As the government doesn’t recognise them as farmers, they are not eligible for compensation. Most of them now work as construction labourers.

Every year our woes increase Women labourers worst hit as agrarian crisis plagues TN
news Agriculture Tuesday, July 03, 2018 - 15:19

For 15 years now, Indira has been the sole breadwinner for her family in Kulasekarankottai of Madurai district. With a paralysed husband, a son with intellectual disabilities, apart from a married daughter and another minor son, Indira was left with no choice but to take up work as an agricultural labourer.

“I used to work in the field, doing everything from sowing to harvesting. I used to take home the ration rice to feed my family. I earned about Rs 150 per day. When I started working, we used to have double the harvest we see. Now, neither agriculture nor working as a labourer is favourable. The monsoon has failed for so many years now, and water bodies have dried up. Water resources like dams are not regulated. The government is also adding to our woes by taking away our land for developmental projects,” she laments.

Indira works as a construction labourer now.

Indira at home, next to a photo from her wedding day.

Over thousand families reside in Kulasekarankottai of Madurai’s Vadipatti town and a majority of them have all along worked as agricultural labourers.

In a land survey conducted by the Vadipatti taluk in 2010-11, it was recorded that 15,000 acres of land was in use, where major crops like paddy, maize and millets. The Mullaperiyar Dam is a significant source of irrigation and domestic water here.

With the state reeling under a severe water crisis for some years now, farmers  have been forced to look for other kinds of jobs.

“Most of us ending up doing construction labour, while others engage in menial jobs and work in mills or industries. We have to work to provide for our families, but the farm is where our hearts lie,” says Indira.

Women are the worst-hit when crops fail. If their husbands kill themselves or become incapacitated, the responsibility of keeping their families together falls on the woman of the household. They then have to step into the breadwinner role as well.

For Rs 100 a day, 42-year-old Kakkamma and her sister used to plant buds and chop wood.

“But inevitably, men will be paid more for the same work. Yet, we never had complaints and continued to work on the farm, because we loved it...We could connect with the land. Things have changed vastly now. People who live close to water resources now only work in the farming sector. I now have to work at a construction site for about 10 hours every day, for Rs 250 a day,” she says.

Perumayee, who is now 50-something, rues that machines have now largely manual labour in farms. Abandoned by her husband, she worked as an agricultural labourer for over two decades, but is now finding it difficult to adapt to her new role as a construction labourer.

“Most of us were unemployed or underemployed after machines started entering farming. We were forced to work at construction sites, mills and kilns,” she sighs.  

For 42-year-old Pandiyamma, working in the farm was all about the bond she shared with the land. “I worked in the field from the age of 15…But life is not easy for us. Without water, we cannot work. Moreover, we are uneducated and can’t stand up to the government. With each passing year, our woes only increase.”

Panju clearly remembers the day she got her first salary as an agricultural labourer. She was 7-years-old then and was thrilled to receive the two or three rupees as her wage. Just as clearly, she remembers her last wage as an agricultural labourer.

With wells drying up and monsoons failing, Panju now works at a local bakery as a domestic help.

All four women share a deep sense of angst on having to give up agriculture labour and moving to other sectors.

“We have never been recognised by the government as farmers or farm labourers. But that doesn’t undermine our bond with the land we have worked on,” Panju says.  

A report by the Tamil Nadu Federation of Women Farmer Rights says 65.5% of economically active women in Tamil Nadu are engaged in agriculture. They spend nearly 3,300 hours in the field during a single crop season against the 1,600 hours spent by a man. Yet, they have hardly been recognized as farmers.  

Some day, the women hope, things will be better and they will be able to go back to their lands and do what they have always loved doing.

“I can’t imagine spending an entire life working in a construction area. I have to go back to the land, to farming...That is where my soul lies” Indira says.

Some day she might be able to.

This piece was written as part of the GAATW Fellowship.
All pictures by Muthu Rasa Kumar

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