UP sugarcane farms: Women contribute labour as much as males, yet aren’t recognised as farmers


Excerpts from the Oxfam India discussion paper “Human Cost of Sugar: A farm-to-mill assessment of sugar supply chain in Uttar Pradesh”

Women farmers covered under the study were found working as shadow farmers, without decision making power. While women farmers contribute their labour as much as male farmers do they are not recognised as farmers. The study revealed that in all five districts the participation of women farmers is limited to only cutting and cleaning of cane. Other activities like management of farm workers, payment of farm workers, or sale of cane to mills are usually taken up by male farmers.

10% to 30% of the female farmers were found to be involved in management of farm workers and 20% to 30% of the women farmers were found to be engaged in loading of cane (a physically arduous labour, hence done by men) and sale of cane to the sugar mills.

The most important determining factors in the context of women’s participation in the cultivation process of sugarcane are the following:

  1. Caste affiliation of the family: Women belonging to higher caste families (general caste and OBCs) do not participate in sugarcane cultivation or other income-generation activities. Cultivation work is done by men and women farm workers. Women belonging to Scheduled Castes households are more likely to work in agricultural fields along with their spouses and/or other family members.
  2. Size of land holding and financial resources available in the family: The dominant castes groups in the villages who are also the ones with bigger landholding do not engage their family members in farm work. In Scheduled Castes families with small landholdings of up to 1 ha women work along with their husbands and other family members in the fields.
  3. Absence of male members in the family: It is a norm that male members of a family will undertake cultivation work. But in case of women it is primarily when there are no male members in the family that women undertake this role. Women who are single or whose husband is sick or disabled play a more active role in decision making and managing he sugarcane cultivation process by themselves, irrespective of their castes, status or economic resources available.

Land Ownership among Women

Land holding pattern for women is a reflection of the paternalistic social norms of the region. Women constitute a third (32%) of India’s agricultural labour force and contribute 55-66% to farm production, according to the gender and land rights database of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Yet, in a large agrarian state like Uttar Pradesh percentage of women holding land is limited to a mere 6.1%.xxiii The proportion of women farmers is even lower in the sugarcane sector. Only 2% – 5% of the Cane Society members in the 5 districts comprise of female farmers with landownership rights.

The study found that women get land ownership under the following two circumstances:

  • The land ceiling in U.P. is 5 ha, limiting individual ownership to 5 ha of land in their name. Additional land (beyond 5 ha) bought by a male farmer is then registered in the name of his spouse or other family members;
  • In case of the demise of a male farmer, his land is equally divided amongst his surviving spouse and male heirs. In the absence of a male heir, the entire land ownership is transferred to his surviving spouse.

Land ownership by women alone does not determine their participation in the cultivation process or control over decision making aspects. Interactions with women farmers, who are taking a proactive role in the cultivation process highlighted the social norms that exist with respect to women’s participation in economic activities. Women farmers commonly face criticism and discouragement when they get involved in cane cultivation, especially in the management of farm workers and sale of crops.

Officials of the cane society acknowledged that social norms prevent women farmers from visiting cane society offices and from participating in trainings on cultivation techniques or accessing available information offered by the cane societies. Some women farmers have challenged such norms by taking on sugarcane cultivation.

The study found that most trainings organised by the cane societies and sugar mills to orient farmers on the use of new agricultural techniques were mostly accessed by big farmers. Among the marginal farmers, only 56% of the male farmers and 30% of the women female across all 5 districts were aware of such trainings being conducted by the mills and the cane societies. Only 10% of the small and marginal male farmers were found to have attended such trainings. The study found that no women farmers participated in such trainings primarily due to the societal barriers which prevent them from participating in public forums.

For daily wage workers in sugarcane cultivation, it’s their secondary source of income. 80% of the workers are engaged in agricultural labour work for other crops like wheat and vegetables. Remaining 20% take up jobs in nearby cities or towns majorly for construction work or in the brick kilns near their respective villages as a primary source of income.

Gender Pay Gap

Payment made to the daily wage workers is highly discriminatory of gender with a significant variation in the amount of wages paid to men and women workers. Male workers get paid Rs 300 to Rs 400 per day and women are paid up between Rs 80 to Rs 200 per day for the same work.

No standard minimum wage followed: A study conducted by Fair Labour Association noted that the farm workers whether hired directly by the farmers or through third party labour contractors or agents were always paid much lower than the State Government prescribed minimum wages. There is often a shortage of labour especially during the harvesting season, due to migration. Depending on such factors, the study showed that the wages vary between Rs 200 to Rs 400 for men and Rs 80 to Rs 200 for women as against the state government specified minimum wages of Rs 293, Rs 322 and Rs 361 for unskilled, semi-skilled and skilled workers.

Only big farmers have the opportunity to engage in a land planning process to diversify their agricultural produce. They were seen to be growing, most commonly, crops like wheat, paddy, vegetables, mango and flowering plants for commercial purposes. Women owning land in these families however do not play any active role in the decision making process. The male members – usually the husbands or their sons decide which crop would be cultivated in what quantity in the given land. Female sugarcane farmers belonging to affluent families in the village, with land ownership, usually do not have any participation in the agriculture process.

Download full paper HERE

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