One day, more than 20 years ago, Kunta Devi’s husband never returned home from his workplace at a brick kiln and has been untraceable since then. He seemed to have vanished into thin air, leaving his wife alone with their 3 children—I daughter and 2 sons, with the youngest one barely 2 years old. Kunta does not know if he is dead or alive. She now lives with her 2 sons and their wives and 4 grandchildren—3 grandsons and 1 granddaughter.
Kunta was born in a fairly well off farmer’s family in Alampur village. Her father had 40-50 bighas of land. She was the eldest of 3 sisters and 2 brothers, and being the eldest daughter in the family, was the apple of everyone’s eyes and pampered by all the elders. Except for her younger brother none of them had any education. But she was good at farming.
Life after marriage
Kunta got married at the age of 17 years. There were ups and downs in her new life in a new family. Her husband was illiterate and was slightly mentally challenged too. This was Kunta’s greatest problem. He would earn INR 5 per day as a labourer. Kunta learnt stitching and started stitching clothes--working from home-- to augment the family income. “Often I would ask my customers to pay me in grain instead of money. So I would manage to get not only INR 20 per month but also 10 bags of wheat—which was more than what my in-laws' family could grow on their 9 bighas of land”.
Kunta got a lot of respect from the other family members. But perhaps nobody understood her agony of living with an abnormal husband.
After the division of family property they got 4 bighas of land. Kunta was unaware that her husband had leased out this land to another party in exchange for some money. After his disappearance she was told that she would get the land back only after his return. Perhaps this first encounter with the big bad world sowed in Kunta’s mind the seeds of standing up for women’s rights.
“I was not sure about the real status of the land. Perhaps people were trying to intimidate me thinking that I was alone in this world with no one to help me out. But I did not give in and stood my ground. My husband had sown sugarcane on that land. Despite all opposition and use of force by the opposite party, I cut the sugarcane crop. The police did not help me either. But the villagers did.
Her work as a woman farmer
Till her husband was there, Kunta had done very little farming, as she was mostly involved with her stitching work and also teaching stitching to other village women. But after he was gone she had to take care of her land as well. She took up the challenge, came out of the confines of her home and became actively involved in farming. As it is, people were eyeing her land and trying to occupy it illegally. But she faced the world bravely and single handedly. Very many nights she would sleep in her fields only to protect her wheat/paddy crops. She was also smart enough to give an application in the police station against some persons stating that ‘if anything untoward happens to me, the onus would be on them’.
After some time another problem cropped up. Some villagers blocked the path in front of her house, leading to the road, saying that it did not belong to her and that she should find some other path. She told Citizen News Service (CNS): “They were trying to take advantage of my situation—I was illiterate and without any male member in the family to support me. But I was not to be cowed down. I fought and won the case after a long drawn out legal battle”.
Kunta grew wheat, paddy and grass on her small piece of land. Later when her sons were old enough to help her, she would lease other people’s fields to grow crops. “One bigha would yield around 5 quintals grain in a year, out of which I would sell some and keep the rest to feed the family”.
Now she also grows some lentils (urad) and has also planted eucalyptus and poplar trees; so cropping area has decreased. But then she is able to earn more by selling the wood of these trees—INR 50,000 at one go. ‘So I lose some and win more’.
Kunta feels that crop productivity has increased due to better farming techniques. “My knowledge about farming techniques has increased thanks to my coming in contact with organizations like the Aaroh Mahila Kisaan Manch ('Aaroh' is a campaign for rights and recognition of women farmers in Uttar Pradesh supported by Oxfam India). By attending their meetings I have come to know of many new things—availability of better seeds, timely planting of the crops, better use of fertilisers and pesticides, and dealing with crop diseases. All this has helped me become more organized.”
Kunta is the treasurer of a Kisan Club (Farmers’ Club). “We have formed small groups. Usually these clubs are for men farmers, but the clubs under Disha Organization have male as well as female members.”
Kunta believes in the power of Self-Help Groups (SHGs) and has formed one herself. “We started by taking a contribution of INR 20 per month from each woman member. Initially we would give loans of INR 500 to members in need. But our kitty has grown over the years. The bank has also helped us. We are now able to give/take loans of INR 25,000-50,000. Of course the money is always returned with interest. This has proved to be very helpful for all the members”.
Kunta has helped many women in need. One such woman was living in extreme poverty. There were many mouths to feed and very little income. “I helped her to form an SHG and taught her the dignity of labour. I told her—it is better to earn and eat rather than beg to eat. With a small loan from the SHG she helped her husband start door-to-door sale of clothes. She is much better off now. I helped another woman with a loan of INR 50,000 to set up her own business”.
Woes of women farmers
“I did not face any problems as a woman farmer—or rather I faced them headlong. Once you come out of the four walls and have the will to succeed nobody can stop you. Difficulties may be there but they are not insurmountable. If you have the determination to work hard, then all difficulties will be overcome. But this does not mean that the life of a woman farmer is easy.”
“I strongly believe that that there must be some land in the woman’s name so that she has financial stability in case her husband or children become wayward. My 4 bighas land was earlier in my name after my husband left. But when my sons got married I transferred it in their names—giving 2 bighas to each. But I want this land to be transferred in their wives’ names. I have a patta on the 3 biswa land I got from the gram samaj”.
Women’s education, marriage and family planning
“Education is very important for women. But equally important is to be fearless and have that inner fire to learn and do new things. I tried to educate my children as much as my circumstances could permit. In fact my daughter has studied till Class 12 and is more literate than my sons. They wanted to study more but my financial condition did not allow me to do so. For me it was better that my sons learn some trade and help me out”.
“I am totally against early marriage. Whether it is a son or a daughter, they should not be married till they are 21 years of age, become economically independent and are mentally mature too. At times, incidents of sexual violence, which are so prevalent today, compel parents to marry off their daughters early on. But early marriage is a no win situation for all—parents as well as the person getting married. I married all my children when they were 21-22 years old.”
“A small family is a happy family. I had 3 children then I had got myself sterilized against the wishes of my husband and other family members. But I think that even 3 children are just too many. There is no point in having a long line of kids with no means to feed, educate and bring them up properly. I got both my daughters-in-law sterilized, once they had 2 kids each-- much against my sons’ wishes”.
On women empowerment
“The life of a woman is not easy. Many of them are not allowed to step out of their homes. They are socially repressed and quietly tolerate a lot of injustices. But I try to help such women and ask them not to succumb to societal pressures. Husbands and other family members should not deter us in our path of empowerment. Women will have to step out of their homes; meet and talk to more people for improving their understanding and for getting new ideas”.
“I tell even my daughters-in-law not to get cowed down by others, or by me, but chalk out a future for themselves. SHGs have gone a long way in empowering women by making them financially independent”.
“It is important to be fearless and have that inner fire to learn and do new things. I am illiterate, yet I have been to Nainital, Lucknow, Jalandhar, and Dehradun to attend training programmes and workshops. We have to get rid of our internal imaginary fears and face the world boldly”.
Then and now
“Today I am much better off. My standard of living has improved and so has my self-confidence. I now own a buffalo and a cow. I sell some of the milk and the rest is used in the family. Today I am an established woman farmer. I do all the work—cutting the fodder, milking the cows, and working in the fields.
I am a member of the gayatri parivar (a religious order with modernistic views) and have imbibed good learnings from their discourses. From them I have learnt not to fear challenges but face life fearlessly as it comes.”
“Speak your world. Women should not remain quiet out of fear and false sense of pride. They should not be scared of the outside world but face it with confidence and fight for their rights. One must neither suppress others nor get suppressed by them. Even if you have no one to support you, there is no point in lying low. So rise to the occasion and fight it out. If you walk the straight path you will never be defeated.”
(This article is part of a soon-to-be-released Oxfam India publication: "The Leader Lies In You - Success stories of women farmers in UP")