Tuesday, September 7, 2021
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Cooperative farming get higher crop yield and better social status for women in Kerala and Telangana

Two women transplanting rice. Image: PX Fuel

COOPERATIVE FARMING has been a topic of discussion and debate in India since independence.

Under this system, the land owned by individual farmers is pooled together for farming and the profit and loss is divided based on the proportion of land owned by each individual.

Small and marginal farmers benefit from this system as it ensures larger production and shared cost.

The states of Kerala and Telangana have created cooperatives of women farmers which has not only reaped financial benefits but also ensured better social status for the members.

The women got familiar with farm practices, government institutes and private agencies, market negotiations and fund management, all of which helped them overcome gender, caste and class barriers. Many of the group members also contested and won local elections.

A research paper, ‘Does group farming empower rural women? Lessons from India’s experiments’ by Bina Agarwal of the University of Manchester looks into these experiments in detail. Kerala performed better than Telangana not only due to its higher socio-economic status and better irrigation facilities but also the support system which consistently guides the women farmers. 

In both the states, cooperatives were launched with the help of collaboration between the state and civil society. Under this initiative, women were able to lease out land on their own. The collective farming initiative in Kerala has been undertaken under the Kerala State Poverty Eradication Mission (Kudumbsree) and consists of self help groups (SHG) that are women-oriented and aimed at poverty eradication.

This system emerged as a result of the paradoxical situation wherein Kerala remains heavily dependent on its neighbouring states for food despite the availability of cultivable land within its borders. The scheme encourages cultivation by neighbourhood groups through joint liability.

The primary agricultural cooperative societies provide interest-free loans for selected crops. If national or regional banks provide loans at a 7 percent interest rate, Kudumbsree will take care of the 5 percent, making the interest rate low for farmers.

In both the states, land size was larger among group farms than individual family farms, giving a scale advantage to the cooperatives. However, the land being mostly leased in had a tenure insecurity

The Kudumbsree staff or office bearers of gram panchayats also assure access to land for lease. In Telangana, similar cooperatives have been established under the economic empowerment programmes alongside the already existing women’s education and social empowerment groups.

Access to Land and Input

In both the states, land size was larger among group farms than individual family farms, giving a scale advantage to the cooperatives. However, the land being mostly leased in had a tenure insecurity. In Kerala, the groups were based on neighbourhood and hence had more heterogeneity with women belonging to different caste and class groups working together. They hence had wider social network to tap into for accessing land and other support.

In contrast, Telangana groups were homogeneous with all members coming from lower caste and poorer households and found it difficult to build cross-caste connections resulting in getting poor quality land.

The gendered nature of domestic work imposes differential costs on women and men. For instance, for getting one bag of fertiliser, farmers have to queue in long lines for an entire day, which is very difficult for women.

In Kerala, thankfully, at least paddy growers can seek help from the Padasekara Samitis, which are farmers’ associations that lease machines and help in input procurement and output sales. Even though very few women were Samiti members individually, but forming a group improved their access.

Some village women were also trained to be ‘master farmers’ to provide additional technical support to the cooperative groups in Kerala 

When it comes to labour, the women groups of Telangana had an advantage due to their bigger size. They spent only Rs 1,644 on average on hired labour relative to Rs. 14,403 by non-group farms, and seldom faced the peak-time labour shortages that individual farmers had to deal with. The big groups in Kerala also had an advantage over individual farms in terms of labour cost.

Returns and Fund Use

In Telangana, group farms do slightly better than individual farms in their average net returns, but in Kerala, the returns are almost five times higher than for individual farms, and three times the state average.

Local ecology also plays a part. Kerala’s group farms were located in good rainfall regions and most had irrigation, which allowed them to get high returns on very small plots, such as by growing vegetables. Telangana groups were doing mainly dry land farming and they were more disadvantaged than individual farmers in accessing irrigation. 

Around 51 per cent of the Telangana members reportedly spend the earnings on household needs, 21 per cent on medical expenses and children’s education, 14 per cent on investment, and the rest mostly to pay off debts. In other words, the earnings went almost entirely to essential needs, reflecting their poor economic situation. 

Group farms do better than individual farms in their average net returns due to low input costs and larger land area

In Kerala, however, only 32 per cent spent the income mainly on household items, 27 per cent on health and education, and 22 per cent on savings and investments.

Moreover, when asked who decided on how this income would be spent, 82 per cent of those who answered in Kerala relative to 50 per cent in Telangana said they spent it as they wanted, without having to ask their husbands.

Time to Gain More Ground

Group cooperative farming familiarised women with the wide range of public institutions and services that farmers use. Some groups also got support from government and village council officials, which they did not get earlier. From being wage labourers, they became farmers and entrepreneurs. 

They learnt how to buy inputs, negotiate access to storage in market yards where no women were seen earlier, earned respect from their husbands who earlier treated them as if they knew nothing. “Whatever the men said, we had to agree. Now we have started questioning our husbands about various activities,” say group members of Narva village of Mahbubnagar district in Telangana.

In both states, groups gained from a systematic transfer of agricultural knowledge and practices. This lasted only four to five years in Telangana, but continues in Kerala. 

Earlier, whatever the men said, we had to agree. Now we have started questioning our husbands about various activities

“Earlier, villagers were disrespectful to us and would call us by our nicknames. Also if we went to see an upper-caste villager we were made to sit on the floor. But now conditions have changed. As group members we are farming on our own, and can also enlighten villagers by conducting social awareness programmes. So now villagers respect us and call us by our own names,” says women of Yerraram village, Medak district in Telangana.

Though considered a success, Agarwal gives certain recommendations to better the system. There should be the security of land tenure. In some cases, women improved a fallow land for a few years but it was taken back by the owner, resulting in waste of effort. Government needs to ensure availability of  good quality land.

Contrary to popular opinion rather than homogeneity of the group in terms of caste and class, there should be diversification of backgrounds so that the social network is wider as seen with groups in Kerala. Stability of these groups can be ensured by connecting these through federations.

In India, farm holdings are mostly family-owned and generally, these holdings are small in size. In order to increase production, protect farmers from exploitation, and provide access to markets it is essential that India adopts the cooperative farming system.

As shown by these examples, collective farming promotes inclusive growth, and therefore, it is important to focus on them to ensure the overall development of the agricultural sector in the country in a sustainable manner.

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