The Government of India has passed three bills, popularly called the Farm Bills 2020. These three legislations – The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Production and Facilitation) Bill 2020, The Farmers’ (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement & Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill2020 and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill 2020 – are slated are landmark laws that will usher a new beginning for India’s agricultural sector.
These legislations have immense potential not only for the agricultural sector, but also for other sectors. They are to be analysed and implemented in tandem with several other policies of the government. A policy never operates in vacuum. It becomes increasingly successful when viewed holistically and in congruence with several other existing or forthcoming policies and legislations.
The government’s farm policies , as reflected through these legislations, has real potential to achieve a greater degree of gender equity in the agriculture sector, making women empowered, productive and visible. If opportunities are provided and availed of properly, rural womenfolk can benefit immensely.
The New India envisioned through the farm laws, can be a country where women stand as equals to men in the agricultural sector. The objective of the present paper is to explore how farm legislations propose to make the agricultural sector more productive for women.
The State and Empowerment of Women
Gender equity is recognised by the United Nations as not only a fundamental human right but a necessary foundation for a peaceful, prosperous, and sustainable world. It is about giving fair treatment to men and women according to their respective needs. It can be best achieved when women get empowered and the state provides them with ample opportunities in terms of rights and benefits. The Constitution of India ensures gender equality through its Fundamental Rights, Fundamental Duties and Directive Principles of State Policy. India is also a signatory to the Convention on Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) since 1980 and ratified it in 1993, through which the state pledges to remove measures that are gender discriminatory. So far as policies related to women are concerned, in the post-independence period initially there was focus on welfare of women and not empowerment. Policies were designed under the aegis of Five-Year Plans for the welfare of women. Women were viewed as recipients of welfare schemes and not agents for change. Gradually the focus shifted from welfare to empowerment.
The Ninth Five Year Plan (1997-2002) was the first plan that gave a commitment to empower women. Instead of allotting funds for welfare, measures were specifically proposed to empower them. To promote gender equity the state needs a concrete policy to empower women. To fulfill this objective, the Government of India first framed the National Policy for Empowerment of Women (NPEW) in 2001. Till date, this is the only policy on empowerment of women. The then National Democratic Alliance government framed this policy with the vision of establishing a ‘society in which women would attain their full potential, participate as equal partners in all spheres of life and influence the process of social change. The NPEW specially recognised the role of women in agriculture and its allied sectors. The policy document specifically mentions the need to make serious efforts to ensure that the benefits of training, extension and various other programmes reach women adequately. It emphasizes on training women in various occupations allied to agriculture, like horticulture, soil conservation, social forestry, dairy development, and livestock and so on. Its objective is to create an effective framework that will enable the process of developing policies, programmes and practices, ensuring equal rights and opportunities for women in family, community, work place and in governance. This particular objective of empowering women can be best fulfilled if the opportunities offered by changes in the agricultural sector are relatable to the NPEW and the National Policy for Women.
The NPEW was framed in 2001 but after that for a long time no other concrete policy was evolved on women empowerment. The NPEW is presently regarded as an umbrella policy under the aegis of which several empowerment schemes are designed by different ministries. Since 2001, there have been several changes in the social, political and economic spheres and an upgradation of policy is need of the time. The present government is on the way to framing a National Policy for Women and the draft policy is already available on the website of the Ministry of Women and Child Development and termed as the National Policy for Women (Draft), 2016.
This national policy with a holistic approach on women empowerment, will address several emerging areas of concern in changing times. The National Policy for Women (Draft) has been framed to ensure gender equity. It has been designed to guide various sectors to issue more detailed policy documents that are more sector specific. And, if the agricultural sector, enriched by the new changes, can generate such opportunities in the future, that complement the provisions of NPEW and the Draft National Policy on Women, it can contribute to gender equity.
The National Policy on Women (Draft) recognises agriculture as an area of priority where the role and power of women can be enhanced. Let us highlight some basic points of the policy related to women working in the agricultural sector:
- It recognises the increasing feminisation of agriculture in India and proposes to recognise women as farmers in agriculture and allied sectors and related value chain development.
- It aims to make efforts to support women farmers in their livelihoods, their visibility and identity, secure their rights over resources, ensure entitlements over agricultural services and provide them with social protection cover.
- It aims to expand the scope of schemes/programmes that train women in soil conservation, social forestry, dairy development, horticulture, organic farming, and livestock, and benefit women working in the agricultural sector.
- It proposes to utilise the skills and capacities of successful women farmers as extension workers and trainers or ‘Krishi Sakhis’
- Women have access to bodies of traditional knowledge for conservation of genetic diversity and the policy proposes to encourage and utilise all such forms of knowledge and skill of sustainable agricultural practices.
- Women collectives like cooperatives and SHGs will be encouraged and incentivised in any type of sustainable agricultural practices.
- Agriculture for nutrition will be encouraged and women will have benefit from that as procurement of such crops will be prioritised in use for Anganwadis.
- The policy proposes to make efforts to prioritise women in land redistribution, land purchase and land lease schemes to enable women to own and control land.
- Women’s sole ownership of land or joint ownership with spouse will be encouraged by allowing concessions in registration fees or stamp duties. Transfer of land ownership to women will be incentivised using different measures.
- Women farmers’ collective farming enterprise will be incentivised by providing support for post-harvest storage, processing and marketing facilities.
- Institutional and funding support is proposed to be provided for formation of women producers’ associations and existing women’s collectives so that they can process, store, transport and market the produce.
- Women farmers will be involved in on-farm participatory research on women-friendly agricultural technologies and a database of all such women-friendly technologies will be maintained.
The Farm Laws and Opportunities for Women
In the above section, we have studied, in brief, the provisions of the Draft National Policy for Women for those working in the agricultural sector. It is evident that this policy has a pinpointed focus on two issues. First, prioritisation and incentivisation of land ownership or lease deeds in the name of women, ensuring they have control over the land on which they work as well as enhancing their decision-making powers. The state is supposed to be proactive here as concessions in fees or duties are supposed to be provided by the state.
The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Production and Facilitation) Act 2020 is going to expand opportunities through which farmers can sell their produce to anyone they want to, corporate or the existing Agricultural Produce Market Committees (APMC) , in accordance with the bargains they receive. Just like any other sector of the liberalised economy, agriculture will be restriction free to trade or with more freedom to trade. This opportunity of free trade is to be viewed in congruence with the state commitment of ensuring and prioritising the land ownership rights of women. If land ownership is incentivised by the government, women will be no longer just be agricultural labourers on farm land or working on farm land owned by male members of the family, but will have the opportunity to own a piece of family land where they were workin g earlier sans ownership. This ownership will enable them to have a say in the way farm produce is marketed and how they will benefit from that. Whatever opportunity freedom in trading of agricultural produce will offer, women will also have a fair share in it.
The farm legislations make it evident that the formation of farmers’ collectives or cooperatives will become very crucial in the future if farmers want to develop a system of effective bargaining to market their product or go for contract-farming. The market economy is making its extended entry in the agricultural sector and farmers need to be in collective to derive the right bargain and use the opportunity to its fullest.
At this point, there is the second issue that the Draft National Policy on Women has highlighted which has relevance for farm laws.
This issue focuses on support for women’s collectives and cooperatives. When we are approaching a time where farmers’ cooperatives are going to play a crucial role, support and encouragement of women’s cooperatives or Self Help Groups (SHGs) in the field of agriculture will enable women to avail the best opportunity.
The National Rural Livelihood Mission(NRLM)of the Ministry of Rural Development reports that there are presently 62,56,244 SHGs working under the NRLM and their total membership count is 6,86,76,728. The figure is significant and if we consider that SHGs are not under the NRLM, then the figure crosses one crore. The SHGs, if backed by adequate multi-sectoral policies, can best make use of the present situation.
Women farmers, through forming new SHGs or through the existent SHGs, can work for storage as well as marketing of agricultural produce and in other allied agricultural services like horticulture, food processing and livestock.
Government-induced facilities of soft loans for SHGs of women farmers, supported by incentives to land ownership of women, can bring in more women in the agricultural sector. In 2020, the Ministry of Finance has doubled the collateral free loans to Women SHGs from Rs 10 lakh to Rs 20 lakh. If the commitment of the Draft National Policy of Women is taken into consideration, it can be expected that this sort of financial assistance may be enhanced further in the future. The history of SHGs in India has shown that women have strong organising and bargaining capabilities. Empowered by these capabilities, they can make justified use of the new opportunities and ensure their visibility in the agricultural sector. How women can make the best and judicious use of any situation and turn it into an advantage for society is best exemplified from the role women-led SHGs have played recently in coping with the Covid-19 pandemic and made optimum use of the business opportunities under the new normal.
The Economic Times reports that according to Ministry of Rural Development statistics, more than 132 lakh masks were produced by 14,522 SHGs involving 65,396 members spread across 24 states within fifteen days in the month of March. The decentralised mode of operationof SHGs makes them market their produce and products fast and with lesser complications of transportation. Women-led SHGs can be agents of change that will lead to a New India with a strong rural and agricultural backdrop and an empowered and self-reliant women workforce.
The government is serious about expanding the scope of SHGs and that is evident from its initiative to digitise SHGs. The Government of India has undertaken a project to digitise SHG accounts and bring all SHGs under financial inclusion. This digitisation can also help to create a database that can be of further use for any other scheme. E-shakti, the digitisation of SHGs, is an initiative of the Micro Credit and Innovations Department of the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD). This digitisation initiative is in congruence with Government of India’s Digital India Mission. The government has taken the policy of transforming India into a digitally empowered society and knowledge economy.
NABARD launched the project of E-shakti in collaboration with the Mahashakti Foundation with the objective of digitising all SHGs. When implemented fully, one can access all data on a SHG with a single click. It is supposed to help banks and financial institutions to have data on SHGs and facilitate their financial inclusion. The E-shakti project is presently launched in 100 districts of India and will be expanded further. Extended financial inclusion of rural women can better equip them with all the support they need to reap the benefits from a changed agricultural scenario.
Organic food is the emergent sector worldwide and India has immense potential to be the global leader in organic farming and a major supplier of organic food. There is wide scope for foreign direct investment in this sector too. India has a rich body of traditional knowledge on organic farming. Women have large access to this traditional knowledge and the Draft National Policy for Women emphasizes promotion of this knowledge. Organic farming and the use of this traditional body of farming knowledge can be well-marketed and showcased.
The Draft National Policy for Women proposes training women in organic farming and maintaining a repository of traditional knowledge owned by women. And, if we analyse the opportunities that organic farming is going to have in the future along with the provisions that government will make for training women in organic farming techniques, using their knowledge and providing support to women cooperatives, then it becomes easy to realise how it will empower women and expand their agency. Women have prospects in bio-fertilisers manufacturing and marketing, and here again SHGs and their decentralised mode of functioning can be highly beneficial.
In 2017, the Paramparagat Krishi Vikas Yojana(PKVY) scheme was introduced for the promotion of organic farming. Under the scheme, the government has issued guidelines for formation of organic clusters and model organic farms. The PKVY has been framed as a comprehensive scheme under National Mission of Sustainable Agriculture to promote organic farming through a cluster approach. Women have the potential to use the facilities offered under this scheme also and get involved in different stages of organic farming. Even in this cluster approach, women farmers’ collectives have the opportunity to play a crucial role.
‘Agriculture for Nutrition’ is another area of priority mentioned in the Draft National Policy for Women as well as an area which holds prospect for women farmers. The market of ‘agriculture for nutrition’ is another booming market and the Indian state a crucial procurer of the produce of this sector for the public distribution system and other welfare schemes. Produce from this sector can be useful for state procurement as well as for the larger market. The government proposes to support women-led ‘Agriculture for Nutrition’ and procure the produce of this nutrition-oriented agriculture to use it in mid-day meals of the Anganwadi scheme. If this linkage is executed successfully, on one hand, it will empower women working in the agricultural sector, while on the other; it will ensure the Right to Health and the Right to Food and Nutrition for rural women.
The National Policy of Education 2020 calls for strengthening Anganwadis and under the new educational scenario, Anganwadis will play a much more expanded and active role. If women-led ‘Agriculture for Nutrition’ is linked up with this expanding Anganwadi scheme, it can build an effective ecosystem that ensures the holistic development of rural women and children.
In the above section, we have made a brief discussion in which we have highlighted certain areas where the new farm legislations coupled with a commitment to the forthcoming National Policy for Women can lead to an ecosystem in which women can have the scope of bringing productive changes in their lives and in society. Any policy always needs to be analysed and understood holistically. If a policy is not related with other relevant policies, citizens will miss the opportunities it offers. So far as gender equity is concerned, it is impossible without women empowerment. And, for women empowerment, we need supportive state and smart citizens. The state can provide us with some opportunities through different policies and schemes, and as citizens, it is our responsibility to have a holistic perspective and make a smart and judicious use of any opportunity that comes our way. Through finalising its proposed National Policy for Women, the state will be offering a supporting role and then it depends how women are able to make the best from the opportunities that all these policies and laws offer.
The New India may be an India where not only rural women, but also urban women can strive to make agriculture their career choice. If the opportunities offered by the policies and laws discussed above are dealt with efficiency, India can truly be a nation of self-reliant and empowered women.
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The Economic Times,April 06,2020
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