Mumbai: The lockdown enforced to limit the spread of COVID-19 has led to reduced income and limited employment opportunities for women farmers in Maharashtra, a recent study has found.

The study, conducted by Mahila Kisan Adhikar Manch (MAKAAM), an informal forum working to secure the rights of women farmers in India, interviewed 946 single women farmers across 17 districts in Maharashtra between May 17 and May 25, 2020. Here are the key findings:

  • 30% farmers have unharvested produce, 24% could not sell their produce. Of those who could sell the produce, 74% sold to private vendors at lower rates
  • 45% of the farmers did not get any work during the lockdown. Most of those who did, received less than Rs 3,000 as wages in the preceding two months
  • Outreach of the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana is poor because of the low beneficiary coverage. Also, cash in banks received as direct-benefit transfer (DBT) did not reach women due to the lockdown.

Reduced incomes

Among the 711 farmers actively engaged in cultivation, 30% said that they had unharvested produce in their farms. Of these, most farmers cited unavailability of labour (55%), increased wage rates (46%) and lack of money to pay the labourers (40%).

A quarter of the farmers said that they could not sell their produce. Of these, most farmers cited problems in transportation (46%) such as closure of public transport and lack of vehicles, increased cost of transportation (45%), and a fall in prices offered for the produce (43%).

Nearly 74% of women farmers who sold their produce said they had sold it to private vendors at lower rates as opposed to government markets. Of these, 74% said they did so because they needed the payment immediately.

During the lockdown, the crops were sold at much lower prices than in the previous season or the recommended minimum selling prices. Jowar was sold at a difference of Rs 373/quintal on average; vegetables with the largest difference margin of Rs 1,929/quintal.

Decline in employment opportunities

Of the 592 respondents who engage in wage labour, 45% said they had not been able to find any work. Of these, most (74%) cited reduced availability of work due to the lockdown (74%), while more than half (52%) said landowners did the work by themselves.

Among those who did find work, 95% said they had earned less than Rs 3,000 in the two months of the lockdown until May 17.

Cash in banks, none in hand

On March 26, the finance minister announced the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana, to help the “poorest of the poor, with food and money in hands”. Under the scheme, a slew of cash transfers and other measures were announced:

  • Rs 500 per month for three months for women Jan Dhan account holders
  • Rs 1,000 pensions/ex-gratia for poor widows, senior citizens and the disabled
  • Front loading of Rs 2,000 under the PM-KISAN Yojana
  • Free gas cylinders for three months under the Ujjwala Yojana

These measures did not effectively benefit women farmers in Maharashtra because of low beneficiary coverage and the women’s inability to withdraw the money from their accounts due to the lockdown, the study found. (Read our story on how the Jan Dhan programme can be effectively utilised post-COVID here).

Of the women surveyed, 55% said they did not have a Jan Dhan account and 67% said they were not listed as beneficiaries under the Ujjwala Yojana. More than nine in 10 respondents were widows, while most others were single; yet 60% said they had not received the pensions/ex-gratia amount of Rs 1,000.

The PM-KISAN Yojana is limited to land-owning farmers. Among the 689 respondents who own land, 57% said they were not beneficiaries under the scheme.

A third of the women who did receive the benefits (619) said they could not withdraw the amount, while 18% said they had to pay extra for transport and 19% had to pay the bank agent extra money to bring the money to the village.

With no cash in hand, these farmers are also struggling to repay loans, they said. Of the 352 women who had taken loans last year, 36% have not been able to repay while another 36% have paid partially.

Uncertain future

In last year’s kharif (monsoon sowing) season, the women farmers had incurred losses ranging from Rs 1,220 per acre for jowar to Rs 2,549 per acre for soya bean, leaving them with less cash in hand and reducing their ability to invest in this year’s kharif crop.

These women will also find it difficult to find work in the upcoming season as landowners may not have money to pay labourers, the wage rates may decrease and going outside villages may not be possible.

The Centre has allocated an additional Rs 40,000 crore to the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS). Only 30% of 106 women who demanded work during the lockdown got any MGNREGS work.

While 63% of all women surveyed did not have a job card, 76% said that they do not know how to demand work under the scheme.