Whenever we talk of farmers, we think of men. Usually we overlook the fact that women play a vital role in the whole agricultural process. Even in setting up of the Water User’s Association (WUA)s or ‘Pani Panchayats’ as part of Participatory Irrigation Management system, women are ignored.
The National Water Policy, 1987, emphasised the participation of farmers in different aspects of managing irrigation systems, principally in water distribution and the collection of water rates. The idea was to empower the farmers to carry out their work as a democratic decentralisation process.
WUAs are formed to maintain the irrigation system, receive and distribute water, collect or supervise the collection of taxes. However, only landowners, who are mostly comprised of men are members of the WUA. Very few women actually own land and even fewer are members of the WUA.
At a recently concluded session on “Revitalising India’s Public irrigation system” as part of the Annual Partners’ Meeting of the IWMI-Tata Policy Research Program at the Institute of Rural Management in Anand, Gujarat, this pertinent issue was discussed.
Dr Kota Tirupataiah, Director General of WALAMTARI (Water and Land Management Training and Research Institute) of Andhra Pradesh reiterated the importance of including women in the WUAs. “In Andhra Pradesh, hardly one percent of women own land though most of the agricultural operation is carried out by women like weeding, protection of crops and harvesting. But they have no role in pertinent decision making issues like choice of crops, ownership of land, receiving of water and finances and as members of the WUA,” he says.
In fact, in states like Nagaland, tribal women are actually the custodians of seeds. In each home, a woman "usually keeps the seeds and the different crop selection is mainly done by her. Efforts are on to sensitize women farmers to promote crop diversity and revive the traditional indigenous seeds, which are suitable for the local soil.
He adds, “I am arguing for a place for women in the WUAs similar to forest protection committees. Two members from a family can be included. Like in Madhya Pradesh, there is a provision for dual membership where women can be included.”
He feels that inclusion of women will give them more visibility and confidence to voice their concerns. “It will make a difference to the system maintenance work. In the upkeep of the system, the quality will definitely improve.” It is also likely that when women are involved, they will take up more water-saving mechanisms in the field and any activity that would reduce their workload. In fact, many quarrels can also be settled by participatory methods.
However, more than increasing the numbers of women in WUAs and giving them visibility by changing provisions of the Act, the issue should be seen in a broader perspective by creating an environment for more equity. We need to change the whole patriarchal world view around agricultural activities instead of just increasing the number of women. This is an issue that need to be debated and appropriate action taken.
The writer is a member of the Forum of Environment Journalists in India (FEJI).
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