Book Review

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

A Study of Women Farmers Under Kudumbashree Collective Farming in Kerala

Aakar Books, JAISS and Action Aid

K.B. Saxena

This book is unique in more senses than one. It is a study of women in Kerala coming together for undertaking farming on their own initiative without any external pressure or inducement. It is also unusual that this effort is accomplished without assured access to land and capital. It also breaks the ground in that they not only pool their labour but also their small parcels of land and also take land on lease from those who are unable to cultivate it or do not cultivate but keep it as an asset. It also attracts attention because the entire operation from accessing land, mobilising capital and decision making on crops to be grown, produce to be marketed and income from produce to be distributed is accomplished collectively without any conflict or tension or friction. The most remarkable aspect of this operation is that it is informal without any structural format, decision making procedure and written record. Most important of all this activity has transcended from the level of strategy for economic survival and poverty alleviation to a social movement where its economic dimension of benefit sharing is overtaken by its social spirit of bonding by the members of the group and even beyond, to solidarity of women to undertake social welfare tasks in the neighbourhood. The book is striking in bringing out that the social returns of the group solidarity in terms of changing the world view of the members beyond their immediate families and individual problems to offering support to one another in need. More important achievement is the freedom, exposure and confidence gained in collective capability and pleasure of working together and their capacity to undertake challenging tasks.

This, of course, did not happen all of a sudden. The building of this social consciousness owes it to the trigger provided by the Kudumbshree (welfare wellbeing of the family) programme formally known as State Poverty Eradication Mission (SPEM) which envisaged that women from poor households should form groups and collectively participate in planning and implementation of poverty alleviation programmes. This programme harnessed the tradition of collective endeavours by neighbourhood groups to mobilise funds for important social events and manage credit cooperative societies promoted by the church. The community action in the programme started with identification of poor households and forming neighbourhood groups with women from them as members and training them for implementation of poverty eradication schemes, followed by notifying uniform by-laws of community development societies and conferring autonomy on them. The poverty alleviation was redefined as not just economic wellbeing but political empowerment which facilitated women’s participation in the political process. This translated into a basket of diverse activities ranging from micro-finance, collective farming and micro enterprises in production, trading and marketing in the economic sphere to volunteering for education and health services in the neighbourhood, and rehabilitation of most destitute families, combating atrocities against women and children and gender self-learning in the social sphere. But collective farming was the most significant and complex of all activities as it encompassed forming groups, accessing land, engage in production, its marketing and distribution which tested the strength and sustenance of frictionless collective operations. It started with forming groups of largely Below Poverty Line families, planning and reorganising them into Joint Liability Groups (JLGs) with 4 to 10 members as required by NABARD (The National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development) for accessing institutional credit. The groups are formed largely though not exclusively from same caste / religion/ tribal / backward classes and, where heterogeneous, shared the same occupational categories. Economic background, educational status, and affiliation / affinity with a political party also mattered. None of these, however, affected the solidarity and cordial working conditions. Most of the group members engaged in family cultivation of small parcels of land where land was owned by husband / male members of the family. But the majority of SC / Muslim members worked as agricultural labourers. 70% of members belonged to families with a per capita income less than or equal to Rs. 3000/per month. There was by and large no hierarchy in decision making and task distribution. Access to land was obtained by pooling land of individual members and additionally, acquiring it by taking land on lease – either oral or through a written agreement. This was followed by registration of the group to obtain access to institutional credit and government support. Members shared the labour input required for cultivation which included multiple crops ranging from paddy to banana, tapioca, yam, ginger, turmeric and vegetables.

The distribution of returns from produce, taking into account labour and resources contributed by members, was effected by collective decision making. This cooperative spirit which characterized frictionless decision making and the solidarity they experienced in the process enables members to realise their collective strength and encourage them to extend this spirit to non-materialistic activities. The members begin to view this coming together as a step towards helping one another in adversity and improve quality of their lives. They enlarge the area of cooperation and extend the boundaries of family ties.

As the title very aptly suggests, collective farming by Kudumbshree women started as an economic necessity to increase the livelihood opportunities, upgrade their status from that of an agricultural labourer to a self-employed cultivator free from control of an employer, realise the genuine fruits of their labour and make optimum use of their resources – land, labour and capital to alleviate their poverty and increase the wellbeing of their families. But the outcome in terms of economic gain to individual members is far from incentivising. In fact, their effort bordered on self-exploitation. This is because the area of the land for cultivation was very small to make for a viable holding in most cases though topography, cropping pattern and expenditure on inputs also contributed to the meagre returns, 2.78% of landholdings in the sample study were in the range of 50 cents to 5 acres (11% were smaller than 50 cents). Only 11% were larger than 5 acres in size. Besides, tenurial insecurity was a big constraint as the land taken on lease was for a very short duration – mostly for a year or even less for a season. Lease rent had to be paid generally in cash which was substantial in some cases. This disadvantaged JLG members while the land owner gained in two ways – getting lease rent in cash or kind or both in some cases as well as to get his/ her uncultivated land converted into a fine cultivated plot through the labour input of these hardworking women. The economic returns from farming were meagre. Out of 63 JLGs in the sample, there were only 4 JLGs where net annual income was above four lakhs. At the lower end, the net income of 10 JLGs fetched below Rs. 20,000. Only 23 JLGs generated net income of about one lakh which translated into Rs. 1000 or 2000 per month per member. As many as 107 JLG members had a net annual income of Rs. 5000/or less which would provide each member Rs. 100-200 per month besides some share in produce not marketed for self-consumption. Thus, in most cases, the meagre financial gains did not provide even the equivalent of wage of an agricultural labourer for the labour contributed. The fact that despite this discouraging material prospects, Kudumbshree women continue to engage in collective farming willingly the motivation has to be located in non-economic realm which compensates for economic loss. The non-economic realm is what the title of the book succinctly terms as ‘freedom’. The freedom here has many dimensions control over process of production and distribution, opportunity for acquisition of new skills, confidence in their ability to accomplish tasks undertaken, assertion in decision making within the family and in interaction with government agency and enhancement in the bargaining power in the market. But far greater was the Joy of realising their potential, the satisfaction they derive from coming together for sharing and caring and realising the meaning of life and social consciousness to look beyond their family and contribute to improving the quality of lives of people around them.

But how long does this uplifting motivation sustain in the absence of sufficient material wellbeing. This material wellbeing is not possible without access to sufficient land and tenurial security over it. The authors have suggested radical land reforms involving redistribution of land to the actual tiller. But land reforms, for all practical purposes, is a lost battle. No political party, not even communist parties have appetite for mobilising poor for radical land reforms which ensure land to the tiller. In fact, Government of India’s policy on the subject has gone in the reverse direction. The Central government has recommended liberalisation of tenancy and removing all barriers to the marketability of land to accelerate growth. They have even circulated a draft tenancy law to this effect which strengthens the owner’s hold over land and freedom to lay down terms of the contract in leasing land to the poor for cultivation. Land owners stubbornly maintain their hold over the land even when they neither cultivate the land not have any interest in getting it cultivated by tenants for fear of losing it. They fiercely resist enforcing tenancy rights to actual tillers. Even ceiling laws have been relaxed diluted in most states permitting industrialists and big business to own land beyond ceiling limits. Agricultural land is being liberally diverted for non-agricultural purposes such as mining, industry and infrastructure creation. In Kerala, plantation land after expiry of lease has not been distributed to landless persons despite the agitation to this effect having been launched by the poor. While the pressure from women groups along with support from progressive sections of society should continue to be exerted on the State to promote access to land to landless women cultivators to harness the spirit of cooperation that has been built up by them, women groups have to engage in other income generating activities – small scale manufacturing, service provisioning, construction activities for which their skills may be expanded along with training in entrepreneurship in order to improve their income.

The authors have not only dealt with collective farming by Kudumbshree women but have also given suggestion for resolving agrarian crisis which the country has been witnessing during the last two decades. The first step suggested for addressing it is a moratorium on further transfer of agricultural land for non-agricultural purposes to profit based entities. This has been a persistent demand by the farmers for which they agitated over a long period and which ultimately resulted in enactment of Right to Transparency & Fair Compensation, Resettlement and Rehabilitation Act, 2013. But the demand was not conceded. All that the Government accepted was that in a small number of cases related to some categories of acquisition for private companies for profit, consent of 80% / 70% of the affected land owners would have to be obtained before proceeding with acquisition. In fact, even this small concession did not find favour with the NDA government that came to power shortly after enactment of the 2013 legislation which sought to exempt its application along with mandatory Social Impact Assessment of proposed land acquisition in a large number of development projects through an ordinance virtually nullifying this provision. Having failed to convert the ordinance in to a law due to stiff opposition in the parliament and from farmers across the country, it encouraged State governments to undertake amendments to this effect (States enjoy concurrent power in the matter in the Constitution) in the interest of smooth and speedy acquisition of land. A number of States resorted to such amendments which indicated that speedier and cheaper land acquisition for attracting investment outweighs interest of the farmers. So, the likelihood of this suggestion getting formally accepted is remote irrespective of the party in power. Even the attempt to ban the acquisition of irrigated multi-cropped land was opposed by State governments which led to its dilution in the 2013 law which permits such acquisition in special circumstances with the only condition that such acquisition should not exceed the limit specified by the State government and obligated the government to develop equivalent area of cultural waste land to compensate for this loss. Where even this is not possible, the equivalent value of acquired land should be invested in irrigation.  For agricultural land which is not irrigated / multi-cropped, the acquisition should not exceed the total net sown area of the district or state. This makes it obvious that private sector growth fundamentalism prevails over even the imperative of food security. People’s concerns have little value in policy and governance when pitched against interests of private investors. There is little prospect of revival of land reforms as the entire policy direction has changed to negate it in the neo-liberal transformation of the economy. Manifestoes of political parties too do not promise such a revival. Besides, some of the residual problems left over by the power implementation of earlier land reforms such as non-delivery of possession to assignees of land, pending litigation locking up a substantial area of acquired ceiling land, dispossession from land distributed to the poor etc. remain unaddressed. There is also a sizable area of unutilised land which was acquired for development projects in the past. This land, rather than being returned to the original owners or alternatively distributed to landless poor is being pooled to form a land bank from which land could transferred to the industry for growth.

Fragmentation of land over time has resulted in small parcels of land on which farming is economically unviable. Land consolidation was therefore, an integral part of land reforms policy of the Government along with abolition of intermediaries, tenancy reforms and imposition of ceiling on ownership of agricultural landholdings. This programme was taken up by some states under the laws enacted for the purpose, notably Punjab and UP in the early decades after independence. In Bihar, the implementation of the programme became controversial and was given up. There is no popular demand for a government sponsored land consolidation programme as it leads to enormous conflicts and litigation. Voluntary pooling of land as suggested by the authors and admirably exemplified by Kudumbshree women is the desirable option and would have large acceptance provided it is kept free from legal rigidities and incorporates maximum flexibility in its operationalisation and is voluntary in nature rather than driven by external force and where members are free to leave the group if they so wish and cultivate the pooled land as a combined unit or individual units. In order to give a formal structure to this collective arrangement such as a cooperative or a registered society in order that it can access institutional credit and support provided under government schemes, a law would have to be enacted to facilitate it. While the suggestion that small and marginal farmers could be persuaded to form cooperatives is a highly desirable programme and should be incentivised by the government through various supportive instruments. Such cooperatives should be federated into a bigger entity to operate in the market to protect the interest of the producers as suggested by the authors. These federated units should form an apex body to liase with the government to get necessary economic / non-economic support for sustainability of operations. Similar cooperative structure has been suggested for landless persons to be integrated with the farm cooperativization structure for engaging in labour activities specified by the authors. In fact, this idea of cooperativision of farming is not new. It was strongly pushed by Nehru during his Prime Ministership who was inspired by the Soviet model. But the idea could not take roots. This was because of attachment to land and strong sense of property. Kudumbshree women’s success in collective farming perhaps lies in the fact that the ground for cooperation was prepared by Kudumbshree programme which was preceded by a great deal of mobilisation by Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parished for decentralised planning. The other contributing factor was that Kudumbshree women in group formation did not follow a formal structure but kept it a loose voluntary effort of women sharing the same socio-economic / occupational background. The decision making was also informal though the JLGs were formally registered to get access to institutional credit and government support. Besides, the sheer necessity of expanding space for income generation for poverty alleviation incentivised by the Government also helped. Evolution of a formal structure emerged from voluntary effort. It may also be that women are relatively more amendable to cooperate and bonding with fellow women than men. For such a programme to get popular acceptance it is a crucial that the legal / formal structure should incorporate maximum flexibility. Incentives should be created by way of financial / other assistance to such efforts and a sustained campaign should be launched in which government agency and civil society organisations should work together to generate social consciousness in this direction. A strong cooperative movement with a well-knit structure of producer and marketing units federated into a national agency alone can resist the increasing neo-liberal globalisation of economy and aggressive push towards depeasantisation and corporatisation of agriculture.

The book is a must read for those who are interested in knowing what group efforts can achieve in an agrarian structure consisting of overwhelming marginal farmers and agricultural labourers not only for the alleviation of poverty of poor women though farming but also for improvement in quality of their lives and social environment around them.

But the book has also value as a brief introduction to agrarian and social reform movements, evolution of land reforms, and political economy of social mobilisation for women’s empowerment and their participation in decentralised development in Kerala. As a research study, it has not only meticulously collected and analysed information gathered through surveys but enriched it with case studies in which the relevant socio-economic details of the members have been captured to provide insights into motivations for participating in the activity. Lucidly written with empathy for the women farmers, the book is eminently readable. The book would have served its purpose if women farmers in other parts of the country are inspired by this example and take to collective farming and other income generating activities.

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