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Kerala's resurgence in agriculture is being cultivated by women

posted May 6, 2012, 9:29 PM by ABDUL SALEEM saleem
Female farmers work the land in the Nadathara area of Kerala, India.
NADATHARA, KERALA // On the count of three, Sumitha Sabu and Ambaly Rajan grab the lean, green trunk of a three-metre cassava plant and pull hard. After a few tugs, they manage to pull it out of the ground and proudly show off the gnarly tuberous roots of the shrub.

As the sun beats down on the mixed plantation of bananas, cassava and okra, the ladies expertly slice the skin off the root vegetable, wash the tuber and bite off a sample.

"The work is hard around here but at least when we want to take a nap, there is plenty of shade," said Mrs Rajan, 36, pointing to the palm trees that also grow on the plantation.

Mrs Rajan is Ms Sabu's friend, neighbour, and farming partner. Together, with two other women, they work on leased land cultivating cassava, bananas, yams and okra.

They are part of a trend in Kerala. For thousands of years, men traditionally have tilled the fields. Now, more and more women are becoming farmers, learning the skills of farming from men.

"They are our friends," said Ms Sabu. "When we have any doubts, we ask them. They are interested in sharing their experience."

Thanks to a government programme, women in villages who want to work near their homes are learning farming to support themselves and their families.

In 2007, Ms Sabu's husband, a rubber tapper, died in a motorcycle accident. A year later, Ms Sabu, 28, came back to her village to live with her parents. She brought her two children with her. That year, in search of work, she joined a female workers' collective that is part of the Kerala state government's initiative to alleviate poverty among women.

Kudumbashree, which means "prosperity of the family" in Malayalam - the principal language of the south Indian state - is a women's empowerment programme. On May 17, it will mark its 14th anniversary, with 3.7 million members or about half the households in Kerala.

In April, India's rural development minister, Jairam Ramesh, hailed the programme's success and said the central government would soon introduce the model in other Indian states.

"Kudumbashree in Kerala is a unique model. There are elements of Kudumbashree, I think, that can be replicated in other states, particularly northern India," he said.

The programme focuses on three areas: micro credit, entrepreneurship and empowerment. As a result, women are now able to obtain bank loans, afford to send their children to school and colleges, build homes and contribute to the state's agricultural economy.

Last year, Philomina Joy, 49, a first-time farmer, leased about two hectares of land that had lain fallow for 16 years. She and four other women became rice farmers after taking out a loan through the Kudumbashree network.

The work was not without its challenges.

The first day the women stepped into the waterlogged field to plant the rice seedlings, they were attacked by leeches that had made the sludgy mix of mud and water their home. "The other women ran away and refused to return to work for a few days till we figured out what to do," Mrs Joy said.

An agricultural officer who worked for the local panchayat - village council - provided a solution. Powdered limestone kept the leeches at bay.

Mrs Joy and her partners harvested eight tonnes of rice this year, most of which they sold to a state cooperative for 120,000 rupees (Dh8,242). Of those eight tonnes, the ladies took home 400 kilograms of rice, which will feed their families for the rest of the year.

Farming has always been associated with men, said Bindu P Verghese, the assistant district mission co-ordinator for Kudumbashree in the Thrissur district.

The first changes to these perceptions came when women were granted the right to inherit property. Land deeds were passed on to the males in the family until the 1970s before hereditary land rights laws were amended to include women.

"She will work in the cow shed; she will herd the cows; she will make the cow-dung patties; she will squat in the fields and help plant the rice, but she would never get the title of 'farmer'. She was only a helper," said Ms Verghese.

That has changed with women such as Emily George, 48, who picked up a state award in March for being one of the best female farmers in Kerala.

Mrs George lets out a giggle as she recounts the story of her husband hearing she had won the award.

"He said, 'I taught you everything, and now you are getting an award?'"

Mrs George grows amaranth - a leafy vegetable. Using the profits from the crop, she has managed to educate her two sons and daughters. They are engineers and nurses. Last year, she and three other women in her group shared a profit of 210,000 rupees.

"This is not a revolution. Change has come gradually," said Ms Verghese. "But I am pretty sure no one ever thought there would be a resurgence in agriculture in Kerala through women."