Women breaking out of poverty

Kerala’s Kudumbashree (KDS) and Andhra Pradesh’s Indira Kranthi Patham (IKP) are two programmes that are often cited as having achieved both women’s empowerment and rural livelihoods successfully on scale. A study, commissioned by UNWOMEN and implemented by Landesa, captures a nuanced understanding of the systems and processes that are empowering women, while identifying the gaps that need to be addressed to make the empowerment more enduring.

Ever since the self-help group (SHG) mechanism became established as one replicable pathway of the women’s social and economic empowerment in India, several state and nonstate programmes based on women’s self-help group mechanism have been and continue to be implemented with significant successes. Kudumbashree (KDS) programme of Kerala and Indira Kranthi Patham (IKP) programme of Andhra Pradesh are the two best known programmes. These two programmes have been able to mobilize very large numbers of rural women into multi-tiered collectives that have provided the backbone for implementing several thematic initiatives spanning from agricultural development, micro enterprise, product marketing, health & education, gender equality, and others.

Of particular interest are two sub programmes called Community Managed Sustainable Agriculture (CMSA) within IKP and Collective Leasing within KDS where women’s economic empowerment is designed and executed in the context of women in agriculture. Both these ‘women in agriculture’ programmes have brought in lakhs of women as main actors in changing existing patterns in Indian agriculture and have informed the formulation of a national women farmer’s empowerment programme called Mahila Kisan Sashaktikaran Pariyojona currently being implemented in 12 states reaching at least 2 million women.

Following are two cases, one from each programme which have resulted in women to take the lead in cultivation, technology transfer and adoption, resource pooling, bringing back large tracts of fallow land into cultivation and marketing, and in the process transforming them from a housewife cum wage labourer to change agents in agriculture. Both programmes are successful in achieving multiple convergences with state, civil society and market actors in marketing, training, new initiatives, and the like.

CMSA: Leading the way to household food security

Compared to about 900 women groups that are engaged in micro enterprise, 2.15 lakh women’s groups are doing collective farming on leased-in land depicting the enormous popularity of collective leasing among women members.

CMSA aims at changing crop management practices from an energy intensive, capital intensive, and chemical fertilizer & chemical pesticide driven production techniques to more ecologically and financially sustainable techniques. CMSA has very cleverly weaved this intervention with women’s economic empowerment by making the woman the primary vehicle and owner of this intervention.

According to Indian classification of farmers, Lakshmi would belong to the category of small farmers. Her family has one acre of crop land in Korada village in Padmanabham Mandal in the Vishakhapatnam district of Andhra Pradesh. The land is rainfed, where crops like paddy, vegetables, legumes, millets and papaya are grown in two seasons, depending on the availability of water.

Like many small farmer households of Andhra Pradesh, most of Lakshmi’s family’s agricultural income is spent towards purchasing food for consumption and paying the interest on the loans taken to purchase agricultural inputs like chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Despite an acre of land, her family is not income or food secure. By any standard, she is regarded as one of the very poor, if not the poorest.

Using ecological practices like use of bio-fertilizers, bio pesticides, mulching and SRI methods, Lakshmi’s family indeed improved their production and the variety of produce in a very significant way. Her household has begun harvesting multiple crops every year with the cost of cultivation reduced to nearly one fourth of what it was earlier. They could achieve better and improved yields, and they also got more variety. The amount of vegetables, legumes and grains they used to buy from the market has been significantly reduced. Due to the improvement in their economic situation, they have been able to take on an additional 0.5 acre land on lease and used it partly for SRI paddy cultivation and partly for doing a 36ft. x 36 ft. seven tier model to grow vegetables, fruits and tubers. They have also invested in other livelihood assets such as a setting up a local NPM (Non Pesticide Management) shop to sell biopesticides and bio-fertilizers.

Lakshmi speaks more about her multi-tier vegetable garden, that gave them substantial quantity and variety of vegetables, grams, roots and fruits. Under the 36ft.x36ft. model, crops are arranged in seven tiers. The first tier includes plants which require minimal sunlight such as root or tuber crops like carrot, beetroot, and ginger. The second tier includes creepers that cover the soil such as bottle gourd and cucumber, and act as live mulch. The third tier includes leafy vegetables such as sorrel leaves, spinach, coriander and amaranthus. The fourth tier includes vegetables such as brinjal, tomato and chillies. The fifth tier includes perennial crops such as castor and red gram. Sixth tier has fruit trees such as papaya, drumstick, custard apple and guava. The seventh tier also has fruit crops such as mango; these are plants which require maximum sunlight. The harvesting of multiple crops round the year provides food throughout the year, promotes nutritional security and ensures regular income to the family in the small plot of land. On a plot of 0.25 acre, this seven tier production system produces enough for a four member family of Lakshmi. In fact they now have marketable surplus.

Using SRI method in rice cultivation and applying bio-fertilizers and bio-pesticides, Lakshmi’s fields could produce much more than before. And using rainwater effectively, Lakshmi could grow paddy and cereals in two seasons instead of one, while improving soil nutrition, outputs, and again, creating a marketable surplus. Lakshmi’s another effort is to create and manage a seed bank, preserving seeds of paddy, vegetables, and fruits in a group. Initially this was started as a CMSA farmers led effort, with the seeds obtained from the vegetables, tubers, fruits and creepers of the 36 ft. x 36 ft. model. Soon it grew into a fairly large programme within CMSA, in which, seed varieties developed by research institutes like ICRISAT were added to the seed kitty of the SHG. The variety in the seed bank grew from five to 18 different types of seeds. The members could borrow from the seed bank, with the condition that she will have to return to the bank the same amount plus an additional 50%, so that the kitty grows for others. Moreover, seed exchanges started happening across the village organizations (VOs) and Mandal Samakhyas, thus spreading across the district and beyond.

Running a seed bank requires technical knowledge of seed preservation, as well as knowledge of accounting. Lakshmi took on the responsibility, learnt the techniques, arranged the space at her home, and is managing the seed bank on her group’s behalf. What does all this mean for her life? She claims that her family’s net income is now over 50,000/- in a year, a significant jump from before. Her family’s food basket is now vastly improved, thanks to the variety of vegetables, fruits and tuber that get included in their daily diet. She also claims that their debt burden is now less than before. This success, she says, has made her more confident and has facilitated her inclusion in household decision making. Even though her decisions still need consent from the male members of her household, she is finding pockets of autonomy. While she had to work hard initially to convince her family to accept her CMSA experiments, she is now a better negotiator and exercises her choice on what crops and vegetables to grow on their land, how much to sell and purchase, and also on spending decisions. She travels to the market in Vijaynagaram town to sell the produce and purchases materials to prepare natural pesticides.

Clearly, Lakshmi is the change agent for her family towards achieving household food security through adoption of sustainable agriculture techniques. Lakshmi’s case establishes that rain fed areas and the families dependent on it can be made food secure if appropriate technologies are used. In Lakshmi’s words, as long as they only knew of usual ways of cultivation they were certainly poorer, CMSA techniques have helped her family break the cycle of poverty.

Collective Leasing: Transformation of women as cultivators (Kerala)

Kudumbashree (KDS) is the name of the state poverty eradication mission of government of Kerala. In Kerala, the women at the village level are grouped into what are called neighbourhood groups (NHGs). KDS too built a three tier structure of women groups at the village level, Area Development Societies (ADS) at the ward level, and Community Development Societies (CDS) at the Gram Panchayat level, comprising of elected women representatives at each level. The entire collective farming programme at the CDS-ADS and NHG levels is operated and managed by women.

If you ask any NHG member “what would you like to do to improve your economic situation?” almost 98% will most likely say, “We want to do collective farming on leased land,” says a Kudumbashree official at Thiruvananthapuram. Compared to about 900 women groups that are engaged in micro enterprise, 2.15 lakh women’s groups are doing collective farming on leased-in land. While this depicts the enormous popularity of collective leasing among women members, the story below will indicate why this is so.

Ramani Sreenivasan, Sheeba Balakrishnan, Sreeja Daran and Bindu Sathyan are members of Gramashree Joint Liability Group in Mullasherry Gram Panchayat of Thrissur District. The group has been formed out of a NHG to take up collective leasing way back in 2006 when KDS took up farming as an economic activity. KDS named these groups as “activity groups” (AG) within an NHG. If an activity group took up farming, they were eligible for a few back-end subsidies. Ramani et al. were all landless agricultural labourers that worked on local land owner’s land for a living. Together they worked for three landowners, whose lands were all in one adjacent single stretch of 13.5 acre. When the landowners stopped their cultivation around 1998, for being unable to pay high wages (around Rs. 125/- a day in 1998), the land lay fallow for years.

Ramani and others recall that they came to know of collective leasing programme from the Gram Panchayat. They decided to give it a try and started farming as part of Kudumbashree from 1998. These women knew each other and worked for the same landowners before, so they thought they could take the land on lease from the landowners, and revive cultivation of rain fed paddy for four months, which they knew how to grow. With the help of the Panchayat’s ward member, and one CDS member, they were able to successfully negotiate a lease agreement with the landowners. The landowners agreed on the conditions: for 5.5 acres, the lease rent was Rs. 12,000/- per acre per annum and for the rest 8 acres, the lease rent was 50% of the harvest.

It was a challenge to secure the lease rent in cash because that was payable in advance, whereas the other rent was payable only after the harvest. The women took personal loans from the relatives and also some NHG loans to make the start. The CDS also helped them by discussing with the Gram Panchayat and developed a supplementary scheme under MGNREGA for land preparation and reclamation. MGNREGA wage helped them with some cash which they added to their NHG savings, NHG’s loan and personal loans to pay the rent. Even though these women knew paddy production techniques, they were encouraged to undergo training by the CDS. When asked why, the women answered, the CDS were making sure that they knew scientific crop management so that they do not lose crop by some pest attack, and become indebted.

Collective leasing has two intrinsic risks. A) crop failure or less production can make a person perpetually indebted, and B) if the crops do well for a couple of years, the soil quality vastly improves, and that can be attractive for the landowner to change his mind and take back the land. Ramani has been lucky in both these respects. Their production was reliable year after year thanks to adequate rainfall, and more importantly, their lease did not stop, and it was renewed every year from all the landowners. Although the land was rain fed, the women obtained about 1200 kg per acre yield from their field. These women were able to generate a total production of 15500-16500 Kg from their field. At this level of production, their revenue varies from Rs. 225,000/- to 275,000/ – as a group, and their net income is about Rs. 40,000/- per member.

Their journey took a new turn when the group was registered with NABARD as a Joint Liability Group (JLG) in 2009. The category change was done as per official policy of KDS so that these groups can access agricultural credit at a minimal rate of interest from commercial and cooperative banks. Another milestone in their journey was in 2011 when the CDS and the Gram Panchayat under an overall KDS mission diktat, connected them to Supply Co, a public sector marketing cooperative that procures paddy on behalf of the government at the minimum support price of Rs. 17/- kg. while the prevalent market price was then Rs. 13/- per kg.

Ramanis’ story is simple. The institutional backbone of CDS and ADS created under KDS provided the enabling support to these women to start a collective endeavour, using the local land lying fallow and the landowners agreeing to a market friendly arrangement of rent. Instead of trying new items, the women did what they already knew – paddy, and thanks to the initial support of NREGA and NHG loan, they took a risk in which they succeeded. They showed that using mostly family labour, these fallow lands can be successfully brought back to cultivation, and in the process help increase family income significantly. The structural linkage with Supply Co helped sustain their effort from vagaries of the market by purchase and sale under a protective price mechanism.

There are important lessons from this experience. Their effort is successful because the women and their families enjoy the trust of the landowners, so that they can continue leasing in year after year. Thousands of such oral or plain paper agreements continue to dominate the leasing environment, as leasing is completely banned in Kerala. Such arrangements favour the landowners; the lessees gain as long as the owner allows them to gain. On the other hand, it’s clear that even after paying lease rent at the market rate, the women have made substantive gains with a simple cultivation like paddy. The engagement of CDS and ADS is limited to providing the enabling environment, and some monitoring so that they can provide the back end subsidy to the group, but the technology transfer component is quite minimal.

What are the changes in the lives of these women? According to them, their own kitty has increased, they have been able to repay all the personal loans, as a group, their savings are now substantial to the extent that they have very recently bought a 0.5 acre land as a group. The women have also invested in jewelleries and household items. In brief, the women’s own assets are on the rise, increasing slowly but steadily. The largest chunk of collective leasing interventions by KDS mission is in such relatively simple cultivation of paddy and banana with some inter-cropping of vegetables, tubers and fruits. The success is in its simplicity, backed up by the strong institutional backbone of women’s collective and Panchayati Raj.


Source: LANDESA, Women Transforming Indian Agriculture, A Collection of Case Studies from Indira Kranthi Patham of Andhra Pradesh and Kudumbashree Mission of Kerala, December 2013, New Delhi.

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