A woman in a colorful patterned sari, rich with bright oranges and blues and golds. She is holding vegetables she has grown on her farm, and is surrounded by bright greenery.
Kamla at her farm. Photo courtesy of Aliya Bashir.

A Farm of One’s Own

Meet the women creating new life from arid land in India.

It was a day of joy and relief for Kamla: Her daughter was getting married—and the night before, it had rained.

Far from a bad omen, the downpour had been ever welcome. Kamla is a farmer, whose livelihood is directly dependent on the land she cultivates, the land that gives her and her family a variety of vegetable crops to eat and to sell, like beetroots, tomatoes, beans, and chilis. For much of the year, however, the weather works against her: She and her family live in Khajraha Khurd, a village in the Jhansi district of Bundelkhand, Uttar Pradesh—an otherwise drought-prone region in India’s most populous state.

In Kamla’s home that morning, preparations were being made for the wedding. Women were singing folk songs and cleaning the freshly picked vegetables from her farm to prepare meals for their guests. Young girls were making roti on the earthen stove burning with a wood fire. Other children were jumping in muddy puddles as cows grazed in a nearby pasture. The entire scene resembled a Satyajit Ray film, portraying their small, Indian village as a mosaic of intertwining agrarian lives.

Kamla was overjoyed. Because of the savings she’d earned through farming, she would be able to gift her daughter two heavy, embroidered sarees with matching glass bangles, heels, and bindis as a wedding gift. She wouldn’t have been able to afford them otherwise. “When I got married, nobody asked me about my choices,” she says. “But today, at my daughter’s wedding, I have made sure her choices are taken care of.”

Farming is a path that has opened many new doors for Kamla, one she first chose to walk in 2020, when the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic led to the imposition of a country-wide lockdown. In cities across India, migrants who worked as daily wagers—Kamla included—suffered the most, as their jobs were eliminated overnight. Their very livelihoods came to a complete standstill, and few to none could meet their personal needs, let alone those of their families.

At the time, Kamla was working as a construction worker on a site in New Delhi. After the lockdown was announced, she stuffed her things into a sack and started the journey back to Bundelkhand—where she was born and raised—along with her three children and husband. Without employment, the couple had to exhaust all their savings simply to return home.

Once in Bundelkhand, Kamla was desperate for work. She was not alone: During the pandemic, Uttar Pradesh experienced one of the largest reverse migrations in India. More than 3 million workers returned to their villages from the cities, many of them living below the poverty line—and for women freshly out of work like Kamla, their options were especially limited.

Even before the pandemic, women had been at a disadvantage. According to the dozens of people that I spoke to for this piece, women in India often work more than men, keeping households and raising children in addition to some form of employment outside of their homes—all while being paid less than their male counterparts. In cities, women frequently worked as concrete mixers, diggers, stone breakers, and brick haulers; climbed unstable scaffolding carrying bricks; and were exposed to pollution at their work sites—as were their children, who they often brought to work because there was no one at home to provide childcare. Despite these women doing equal (if not more) work, the people I spoke to estimated that a male laborer usually makes up to 500 Indian rupees (US$7) a day at a construction site, while a woman only makes up to 300 (US$4).

This disparity in pay and promotions, along with regular sexual harassment, a lack of maternity leave, and the absence of toilets, are all an everyday reality for most working women in the informal and unorganized labor market in India. These factors are predominantly driven by patriarchal norms, as well as social, economic, and cultural restrictions, and often feel impossible to avoid. Overworked and underpaid—and now facing a global pandemic—many women didn’t want to migrate to new cities where they would again be forced to compromise on the health, hygiene, and education of their children, or to continue living without community support. With a pandemic at their doorstep, there had to be another option.  

Luckily, at home in Bundelkhand, women like Kamla had access to a resource they did not have in the cities: land. Many of their husbands were in possession of inherited land once ripe for farming, but long abandoned in the past due to drought.

Historically, farming in the region had been a challenge. For the past several decades, Bundelkhand has faced a crisis due to uncertain rainfall patterns, causing severe crop damage and sometimes total crop failure. If they could revive this land, however, it could be a tremendous opportunity for financial security. Putting their heads together, these women regularly met three or four times a week to share their household and financial troubles, brainstorm ways to address their issues, and identify how to achieve their financial goals. Farming quickly became one of them.

Kamla expressed an early interest in farming for two reasons: She wanted a sustainable source of food for her family, and she wanted a fair way to earn a livelihood. This is why, in 2022, she decided to join the Basant Mahila Farmer Producer Organisation, a collective of about 3,000 women entrepreneurs across forty villages in the Jhansi, Mahoba, and Lalitpur districts in Bundelkhand. The program was founded in 2020 by ActionAid India through Work4Progress India to create and promote more livelihood opportunities for women, especially those pushed to migration due to the effects of climate change.

The majority of farming-related policies and programs in Uttar Pradesh are not women-friendly, but Basant aimed (and aims) to change that. Rajendra Nigam, a district coordinator at Basant, tells me, “We trained women like Kamla to produce organic seeds, and they successfully produced seeds of wheat, groundnut, pea, and urad (black gram), which are always in high demand in the region.” Through Basant, Kamla learned how to grow her own organic vegetables and fruits, how to prepare cow manure as organic fertilizer, and how to grow multiple crops on the same land in a year. Soon after completing her training, Kamla also received about eleven types of vegetable seeds and some farming tools, spray machines, drums with which to prepare fertilizers, and material for farm fencing to continue farming independently.

“I came back from Delhi tired and empty handed,” says Kamla, who in the past often hid her face in front of local village elders as a mark of modesty and respect when in the presence of men. Now, she fearlessly calls herself “an organic woman” who has successfully and continuously grown vegetables and grains on her 1.5 acres of land since 2022.

It wouldn’t be the only skillset that Kamla gained from Basant. The program isn’t just about teaching women the skills necessary to begin farming, but also to give them the financial literacy and independence necessary to make financial decisions of their own—in India, a realm traditionally dominated by men. To that end, Basant has worked as an intermediary between the government and farmers to educate the latter on various insurance protection plans and credit opportunities specific to their work. These local solutions, according to Khalid Chaudhry, an associate director at ActionAid India, contribute to helping women reach financial independence, some for the first time. And Kamla is just one of many women benefiting from it.

Deva, an older Indian woman, is crouched down in a field of sprouting green leaves. She is wearing a navy blue sari with a colorful geometric pattern of greens and yellows and oranges; round glasses; and red bangles on her wrists.
Deva. Photo courtesy of Aliya Bashir.

“I didn’t know how to grow home-grown food. It felt like a dream,” says Deva, a mother of three sons, who recently began farming a “nutrition garden” on her 1.5 acres of land. She decided to join Basant after she’d seen some women in her community benefit from it, and was particularly interested in learning about the cultivation of various vegetables and fruits, what plants to grow in what season, how to prepare manure and a compost pit, and how to save her produce from pests. Before long, she could do all of this herself.

“Now, I teach women to prepare organic manure, pesticides, and fertilizers at a very low cost by using the material usually available on our farms,” she says.

Prior to returning to Bundelkhand in 2020, Deva worked for three years in the brick kilns of Delhi and Uttar Pradesh. Now, she grows organic beetroot, bottle gourd, tomato, fenugreek, cucumber, brinjal, and other vegetables, and is able to sell them at fair prices compared to commercial farming. In addition, she hopes to begin selling her organic manure in the market to better maintain the soil health of other local farms.

Equipped with so much new agricultural knowledge, Deva has become an advocate for nutritious food in her village, and takes great care with her family’s diet, always feeding them a variety of fruits and vegetables. In 2022, she was also able to purchase six chicks and four goats from her earnings.

“Earlier, we would always have less availability of food. But now, we are not only having chemical-free food, but also eggs and chicken and dairy at home,” she says.

Her care has proven profitable: In a recent harvest, Deva earned a profit of 66,600 Indian rupees (~US$800) by cultivating a wide variety of vegetables and fruits in her garden. When she was working as a manual laborer, she wasn’t able to save anything—but now, she hopes to give her grandchildren the good education she couldn’t afford to give to her children before them.

Kamla has similar hopes and dreams. Although she couldn’t afford her elder daughters’ education due to limited financial resources, she is determined to pay for her youngest daughter’s schooling, and farming has allowed her to save more money than she could have ever imagined when she was working in construction.  “In Delhi, we would work for almost ten hours a day and would earn 20,000 Indian rupees (~US$240) per month,” Kamla says. “The place is very costly to live in—around 15,000 (~US$180) would go into rent and other expenses. Saving a few thousand rupees was difficult.” In comparison, in the past three months, Kamla has sold 30,000 Indian rupees (~US$365) worth of eggplants alone; the cost for cultivation for which was just 5,000 rupees (~US$60).

“We are expecting the eggplant production to increase three times in this season,” she adds.

Over the last few months, Kamla has sold 80,000 Indian rupees (~US$965) worth of produce through multiple vegetable cultivation, growing high yield vegetables like beetroot, bottle gourd, chickpeas, and cucumber simultaneously. The overall expenses were 13,000 Indian rupees (~US$155), which meant a profit of 67,000 Indian rupees (~US$810), much of which she has been able to put into savings.

“I grew up with the thought that a woman can’t have big dreams,” she says—but still, she’d always refused to give up on them. Customs and tradition taught her that only men have the capability to manage food security in a rural Indian family, and she’s already proven this doesn’t need to be the case. “My family is very happy with my farming work,” she says. “When I am busy on the farm, my husband not only takes care of the children, but also helps in preparing meals.”

This domestic bliss feels prescient. One of the founding members of the Balant program, Laxmi Devi, chose its fitting name upon its founding: In Hindi, basant means happiness and prosperity. With their new skillset, Kamla—and Deva, and so many other women—seem to have found just that.