Standing Up To Drought

How women farmers are overcoming severe water scarcity in India's Maharashtra state

Parched land where crops have failed because of poor monsoon rains year after year have pushed many over the edge across India. Often bankrupt and stricken with debt, thousands of farmers have resorted to what they believe is the only way out: suicide.

With over 60,000 farm suicides since 1995, the hinterlands of western Maharashtra state have come to be known as the epicentre of the crisis.

It is here Swayam Shikshan Prayog (SSP) has been working to tackle this scourge -- doing so by attempting to close a glaring gap that exists on India's farms.

Gender Inequality

Even though farming employs more women than any other industry in India, female farmers face extreme disadvantages in terms of pay, land ownership and access to technology and agricultural know-how.

It's not uncommon to find a woman who tills on land registered under her husband's name officially classified as "a housewife without an occupation".

"Women contribute significantly to agriculture but when it comes to decision-making, they have little say. Men are recognised as farmers while women are considered subordinates," said SSP's founder Prema Gopalan.

This, she added, has played into why the regions of Marathwada and Vidharba in Maharashtra had become so reliant on commercial cultivation.

"Men have decided they want water-intensive cash crops like sugarcane and wheat. They have decided they want to earn money very fast. But climate change has caused these crops to fail and now families are unable to repay huge debts. That's why suicides have become a way of life," according to Gopalan.

And with entire fields sowed with high-risk cash crops that ultimately fail, farming families also face food insecurity.

SSP believed empowering women farmers was one solution to the problem.

Empowerment Through Training

It set about doing this by training them on sustainable agriculture practices to be better able to buffer the effects of climate change.

With the help of experts from the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, among the things the 3,500 trained women learned through a combination of classroom training, group discussions and farm visits were:

Mixed cropping: Cotton, for example, is widely grown in Maharashtra. Its costly to plant and farmers growing it have become vulnerable to fluctuations in global commodity prices. That means if the cotton price crashes, they all crash with it. Also planting less risky, less time-consuming and less expensive crops quells this, and growing pulses and vegetables alongside cash crops ensures food security. Some of what is grown is used for family consumption; the rest is sold in the market.

"Our advise was go for cash crops because you need money, but also have food crops to keep yourself safe," said Upmanyu Patil, team leader of SSP's rural marketing and network programs.

Irrigation: Close to 60% of India's farmland is rain-fed, leaving farmers at the mercy of an increasingly erratic monsoon. The trained women were encouraged to secure drip irrigation equipment at subsidised rates from the government to ensure better water efficiency.

Soil management: Fertile soil is equally as important as water for crops. The women learnt about the detrimental effects chemical pesticides and fertilisers have on soil health, and were encouraged to farm organically.

How to keep pests at bay: Crops are often vulnerable to pests and diseases during droughts, but low-cost methods can keep them safe.

Utilizing Azolla: During droughts, there's often a shortage of fodder. A good multi-animal feed substitute is Azolla, a floating fern which resembles algae. Cheap and easy to cultivate and rich in protein, minerals and vitamins, the trained women farmers learned how they can grow it themselves in small, shallow water bodies.

One Acre Model

Among those trained was Shantabai Rathod. She negotiated with her husband to set aside part of their farmland to implement some of what she learned.

SSP suggested starting with one acre.

Shantabai Rathod

"This is so the women could establish proof of concept and gain acceptance as decision makers from male family and community members before expanding across their entire farmland," Gopalan said.

Deprived of rain, the expanse around Rathod's village of Nilegaon Tanda resembles a lifeless desert. But specks of green are visible, including on her farm - three acres of which she and her husband own and another three they have on lease.

Gradually her farm has become fully organic. "I persuaded my husband to stop using chemical pesticides," Rathod, who is in her fifties, said seated under the shade of a tree on a blistering hot afternoon. "This has helped reduce our production costs."

And they no longer grow water-guzzling sugarcane.

"If water was always available, life would be a lot easier. But it isn't, so we have to adjust or we will die," she said.

Meanwhile, extra cash comes from selling some of the produce grown to feed her family - money she says she is saving to build a new house.

Change Agents

SSP wanted as many female farmers as possible to reap the benefits of the training it offered. So farming groups were formed to allow those who had received training to share their learnings with other women farmers in their villages who had not. Through this method, more than 10,000 have benefited in three districts - Osmanabad, Nanded and Washim.

"Women are change agents much more so than men," Gopalan said.

Development experts agree. They say it is critical to include women in the decision-making process to reduce disaster risks.

A recently released report commissioned by the Climate and Development Knowledge Network noted that "a lack of women's active involvement negatively affects the implementation, monitoring and overall sustainability of interventions to enhance people's resilience" to climate change.

"Sometimes disasters offer opportunities. With the current drought crisis, what was offered was a chance to empower rural women and to change their lives forever," Gopalan said.

Swayam Shikshan Prayog formed in 1993 to assist in reconstruction and rehabilitation efforts in the aftermath of a deadly earthquake that year in Maharashtra. Today it focuses on empowering rural women socially and economically by offering new skills to form alternative livelihoods amid a changing climate. Its programmes have been implemented across 2,000 environmentally vulnerable villages across four Indian states - Maharashtra, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu and Bihar.