The Changing Role of Women in Agrarian Economy

Agriculture, Women, India, Economy

A Research Article on

"The Changing Role of Women in Agrarian Economy"


Agriculture continues to be the major employer of India’s workforce. Of this workforce, mainly small and marginal workers are women. Women are placed in much precarious position in Indian society. She has to wage her many battles against the male domination. Woman has a significant role to play in the emancipation of the society in general and the women themselves in particular. She has been considered the backbone of agricultural workforce. Over the years, there is a gradual realization of the key role of women in agricultural development and their contribution in the field of agriculture. The extent of participation of women in agriculture is not fully investigated. However, an attempt is made in this research article through available literature & studies to understand the changing role of women in Indian agriculture.

Key Words:

Agriculture, Women, India, Economy


Our country predominantly has an agrarian economy: 70% of the population is rural; of those households, 60% engage in agriculture as their main source of income. According to the 1991 Census, there are 74 lakh agriculture workers in India. Of all agriculture workers, 99.4% work in the informal sector. Thus, the sheer numbers and proportion of India’s workforce dependent on agriculture labour and small scale agriculture demands attention.

According to Swaminathan (1985) some historians believe that it was women who first demonstrated crop plant and there by initiated the art and science of farming. Women constitute half of the country’s population. In Indian agriculture, women continue to share a number of farm operations with men. According to 1991 census, 38.99% of women were working as cultivators, and 47.94% are working as agricultural labourers. Women contribute directly to almost all agriculture labour without being the direct beneficiaries of agricultural inputs, training or capital. Women wages are generally lower than men’s wages and the operations done by women are down with practically no mechanical aids and are time bound. Extent of participation of women in agriculture is not fully investigated.

Women have played and continue to play key role in the conservation of basic life support systems such as land, water, flora and fauna. They have protected the health of the soil through organic recycling and promoted crop security through the maintenance of varietal diversity and genetic resistance. Therefore, without the total intellectual and physical participation of women, it will not be possible to popularize alternative systems of land management to shifting cultivation, arrest gene and soil erosion, and promote the care of the soil and the health of economic plants and farm animals (Prasad & Singh 1992).

Beyond the conventional market-oriented narrower definition of ‘productive workers’, almost all women in rural India today can be considered as ‘farmers’ in some sense, working as agricultural labour, unpaid workers in the family farm enterprise, or combination of the two. Moreover, several farm activities traditionally carried out by men are also being undertaken by women as men are pulled away into higher paying employment. Thus, Rural India is witnessing a process which could be described as Feminization of Agriculture.

Indian Agriculture:

India has a large and diverse agriculture and is one of the world’s leading producers. It is also a major consumer, with an expanding population to feed. For this reason and because of its agricultural and trade policy, its presence on the world market has been modest in relation to the size of its agriculture. The Annual Report 2009-2010 pertaining to this sector released by the Ministry of Agriculture has revealed that the total geographical area of India is 328.7 million hectares and about 140.3 million hectares of this is net sown area with 193.7 million hectares found to be the gross cropped area. It has the second largest arable area in the world after the United States. OECD in its Agricultural policy monitoring report notes that Indian agriculture is dominated by a large number of small scale holdings that are predominantly owner occupied.

The Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in India expanded 7.8 percent in the first quarter of 2011 over the same quarter, previous year. The contribution of Agriculture to our GDP is on a downtrend and presently it contributes just 16.1% to it.

The landless and poor farmers leased in land to attain a cultivator status and took consumption loans to supplement their income. Landowners could then get high returns by leasing out land and usury. They had little incentive to invest in productive enterprises. They did cultivate land employing farm labour. These farms were characterized by small outlays and low level of technology. Farm labour was tied to these farms through debt bondages, oppressive caste relations and lack of opportunities elsewhere. As Utsa Patnaik (1990) clearly states this was not capitalist farming.


India ranks second worldwide in farm output. Agriculture and allied sectors like forestry, logging and fishing accounted for 15.7% of the GDP in 2009–10, employed 52.1% of the total workforce, and despite a steady decline of its share in the GDP, is still the largest economic sector and a significant piece of the overall socio-economic development of India. Indian agriculture is at crossroads and one of the major challenges is to reverse deceleration in agricultural growth.

When we look at their distribution in the different sectors of the economy, there are, however significant variations. The direct contribution of the agriculture sector to national economy is reflected by its share in total GDP, its foreign exchange earnings, and its role in supplying savings and labor to other sectors.

Despite a steady decline of its share in the GDP, agriculture is still an important sector and plays a significant role in the overall socio-economic development of the country. Therefore, fostering rapid, sustained and broad-based growth in agriculture remains key priority for the government. Consistent with the trends of economic development at national level, role of agricultural sector in the state economies is also changing rapidly.

Agriculture in India is constitutionally the responsibility of the states rather than the central government. The central government’s role is in formulating policy and providing financial resources for agriculture to the states. Most of the poor who have land are small and marginal farmers; 50% of these are women. Due to the lack of capital to increase their own land holdings or to individually finance the inputs for a larger area of cultivation, they sharecrop land from larger farmers. The large farmer pays for the inputs and provides the land; the labourer undertakes cultivation.

Gender in Agriculture:

The term ‘gender’ describes the socially determined attributes of men and women. This includes male and female roles in economic and non-economic functions, differential access to and control over resources and differences in knowledge and skills. The term ‘sex’ denotes the physical and biological differences between males and females. The sexual division of labour for both agricultural and domestic tasks varies greatly by community and ethnic group and it is difficult to make generalizations about the roles that men, women and children play.

Table 1. Women Workers in Agriculture (Million)
Agriculture1981 Census1991 Census2001 Census
Agriculture Labourers20.828.243

The Indian National Policy for the Empowerment of Women (2001) has stressed the need to mainstream “Gender Perspectives” in the process of development and envisages women specific interventions, where there are currently gaps in policies and programmes. The National Agricultural Policy of India (2000) has highlighted the need for incorporating gender issues into the agricultural development agenda to provide recognition of women’s role as farmers and producers of crops and livestock, users of technology, active agents in marketing, processing and storage of food and agricultural labourers.

Changes in gender composition of the agricultural workforce during this period have been accompanied by changes in the structure of employment. Between 1993-94 and 1999-2000 there was an increase in the casualization of the agricultural workforce, from 39.9 per cent to 42.7 per cent for women compared to 37.7 per cent to 39.6 per cent for men. However, between 1999-2000 and 2004-05, there was a reversal-casual work declined and self-employment increased (Table-2).

Women have played and continue to play a key role in the conservation of basic life support system such as land, water, flora and fauna. Though, the role of Indian women, as it has evolved been experienced and understood over 4,000 years, has been intertwined with the history of the country which is primarily one of repeated imposition of an alien ethos on its culture necessitating a frequent restructuring of social systems and individual identity.

Rural Women form the most important productive work force in the economy of majority of the developing nations including India. Agriculture, the single largest production endeavour in India, contributing about 18% of GDP, is increasingly becoming a Female Activity. Agriculture sector employs 4/5th of all economically active women in the country. 48% of India’s self-employed farmers are women. There are 75 million women engaged in dairying as against 15 million men and 20 million in animal husbandry as compared to 1.5 million men.

In a society where men have controlled knowledge and have interpreted the classical texts, it does not surprising, as Ruth (1980) says that women have lost the power of explaining and defining for themselves the realities of their own selves. The Psychological perspective views her (women) as passive, masochistic and considered mandatory for fulfillment and identity formation. Kakar (1988) in his paper, ‘Feminine Identity in India’ and Parikh and Garg (1989) in their book, ‘Indian Women: An inner Dialogue’ look at women’s development and transition through the various stages of her life cycle from psychoanalytic perspective.

In the Indian Himalayas a pair of bullocks works 1064 hours, a man 1212 hours and a woman 3485 hours in a year on a once hectare farm, a figure that illustrates women’s significant contribution to agricultural production (Shiva FAO, 1991). This analysis further indicates that caste-class dimensions have their profound influence on the women of both the upper and lower classes. The upper class women, despite their financial breakdown do not come forward in search of employment and women from the lower castes, though their economic position is comparatively better than others, work and supplement the family income.

This phenomenon confirms the view that the women of lower castes are over burdened with the household drudgery, taking care of children and cooking. Thus, women are not only over burdened but are subjected to exploitation at the work spot and at home for a number of hours. These exploitative feudal characteristics are explicitly visible in all the working class families in the agrarian societies. It i s not only women who are subjected to exploitation but children are also being exploited. They are employed either to rear cattle or in the weeding job. Thus they live at the mercy of their masters at the tender school-going age

Agriculture which is seasonal in nature also conditions the availability of employment. Further, women in this field are mainly engaged in only some works like transplanting, weeding, and harvesting. Concentration of vast number of women in this field also reduced the bargaining capacity of women labourers. It also affected the wage pattern. Migration of agricultural labourers to fertile regions has also had i t s adverse effect on the wage pattern.

Gender in Agriculture:

The current agriculture marketing system in India poses many barriers for women’s profitable participation. It is difficult for women to enter the mainstream market; traders control the pricing of sales and purchases and producers, especially small and marginal farmers and women are reduced to the role of price-takers. Marginal farmers collectively could gain more leverage for bargaining, increasing the returns on their agriculture products. For this to happen, this group must be organized for better bargaining power in the market.

The challenges faced by women-headed agricultural households are particularly complex. Therefore, they require more support and time to once again secure their livelihoods. Traditionally, these women survive through a mix of collecting forest produce, agriculture, dairying and/or poultry rising. When displaced, at best they receive only land; resettlement schemes fail to take into account their multifaceted survival strategy. Even the land itself is often less fertile, rocky, unleveled and far from the forests on which they depend. The land is not ready for immediate cultivation, yet women and their families have no other supplementary source of income. How can they survive the resettlement transition period when they are completely severed from their livelihood?

Although women constitute two-thirds of the agriculture work force, they own less than one-tenth of the agricultural lands. Women must be allowed to own land. Through soil regeneration activities and wasteland development, women can build productive assets while obtaining supplementary employment. Landless women need to be organized into cooperatives to avail of existing government schemes for land development and the creation of fodder farms and pasture land.

Land allotted in the women’s own name or in the name of her women’s cooperative is used more effectively. Such groups can construct water harvesting, storage and irrigation structures to revive wasteland. The programme affect is two-fold: first from an environmental perspective it regenerates natural resources, thus reducing soil erosion and desertification. Second, it provides a source of supplementary income, fodder, food-grains and vegetables for the women and is a resource they can hand down to the next generation. Women Cooperative is classical example: where women developed community wasteland, reaped a harvest three times that of normal production, and thereby ensured a sustained livelihood.

Furthermore, in order to keep the rural poor abreast of the best and most appropriate practices, they must be actively engaged in research and development. Currently agriculture research is carried out predominantly in unincorporated research centers and fails to reach out to farmers or to the actual context in which they work. Agriculture research must reach the field. First, research teams should include farmers, particularly women farmers, in the process from the very beginning.

Women must be organized to gain leverage in their relationship with the government, landowners and traders. Women farmers are generally invisible to the public agriculture agenda. Despite the fact that women contribute more labour to Indian agriculture than men, land remains almost solely in male hands.

Agriculture which is seasonal in nature also conditions the availability of employment. Further, women in this field are mainly engaged in only some works like transplanting, weeding, and harvesting. Concentration of vast number of women in this field also reduced the bargaining capacity of women labourers. It also affected the wage pattern. Migration of agricultural labourers to fertile regions has also had i t s adverse effect on the wage pattern.


In wake of the green revolution, the rapid modernization of agricultural production brought about changes in the economic and social position of poor rural Indian Women. The more investigation in the area of Indian agriculture may be a valuable contribution to the understanding of contemporary social changes in rural society’s undergone rapid modernization, particularly with regard to the role and status of poor rural women, which is often overlooked.

Perhaps, ironically, it is because women have so many responsibilities that they have been over-looked by agriculturalists and policy makers – it has been more convenient to label men as farmers and women as child raisers and cooks.  In truth, women are involved in all aspects of agriculture, from crop selection to land preparation, to seed selection, planting, weeding, pest control, harvesting, crop storage, handling, marketing, and processing.  Whatever the reason for this neglect, the importance of developing farming technologies relevant to women has only recently been recognized.

Despite the advancements in agricultural sector, it is important to understand that what could be the major issues to address in contemporary agrarian economy. Agriculture impacts women’s livelihood and income security, and also has secondary impacts in terms of increased violence against women. Secondly, as globalization shifts agriculture to capital intensive, chemical intensive systems, women bear disproportionate cots of both displacement and health hazards. And thirdly, Women carry the heavier work burden in food production, and because of gender discrimination get lower returns for their work.


  • Nishant Saxena (HR Consultant)
  • Dr. Jagdish Vyas (Professor)