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Climate affected Himalayan women look for income guarantees

Dec 01, 2013

Ever since climate change has become a reality for mountain communities in Uttarakhand, affecting agricultural output, their primary income source, women are being forced to count every paisa, writes Aditi Bishnoi.

Almora: What keeps women like Meena Bora, Rita Bora and Khasti Devi in Almora district of Uttarakhand up all night? Khasti from Silkhora village in Lamgara block, candidly reveals, “I get up at 4 am and then it’s non-stop work – there’s housework and children to be sent to school. Then my husband goes out in search of daily wage jobs and I head for our small farm. Men only plough the field, it’s women who do the rest – sowing crops like dhan or bhat dal or mandua, removing weeds (gudhai), harvesting the grain, and cutting grass for fodder. I also fetch water from a naula (natural spring) – a kilometre’s walk from home – and forage for firewood. Yet, every night I toss and turn in bed worrying about our future.”

Khasti’s friends, Gudia and Rita, nod in agreement, “Despite doing all this work we make little money. Most households can barely scrape through Rs 2,500 to Rs 4,000 a month. How will we get rations once our meagre, homegrown stocks get exhausted? If the fodder for the cattle is insufficient, what happens during winters? What if we need to get repairs done at home? A good education for children costs money, where do we get it? These questions trouble all of us.”

Ever since climate change has become a reality for mountain communities in Uttarakhand, what with variable weather patterns affecting agricultural output, their primary income source, women are being forced to count every paisa. According to Parvati Bora from Asota village in Lamgara, “Earlier we knew, come June 15, and it would rain. Today there’s no guarantee. Where traditionally, October and November were meant for cutting and storing fodder and grain for winters, this year the extended rains have caused havoc – everything is rotting in the fields. There is a major livelihood crisis here and it’s the women who are scrounging around to keep things going.”

In this scenario, government livelihood schemes like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), or the local dairy and horticultural development programmes, can help families deal with the perennial cash crunch. But the challenges are many.

Take MGNREGA, while most women are aware of it, they are reluctant to seek work for two reasons – work sites are quite far away from their homes, and payments are never come on time. Remarks Khasti, “Under MGNREGA, less than 20 days work is provided for about four months in the year and the daily wage is Rs 135. Doing labour work on private farms is more viable. It fetches us Rs 200-250 per day. Nonetheless, what is also disappointing are delayed payments.”

Ganga Devi, pradhan of Asota Gram Sabha, admits, “We had got road construction work done some months back but the payments are yet to come. Either the Junior Engineer, who does assessment of the work, is on leave or the gram sevak, with whom the pradhan has a joint account for making payment, is away.”

In a bid to enhance sustainable livelihood development and natural resource management, concerns highlighted in the 2012 Rio+20 Earth Summit, the Central Himalayan Environment Agency (CHEA), a local non-government organisation, has been working with select Van Panchayats (VPs), which are central to participatory forest management in Uttarakhand. Since 2011, it has been trying to get MGNREGA work sanctioned for 15 VPs in Lamgara with mixed results. Reveals Pankaj Tiwari of CHEA, “We have consistently tried to link VP work with MGNREGA. This can have multiple benefits for the community – it will not only augment their earnings but aid in regenerating forests, which are crucial to their existence, and make the VPs more active.”

Vijay Adhikari, Project Manager at CHEA, elaborates, “The idea is that if work like planting saplings, digging trenches or fencing can be linked with the employment scheme it would enable women to earn without having to go too far. Work plans were drawn up as per MGNREGA guidelines and approved but the real problem began at the time of giving payments.”

Here’s what happened when Munni Adhikari, sarpanch of Dhaura Van Panchayat in Lamgara, decided to involve women of her gram sabha to build a stone fence around their VP region, necessary not just to demarcate area but prevent forest fires from spreading. She narrates, “We were very happy that we would get work and assets would be created in our area. But things did not go as planned. The block officer decided to transfer the money into my joint account with the Forester, as VPs work under the Forest Department. Earlier, there had been talk of opening a separate joint account with the village development officer, which would have made life simpler for us. After the work was completed and we wanted take money out for payments the Forester he refused to sign arguing that the work had been done without the mandatory sanction of the Forest Department.” Unfortunately, this matter has not been sorted out yet though Munni has paid for the labour work with CHEA’s help and her own savings.

While Adhikari sees this experience as a valuable learning – “we now know that MGNREGA work has to be sanctioned by the block and the forest department after including it in its five-year micro-plan” – he only hopes that both departments cooperate for the benefit of the people.

Calling for greater synergy between government departments for effective implementation of development schemes on the ground is Alternative Futures (AF), a Delhi-based research and communication group. Says Aditi Kapoor, Director, AF, “After analysing policies in the context of the Uttarakhand State Action Plan on Climate Change, and learning from CHEA’s experience, we are pushing for convergence. In hill economies, forests are part of villages and it’s the gram panchayats that make the village development plan. So in order to bring forest conservation to the centrestage – the quality of the forest determines the quality of the agriculture and, consequently, quality of life – we need to ensure that this agenda is included in the village development plan. Ideally, the VPs should converge with the panchayat as a VP Forest Committee, which can get funds from the Forest Department as well as other government departments depending on the work. This move would aid in the implementation of different rural schemes for the regeneration of the VP as well as for people’s welfare.”

Apart from labour work, dairy is the other major income generator for hill women. They prefer selling milk to private dairies as they get an assured price of Rs 22; the government rate could be anything from Rs 18 to Rs 24 depending on the fat content. Also, as per Meena Bora of Asota village, “while the private vans come near our home, we have to trudge to the nearest dairy to sell milk to the state dairy.” A relatively better off Meena, who has a Jersey cow and eight goats, can sell up to 10 litres a day, while others like Khasti, for whom keeping even one cow is expensive, barely manage to spare a litre or two in the week. Of course, there are advantages to linking with the government scheme – “cattle feed and vaccination comes at a subsidised rate” – though exhaustive paper work and limited access to details are discouraging.

Ultimately, Meena effectively spells out the way in which development schemes can aid them in their quest for a better life, “Finances in most hill households are managed by women. So it is imperative that they understand and access government schemes to that end. But if rural women have to derive full benefits then the state needs to ensure that the initiatives are more women-friendly.”

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