Beed Drought: Plight of Agricultural Workers, Burdens on the Women
AS reported in the earlier article, if the plight of kisans in drought-hit Beed is serious, then that of agricultural workers who comprise around 35 per cent population and especially women workers is much worse and should be of grave concern.
According to the District Disaster Management Plan published by the collector, the per capita income in this district is in any case very low compared to other districts in Maharashtra. Whereas the state average is Rs 95,339, in Beed it is Rs 55,139. In the State Human Poverty Index which measures survival, literacy, access to drinking water, percentage of malnourished children, Beed ranked 24th among the 30 districts assessed. In drought years the deprivation is highly intensified and reflected in lower incomes, higher levels of malnutrition, disruption of education of children, worsening health – both physical and emotional – with an additional heavy burden of work being borne by women.
AGRICULTURAL WORK: HALF THE WAGE
Drought has meant a huge drop in the meager earnings of agricultural workers. With the reduction and destruction of crops due to drought, work days available in agriculture have obviously gone down. Earlier cane cutting work could go up from three to five months but now it is sporadic and workers have not got even three months work this season.
Where work is available, wages have come down. Although officials and some kisans said that workers cutting cane this season were being paid a wage of Rs 200, what they did not say was that this was the male wage. This too is a distress wage as male workers would get from Rs 250-300 in a normal harvest. In a meeting with women cane cutters in Yellatanda, the women, all members of a nomadic tribe, said they were earning just Rs 100 a day this season whereas they would earn Rs 150 or more in a good year.
The women spend as much time in the field working as part of a group with the men. The women’s job is also hard, chopping the cane cut by the men, tying the chopped pieces into bunches and then carrying them to the truck which heads to the sugar mill. Each bundle weighs around 30 kg and women usually carry two bundles at a time. They make numerous trips a day from the cane cutting spot to the truck. At present where this group is working, the farmer had made some arrangement for water for the crop, so there is a crop of about 40 tonnes of cane an acre. With this estimate the women would have to chop and carry 40,000 kg per acre. Savita, who is the group leader, says that sometimes the trucks come at night so they have to rush from their homes to carry the chopped cane to the trucks. She introduces a fellow worker Priyanka, 25 years old. Her arm is in plaster. She broke it when she tripped in the dark carrying a heavy load of cane. Savita holds out her hands, they have small cuts, “My hands hurt. I do put some medicine but it rubs off as I cannot stop the work. All of us have a lot of pain in our backs and shoulders. The stones on the ground hurt our feet. We have to rush to the trucks carrying the load. We get medicine and then go back to work.” A trio of teenaged schoolgirls listening in, laugh and in reference to a popular Bollywood song, say “they apply Zandu balm and go back to work.” Even in the worst of circumstances, the humour does not get lost.
It is the same for the women cotton pickers. In a good harvest they could get up to Rs 5 a kilo of cotton picked. This year the rate is just Rs 2. Kamar Nainath, a 33 year old worker in the village of Dharmevadi says, experienced cotton pickers like her could pick cotton upto 50-60 kg a day. Neela Bai, a much older woman says that she cannot pick more than 30 kg. So depending on the amount picked, this season women have earned only Rs 60-120 after a hard day’s work picking the cotton.
The women say that more than the picking, planting the cotton is much harder work. Neela Bai suddenly gets up and acts out what she does when she is planting the cotton. She pretends to tie a cotton bag to her back to carry the seeds. She walks bowed down and performs three actions all in one: uses one hand to take the seed from the bag, plants it in the ground, uses the other hand to cover it up with mud which is an essential part of the planting, and then moves on in a straight line, never looking up, walks two steps still bowed and then starts the planting again. The women applaud her and make jokes but then fall silent. Kamar speaks, her words echo those of Savita, “We suffer a lot of back and shoulder pain. Our feet get swollen. But we have no choice. There is no other work we can find.”
LACK OF WORK: OUR TENSION HAS INCREASED
In a drought-hit area, women spend quite a lot of time looking for work, often to find that it is non-existent. In a meeting in Ambajogai, Chhaya Laxman Tarkase, a single woman who lost her husband recently, says, “About 50-60 of us women go together to the labour market (a meeting spot for daily workers who get picked up by employers) every morning. Sometimes we wait there till noon just hoping to get work. We do anything that is required, from construction work, to coolie work, to cleaning, to agricultural work. But people do not have money, so we are lucky if we get just one or two days of work a week.” Aziza Sheikh says, “I am a Muslim and some look down on me going out in search of work. But I have no alternative. Will those people pointing fingers at me, feed me? I leave the house early, go to the village centres from one to another looking for work. We are that desperate.”
The women say, “If we work we can eat, we have no income, no savings to fall back on. The drought has wiped us out.” A group of six women say that they are at present working in a brick kiln but soon the kiln will be closed down because of lack of water. This is corroborated by Asha Jogdar from a neighbouring village. She says, “About 400-500 women from my area used to work in the kilns but they are all shut down because in our area the water scarcity is very acute.” The women say they are very tense all the time because of the absence of work opportunities. In this district where 82 per cent of the population depends on agriculture, non-agricultural work opportunities for manual workers are negligible.
INCREASED MIGRATION: WE DON’T GET THE LOVE OF OUR PARENTS
The lack of work has led to higher levels of migration, sometimes of whole families. In almost every meeting, kisans and workers described how one or two members of their families had migrated as there was no work. According to an estimate of the district Party secretary Uttam Mane, around 40 per cent of the workers and small farmers have migrated this year. The women who have not migrated, rarely get news of the plight of their migrant family members. Vanha Awhad, at a meeting in a village in Majalgaon tehsil said, “We have been without work for the last three months. We belong to the scheduled castes. The government has not even come once to ask us how we stay alive. All male members of my family have migrated looking for work. My son was in school but he too has had to go.”
Malan bai says, “I have four sons, two of them are in school, but this year all four of them have migrated. I am so worried and tense as I have not heard from them.” The situation of migrant workers in the places where they find work is another horrible reality of vulnerability and exploitation, but here the women are coping as best they can. The children are especially affected. Many have dropped out of school. In any case during the season, school children are often out with their families doing agricultural work. But during the drought when migration increases, the children leave school and stay home to mind their siblings, the cattle and the home. It is all described in the poignant words of Payal, a 14 year old student. Eyes brimming with tears she says, “We don’t know the love of our parents. Where is the time to love each other? It is only work, work and more work, or else we cannot survive.”
MNREGA: GOVERNMENT WEAKENS A LIFELINE
The use of MNREGA could have been a lifeline in this terrible situation. There is a standard policy for provision of upto 150 to 200 days of provision of work in drought-hit districts. Last year, even as the deadly shadow of drought was lengthening over the district, and the planting for the kharif season was affected bringing down the workdays, the government provided an average of only 43 days of work.
Women from seven villages of Dharur tehsil – Rui, Anjandoh, Asola, Choramba, Kavi, Dharur and Hasnabad said that they have been demanding MNREGA work but only two groups have got any work. Taramati Raut and a group of women from Anjandoh village in Dharur tehsil describe the work they have got under MNREGA as part of the swachch campaign of building latrines. The women have to dig a 4ftx4ft pit. 25 such pits are to be dug in the village. Tara says, “The mud is very dry in our village. We don’t have enough water to drink, but here we are forced to use the precious water to soften the mud. We bring it from quite far. Without this we would not be able to dig the pit. The government does not care. They neither give us instruments nor water.” It takes two women at least four days to dig the pit if they work without a break. For each pit the payment is Rs 1500 so each woman is earning Rs 187.50 that is less than the minimum wage which is supposed to be Rs 200. The women have not been paid yet.
We meet another group of women on the road outside Hasnabad village. The project is to dig a tank. The women have built steps in the mud to help them carry the mud up as they keep digging lower. They have worked for 13 days but have not received any payment yet. Here too it is the same experience. All the men have left looking for work. The women have got this work after two months of waiting. “It is hard work. We carry over 2500 kg of mud every day. There are only two men among the twenty workers on this project, so we have to dig too. The mud is very hard and there are lots of stones. But the piece rates are already decided. We don’t even know how much we will earn, but we do the work anyway.”
The various village pradhans (sarpanches) we met, said that they have been demanding MNREGA sites in their villages as the demand is high but there has been little response. The fact is that between them, the central and state governments have starved the Act of funds, as a result of which even in a drought-hit highly distressed area the MNREGA lifeline is virtually eliminated.
BURDEN OF UNPAID WORK: THE GOVERNMENT’S GIFT
The unpaid work burden of women has increased mainly due to the search for water. In almost every meeting, women spoke of the hours they spend getting water for the household and the cattle. In particular villages where there is a substantial number of dalits, they reported an acute water crisis.
This is what a woman’s day looks like in drought-hit Beed as spoken about by women in meeting after meeting: We wake up at 4 am or so. Our first job is to get the water. If there is a well in the village, the tanker comes to pour water in the well. The line of women starts early. The pots carry 20 litres at a time. So the women go up and down to the watersource 10-15 times. This takes them around four hours. Sometimes this leads to quarrels among the women.
In many villages the well has totally dried up so women have to trek some distance for water. Often this takes them to the fields of better off farmers who have borewells and pumps. Gangubai in Netrud village and Savita in Talkhed village relate the bitter experience. Savita says, “The government does not send tankers to our villages. We have to go to the fields where there is a borewell. We get abused by the owners every day. Sometimes they beat us for coming into their fields for water. But what can we do? We have to grow thick skins to take these insults. This is the government’s gift to us.”
The care of cattle is shared between men and women. But the lack of fodder means that women have to spend more time trying to collect fodder apart from water for the cattle.
Apart from this, is the domestic work, cooking, cleaning, washing of clothes in rationed water, making the chore even more difficult.
MALNUTRITION: NOTHING TO COOK
Drought has directly raised malnutrition levels because of reduced food intake. The women say with bitterness, “Thanks to this government we save on fuel costs because there is nothing to cook.” The fuel they use is dung and cotton waste. The Modi government’s Ujjwala gas scheme is nowhere to be seen. In all the meetings, the agricultural women workers said that their diet was now just rotis and chilli paste. Instead of providing immediate relief in the form of increased rations the government has not even completed the survey for new ration cards and allocations of food according to the Food Security Act. The APL-BPL cards still exist in this area and in meetings the women said that many were not getting the subsidised rations because they had APL cards. No one can afford green vegetables or pulses. Those who had some stored jawar and tur dal from previous harvests said that they were rationing the use of dal to once or twice a week. It is a shocking situation of growing food distress and if not addressed urgently it could turn to widespread hunger.
In the meeting with the collector all these issues were raised. He really did not have any answers but assured that steps would be taken. In fact unless the central and state governments step up the fund allocation, neither the long term nor the immediate needs of the people of drought-hit Beed will be addressed. Meanwhile news comes in of demonstrations and protests on all these issues at the block and district level by the Party, the Kisan Sabha and Agricultural Workers Union.