by household responsibilities, said Kedar Kulkarni, an assistant professor of economics at Azim Premji University in Bengaluru.

"Women are the most vulnerable to climate change, economic recession, or failure of government policies," said Kulkarni, who has written on the impact of extreme weather on agriculture.

"Any adaptation policy to climate change should focus on women, who are at the forefront."

Women farmers attend a protest against farm laws on the occassion of International Women's Day at Bahadurgar near Haryana-Delhi border, India, March 8, 2021. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

Women farmers attend a protest against farm laws on the occassion of International Women's Day at Bahadurgar near Haryana-Delhi border, India, March 8, 2021. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

Women farmers attend a protest against farm laws on the occassion of International Women's Day at Bahadurgar near Haryana-Delhi border, India, March 8, 2021. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

Futures at stake

Farming accounts for nearly 15% of India's almost $3 trillion economy and sustains half of its population.

Yet as its rural agricultural workforce becomes more female-dominated due to male migration to urban areas, erratic weather often leaves women having to deal with the fallout alone.

India was the seventh most affected country by climate change in 2019, according to the latest Global Climate Risk Index, an annual ranking from research group Germanwatch.

Uneven monsoon rains and rising temperatures are fuelling fears about food production and farming livelihoods nationwide.

For example, Devanabai said she used to pick up four or five days of farm work a week before 2020, but that it had dropped to one or two days in recent years due to worsening droughts and heavier rainfall throughout the seasons, as well as hailstorms.

Saraswati Sevabhavi Sanstha, a local NGO that helps rural women, said that while farmers receive state compensation for their losses, the women like Devanabai who work for them have no such support.

"When female farm workers don't get income, their kids drop out from school, they marry their daughters at young age, they suffer domestic violence," said its supervisor Namdev Chopade.

"Basically, the freedom of women gets snatched and patriarchy returns slowly," she added.

Falling through the cracks

As India - Asia's third-largest economy - wrestles with consistently high unemployment and inflation, advocates and analysts are calling for more support for women in agriculture.

Kulkarni, the academic, said the government needed to create more awareness about climate change risks among women and also provide financial support through access to banking and credit systems.

The federal government has in recent years launched various programmes for women farmers - including the creation of self-help groups to improve access to finance - in a bid to improve agricultural productivity and create sustainable work for rural women.

Yet in Maharashtra, Sunita Mhaiskar, the deputy commissioner of the state's labour department, said agriculture workers fell into the category of unorganised labourers and that there is currently "no specific act or scheme for female farm workers".

"All schemes applicable to unorganised sector workers are applicable to them," she said.

But while informal workers are entitled to insurance and pensions as part of recent labour reforms - the Code on Social Security was approved in 2020 and came into force in July - there is little awareness of this among them, activists warn.

"There is no way that rural farm workers ... who do not know how to operate a bank account ... get to know about the scheme," said Deepak Paradkar of labour rights charity Aajeevika Bureau, urging the Indian government to do more to promote the programme.

For now, women such as Devanabai and Meera Babar, a 37-year-old widow from Golegaon in Beed district, have nowhere to turn as increasingly extreme weather denies them farm work.

Babar said she can still afford to send her 13-year-old son to a public school - thanks to savings and money borrowed from lenders, relatives and neighbours - but not her 15-year-old daughter, who she plans to marry off as soon as possible.

"I am experiencing low availability of work at farms due to heavy rains or droughts," said Babar, explaining how she used to harvest sugarcane and remove weeds for 200 rupees per day.

Now, "I don't know how I am going to survive with zero income," she said.

(Reporting by Varsha Torgalkar; Editing by Kieran Guilbert and Laurie Goering)


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