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De-feminisation of Agricultural Wage Labour in Jalpaiguri, West Bengal

Loes Schenk-Sandbergen ( has retired from the University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

A study of three villages in Jalpaiguri district, West Bengal, reveals that there is an alarming decline in female agricultural wage labour, resulting in de-feminisation, devastating poverty and outmigration of young boys and men in the Terai region. De-agrarianisation in combination with the revived patriarchal “good woman” ideology explains the crises of female wage labour. The Government of West Bengal’s Anandadhara programme seeks to integrate poor women into the financial flow through microcredit/self-helf groups. However, poor landless and marginal farm women are faced with various obstacles in becoming self-employed entrepreneurs.

This paper is based on qualitative participatory studies, and three anthropological field studies conducted in three villages in different blocks of Jalpaguri district, West Bengal, under the framework of the Water, Land and Ecology (WLE) research/intervention project, titled “Poverty Squares and Gender Circles: Unravelling Agriculture Gaps, Challenges and Opportunities in the Eastern Gangetic Plains” (spanning Bangladesh, India and Nepal) initiated in 2015.1 As the WLE project also focused on interventions, which might reduce poverty and gender gaps in the research location, it was decided to analyse the government-promoted Anandadhara microcredit/self-help group programme in the study. The author would like to thank project director Deepa Joshi for her encouragement and guidance, as also the students of North Bengal University and the University of Amsterdam for their research assistance.

In the conceptualisation of the Water, Land and Ecology (WLE) project, it was assumed that globalisation and climate change have triggered a negative process of “feminisation of agriculture” in the eastern Gangetic plains, mainly because of the outmigration of men, leaving behind the women with restricted access to services, infrastructure, institutions and markets to manage productive (as well as reproductive) responsibilities. Numerous studies have pointed to the feminisation of agriculture in India and Nepal and many other parts of the world, as an effect of globalisation and the migration of men (Kelkar 2006; Ganguly 2003; Gartaula et al 2011; Sugden et al 2014).

However, Henrietta Moore had warned already in 1988 (pp 76–79) that the concept of feminisation of agriculture “is so commonplace in ‘women and development’ literature that it is perhaps worth considering the conceptual limitations which might underlie it.” The findings, detailed below, from the three villages—Khuttimari, Salbari and Uttar Khalpara—in Jalpaiguri district will reveal the validity of her prediction by sketching the crises in female agricultural wage labour leading to de-feminisation. This is in line with the current discussion on statistical findings which show a substantial decline in the female labour force in India, in particular from rural areas belonging to economically poor households (Kannan and Raveendran 2012). The author seeks to contribute to this discourse by sketching in a qualitative way the root causes for the alarming decrease at the village level.

The project area of Terai in north Bengal was well known to me, asin the early 1990s we had conducted an in-depth study and a sample survey to evaluate the impactof the implementationof the North Bengal, Terai, Development Project (NBTDP)2 on the work and status of landless and farm women and gender relations(Schenk-Sandbergen 1991, 2014;Schenk-Sandbergen and Choudhury 2003). In April 2015, 25 years later, I got an opportunity to have a reconnaissance with the Terai to follow up my earlier research and to revisit the villages.

25 Years Later: Some Impressions

What struck me during the first field visit to village Velkujote in 1990, was that “feminisation of agriculture” was not an issue. It was even my impression that the large majority of the villagers were not directly engaged any more in agriculture. In Velkujote, 70% of the households were landless, and women said that agricultural wage labour was scarce in all seasons (rabi, kharif and pre-kharif) and had decreased considerably during the past 10 years. Nowadays, it is contract labour that is given as a piece rate; the contractor does the work with his fellow workers or wife, children or other family members. Daily wages for women are lower than for men but that has not brought about a replacement of women doing men’s wage work. Those are different circuits, and the perception is common that women simply cannot do heavy labour. Men do heavy labour and therefore earn more per day (₹150–₹200) and women earn lesser (₹100–₹120).

The women in Velkujote said that their husbands outmigrated as skilled (mason), or unskilled construction workers to Siliguri, Kolkata, Kerala and West Asia. They themselves stayed behind to look after the household3 and the children, and desperately await and search for opportunities to earn money. They are not called for agricultural wage work as this is almost not available.Non-farm earning options are almost zero.They had a saving group, but the rich woman leader stole all the money and disappeared from the village. A court case is, according to them, of no use.

The women were landless, but not asset-less. Under the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI[M]) state government, the women got the adjudication of the land title of the homestead land in their name.4 They could not show any document withpatta (land title) right of this important asset, and also did not know where to go to prove that they were the owners of the land. Obviously, the adjudication of homestead land rights had not empowered the involved women, as it was not embedded in other strengthening interventions.

My visit showed that there was no indication that women have to suffer increasing workloads because of “feminisation of agriculture,” suggesting that they are compelled to take over the agricultural work of their husbands. The women in Velkujote cannot dream of such a scenario of being in charge of any agricultural production, for subsistence or cash crops, as they are landless. Neither can they think of a “feminisation of agricultural wage work,” as wage labour is hardly available.

The observations during my first encounter in the field were not incidental but in line with the wider rural transformation processes in West Bengal and rural India as a whole. The Socio-Economic and Caste Census (SECC) 2011 paints a picture of rural India weighed down by landlessness and the lack of non-farm jobs. TheSECC census (2011) states that out of India’s millions of households, nearly three-fourths live in rural areas. However, only 30% of rural households depend nowadays on cultivation as their “main” source of income. For West Bengal, this figure is even lesser, at hardly 20%, of which 88% consists of marginal and small farmers and farm women (NABCONS 2009).

Thus, rural is not agricultural anymore. Globalisation, neo-liberal policies, and climate and ecosystem changes have all triggered an accelerated process of cultivating landowners spiralling to the bottom: from small to marginal farmer, from cultivator to agricultural labourer. In Jalpaiguri district, a staggering 86% of farmers have experienced a decline in the rate of farm incomes during the past decade (Shiva and Jalees 2005: 114). It is our finding that over time, the size of the landholdings for marginal farmer households came down in 25 years from one acre to broadlyone bigha,5 meaning that also male and female marginal, and even small farmersdepend for their livelihood on wage labour. This creates animmense pressure on access to land, and scarce, casual, sporadic, and seasonal wage labouras there are almost no alternative livelihoods.

De-agrarianisation and Landless Women

Almost no access to land: WesselKok (2016: 50) finds in his study in Uttar Khalpara village in West Bengal that access to land has become increasingly costly for the poor because of the growing population, increase in the number of landless and marginal farmers who depend on leasing agricultural land for an additional income, rising presence of outside investors who have bought up land for tea gardens, equal inheritance rights of male descendants, increased land values due to unequal access to irrigation facilities, and access to good roads. This has near-completely deprived the poorest community—the Rajbongshi—in the village from having access to land. On the other hand, Muslim and Santhal households have either already sold their lands to the tea garden companies, or have seasonally leased-in or mortgaged agricultural land.

In Khuttimari village, sharecropping (adhi) is no option any more as it requires high investments, while the landowner gets at least half of the profit. Only 6% of the people interviewed in Salbari village were sharecroppers. LianneOosterbaan (2016) gives an interesting case of a farm woman and her husband who own 12 bighas of land, but they do not cultivate any of it. Instead they lease it out for a good price to poor families, and invest in mortgaging (bandhok) tea plantations; all the tea leaves they pick are their profit. The most common causes for mortgaging land by small and marginal farmers are weddings, funerals, medical expenses and calamities. Religion, community, or gender hardly matters when deciding who to give land for temporary use: the deciding criterion most often is that the person should be reliable and should have a good family reputation.

In the past, poor women could forage for wild greens/vegetables, fish in the rivers, gather forest products, cooking fuel, and fodder from the grazing grounds, for consumption. Now, the forest and commons have almost vanished, or are closed or privatised. Poor families are increasingly dependent on purchased food and this makes the availability of women’s wage labour all the more essential.

Shrinking female wage labour: In 1991, landless households derived 75% of their income from agricultural wage labour (Schenk-Sandbergen and Choudhury 2003). Other sources of income were less important and concerned agricultural production (17%) and self-employment in, for instance, dairy and fuel trade, brokerage or stone chipping. On an average, landless men were employed for 200 days in a year according to the findings of the sample survey and 234 days according to the in-depth study, whereas the corresponding figures for landless women were 80 and 109 days, respectively. There was a clear seasonality in the labour demand in the area, which peaked in the pre-kharif season (during the cultivation of boro rice) and the rabi season (when potato was cultivated). Thus, agricultural labourers did not get work for about six months for a male worker, and nine months for a female worker. In 2015–16, our qualitative village studies indicate that the number of working days, for landless women in particular, had declined considerably in comparison with 10 years ago; respondents often recounted a maximum of only 15 working days in kharif season and only three to four days in rabi. There are broadly two reasons for this disastrous de-feminisation of agricultural wage labour: agribusiness in combination with the insistent notions of the gendered division of labour.

Masculinisation of agriculture: In Madhya Khuttimari, there is not one farmer who did not use hybrid seeds. Practically all farmers in Uttar Khalpara village have changed their crops from traditional crops to hybrid cash crops (Kok 2016). In Salbari, the majority of the farmers use high yielding variety (HYV) seeds whereas only 4% of the informants still use traditional rice seeds primarily due to poverty (Andel 2016). According to an aged farmer, there is no point of return anymore. Manuring the land with cow dung is no longer possible for the fertility capacity of the land as it is too damaged by all the chemicals in modern farm inputs. With hybrid seeds, the farmers need to use chemicals, pesticides and insecticides else the crops will fail. The original crops did not require many chemicals, but the productivity was much less, so farmers consider it worth the effort. Farmers have to spray at least once a week to protect crops from pests and insects. This is a male domain of the division of labour.

In Madhya Khuttimari, farmers who hire agricultural labourers said that they “would not hire women to do the heavier work such as spraying chemicals, ploughing and preparing the fields, and carrying heavy bags with the harvested crops” (Oosterbaan 2016: 26). Male farmers believe that strength is a must for certain kinds of work or it would not be completed. Oosterbaan (2016) did not encounter any woman who got hired or paid to do any of these jobs. They are simply not allowed to do it. Thus, a trend of “masculinisation of agriculture” was observed instead of feminisation.

Changes in cultivation: The findings of our study show many other reasons for the reduction of wage labour opportunities for landless women. Rice transplanting has been replaced by the highly-promoted new system of rice intensification. Cash crops such as banana and tree plantations are increasing, both requiring less female daily wage labour. More so, because of irregular rainfall due to climate change, less rice is grown in the rabi season as investments are too high, prices too low and the risk of floods and droughts high. The “sharecrop” cattle system has also declined due to the loss of community pasture lands, sometimes in connection with the expansion of tea gardens. The demand for making traditional puffed rice (muri) for selling, produced by poor women in the past, has also declined as packaged chips are selling more in the market.

On the other hand, the “revolution” inHYV vegetable growing locally generates more wage labour for landless women.Earlier there were no beans, tomatoes, and cabbage cultivation in Madhya Khuttimari. Now vegetables are grown throughout the year. We met a group of female wage labourers in the field busy plucking large green beans. It seemed that a marginal Scheduled Caste farmer had leased-in land to grow the beans. He hired female daily wage labourers from a tribal community to pluck the beans. They were supervised by his daughter. However, some households who could grow vegetables having a (solar) dugwell for irrigation keep their land fallow in rabi, as time and money investments are high and they have no tradition in combining non-farm work with vegetable growing.

Location-specific opportunities: The remaining agricultural wage labour is mainly caste/community-, gender-, and location-specific. Jute cultivation during the planting and harvesting phase is done by women and men of the Adivasi community. They do the hard and dirty labour of soaking and stripping jute sticks in water. An important safety net for the poorest in Salbari is stone crushing in the riverbed, which is accessible to men, women and children. The riverbed, offers two work opportunities: loading of large boulders and chipping of small stones. Stone chipping is almost exclusively done by women and children, while the loading of boulders is done by both men and women. Women earn ₹50 for each pile of small stones they make; on one day it is possible to make two or maximum three piles and women thus earn around ₹100–₹150 a day (Andel 2016). This work is available for six days a week, barring the exception of heavy rain when the work has to be discontinued. Women from each community can be found at the riverbed, however, the majority of the workers are Muslim and Rajbongshi as tribal women are preferred in tea plucking. It was remarkable that even the wife of the panchayat leader works in the riverbed and chips stones. Her small income and the remittances of their migrated son were the sources of survival of the household.

In Uttar Khalpara, the availability of wage labour in the tea gardens has very dramatic and historical roots. Many Adivasis, mostly Santhals, and some Muslim families were more or less forced to sell their land to the tea companies as they were desperately trying to survive as their harvests were destroyed completely by natural disasters. Kok (2016: 27) writes in his village study,

There are three major company tea gardens in the village, some exceeding village boundaries. The biggest garden is the Rajabagan company, which is owned by an Assamese company. Access to the work in this garden is reserved to those who sold three bigha or more land to the company, or by paying the company for a permanent job. Each permanent job is accompanied by a casual one, which means work for half a year. Men hold the permanent jobs more often than women, so women have to work as agricultural or private tea garden wage labourers in the other months.

Government schemes: Lastly, there are several government poverty alleviation schemes generating wage labour for poor members of landless and marginal farmer households in the three villages. The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), 2005—a 100-day work guarantee scheme—is the most important. However, in Salbari, only 28 days of employment were available in 2015 and that was not enough to uplift the socio-economic condition of a household substantially. In Madhya Kuttimari, in 2015, there were many people who wanted to participate in MGNREGA, but not everyone could be employed at once, so the work was given in shifts. Even then, there were not 100 days of work for everyone, usually it was 35 days or so.

But agribusiness, climate change, etc, are not the only reasons why landless women are faced with shrinking wage labour opportunities. Our findings show that the revived patriarchal gender ideology that perpetuates the notion of the “good woman” also has an impact on the allocation of access to wage labour opportunities althoughgender restrictions and gender gaps are much lesser in poorer households (Schenk-Sandbergen 1988).

The ‘Good Woman’ Ideology

The Terai region has a long historical record of peasant movements, revolts and land reforms in which women have played an important role (Ghose 1983; Samanta 1984; Roy 1992b; Lieten 1992; Dasgupta 1984). The fearless and dynamic role of peasant and tribal women in these protest movements is fortunately well-documented (Sen 1985; Ghosh 1991; Roy 1992a; Schenk-Sandbergen and Choudhury 2003; Sarkar 2014). Over time, zamindari relations have been whipped out by the fragmentation of land due to patrilineal inheritance, immigration of refugees and of course, by the land reforms introduced under Operation Barga (Mishra 2007; Bakshi 2015).

Although it is true that the impact of the Bharatiya Janata Party as a political party is limited in Jalpaiguri district, the dominant religious images of gender identity, propagated on social media outlets, is silently intruding the minds of people. The freedom of movement that poor farm women had in the earlier decades especially strikes us in comparison with the curbs women face nowadays (Sarkar 2014). In the three study villages, men opined that, “women should not go outside and in particular not go to the markets” (personal interviews 2015–16). In Madhya Khuttimari, where very active, landowning Rajbongshi women grow a variety of vegetables, the men contended that, “women are the goddesses of the house and are therefore most respected when staying inside” (Oosterbaan 2016). Even a very charismatic, active female self-help group (SHG) leader in the village relayed that after a long struggle with her husband she had to settle for the subordinated role of a housewife and mother, adhering to the “good woman” identity and rendering her identity as a farm worker or professional woman as secondary (Oosterbaan 2016). Moreover, we witnessed, on many occasions, the internalised subordination of women to pay respect to men; the way women jump up from the floor when a man is approaching; the way the grandmother of a rich family throws her chair to a much younger man when he enters the veranda; the way women change their way of talking and keep quiet when men are around. The feminist anthropologist Henriette Moore (1988: 3) wrote, “muted groups are silenced by the structures of dominance.”

Stacey Burlet (1999) observes that in the current sociopolitical climate in India, gender problems and gender inequality are neglected and marginalised unless gender identity can be linked to religious identities. This is exactly what we observed during the Surya Shashti or Chathh Puja (sun festival) in November 2015 in Jalpaiguri. The puja was celebrated on a large scale, and promoted with big posters showing prominent political leaders depicted as spiritual saints. We went to the riverside and saw that the festival asked for extreme sacrifices of women: standing for hours in dirty water and fasting, all to ensure a good life for the husband and children. Images in social media of gender roles based on traditional Hindu culture have obviously revived the “good woman” ideology (Banerjee 2003). This masculinisation of culture is more or less going hand in hand with the masculinisation of agriculture because of the dominance of agribusiness. This is a worldwide process, even stretching to the masculinisation of birth (Guilmoto 2015).

Our findings reveal that the intruding “good woman” identity reinforces submissive attitudes—no felt need for (joint) land rights for women, strict gendered division of labour, wage discrimination of landless and poor women, more emphasis on endless tedious domestic duties for women, more restrictions on mobility of women, less decision-making power, shift from bride price to dowry, increasing dowries, greater domestic violence, etc—for landowning as well as landless women. This is despite the fact that compared to other states in India, the gender ideology in West Bengal is smoothened by the absence of Brahmin dominance, a melting-pot of cultures with many tribal communities having more gender equal ideologies, the history of revolt and peasant uprising, and more than 40 years of Left Front rule in the state. In Uttar Khalpara, the better status of tribal women is convincingly reflected in the crucial finding that dowry is stillnot demanded in Santhal and someRajbongshi lineages (KoK 2016): only bride price is known. The “no dowry zone” still exists in Jalpaiguri district as also in the matrilocal Rhaba village we visited (personal interview 2015).

But, as Oosterbaan (2016) shows in her study, poor landless and tribal women also face restrictions of access to labour markets and wage discrimination because of the “good woman” norms imposed on them. Unfortunately, this ideology is not only reinforced by the richer male farmers and tea garden company owners but to a certain degree also by the class of better-off farm women, who adhere to patriarchal notions and restrictions which might protect them (“we cannot do hard labour,” “we do not know what chemicals to spray”) but simultaneously undermine and constrain the life and work of their poorest sisters. The adherence to the “good woman” norms was also reflected in the perceptions of women on “land rights.” Asusual, women of landowning families do not own land in their own name.6 The root causes for the exclusion of women from land rights include patrilineal kinship and inheritance rights, and patrilocal post-marriage residence pattern. Brides come from the same village, but commonly outside the block and occasionally even outside Jalpaiguri district. In general, we found that women of small and marginal farm households work in their fields, alone, or together with the husband, mostly early morning. They expressed firmly that they did not bother aboutnot having land rights. In a focus group discussion in 2015, they stated, “So what? We work on the land and that resource is the livelihood of the family.”7

We did not notice any popular disinterest in cultivating the land, or reluctance or less motivation to participate in agricultural work because of non-ownership of land.8 Oosterbaan (2016: 15) mentions that women said “nothing would change for them if they owned land,” that is, having the land in their own name would not make any difference nor give them any personal benefits. The women agree that the problem of “not having land” arises when women with children are abandoned by the husband, or women become widows and sons take away the land, but that rarely happens. The opinion of many landless women was the opposite. They emphasise the need for women to own even a small piece of land. They say, “land is status, and right to speak. If you have no land and no assets, your opinion is not taken seriously” (personal interview 2016). We came across only two cases of women owning two bighas of land. One was a gift from a father-in-law to his daughter-in-law out in lieu of her care services in his old age. Even in a case of matrilocality, the inheritance rights were patrilineal. Joint patta land rights are hardly known in the research villages and opposed by men (Brown and Chowdhury 2002). They did not see the use of co-ownership.9

Wage discrimination against female labourers is persistent and backed up by the “good woman” ideology.Wages differ per task and crop, but on an average women earn around ₹100–₹150 against ₹200–₹250 for men. Even if men and women do the exact same work, there is this difference in wages. Oosterbaan (2016: 13) states that “the sermon behind the wage difference given is, that men are physically stronger and can do heavier work and women are weak.” Landless women say that they never really think about the fairness of their pay because they cannot do anything about it. They do not ask for higher wages because they fear not getting hired at all, and it is better to receive some payment than no payment at all. Landless women are, thus, forced to compete with each other, undermining solidarity as discord creeps in.

Male Migration and De-feminisation

Who migrates? Seasonal male migration is the most dominant survival strategy of coping with poverty and the increasing costs of living compared to 25 years ago. In the three study villages, it was found that all migrants were men, most of them very young—at times 12–14 year olds—and unmarried. These young men often quit school even before graduating Class 10 and migrated—often to Kerala or Assam—to provide an income for their parents/family, save for the construction of a house, repay a huge debt, pay for medical care, or contribute to the dowry of their sisters. The study of Merel van Andel (2016) confirms this worrying process of young boys leaving elementary school at a very young age to migrate and earn money for the family: 34% of the sons left school before Class 10 and thus, before obtaining any certificate. The main reason for discontinuing education is to contribute to the household income. Eleven per cent of the daughters too left school before reaching Class 10, mostly for marriages.10 These drop-out rates are reasons for concern as many will remain uneducated which of course has an impact on the overall potential for intellectual skills and development in future. Some migrants are young men in a sad position, labelled in the international literature as the “politics of waiting” (White 2012). They are bachelors, can be missed, do not like farming, so they hang around and wait for opportunities for work.

The much higher wages in Kerala are very attractive for young men compared to the local wage rates of₹400–₹500 per day. Migrants work mainly in construction as unskilled labourers.Labour relations and conditions are often extremely hard, inhuman, traumatic for young boys and unacceptable in general. In our selected villages, women are not supposed, and allowed, to work as migrant labourers—nor do they aspire to be a migrant worker. As it is hard labour, women are deemed to be unfit for the work according to our respondents. However, Neela Mukherjee (2001) came across women migrants from Jalpaiguri district in the slums of Delhi.

Thus, our village studies did not indicate any “feminisation of agriculture” as a consequence of outmigration of men. Women are certainly not “left behind” by their sons, brothers and husbands; married men only move seasonally when there is a male guardian taking over the urgent male work to be done. There was no increase in the de facto women-headed households and workloads per se. Women do not do such tasks as ploughing, land preparation, spraying pesticides, and marketing of the produce, formerly done by men only. Landless women are also not hired and are paid for these “manly” tasks at lower wages. The perception of landless and landowning women is that the division of labour in domestic and in agricultural work is “the same” as 10 years ago. Migration is not leading to the reshaping of new gender inequalities. Nevertheless, because of migration it has become more difficult to hire men as agricultural labourers, but that does not mean that these jobs are allotted to women. Instead, landowners hire men from other villages, and unemployed casual male labourers from closed tea estates.

Size of seasonal male migration in the three villages: In Madhya Khuttimari, there is a trend of temporarily working in Kerala or Assam. Bhutan is the only foreign place some villagers have migrated to, but Bhutan is also closer to home as compared to Kerala. From the 33 interviewed households, 14 households had migrants. Among the landless households, migration is much more common. It usually takes three or more months before the first remittance is sent home by depositing the salary in a shared bank account. In Salbari, 23% of the interviewed households have one or more members who migrate mainly to Kerala or Gangtok but also to Cooch Behar, Kolkata and Bengaluru. All migrants send remittances home to contribute to the household income. Two-thirds of the migrants are young unmarried men whereas only one-third of the migrants are married with children.

Although men from each community migrate, among the migrants in Salbari are many Muslim boys and men. Migrants keep in touch with their families by phone. In Uttar Khalpara (Kok 2016), out of the 44 families interviewed, 18 have at least one migrant in the family. Of these, 11 are landless as may be expected and seven are landowning; five coming from marginal- and small-farmer households and two from even middle-farmer households. Two families had both the husband and son migrating in alternating turns.The power of the “good woman” norms is, thus, demonstrating itself in the dominance of the “guardianship” notions of male migrants and absence of female migration.

How far the left-behinds are left behind?’ Xiang Biao (2007) raises this important question in his study of outmigration of men in China. While it seems in India that individuals have a free choice to decide who migrates and who stays back, the above reveals that there are fundamental social, cultural and institutional determinants of such decisions. Migration of boys and young men is mainly a forced decision to cope with poverty, gender inequality and age discrimination. The point Biao makes is that the problems poor women face with outmigrated sons, husbands and brothers cannot just be attributed to being left-behind individuals; instead, the fundamental cause is that many rural communities as a whole have been left behind, economically and socially. Measures to improve regular employment and the provision of public goods in rural areas should be prioritised.

Anandadhara: ‘From Where Happiness Flows’

The Government of West Bengal shows its concern in promoting a huge microfinance/SHG project for poor women, named Anandadhara, aiming to promote self-employment and women’s entrepreneurship in order to get women into the financial flow. The implicit gender ideology of the Anandadhara project is that social empowerment will emerge from economic empowerment. SHGs are seen as new institutions of social change. In view of the above, our main question was: does Anandadhara reach the poorest women, or are they “left behind?”11

Why poor women are not members of SHGs: In Uttar Khalpara, the two main possible productive investments are buying livestock and leasing in land for agricultural production. However, both are risky. The size of the loan does not cover the cost of leasing land and of production. Thus, the returns are minimal. Moreover, taking livestock is difficult because there is no grassland and goats will be poisoned when they graze around the tea gardens. The use of pesticides on tea gardens has endangered freely grazing livestock, goats in particular (Kok 2016). In Madhya Khuttimari, there are now 15 active SHGs in the village. One SHG started collective activities such as leasing in a fish pond to raise fish. But the fees for leasing the pond rose, and they had to give up the project. They also tried to make a collective nursery but that project too failed. Cooking mid-day meals in Integrated Child Development Services and anganwadi programmes for children is often the only collective feasible activity.

In anotherSHG, the leader who belongs to a rich farmer household has formed a group of very poor landless tribal women out of idealism to improve the quality of their life. She is, however, disappointed as the women members did not repay the loan and spent it themselves on drinking alcohol. The Anandadhara women staff at the block level is desperately searching for modern, profitable, and innovative income-generating activities. They regret that they can only provide need-based training in boring, unprofitable, and traditional activities such as tailoring, embroidery, candle-, soap- and juice-making, handicrafts and cane works. As the Terai/Dooars is famous for its beautiful mountains and forests, tourism might be an option but requires huge investments. So far, the “best practice” business activity we came across was an SHG catering to the government staff in the block government offices for coffee, tea and snacks.

In the villages, the options for profitable income-generating activities are limited. The findings reveal that farm women who managed to become members of anSHG spent their credit on non-productive investments, such as basic food and clothing, repayment of debts at the grocery store and loans from relatives, home improvements, dowries, brewing alcohol, investing in the husband’s business but rarely in agriculture. This happens mostly on the demand of their husbands to buy a bag of fertiliser, to lease in a handkerchief-sized piece of land, to buy some chicken, or to sharecrop agoat or a calf. Access to money does not necessarily give women control over it. Some women said that they had bought a calf but that the animal died. For repayment, they are totally dependent on the income of their husbands and earnings of sons who have migrated.

Self-employment is, of course, more likely among those women who own land and grow vegetables. They are often leaders of SHGs and it is a positive achievement of the Anandadhara programme that the women gained knowledge on how to take loans, skills to talk to officials, increased social networks and encouraged visits to places women had never been before, even to Kolkata. Women leaders, cashiers and secretaries of the SHGs could build an impressive network of institutional relations in numerous meetings at the village, gram panchayat, block as well as district levels. Increase in self-esteem, social skills, capacities and cooperation for collective action (the fight against alcoholism of men) was noticed. However, female leaders have to be cautious to shape their behaviour and preferences around the “good woman” notions of femininity, gender roles, morality and sexual division of labour.

Left behind:’ Our data shows that there are several obvious reasons why poor women are not members of SHGs. Poverty is the most obvious: landless women cannot save ₹30–₹40 every month for a year before they are entitled to apply for a loan. Furthermore, they are expected to repay the instalments with interest whilst continuing the monthly savings. One landless Santhal woman reasoned, “What we earn today, we spend today.” Another woman said, “Where is the work in the group? I only see talk about money.” That observation hits the nail on the head. “What to sell, where, and to whom?”

Critical studies show the extent to which the discourses associated with microcredit for women and SHGs are creating new norms for “good women” in a neo-liberal framework:

[O]ne who saves and repays regularly, puts pressure on other group members to do similarly, … and is committed to the welfare of the family … it is shown that neoliberalism subsumes women into an image of the protective mother who will translate any gains from the market into the means for household survival, and will be prepared to make unlimited personal sacrifices to provide the household with a safety net against the ravages of neoliberal macroeconomic policies. Ideologically, this works to re-embed women within familial relations. (Cornwall et al 2008: 5)

It is our finding that reality is even worse than that sketched in these critical studies. Many landless and marginal farm women in the villages could not even dream of becoming a member of an SHG and of saving and taking a loan for investment in self-employment or self-owned small enterprises and repaying instalments in time. The Anandadhara goals of financial inclusion of poor women are promoted in a chronic patriarchal structure of society and quickly shrinking access to the means of production and resources. No wonder then that the poorest women are “left behind” in the effort to get women into the financial flow.


The findings in the three study villages of Jalpaiguri show that the shrinking access to (common) land, labour and money in combination with the intrusion of the patriarchal “good woman” ideology causes dramatic de-feminisation of agriculture wage labour. And that rural does not mean agricultural anymore. The migration of young boys and (unmarried) men to work in an insecure, casual, and risky construction work in the cities of India is a coping strategy to mitigate poverty. The Government of West Bengal shows its concern in promoting a huge microfinance/SHG project for poor women, named Anandadhara. The Anandadhara programme aims to achieve the financial inclusion of poor women by encouraging them to become self-employed entrepreneurs. But, the access to land, water, labour, money, forest, skills, and other means of production is quickly dwindling, while reinforced patriarchal limitations of the “good woman” gender norms keep women out of this flow. The findings show that the landless are the real “left-behinds” by society and government, paying the price for de-agrarianisation and “good woman” ideologies. The measures to generate steady employment for landless women and men, and the provision of infrastructure and common goods in rural areas should have first priority.


1 The criteria for the selection of the three villages were: Variation in the composition of caste/class/community, ecosystem varieties (fringe forest, river, irrigation command area), cropping pattern combinations (rice, jute, potato, vegetables, tea), duration of existing self-help groups of the Anandadhara programme, etc.

2 An impact, in-depth study of 273 households was conducted and a sample survey, which covered 1,524 households was carried out to put the results of the in-depth study in wider perspective. The NBTDP successfully implemented a number of practical and strategic gender activities which contributed very much to the empowerment of the women of landless, small and marginal households (Schenk-Sandbergen and Choudhury 2003).

3 The cooking on firewood, leaves, biomass and cowdung sticks, and the type ofchulhas (stoves) were as primitive as 25 years ago. The image of women walking along the roadside with heavy dirty sacks of leaves and firewood on their bended back, like slaves, was degrading. Water, too, was being fetched in the same heavy and strenuous manner from the deepguhas orguas (small dug well from which water is lifted with a bamboo stick).

4 The Government of West Bengal launched a “new” homestead-allocation programme in 2009 with the primary aim of allocating land to homestead-less agricultural labourer households (Savath et al 2015). Twenty-five years ago, the CPI(M) showed also much concern for gender parity by allotting homestead land to landless women selected for our hand pump programme under the NBTDP.

5 One bigha is one-third of an acre (precisely40121 acre). In metric units, a bigha is hence 1,333 square metre. Sometimes, landless women lease in land in which they use the smaller size name of akatha: there are 20 kathas in one bigha.

6 In my research 25 years ago, 7% of the landpattas were in the name of women, mainly widows and families with only daughters. Now that figure is down to 6%. In the matrilocal village, we visited all the women of the Rabha community-owned land, but we found that the patta rights were given to both husband and wife on the document (Schenk-Sandbergen 1998).

7 Women have, since 1967, had the legal right to inherit land, but very few will insist on it for reasons described in many studies (Sharma 1980; Agarwal 1994). For an excellent field study on women and land rights in West Bengal, see Brown and Chowdhury (2002).

8 These findings are the opposite of studies conducted in other districts where women were keen to have joint patta or land rights (Gupta 2002).

9 The state policy in West Bengal is to use public land for allocation of homestead plots to the absolute landless and homeless through legislations and government schemes giving preference to women, Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Castes. Government schemes such as Nijo Griho Nijo Bhumi Prakalpa (my home my land scheme) introduced in October 2011 to settle 5.5 lakh landless poor and provide up to 0.05 acre to each household (World Bank 2014: 19–20).

10 For girls living in 193 tea plantations of Classes 8–12, there is the very successful bicycle programme launched in 2011 (Kanyashree Prakalpa programme). The school dropout rate has fallen considerably and helped the girls very much as they often have to cycle 8–10 kilometres to reach their school.

11 Besides, the Government of West Bengal had set up Large-Sized Agricultural Multi-purpose Cooperative Societies (LAMPS), providing credit, non-credit and technical support to the tribal women in the state with the objective of empowerment and inclusive development. In Madhya Khuttimari and in Salbari, the LAMPS project was also in operation. The SHG set-up in the villages consists of at least four different types: the Swarnajayanti Gram Swarojgar Yojana, the LAMPS for tribal women, the new Anandadhara project (just started), and the SHGs affiliated to local NGOs.


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Updated On : 22nd Jun, 2018


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