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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 25 & 26 , June 17 & June 24, 2023

A Study of Women Farmers Under Kudumbashree Collective Farming in Kerala | Sudeshna Sengupta

Saturday 17 June 2023



by Sudeshna Sengupta

From the Realm of Necessity to the Realm of Freedom
by Jaya Mehta and Vineet Tiwari

Aakar Books
January 1, 2022

ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 9350027674
ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-9350027677

The foreword rightly warns the reader that a wordy introduction will fall short of describing the rich content of the book. The book is indeed a rare one. It comes at a time when the country is grappling with intense agrarian crisis on the one hand and countrywide farmers’ movements on the other. Till very recently, women did not have ownership of land and were not recognised as farmers. Women’s involvement in the farmers’ movement in large numbers established their role in agriculture and they are now being recognised as farmers. Thus, the book is timely. It brings forth the roles played by women in collectives by providing leadership, managing of finance, production and distribution. It visibilises the capabilities of invisible women farmers who acquired skills to adopt mechanised agriculture to bolster production in large land holdings. As Mr Shukla writes in the foreword, “The Kudumbashree women of Kerala have a message for the peasant movement. Their living example demonstrates the feasibility of transcending the physical and economic constraints through a bold and innovative experiment in joint cooperative farming.

 The book captures the saga of collective farming of Kudumbashree women that emerged out of a state initiative to generate livelihoods for alleviating poverty. The journey of Kudumashree and the findings of the time-bound study are both firmly situated within the larger social, economic and political reforms of Kerala to intervene into generational tyranny of gender, class and caste. The trajectory of the peoples’ movements in Kerala and how they led to reforms like Kerala Land Reform Amendment Act, 1969; formation of Community Development Societies (CDS); and decentralisation of power to Panchayati Raj institutions stays continuously at the backdrop. While discussing the findings the authors never forget to mention their significance. For example, uniform by laws were passed in 2008 to strengthen CDS by providing them with institutional backing, and financial autonomy so that they could “work as microfinance institutions in cooperation with cooperative banks and buy shares of cooperatives”. Weaving the history sensitively with the findings provides the book with rich contextuality. It helps us to understand how coming together of social consciousness generated by peoples’ movements and the political will of people friendly state can result in not only generate material gains but also lead to empowerment by creating agency at the grassroots level.

Within the Kudumbshree (welfare well-being of the family) programme or State Poverty Eradication Mission (SPEM), women from poor households were identified to form groups to collectively implement the programme. After identifying poor households, neighbourhood groups were formed. The programme functioned like micro-enterprises of collective farming. It involved microfinance, planning to lease land for those who did not have land, planning and managing production, marketing and distribution. In order to access institutionalised credit from The National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD), Joint Liability Groups (JLG) were formed. The groups were registered to access institutional credit. The state and its decentralised decision-making structures enabled economic upliftment.

The JLGs were diverse in their representation. . The groups were both homogeneous and mixed within the samples. Some had uniformity in terms of having members from the same caste, religion and ethnic groups and some had mixed representation. It depended on the geographical location. The authors very interestingly bring out the interplay and influences of caste, class and party politics within the heterogeneous groups.

The organisation of chapters unfolds the journey of Kudumbashree women step by step. They are brilliantly intertwined with one another. The one on “Who are These Women” builds the profiles of women studied, situating them within their private domain of the families and their social and economic identities to depict their struggles to earn a livelihood. The profiles are established by excellent case studies and rich quantitative data on caste and religion; distribution of groups on the basis of APL and BPL status, size distribution of family farms (of the ones who had land) etc. The analysis clearly shows that even though the groups had representations from many categories, income poverty was the common factor among women who formed groups. There were more landless women in number than the ones who owned family land and were cultivators themselves. The qualitative and quantitative data also point out to the fact that women who were in more than one occupation underlined more economic desperation. For example, there were subsistence farmers who also worked as agricultural workers. Multiple informal occupations are tied to the absence of full employment and reinforce the existence of both poverty of income and opportunity among Kudumbashree women.

The families were more nuclear in structure and women were mostly from the age group 36-55. It is important to note from the profile, that very few women were illiterate and almost one out of two women had completed Class Xth. This speaks volumes about the spread of education in Kerala among all social and economic marginalised groups. Education has perhaps played an important role in making this highly innovative and complex programme successful.

There was diversity in decision-making related to the crops that were produced. The fertility of land and access to market determined the choice of crops. The cropping pattern of regions, fertility of land and access to irrigation influenced the decision on which crop to produce. Some groups did multi-cropping and some produced single crops. There were groups which produced surplus, while some could only produce for self-consumption. The crops produced were different in different regions. It included paddy, banana, tapioca, yam, ginger, turmeric and vegetables.

The study brings out diversity not only in terms of cropping patterns but also how farming varied from organic to inorganic, subsistence to commercial, high yielding to low yielding produce. It resulted in a wide difference in incomes among the groups. The book provides rich and thorough details on productivity, cropping pattern, marketability, and income distribution. The detailing of a multiplicity of complex processes around production establishes the richness of the study.

Members provided labour on land for cultivation. The contributions of the members came in the form of both labour and other forms of resources. Land was either obtained through pooling of land holdings owned by the members or unused or fallow land was taken on lease. The agreements were sometimes oral and sometimes written. There were also instances of the government taking the initiative to distribute fallow land of an area to the groups to make holdings cultivable.

It is important to highlight the economic challenges of the programme as showcased by the authors. It points out to the fact that the incomes earned by individual members were not always self-sustaining. In many cases, the land holdings were too small to earn a living out of it. In the study sample, only 11% land size was larger than 5 acres. Many a times the time period for which the land was leased out was short in duration. In addition to that, often the uncultivated land leased out by land owners were taken back and later was not given in lease after the group members made the fallow land cultivable through their labour.

Production of the same crop in different areas did not yield the same results. In some areas, paddy production was commercial and was produced by hiring workers, while in other parts it was for self-consumption. The story of “Green Army” is fascinating. It shows the enormous scope of the Kudumbashree initiative in empowering women farmers by imparting skill training. In Thrissur district, due to lack of irrigation facilities and remunerative prices, the farmers had abandoned paddy production. The paddy fields left barren by farmers attracted real estate players. Through the intervention of the state (block panchayat officials) and agricultural scientists the ‘Green Army’ was formed. In order to address labour shortage, men and women were trained to use machines required for paddy cultivation. Machines were acquired and funds were used by integrating a number of panchayat, block, state and central government-operated schemes. Hundreds of women became skilled to operate tractors and machines. Their wage rates as skilled labourers were also fixed. The experimentation stands out as a decentralised intervention to bring back paddy production in the form of high-productivity mechanised production to the area that abandoned it.

State support to the Kudumbashree programme had been invaluable. It is an example to take lessons from. In the year 2011-12 the support system comprised of the following. Firstly, area and production incentives were provided by the state which partially increased income of farmers who leased land for cultivation. Area incentives were given to farmers who cultivated on leased lands and production incentives were provided to farmers who reported high productivity. Secondly, the Kerala Government helped women in Lease Land Farming to access institutional credit at a subsidised rate. Thirdly, the government allowed farmers to hire labour through MGNREGS. It was a very innovative method to address labour shortage. There was also institutional support in training, skill development, mechanization and marketing.

The decisions on distribution of returns from produce was taken on the basis of labour and other forms of resources contributed by the members. The decisions were collective in nature. As mentioned earlier, the incomes earned through agriculture were not adequate. Only 4 JLG members earned an annual income of 4 lakhs and 107 JLGs had a net annual income of up to Rs. 5000. However, each group had part of produce for self-consumption. In spite of low incomes earned, Kudumbashree women continued to be part of the programme. They felt they were upgraded from agricultural workers to self-employed workers, which provided them motivation and self-respect. Many women, who were part of the Kudumbashree programme, were also working as agricultural workers to supplement their low income.

The collective spirit crossed boundaries of production relations. It brilliantly reflected the collective spirit and solidarity of the groups. The relationships extended the boundaries of families to support one another in non-material activities and to stand with one another in difficult times. It also led to political associations and many members left their respective groups to join political parties and contested in local-level elections. Thus, the programme not only enabled poverty alleviation, but contributed towards building social solidarity and active participation through informed and empowering processes.

The spirit of solidarity comes out when the farmers said that, not only did they work together but they also sang songs while working. They were happy to work together as it made them forget the tensions emerging from their life struggles. One of the farmers said “We sing songs to the leaves. We feel very happy.” The spirit of solidarity spread beyond their everyday life and location. A group of JLG members came to Delhi to provide material and livelihood support to the displaced and stateless Rohingya refugees. They came to impart skills and marketing support so that the refugee families were able to earn a living.

The book not only narrates the extraordinary Kudumbashree programme and its contribution to lives of women farmers, it also highlights the political and social empowerment of women, 70% of whom belonged to BPL families. The authors take a bold step further to suggest the lessons that can be learnt from the Kudumbashree movement in Kerala. They highlight the crisis of agriculture due to intertwined factors like land grab, rising production costs, farmers’ suicides and migration. In addition to it, there has been tremendous loss of agrarian land by households. Between 1992-93 and 2018-19 households have lost 4.1 crore hectares of arable land, a figure significant enough to cause worry.

In order to mitigate the crisis, the authors suggest multi-pronged interventions. Firstly, in order to sustain food security, they suggest moratorium to transfer of agricultural land to non-agricultural use. Secondly, in order to address skewed distribution of land, introduce land reforms and redistribute excess land to landless farmers. The authors suggest that land redistribution should be topped up by cooperative farming so that small holdings do not lead to decrease in production. Mechanisation of agriculture is also suggested for increasing productivity. In order to enable farming, labour collectives should be formed by landless workers, for watershed management, distribution of seeds, manures and pesticides. They can also be responsible for maintaining and operating machines. This can create an enabling self-sustaining agrarian eco system.

However, the authors also clearly state that, to make collective farming possible, state support is non-negotiable. The coming together of the farmers, landless workers and governance structures in a bottom-up process can lead the women farmers in poverty from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom. It is a journey worth taking...

(Author: Sudeshna Sengupta is an independent researcher and consultant. She works on social and political economy of women’s work. Contact: sudeshna1562[at]

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