The Chief Justice of India’s recent remarks suggesting women have no place in the ongoing farmers’ protests may have gone unnoticed in the 1960s. Today they appear astonishing in their lack of awareness about what the face of the Indian farmer looks like. Women are protesting alongside men because they too have stakes in the outcomes. Indeed, their stakes are bigger—in rural India, 73 per cent of female workers (and only 55 per cent of male workers) depend on agriculture. It’s high time women farmers were seen and heard in their own right by policy-makers and law enforcers. After all, they are the backbone of India’s agriculture and allied sectors, performing a wide range of tasks in crop cultivation as well as in management of livestock, fisheries, poultry and non-timber forest produce. In cultivation, they do much of the non-mechanised back-breaking work, especially in rice farming, such as transplanting, weeding and harvesting. They comprise an estimated 60 per cent of the workforce in livestock production and 32 per cent of the 13.5 million employed in aquaculture.
Statistics, however, largely fail to capture the diversity and intensity of women’s work. In 2005, women comprised 40 per cent of our agricultural work force (National Sample Survey 2004-05). This fell to 30 per cent in 2017-18 (Periodic Labour Force Survey), even though significantly more men than women migrated to non-farm jobs. Why are women’s contributions undercounted? First, it depends on what we consider as work. If we count only paid work, rural women’s work participation rate (in both farm and non-farm work) comes to 17.5 per cent (NSS 2011-12). But adding home-based production, self-employment and declared unemployment makes it 64.8 per cent.