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In many villages, the support system for single, adult women is not very effective. Women who remain single, either because their husband died or were abandoned by their family, typically own no land or just small rain-fed land parcels. Unable to invest on their land and without capacity to manage their farms, they end up doing low-skilled tasks in farming and cattle rearing.

Tamil Nadu Women’s Collective, a network of 35 non-profit organisations headed by women in Tamil Nadu, has been working for the empowerment of rural and marginalized communities. Started in 1994, the collective is a registered society and is spread over some 20 districts in Tamil Nadu.

The collective conducted a study in 13 villages to understand the status of single women, widows and landless women farmers in these villages. This was done with the help of Women Farmers Sangams that were already established and functioning in the villages.  The sangam studied the availability of unutilized and uncultivable lands in that area.  The details of the study were discussed at the sangam meetings on how to engage landless women in agriculture by putting fallow land to use. During the discussion, the idea of collective farming emerged.

After a series of discussions, certain criteria were identified for promoting collective farming initiative. The farmers’ collective should have maximum 10 members consisting of women who are either widows, landless or single.

The group should decide on the size of the land to be farmed under collective farming and lease the land for three years. One-third of the crop yield should be shared with the land owner. The members should agree to grow local food crops of daily use such as grains, vegetables and pulses. The group should maintain a bank account, records and registers bringing transparency in accounting.

Presently, collective farming is being promoted with 15 farmer groups in 13 villages of Tuticoin, Virudhunagar, Madurai, Salem, Thiruvannamalai, Vellore, Kancheepuram, and Tiruvallur districts in Tamil Nadu.

Training programmes were organized for the farmers’ collective on participatory planning, decision-making, crop choice, and method of farming with the help of eminent resource persons like late G Nammalvar.

The training programmes help women learn some practical skills like preparation of different bio-inputs. With continuous support and guidance, the women farmer collectives have gained necessary skills on agriculture, improved their decision making capacities and leadership qualities. The Tamil Nadu Women’s Collective supports each farmers’ collective with an amount of Rs 10,000 as seed money for meeting expenses like buying seeds, bio inputs etc.

The allotment of work is decided in the weekly meetings during the cultivation period.  All the farm works are shared equally by all members using a revolving system of labour so that all the members are engaged in all types of farm activities.

As the focus of collective farming is primarily on meeting family food needs, right now, they are not marketing their produce. The produce from collective farming provides food for the family for at least 15 days in a month.  Weed harvested in collective farms are also being used as fodder for livestock.

The farmers collectives are getting support from their neighbouring landholding farmers. The landed farmers help and encourage these women by providing raw materials such as cow dung and cow urine which are required for bio input preparation. This relationship has also led to a process of learning and sharing from these landless women farmers to the landholding farmers.

There are challenges too, like delays in monsoon and frequent power cuts. The soil of collective land is low quality and almost dead. It needs more organic inputs to regenerate. Not disheartened by the challenges, the women discuss alternative farming methods to overcome them.

They are confident that continuous application of bio-inputs will help in improving soil health which will result in better incomes in future. Considering the high cost involved in purchase of seeds for their farming activities, the women’s groups are planning to develop seed producers in their group and establish a seed bank in their village. “We are happy to have a piece of land where we are able cultivate and gain experience in organic farming methods”, says a woman farmer.

(For more details, contact Ponnuthayee, Tamil Nadu Women’s Collective, No. 79, Senbaga Vinayagar Koil Street, Keezha Bazaar, 7th Ward, Vasudevanallur, Sivagiritaluk, Virudhunagar district – 627 758. Ph: 94448-32021)

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