The recent Cadbury advertisement is a delight and leaves you with that warm feeling synonymous with chocolate melting in your mouth. The gender swap, with a man cheering the girl hitting the winning run and dancing madly to ‘kya swaad hain zindagi mein’ is an ode to the rise of the Indian women athletes. Deep somewhere, it also hints at subtle changes in gender roles in Indian society. But move from the cricket field to the actual fields in rural India, and the gender perspective changes crazily.

According to a recent Oxfam study, nearly 75 per cent of farm labour are women. 80 per cent of India’s food is produced by women labourers, who are ‘family labour’, slogging their days at the farm when ownership of the farm rests with the men of the family. Thus, within the production process, women are often found at the bottom of the value chain. Women are preferred labour when the harvesting job requires finger dexterity and tenacity. Think chillies, pomegranates, grapes and cotton. However, they often lack formal training in on-farm production processes (that’s 75 per cent labour which goes untrained, folks!), and have almost no say in the decisions about sowing, selling or storing. Since they do not own land, they often lack access to institutional credit and/or benefits under government schemes.

Things become progressively regressive as one looks at post-harvest processes. Despite possessing time-tested skills and higher-pitched tones which can work wonders whilst haggling, one is hard pressed to find women farmers selling their produce in the auctions within the APMCs. The APMC is baritone, tenor and bass. Secretaries to APMCs are men, who report to Committees made up of men. There is women representation on the APMCs, and sometimes, one does meet the occasional lady Chairperson.

The pati phenomenon

Unfortunately, just as one finds the Sarpanch-Pati holding the reins over the Gram Panchayat, there are many of those APMC Chair- patis , dictating decisions related to the APMCs to their wives/daughters-in-law. Sometimes, the trader’s license at the APMC might be in the name of the lady, as strongly recommended by the family astrologer. So, you have license holder- patis , and proprietor- patis and Director of the processing industry- patis – it is a pretty petty pit-pat pati world.

I was to discover the gender dimension the hard way, a couple of years ago, when I headed out to Ahmednagar district in Maharashtra with a small (interestingly, all-male) team to witness and conduct a Crop Cutting Experiment (CCE) in cotton. CCEs are a way of estimating the productivity of crops in India. The State level Agriculture Department/Revenue Department chooses some villages wherein one has presence of the major crop for which the yield calculation is to be done. Within the chosen villages, CCE plots are chosen through random sampling to generate the yield estimates. One simply cordons off a specified area within the field using stakes and ribbons. The farmer harvests the crop in the staked-out area in the presence of a Gram Panchayat (GP) level committee and yield is calculated.

We reached the site just as the farmer and a couple of members of the GP level committee trudged into the farm. My team staked out the area carefully as per the manual; I was making sure we followed every instruction, ticking off every box and some more. That done, I looked around to the farmer expectantly. The farmer looked fascinated with the multicoloured ribbons and the machinery. ‘Where is the labour?’ I asked. ‘Eh?’ he said, examining our portable weighing scale with a lot of interest. ‘Where is the labour?’ I repeated loudly, thinking of how all the effort was going to go waste just because of this man’s inability to follow simple instructions. How difficult is it to understand ‘Bring 2-3 labour for picking cotton’ dished out on the phone the earlier evening?’

To my horror and the entire team’s amusement, he said simply, ‘Picking is only done by women. There is a puja in the village today, so no ladies were willing to come here for this experiment. But then I thought, Madamji is coming to the village. She can do the picking herself!’ I was apparently so good at it that the farmer actually made me a job offer. ‘Should you need any work’, he said, with my team sniggering in the background, ‘you can always pick cotton for us.’ he told me quite kindly. Hmmm, quite an idea, that. But I insist on the economist- pati doing a mad dance whilst I single-handedly finish picking cotton in one entire acre under the scorching sun. Kya swaad hain zindagi mein!

The writer is a brave economist trying to laugh against the odds