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Women rising: From ploughing the land to working the law

May 16, 2011

Land leased out to women for agriculture in the south Indian state of Andhra Pradesh has transformed their capacities and participation. The experience has numerous lessons for transformative policy and practice on land rights in the country.

For any rural household in Andhra Pradesh, land is probably mother of life itself. So also it is for Kamalamma, Satyamma, Papamma and others who hail from Andol Mandal of Medak district in Andhra Pradesh. As part of village level women’s collectives or Sanghams, and leaders of a mandal level federation (Swashakti Mahila Sangham) facilitated by APMSS (Andhra Pradesh Mahila Samata Society), these women, mostly belonging to Scheduled Castes and Tribes (SC/ST),  have engaged in discourse and action on land issues for well over a decade.

The Sanghams formed by the APMSS were different from the typical self help groups; they found their collective strength in addressing issues of basic rights and women’s rights. They recognised the need for economic empowerment and sought  information regarding access to land, credit and other resources for livelihoods. In response, APMSS provided funds for small Economic Development Programmes including horticulture and vegetable vending. In 1997, six villages leased land by pooling their Sangham funds and savings. They opted for dry-irrigated crops like jowar, ragi and groundnut. After two seasons of kharif and rabi crops, they realised that it was a viable option. It also gave them a new found status as farmers. This inspired other Sanghams to come forward.

sangham women

In 2000, APMSS in collaboration with UNDP initiated the five year Samatha Dharani (Sustainable Dryland Agriculture Programme by Mahila Sanghams) project with an aim to ensure women’s access to productive resources, bring drylands into cultivation, ensure household food security and meet the information needs of women farmers.

Under the project, 500 Sanghams from 5 districts were provided a Micro Capital Assistance (MCA) of Rs.35,000/- to be used as a revolving fund for collective agriculture and allied activities. Active Sanghams that had registered themselves and opened bank accounts were selected.

Along with the fund, a number of farm implements like sickles, ploughs, sprayers, weeders and cultivators were distributed to each Sangham. Larger equipment like multi crop threshers, and maize shellers were given to clusters of 5 villages, so these would be used in rotation. The women negotiated for leasing of land in their name. With knowledge and skills gained through training inputs in soil testing, crop selection, soil and water conservation, non-pesticide management, dryland farming, inter-cropping, vermi-composting etc. they grew into confident farmers.

Video:Mysamma talks about the initiative

Over 5 years of the project and beyond, there has been continuous learning and experience; it was always the women choosing their path for themselves with inputs from APMSS, experts and institutions. 

Samatha Dharani is path breaking in that it has integrated women’s strategic gender interests – building capacities and leveraging the power of women to transform not just themselves but their families and communities; providing them opportunities to contribute to and influence action and policy.


Results were mixed, given that the project was implemented during the longest dry spell in recent history of the state. While Sanghams in well irrigated areas experienced high profits, repeated crop loss was recorded in dry lands and rainfed areas. Midway through the project, the UNDP came forward with a second MCA to support Sanghams to offset losses with allied agriculture activities like dairy, poultry and sheep rearing. 

Case Study

In Ghantyada Thanda village, Gandhari mandal in Nizamabad district, 51 women farmers of Devi Mahila Sangham took up maize cultivation in 10 acres of land. Inspite of lack of timely rainfall, they achieved an yield of 150 quintals. The cost of farming amounted to Rs.30,000/-, of which Rs.15,000/- was drawn from micro-capital and the balance of Rs.15,000/- from their savings. One third of the output - 50 quintals of maize was distributed equally among themselves. 30 quintals was sold and the proceeds were deposited in the bank towards microcapital. The remaining 20 quintals was placed in a grain bin jointly constructed by Ghantyada Thanda and Uttunur village sanghams. Later, during a period of drought, the maize was distributed to members of the two Sanghams, to meet basic food needs. The women of the sangham received assistance and encouragement during the process; they gained recognition in the surrounding villages, not only as women farmers but in providing food security to the villagers.

APMSS Annual Report 2002-03.


However, the largest impact of the programme was on women’s status in the project areas. According to Padma, Coordinator of the Resource Centre at APMSS, “The women were already members of the Sangham and they were accepted thus by all the villagers. As knowledgeable and experienced farmers who have also acquired accounting and marketing skills, their position has improved further. Today, it is this strong identity that comes to the fore”. Women challenged gender stereotypes as they took up ploughing and marketing in addition to all the activities that they traditionally carried out.

As they acquired knowledge, the women began to apply it on their farms and share in the village as well.  They became resource persons training others in effective farming techniques. “We learnt to produce bio-pesticides and organic manure through vermi-composting; with these the input cost came down. We ensured that our produce addressed the needs of our own homes – the rest was sold. We obtained grain, pulses and vegetables to feed our families, fodder for the cattle. Our produce was better in quality and quantity. So our earnings increased; we could repay the Sangham, add some into the Sangham kitty, and earn something in cash or kind as well,” said Mysamma of Kokkonda village.


fallow-land-venkatagiri cultivable-land-venkatagiri

Fallow land converted into cultivable land by the Sangham in Venkatagiri village, Mahboobnagar district / Photo credit:  APMSS


“We negotiated for the money that we brought home,” added Poshamma of Sabdalpur village, “we used it for the care of pregnant women and children; and for educating our children, especially girl children. Now they no longer need to work as wage labourers and can go to college.”


Video: Bhoomamma describes how the initiative operates

Today, Sangham members are consulted by their husbands for accessing crop loans and for all levels of agricultural activity. Some of them have managed to negotiate for own lands from the SC Corporation, and to lease lands in their Sangham's name from upper caste landlords. They hire out equipment to upper caste farmers and share their knowledge at the Gram Sabhas.

"The women were from SC communities, ostracised and looked down upon – today they are sought out for assistance, guidance and support" – A visitor

Some women made a presence in local governance as well. Narsamma of Bikkanoor is a ward member of the Gram Panchayat. A Sangham woman is a member of the Mandal Parishad Territorial Constituency, and yet another is the Village Sarpanch. The Sangham has been able to make significant inroads into village development projects like building roads and ensuring water facilities like bores and handpumps.

Even in cases where the women had acquired some land of their own through various land distribution schemes, they opted for collective farming. They said it enabled them to share inputs and labour thereby reducing expenditure; it also enabled them to support one another. Future aspirations now extend to installing bore wells in the land, growing a wider variety of crop, initiating vegetable cultivation and floriculture and expanding operations into dairying and marketing of vermi-compost or bio-pesticides.


Through the 5 years of the project, the Sanghams have had to face several challenges. It was sometimes difficult for women especially from SC/ST women to lease land from upper caste people. Once fallow land was made fertile, some landowners wanted to take it back from the Sangham even before the agreed lease period. There were frequent instances of crop loss due to several reasons, such as heavy or untimely rains, droughts, mildew and pest attacks. As lessees, Sangham's were not entitled to crop insurance, so they were often unable to pay back their loans.

Shamamma of Salojpally village, Tekmal Mandal, shared her experience. “Earlier we left our lands fallow and went to work as wage labour, because we did not have the capital to invest in our lands. Today, we prefer to bring together our own lands for collective farming. This is less risky as we do not have to pay huge amounts as lease. Even if there is a crop loss or damage, we can still take home the fodder and bear the loss.”

In October 2010, the AP SHG Women Leasing of Agricultural Land Act 2010 was passed by the state Assembly; it is now awaiting the signature of the President of India. This is a first time legislation that emerges from experience of initiatives like Samatha Dharani and holds the promise of addressing the challenges faced therein. By legalising and facilitating land lease for agriculture, it would recognise tenants' right to work the lands using various development subsidies, funds or grants, while protecting the rights of land owners. 

Every Sunday at 9.15 a.m. "Bhoomi Kosam" -  a 45 minute show on the popular television channel HMTV - aims to raise awareness on land related laws.  The programme responds to an average of 10 calls per episode, offering expert guidance on queries pertaining to land. It registers a viewership of over 50,000 mostly from semi-rural areas. 

Legal Literacy

To support implementation and ensure that women benefit from laws on land issues, RDI (Rural Development Institute) in collaboration with APMSS have begun to enhance the capacities of paralegal workers popularly known as justice workers (nyaya karyakartas). These nyaya karyakartas are Sangham members well recognised in their villages for ensuring justice for the poor and especially women. They have been addressing cases of violence against women for nearly two decades, along with a range of social disputes and on occasion, property and boundary disputes. 

Now, with intensive training, they will form a bridge between the poor (especially women) and the legal system, facilitating proper implementation of the Act by educating the public and guiding them through provisions and procedures to access their rights.  Recognition as tenant farmers / cultivators will open up access to all the benefits and subsidies accruing from this. Untimely eviction and high rents can be avoided and they will also be eligible for crop insurance. 

Today, Sangham women have prioritised three areas for knowledge assimilation - unregistered sale of land, access to homestead sites, and secure possession in terms of owners having the requisite documents and physical possession of the land. Initially, the training would enable them to address the issues of Sangham members, but in due course of time, they would be able to provide services and ensure land rights of all poor communities in the village.

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