How Drought Impacts the Women Farmers of Tamil Nadu

Despite playing a crucial role in food production, women are often not considered to be farmers because, in India, the legal recognition is derived from land ownership.

Farmers from Tamil Nadu disguised as women during protests in New Delhi. Credit: PTI

Farmers from Tamil Nadu in the garb of women during protests in New Delhi. Credit: PTI

Nagapattinam (Tamil Nadu): One searing image that will perhaps never leave 40-year-old Rani is that of her husband hanging to death in front of their 11-year-old mentally challenged son. Rani otherwise stays at home to take care of the child but one morning in January, Murugaiyan, 48, sent her on an errand to buy betel leaves for him. When she returned, he was found hanging. Rani knew only too well why Murugaiyan decided to take his life.

In her little village of Pirinjimulai in Nagapattinam district, the farmers were facing a crisis: failure of crops due to an almost unprecedented drought. Rani and Murugaiyan had taken three acres of land for lease for which they had to pay Rs 80,000. They had also invested in cultivation. The crop failure devastated the family. They had a daughter studying in class 12 and a mentally challenged son. “I never go out because I have to take care of him. I still cannot. My father is disabled and nobody is supporting us,” Rani said.

Her case is not unique. Tamil Nadu is facing its worst ever drought in over a hundred years, pushing farmers across Tamil Nadu into desperation. Until recently, several farmers including – some women from the state – had camped in New Delhi demanding, among other things, a waiver of loans. Under pressure from mounting debts and then the drought, many farmers chose suicide if they hadn’t already succumbed to other ailments brought on by stress.

“We were told that at least 200 farmers would have died in distress, either committing suicide or having a heart attack in 2016 when we were in Nagapattinam. This affects the women more – but not much is being spoken about the plight of women farmers,” says Geetha Narayanan, a member of the Tamil Nadu Federation of Women Farmers’ Rights (TNFWFR). The federation had conducted a survey of women farmers in early January across six districts.

For many, the idea of being shamed for defaulting is worse than death. Perhaps one of the most heart rending suicide notes was Murugan’s. A farmer from Devanampettai in Villupuram district, he left a note that only had details of his loans: to the tune of Rs 35,000 for 3% interest and 6 grams of gold. The note is addressed to his father and apparently requests him to clear the debts. But he is too old to do that. “It has become a struggle to fetch drinking water for women in this part,” says Pavunu, Murugan’s wife, expressing fears about her own future. “My father-in-law his now too old and I have two children – one in college and another in class 10.”

Venkatachalam’s is another story of irony and distress wrung together. The 47-year-old farmer had cultivated paddy on four acres of land out of which two had been taken on a lease and two were owned. The field was just behind his house. “The crops failed and one day, when he was seeing the cattle grazing in his paddy field, he had a cardiac arrest and died at the field itself,” says his wife Amudha. With two daughters and no support from their relatives, she has been left staring at a bleak future. Her elder daughter is doing a diploma to be a medical lab technician in Thanjavur Medical College. Another child is in class 11.

“Most of them certainly don’t want their kids to be doing agriculture and be doomed just as they are,” Narayanan explains. “So they also get an educational loan apart from a loan for crops. This adds to their burden.” After their husbands’ deaths, the onus falls on the women of the households.

Rani with her son. Credit: Geetha Narayanan

Rani with her son. Credit: Geetha Narayanan

Despite playing a crucial role in food production, women are often not considered to be farmers because, in India, the legal recognition of farmers is derived from land ownership. “On an average, a woman spends 3,300 hours in the field in a crop season against 1,860 hours by a man. But only 12.69% of rural woman have operational land ownership,” according to Narayanan. And women farmers commit suicides, too. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, 472 of the 5,650 farmers who committed suicide in 2014 were women. “But the administration neither counts this as farmer suicide nor compensates her family because she does not own the land.”

In the state’s peculiar political situation, it is also hard for activists like Narayanan to reach out to the government and have the farmers duly compensated. “There are suicides and cardiac arrest deaths which have been not recorded as farmer deaths just because there are no postmortems done. Sometimes the women of the households are against the idea of having the bodies of their husbands cut up for a post mortem. We wanted to convince the government to give compensation to them too but it is difficult to even understand whom to approach now,” she says.

Adding injury to an already profusely bleeding wound is the Tamil Nadu government’s communication to the Supreme Court stating that no farmer has died due to the drought in Tamil Nadu. Many farmers’ associations have called this a cruel joke.

The TNFWFR has put together a list of short- and long-term recommendations based on what they discovered during their survey. The list includes the right kind of compensation for all farmers’ deaths, the allocation of two acres of land with agricultural support for female heads of the family and the recognition of women farmers as farmers.

As Narayanan holds, one needs enormous political will and empathy to effect changes that will bring some hope for women farmers. During an interview with the survey team, a woman farmer said the rains plays spoilsport either way – by being excessive or by being absent. But for the women farmers of Tamil Nadu, the caprice of the state often proves more deadly.

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