By Dr Fraser Sugden, IWMI Nepal
Collective farming has been often written-off as irrelevant in the 21st century – yet a new model of collectivised production has the potential to revolutionise smallholder irrigated agriculture and gender empowerment in the Gangetic plains in an era of intensifying inequalities and climate stress.
India’s Bihar state has for decades remained one of the most peripheral corners of South Asia, and deeply inequitable landlord-tenant relations have long blocked the technological and irrigation development in agriculture in this densely populated region. In Bhagwatipur of Bihar’s Madhubani district, close to 27% of farmers are tenants, renting all their land from others under sharecropping arrangements, where the landlord retains half of the harvest. A further third of households rent part of their land from others. Investments in irrigation are essential to build resilience to increasingly erratic rainfall and to extend cultivation into the dry months for food security. However, a lack of capital, marginal holdings and tenure insecurity act as a considerable constraint for tenants in accessing water, while for any investments which are made, the landlord retains half of the increase in output. In this context, male out-migration is increasingly an essential component of household livelihoods.
Women are increasingly in charge of managing the land. While this can offer avenues for gender empowerment, it can also increase their vulnerability. Deeply inequitable gender ideologies often constrain women from access to agricultural services and participation in the public sphere. With males absent, they often have a reduced bargaining power when negotiating for services such as water from groundwater markets.
Since the 1990s, a new model of collective farming has emerged in India – which is oriented to the needs of land poor women farmers. The basic concept is that farmers form a group, take a joint lease from the landlord, and cultivate the land collectively. This increases their bargaining power while allowing the sharing of investments and a pooling of knowledge and skills. Successful collectives have been set up in Bihar by local NGOs such as Pragiti Grameen Vikas Samiti (PGVS), who have mobilised 149 landless women farmer groups, out of which 62 are operating collective farms in the state.
The Madhubani based NGO, Sakhi, broke new ground by setting up fishing collectives in the 1990s and 2000s, following similar principles, empowering in the underprivileged Mallah (traditional fisher) community in this remote part of Bihar. Inspired by the success of the fishing coops and of collective farming programmes such as those by PGVS, staff from Sakhi and the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) discussed the prospect as early as 2013 of replicating the collective model and combining it with the introduction of cutting edge irrigation and land management practices. This would address both the biophysical and social-institutional factors which have blocked agricultural development in the region.
A new action research project Improving Dry Season Irrigation for Marginal and Tenant Farmers in the Eastern Gangetic Plains was subsequently developed, with financing from Australian Centre for Agricultural Research (ACIAR). Under the leadership of the University of Southern Queensland and IWMI, and with the support of the Indian Council for Agricultural Research (Patna) and Sakhi itself, the project was initiated in late 2014 and initiated its pilot farms for the winter dry season in November 2015. In Bhagwatipur, 4 farmers groups have been set up. Two mobilise existing smallholders and group them together for shared training, irrigation and marketing, and another two follow the collective model.
Group members share their views during a stakeholder engagement meeting
The success of the collectives so far have exceeded expectations. The first farm of 1.4 hectares is farmed by a group of 12 people, mostly women, the majority of whom are landless. The women signed a joint lease with a local land owner with Sakhi playing a facilitating role. They were able to negotiate a fixed rent contract which offers far greater incentives and benefits to tenants than a sharecropping contract, where landlords will always retain half. They began collecting monthly contributions to a savings fund a before the start of the winter season, and the group shared the investment in fertiliser and land preparation, before planting potatoes, wheat and mustard.
All labour has been shared. One concern by the project team was of group members not contributing labour on time or ‘shirking’, a long running critique of collective production. However, the group is cohesive, and peer pressure ensures that everyone does their bit. A constitution has been developed with rules on labour contribution, and if someone can not contribute for a particular task, they have the option of paying for a labourer to replace them, or sending another family member. In fact the group approach has made labour management a lot easier than in the past. Due to high levels of male out migration, the work burden of women has increased astronomically. Labour intensive tasks such as plantation and harvesting traditionally require some hired-in labour, and finding workers on time can be a critical constraint. A delayed plantation can result in lower productivity. Now however, with collective production, all tasks are done as a group and this ceases to be a problem. Group member Laldai Devi also noted that in the past, each farmer would have to follow up on tasks such as going to the market to buy fertiliser. Now it can be delegated to one member, giving remaining group members time to engage in other activities – a significant benefit at a time when the female work burden has risen.
Ritesh Kumar the project manager from Sakhi noted a number of difficulties at the beginning: “It was not easy to convince the farmers to take a group approach to farming. Some dropped out before the planting was initiated, but on observing the success of the farms, they re-joined the groups. Now even the groups made up of smallholders with their own land are interested in collectivising – particularly when they observe the ease at which the groups can access labour on time.”
IWMI project officer Anoj Kumar notes that the key task in the months ahead is providing irrigation: “A lot of the land being farmed by the two groups was fallow during the last dry season, but that will be transformed now”. Aakashwati Devi, one of the collective group leaders, noted how in the past, how much land was cultivated in the winter depended on how much residual monsoon moisture was left in the soil. Given the cost of irrigation, large areas would be left empty after the rice was harvested, awaiting next years’ rains.
Now the farmers are farming a contiguous plot of land rather than scattered rented holdings, and they can share the costs, irrigation becomes a lot more feasible. Santosh Mali from the Indian Council for Agricultural Research is leading the irrigation component of the research: “For the winter season, pump sets have been procured, and one will be shared between two groups. The next stage will be the installation of drip and sprinkler systems so water can be used more efficiently”. In the pre-monsoon season from April, a time when the fields of Madhubani are usually empty, the groups plan to plant vegetables. New technologies such as solar pumps will be piloted from the next season. Of course, the technological benefits of a group approach are not restricted to irrigation. With Sakhi’s support the groups were also able to experiment with zero till method of wheat cultivation and laser levelling. Such technologies which require mechanisation are not usually feasible for single farmers operating small plots of rented land, but become possible when land is pooled between families through a collective.
There is still considerable work to be done in identifying the ideal model for tenant collectives in the region. Ram Bastakoti a researcher from IWMI notes: “We have begun the monitoring of the pilot farms through regular biophysical and socio-economic data collection to test both the success of the different technical interventions in irrigation and land management, and to identify social or institutional challenges in managing the groups”. It is hoped that by the end of the project in 2018, the groups will be self-sustaining and an optimal model for upscaling can be achieved.
Meeting with farmers in Mahuyahi village on a cold winter day to discuss the formation of a second set of collectives
The success of the Spring harvest will be illustrative, as will the outputs of similar collectives being piloted in nearby Mahuyahi, in Saptari over the border in Nepal and in Cooch Behar in West Bengal. However, at a time when redistributive land reforms remain elusive and with the ever present threat of climate change, tenant collectives can offer an exciting new model for gender sensitive and resilient irrigated agriculture for India’s huge population of landless farmers in the years ahead.