The Telengana Scenario

Marginalising Female Labour

P Aravinda

The book "FEMINIZING THE LABOUR RELATIONS" by Dr M Vanamala is an empirical study of changing production roles of female labour and their effects on the lives of women in a village in Medak district of Telangana state. As stated by the author, the "focus of the study is to probe into the quality of life and work life in the occupations of female labour shifted from female intensive, sex sequential paddy cultivation as non-agricultural occupations". Further, the author also states "the objective of the study is to trace the relationship between the processes of commoditization of farmland and the changing female production roles in farm employment" and "to trace new social structures of accumulation (italics in the original) emerging in the processes of new female non-farm employment".

The study covers duration of three decades and is conducted in the form of household surveys. The surveys are conducted using multi-stage stratified sampling procedure where the first stage was based on selection of some blocks in the village, second stage was selection of households based on land within the selected blocks and then a further stratification of selected households into social categories such as SC, ST, BC and FC. While the surveys are focused on the micro-level details, in order to capture the nuances and implications of local changes, the book tries to extrapolate from the findings of the surveys to form a general picture of how women's participation in labour changes with the changing macroeconomic conditions and Governmental policies.

In broad strokes, the author points out how the commercialisation of paddy crop through various initiatives taken by the State around late ’70s resulted in the expansion of female farm employment. The rising incomes of farm Households as a result of this commercialisation very soon had a reverse effect on female labour in the sense that households which did well in terms of revenues started withdrawing women from hired labour. This phenomenon of withdrawing women from hired labour and confining them to domestic work or work on own land is what the author terms as "housewifization". However, with the introduction of market centric deregulated macro agricultural policies in ’90s, agriculture went into a downward spiral due to increased input, costs and lack of remunerative prices for agricultural products which particularly affected the small and marginal farmers most adversely. The SEZ policy of 2005 exacerbated this downward spiral by making land a marketable entity in the speculative real estate business. The net effect of these changes is that agriculture became an unviable occupation for small and marginal landholders and had a direct impact of female labour in terms of availability and quality of farm and associated non-farm work. One major form of non-farm work initiated by the state with inputs and encouragement from the World Bank is that of Self-Help Groups (SHG) for women that were started ostensibly for poverty alleviation and empowerment. The author also does a micro study of such SHGs in the chosen village to understand how far they met their declared goals and presents her conclusions as well as suggested policy changes.

An important aspect covered by the author in the book is to formulate and explain the concepts and processes of the ‘feminization’ of labour reflecting the quality of work life of female labour. The processes of feminisation take multiple forms—female family farm labour (unpaid labour), feminised farm labour (by sliding down to low investment crops), pluri-activity female labour (female labour takes up the marginalised farm work while male labour from the same household works on non-farm), female hired Agricultural labour and new female farm activities (previously they were done either by male labour or by machine). All these forms are the result of changes in cultivation such as—limiting cultivation to family female labour, restructuring cropping patterns, reorganising land, reallocating family farm activities, rearranging land holdings etc to reduce the costs of cultivation and make farming viable. The net effect of all these strategies is to change the production forms of female labour and marginalise them This marginali-sation occurs in many ways. In case of family holdings while the adoption of low investment crop with low female labour intensity was one reason for marginalisation since it did not require much labour, female family labour becoming unpaid labour was another form of it. In situations where there was shortage of hired labour the wage dependant fanners shifted to crops like orchids that are not labour intensive and this in turn impacted the hiring of female labour thus setting up a vicious cycle. Adoption of capital intensive technology in commercial agriculture became yet another source for marginalisation of female labour.

One very significant aspect covered by the author as part of her tracing changes in the social composition of land ownership and changing production roles of female labour was to study the same on the basis of caste and class, thus, she tried to record the different impacts of macro-economic changes on different castes in the village under study.

The author reports that in 1979 i.e during the first survey female labour constituted 67 percent of the total in the working age group of female population. Of this, Forward Castes (FC) comprised 22.5%, Backward Castes (BC) 61% and scheduled castes (SC) 16.5%. Among the 33% non-working women, FC women were more. To quote the author, "Women's activities got diversified into hired, family labour and self-employed labour on rural non-farm activities. The family labour was more from FCs while the hired labour was more from SCs followed by BCs in that order. The author did an analysis of female labour in caste terms and this is what she reports—"about 72% of FC women work on their own fields while only 28% accept hired work, among BCs, 24% work on their own lands and 76% accept hired work on others' fields; among SCs, a mere 13% work on their own lands while 87% work as hired labour". The numbers quoted by the author starkly bring out the SC’s lack of access to land and their dependence on landed farmers belonging to higher castes for agricultural work. Though these numbers are relevant to one village, it is highly likely that the scenario is not very different in villages across India. This dependence is used by the upper castes as a weapon to keep the SCs under their thumb. Given this context, the demand of Dalits for land in the Una agitation makes a lot of political sense. The above numbers also clearly indicate that those lower in the caste hierarchy work primarily as hired labour while in the higher castes, women are mostly confined to family work. Whenever male incomes rose, women were withdrawn from the external labour process and confined to domestic labour. This was seen across all castes and classes. However, the withdrawal happens at different income slabs for different castes—FC women were withdrawn when income crossed Rs 5000 per annum, BC women at Rs 10000 per annum and SC women at Rs 15000 per annum. Again, this must be a pan-Indian phenomenon since it clearly originates from a patriarchal mindset that doesri't want women participating in any external work or activities.

By the time of the second survey in 1995-96, the number of cultivator households in the village shrank from 82% to 38%. The female labour constituted a mere 16% of working age group in which 13% were hired labour and 3% worked on own land, non-working women rose to 59%. Once women moved out of agricultural work there were not many avenues of alternative employment available to them. With new policy in 1990s female labour moved away from farm work and wage payments shifted from kind to monetary form. Despite these changes, there was not much improvement in female wages or disparities with male wages.

One striking point with regard to green revolution technologies in agriculture is that with the application of chemical fertilisers post 1960, there was a significant impact on rearing goats and sheep which provided natural fertilisers. This in turn, impacted the shepherd community in the village economically and politically and resulted in further loss of female employment.

One of the major changes that occurred post liberalisation is the increased sale of agricultural land for real estate purposes which got accelerated with the advent of SEZs. Some amount of land was alienated from the farmers due to forcible acquisition of land by the Government for industrial development while some amount of land was used up by households for construction of houses so that they can earn rent on those and supplement their incomes which were dwindling due to shrinking opportunities for work. The cultivators thus turned into rent earners over a period of time. As the author states, "this shift of productive assets from farmland to houses for rent seeking excluded women from labour market". In fact, the author contends that most of the occupations that emerged post-liberalisation in place of farm work were rent-seeking in nature that did not provide any role for female labour.

Even in non-farm employment in formal manufacturing industries, female workers were employed mostly in informal unsafe working conditions with insecure wages and work. i.e. female workers were employed under casual and contract systems. Their working conditions were no better than in agriculture and the wage differences compared to men continued to exist.

In chapter 4, on the basis of interviews conducted with farmers, cutting across caste and gender lines, the author presents a series of suggestions to policy makers for revival of cultivation. The important thing about these suggestions is their emphasis on female farmers as well as labour in order to improve their earnings and empowerment. In particular suggestion 4 to encourage female farmers' cooperatives and to encourage SHGs to take up cultivation, is likely to yield very good results while also satisfying the intended objectives of SHGs. Suggestion 6 to encourage the promotion of R&D in female oriented technology in agriculture is very innovative and inspiring and one hopes that some women agricultural scientists would take this seriously, with or without involvement from the Governments and science institutions. While suggestion 10 to form a village committee involving cultivators from various castes, classes and gender to decide village development needs is idealistic, it is not clear how it will work on the ground considering the prevailing power equations among castes and classes in most villages of India.

The author covers various forms of SHGs in her study. The SHGs that were started by the government ostensibly for eradication of poverty were merged with a private society (NGO) called Society for Elimination of Rural Poverty (SERP). The single largest SHG project is VELUGU or IKP working in the state of AP and was started with World Bank finances. Under the New Financial wave (free movement of finance), another set of SHGs were started by micro finance institutions as companies with non-banking finances, (with expanded access to finance). The author traces the transition of all forms of SHGs to argue that the virtual objective of financial institutions in sorting the SHGs is to earn easy profits with zero risk (as the members of SHGs have collateral security) in this business. Though the SHGs were supposed to lend money to women to encourage them to set up micro enterprises and create assets, the money borrowed was instead used in most cases by women members of SHGs to tide over their personal needs thus defeating their stated objective. Also, as the author quotes, SCs and STs got excluded from financial assistance in the Government's SHG schemes. A side note to the SHG scheme is the fact that NABARD, which is meant to provide rural credit, instead provided loans to commercial banks at much less interest than that charged by these banks when lending to SHGs.

While the readers who have been regularly following the news would remember how micro finance institutions fleeced and harassed the women members, it is still shocking to read the cases presented by the author since the earnings in each case simply do not justify the interests being paid by the members. To put it in the author's words -''the critical analysis of empirical data shows that the world financial institutions with nexus of the Indian state initiated the programme and expanded the business for accumulation of capital. These institutions are reducing the role of the state in financial decision making by acquiring monopoly over the financial market in the country. Inclusion of consumption loan also in the programme get a hold on the entire household's earnings. These findings should provide a wake-up call to not only the Government but also the media and the middle classes which tend to look at NGOs as a panacea for all ills plaguing the society. These cases of SHGs show how easily the stated objectives are subverted by the various arms of the State.

In conclusion, this is a very informative and useful book for anyone trying to understand the impact of macro-economic policies on women's work life in a rural context. However, the book could benefit from a careful proof reading to eliminate some glaring typos. Since there is a final chapter devoted exclusively to conclusions, the conclusions of each individual chapter could have been consolidated in that chapter along with policy prescriptions. This would make it easier for the reader to see the correlation between the findings, conclusions and policy prescriptions.

Vol. 50, No.29, Jan 21 - 27, 2017