85 percent of agricultural farmers in India are women, and approximately 86 percent of the farm households are small and marginal farmers.
Image: Anuwar Hazarika/NurPhoto via Getty Images"The rural woman is the backbone of agriculture and the guardian of household food security. Empowering rural women is empowering humanity." - Kofi Annan
India has made tremendous progress in empowering women over the last few decades. A strong number of women can be seen holding influential positions in various industries and sectors. Women have also made significant contributions to India's economic growth, with increasing numbers participating in the workforce and even starting their own businesses.
When we think of an empowered Indian woman, what do we visualise? Maybe an adult woman living in a city with a job. She earns enough to support her family and herself. She wears the clothes of her choice and enjoys the company of her friends. She lives life on her terms.
But there is also a woman living in a remote village in the tribal belt of central India. She is illiterate and has received no formal business education. Yet, she manages the end-to-end agricultural cycle of 200+ farmer households right from sowing to selling the produce. This woman also earns a stable income to support her family and educate her children. She might not have the similar flexibility of clothing as the urban woman, but she also engages in upgrading her lifestyle from a cycle to a scooter and maybe even a touch screen phone for herself.
85 percent of agricultural farmers in India are women, and approximately 86 percent of the farm households are small and marginal farmers. In recent years, the Indian government has been aggressively promoting the development of this sector through various initiatives, one of the prominent ones being the establishment of Farmer Producer Organizations (FPO). FPOs provide a platform for small and marginal farmers to collectively negotiate better prices for their produce and reduce dependence on intermediaries. They also help farmers access credit, technology, inputs, and other services provided by the government and private sector. By pooling resources and sharing risks, FPOs enable the farmers in improving their livelihoods and increasing their bargaining power.
Many organisations, as well as the government, have launched initiatives to establish FPOs across various states. One such initiative is The Lakhpati Kisan Program, by the Tata Trust. It is a rural development initiative executed in collaboration with Collectives for Integrated Livelihood Initiatives. The project aims to improve the livelihoods of small and marginal farmers in India by promoting sustainable agriculture practices, enhancing productivity, and increasing their income.
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There are close to 100 women Board of Directors of the apex community-led institution called the Farmer Producer Companies in the central tribal belt of India, who are today actively mobilising farmers’ support to enhance their income and provide sustainable livelihood under the Lakhpati Kisan Program, designed to more than double the income of farmers from Rs 30,000 ($300) to Rs 1,20, 000 ($1500) in Phase 1.
Ganesh Neelam, Executive Director of Cini, states that the “Lakhpati Kisan program is not only about income but also about empowerment that has been greatly responsible for creating both sustainability and irreversibility of the program. The program has been able to engage the women in a systematic manner”
The Women's Board of Directors (BOD) have risen up the ranks from being SHG members to being part of the village organisation, before being voted to join the board of the farmer companies.
The authors explore what constitutes women empowerment, in the context of rural India, especially where the women have not occupied positions of responsibility, ownership or accountability in any organised formal structure. So, what led to their empowerment and transition into their newfound identity as Board members of a community-led Institution?
It all started with a few women who were passionate and determined to make a change. One very common and strong linkage found across the narratives of these women is that they came from a state of extreme deprivation. With some losing their husbands, who were the primary breadwinners of the household, and others being thrown out of their houses due to family disputes—these women are extremely agile and resilient. They had already hit rock bottom and were not afraid of exploring any new avenues for improving their lives. These rural women did not have anything to lose and were willing to give up everything for the cause of a better livelihood.
A question we keep coming back to: Why are these women BODs trusted by the farmers? It is important to acknowledge that while trust is a fundamental component of any relationship, it is built over time primarily through the words, actions, and experiences of everyone involved. The farmers, they see the women BODs, firstly as their friends or neighbours and later as FPO representatives. There is an organic historical affiliation of “our people” between the woman BOD and the farmer. They have known each other for many years before FPO came into the picture. Secondly, women, as a consequence of their gender are viewed as caregivers—someone who is harmless. They are regarded as well-wishers as compared to men who are perceived as a threat and competition. Needless to say, farmers naturally are more receptive to recommendations by the women BODs. Most importantly, the selfless door-to-door service that these women BODs provide to the farmers in all stages of the agricultural cycle is a testament to the commitment of the women towards the community. Also read: How Brand WPL will be built over the long term
The notion of success for rural women is very different from what we may imagine. For these women, progress in life is not limited to themselves and their own families. They define growth and success as the upliftment of their entire community. They have a very strong unity mindset and dedication to society. They believe that they will be able to reach the true potential of the company only when the entire community is involved. When it comes to the FPO expansion, the women BODs tell us how they go beyond their capacity to induct more women and other board functionaries into the community-led institution. These women exhibit a strong abundance mindset. They take responsibility for the new women members and train them to develop their business acumen. This, right here, is women empowering other women to build the future of FPO, as an institution.
The empowered women BODs are fighting the shackles of years of patriarchy. Before their association with the FPO, they worked in the fields, did the household chores and raised the children. Their contributions to the household were significant but intangible. As they started earning, they contributed a stable steady cash flow—a tangible outcome which was one of the biggest influencing factors on the household. The women were now also viewed as breadwinners of the family. Now, they are not questioned about staying out and working late nights. They have a stronger voice in household decision-making. They can invest in the education of their children and accumulate physical assets like building pucca houses and buying tractors.
Empowerment of these women created a ripple effect in the village ecosystem. As the women started working for the FPO and gained financial stability—they achieved more freedom and started gaining positive influence on the community. Other women looked up to them and farmers sought guidance on improving their businesses. These women are essentially working as middle managers or consultants, if you may like, without any formal business education. They have significantly improved their personal lives, contributed to the financial success of the FPO, helped build a transparent and empowering workplace for more women and overall enhanced the living standard of their entire communities.
Even though these rural women BODs look and sound very different from our default image of an empowered woman, they bring the same amount of passion for improving livelihood outcomes as any other corporate BOD. In fact, during the pandemic, they even effortlessly embraced technology, such as Google Meet, to carry out their duties.
This international women’s day, we urge you to take a moment and acknowledge these women heroes and the immensely significant work they are doing to uplift rural communities at the grassroots levels.Dr Sushmita Srivastava, Associate Professor, Organizational and Leadership Studies, SPJIMR, Mumbai and Harshita Mallareddy Student - PGDM-BM
Centre for Innovation and Sustainable Development, SPJIMR, Mumbai, is grateful to Tata Trust and CINI to grant permission to conduct interviews with the Women Board of Directors of the FPOs
[This article has been reproduced with permission from SP Jain Institute of Management & Research, Mumbai. Views expressed by authors are personal.]