Agriculture supports 43 per cent of the world’s and 62 per cent of India’s economically-active population. From sowing to selling farm products, a woman’s role in this sector is crucial not just in India, but across the globe. In fact, the most labour-intensive work in agriculture like picking of crop, weeding and transplanting paddy are done by women, who face several health problems like backache, headache and swelling of feet due to such strenuous jobs.
In many Indian states, the percentage of women farm labour is as high as 43 per cent. They contribute enormously to agricultural growth through their involvement in crop production, horticulture, animal husbandry, fisheries and natural resource management. While mechanisation of agriculture (Eg, tractors) has made the task of men easy, the contribution of women to the agriculture sector has remained invisible to a large extent. For instance, paddy transplanting, carried out largely by women, is one of the most strenuous farm operations. But it has received little attention by way of drudgery reduction.
According to a 2011 report of Food and Agriculture Organisation, women are forced to make do with less access to resources such as water, fertiliser and market outlets than men. Had women enjoyed the same access to productive resources as men, they could boost yield by 20 to 30 per cent; raising the overall agricultural output in developing countries by two and a half to four per cent, says the study. According to Global Forum on Agricultural Research, Rome, improved access for women in agriculture could bring down the number of hungry people by 12 to 17 per cent, or 100-150 million.
At the Directorate of Research on Women in Agriculture (DRWA), a sister organisation of Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), scientists and researchers have been trying to plug this gap. They have been looking into the multiple challenges faced by women in farms across developing economies, including finding gender-sensitive solutions to reduce drudgery.
It all began when the Working Group on Agricultural Research and Education constituted by the Planning Commission for formulation of the Eighth Five Year Plan (1992-97) recommended the establishment of a National Research Centre for Women in Agriculture (NRCWA). Accordingly, ICAR established NRCWA in 1996 in Bhubaneswar. It was upgraded as Directorate of Research on Women in Agriculture (DRWA) in 2008. Consequently, the All India Coordinated Research Project (AICRP) on Home Sciences by ICAR was transferred to DRWA. The institution has been carrying out basic, strategic and applied research on various gender-related issues in agriculture and allied sectors.
Set up on 32 acres, the institution’s scientists carry out research on technology refinement in crop production, horticulture, livestock production, fisheries and entrepreneurship development. It currently has on board 15 scientists in different disciplines. DRWA also has a sub-centre in Bhopal for refinement of farm tools and technologies with a gender perspective. “Women work in agriculture as farmers on their own account, as unpaid workers on family farms and as paid or unpaid labourers on other farms and agricultural enterprises. They are involved in both crop and livestock production at subsistence and commercial levels. They produce food and cash crops and manage mixed agricultural operations often involving crops, livestock and fish farming. All of these women are considered part of the agricultural labour force,” says Krishna Srinath, director at the Bhubaneswar-based DRWA.
DRWA has been engaged in research under different technology-based themes in a network mode with research and development institutions of ICAR and state agriculture universities (SAUs). The network projects help in broadening gender research and in strengthening the linkage between gender and agriculture development.
Six such network projects are being implemented by DRWA to generate gender-disaggregated data and technology refinement with a gender perspective. They are: Gender mainstreaming in agriculture in PPP (private-public partnership) mode, Gender issues in rice-based production system and refinement of selected technologies from a woman’s perspective, Assessment of gender issues, Identification and refinement of selected women-specific technologies in horticulture crops, Capacity building of fisherwomen through post-harvest technologies in fisheries, Enhancing livelihood of rural women through livestock production and Development of ‘expert system’ for crop and animal enterprises.
DRWA last month came out with an ‘expert system’ on five crops and three animal enterprises. The institution had taken up a network project along with Zonal Project Directorate-8 of ICAR, Bangalore, Tamil Nadu Agriculture University, Coimbatore, and Tamil Nadu Veterinary and Animal Sciences University, Chennai. This system can serve as a virtual extension worker by providing instant solution to individual farm-based issues. The rule-based expert system has been developed with 80 per cent of images, which could be suitable for both small-scale and progressive farmers to diagnose field problems along with an advisory report. The Crop Doctor/ Animal Health Advisory, Decision Support System and Crop Informatics have been added into the expert system framework. DRWA first developed the expert system in English on five major crops such — paddy, sugarcane, banana under precision system, coconut and finger millet — and three animal enterprises — cattle and buffalo, sheep and goat, and poultry. Later, they were translated into Tamil, Kannada and Malayalam.
Knowledge and research gaps among women farmers were also identified. “Interventions are also being taken up to address gaps like raising vegetable seedlings, planting on raised beds for better survival, seed replacement with high-yielding brinjal, bitter gourd, cucumber and pumpkin, cultivation of off-season and high-value vegetables under protected structures and proper staking/training of vegetables,” says Srinath.
The institution recently developed a web-based Gender Knowledge Centre for housing data. “At present, we are working on reducing the gender gap in nutritional status of family members and development of horticulture-based cropping models for gender mainstreaming,” she adds.
DRWA has also been working in the areas of aquaculture, backyard poultry farming and goatry. In the past decade, the research institution has worked in more than 35 villages of Puri, Cuttack and Khurda districts of Odisha involving more than 750 women and disseminating aquaculture technologies to about 25 hectares of water area.
Besides conducting research and extension work, efforts are already underway at DRWA to alleviate the hardships of women farmers. DRWA has prepared a nationwide drudgery index to measure the time and frequency of the participation of women in agricultural operations. Around 80 per cent of rural women are involved in farming activities, weeding, transplanting and harvesting with rudimentary tools. Improved technology will reduce their work load and improve efficiency in agricultural operations, says Srinath. “Today, much of the equipment is not customised for women. Our mandate is to refine technology (with) a gender perspective. We are trying to develop machinery that will be easily used by women,” says Srinath. About two dozen farm implements have already been refined in collaboration with state agricultural universities.
Fish drying is a major activity in the coastal districts of Odisha. They are carried out mainly by small-scale fisherwomen, but most of them process dried fish under poor conditions. The product not only lacks quality but also fetches low price. Recognising the need for technological intervention, DRWA created a Model Fish Drying Unit at Penthakota, Puri, funded by National Fishery Development Board for hygienic production of dry fish, its packaging and marketing. Following this, Model Fish Drying Units were created at five locations — two in Odisha, one each in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Maharastra.
Similarly, dehusking and shelling are important post-harvest activities in maize crop. They are again predominantly done by women. Though hand-operated maize sheller has somewhat eased the pressure on women, the tool still makes women’s lives difficult and yields very low level of output. Moreover, dehusking as a separate activity precedes shelling that additionally burdens women. In order to tide over the problem of drudgery and improve work efficiency, a gender-friendly hand-operated maize dehusker-sheller was developed by DRWA. The machine is operated by two persons and requires feeding of cobs one by one. The machine can yield an output of 89.6 kg grain/h when operated by male workers at a hand cranking speed of 57 rpm, and 63.4 kg grain/h when operated by women at a hand cranking speed of 52 rpm. Reduction in drudgery with this equipment was 48.9 per cent. The equipment can also be operated with 370W single-phase electric motor. “For drudgery reduction of women in agriculture, improved agricultural tools were field validated at DRWA, and training programmes are being regularly organised for capacity development of women in agriculture,” says Srinath.
While acknowledging that women contribute to agriculture, right from seed to the market, S Ayyappan, director general, ICAR, lists out DRWA’s future plans: “For the XIIth five-year plan, we are aiming to look into farm mechanisation, customised farm implements for women, secondary agriculture and value addition through DRWA.”