By Pranoti Abhyankar
Sweat trickles down her face as Anita (50) toils under the arid skies of Jadhavwadi village in Maharashtra’s Satara district. She is not alone though. A group of 15 female farmhands has been assigned the task of harvesting onions, something that takes up their whole day.
“We all came around 10 am in a Tempo Traveller, and will be here until 5 to 6 pm. In between, we take a lunch break for an hour. At the end of the day, Rs 200 is paid to each of us,” says Anita, readjusting the thin cotton scarf on her head.
Around 1 pm, the women dressed in sarees and oversized cotton shirts gather in a circle with cloth bags dangling from their exhausted shoulders. They settle down in a clearing in the farm and take out lunch boxes containing bhakri, kanda and bhaji.
Soon, two others in the group join in carrying drinking water on their heads in huge steel pots (kalshi). The women take turns fetching water from the other end of the farm. But male labourers do not do this task. Asked about it, Anita says, “We do it just as we take care of everyone at home.”
A deep dive into disparities
Jadhavwadi and Bijaudi are two relatively less populated villages in Phaltan block. The temperature here may not fall under the ‘extremely hot’ category, but it undoubtedly drains the energy of farm labourers. In addition, there are not many trees or man-made shelters for workers to take rest.
Unlike their male counterparts, female labourers are in demand here. According to Anita, they do not have to scramble for work. “The farm owners find us. So, we move from one farm to another with ease.”
Their popularity hinges on the fact that they need to be paid only half of what men manage to get, despite doing the same work for the same amount of time. “At the end of the day, we also have to think about saving money,” says Mamusheth, a farm owner.
A conversation with Vijay Bhosale, a farm contractor, reveals how most of them perceive gender inequality in daily wages as a social norm. “This is what was followed by our forefathers. I know it is unequal, but this is how the system is,” explains Bhosale to 101Reporters.
Sympathising with the farm owners, a woman in the group says they are fine with the Rs 200 they receive. “Men ask for Rs 400 and above. Maybe, the employers cannot afford that much.”
All of them admit that they do not really ask for more wages for fear of loss of employment. “Something is better than nothing, right?” says Anita, to which others nod. Furthermore, they feel there is almost no room for negotiations.
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In 2017, the Union Ministry of Labour and Employment raised the minimum daily wages of unskilled agricultural labourers from Rs 160 to Rs 300 per day for C-category towns. If States have higher minimum wages than the one declared by the Centre, then the former will prevail.
As per the revised minimum wages in Maharashtra, even unskilled labourers in zone 3 are entitled to Rs 420.54 per day. From plain observation, it is clear that all the rates mentioned in different policy guidelines of the State and Central governments are higher than the amount women farmhands in Jadhavwadi and Bijaudi are paid.
According to a statewise study by the Labour Bureau of the Government of India, the average daily wages for male and female agricultural labourers in rural Maharashtra in September 2016 were Rs 192.33 and Rs 135.31, respectively. The rates across India at that point in time were Rs 252.38 and Rs 195.11.
Despite the State government’s initiative to close the gaps in daily wages since 2016, it has been overlooked in rural areas. A news report highlights a similar situation in Palghar’s Sadakwadi, where women work on farms for low wages, while men migrate to nearby areas for construction or industry-based work.
Unfair to the core
Most women found working in Jadhavwadi are middle-aged (between 45-65 years). The tedious work affects their health to a great extent. However, they take an injection to kill the pain and get back to work.
Distress employment during the post-pandemic period has compelled most of them to take up extra work. In fact, some were not into farm labour prior to the pandemic. This year’s unprecedented rains also added to their woes by diminishing the prospects of daily employment.
“Our children in cities used to send us money. That was enough to sustain ourselves. Everything came to a halt when COVID-19 struck. Some lost jobs and could not afford to support us anymore. So we took up farm labour,” they explain.
Most of the women never went to school. Only two or three reached high school, but dropped off after household chores increased. Soon enough, they were married off.
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Due to a lack of both education and technological know-how, the idea of women voicing their opinions unapologetically and confidently has not picked up here. “We do not voice our problems generally. We just listen to our employers,” Anita tells 101Reporters. Other women echo her when they say, “Yes, there are times when we feel we are not heard. But then, we also do not know enough. So we make peace with that fact.”
Most of the farmhands stay at Dahiwadi, and take a tempo to reach home. “Once we get there, we will cook and eat dinner and go to sleep, to repeat the same cycle the next day,” they say. If they do manage to get some free time, they use it to clean up the house and organise kitchen supplies.
Anita says the money she receives from work covers her family’s basic needs and electricity and gas bills. Her husband is also a farmhand but does not get work as often as she does. Though she tries to set aside some amount to buy something for herself, it does not always happen. “Let me know if there is anything we can do in Pune. We will come,” she laughs, as she tells this reporter.
As the lunch break ends, Anita says, “We also want to work in the city for a while and earn more. Let us know if there is a job that suits us. Take down my number, please.”
Pranoti Abhyankar is a Pune-based freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters, a pan-India network of freelance reporters.