Bina Agarwal’s New Study of Women’s Cooperative Farming in India
by Grey Osterud
The path-breaking work of Bina Agarwal, development economist and feminist who has written extensively on women land rights, women farmers and environmental issues in South Asia, is familiar to some RWSA members. In particular her book A Field of One’s Own, covering five countries, called attention to women’s lack of land rights in the Global South and traced the historical links between kinship, land ownership, and inheritance. Agarwal’s most recent work is a major study of women’s cooperative farming in two Indian states. She explores the question: Can farming in all-women’s groups help women outperform individual male-managed farms in productivity and profits, and empower women socially and politically?
Since women’s lack of access to and control over land is a crucial element of their subordination in developing countries, feminists have long wondered whether all-women farming cooperatives, in which women share labor, costs and proceeds, might mitigate gender disadvantages in input and output markets as well as their status as unrecognized workers on small family farms. Testing this hypothesis has been difficult, however, since most collective farms historically have been large-scale, state-mandated undertakings in socialist societies, particularly the USSR and China. Although smaller, voluntary cooperatives did develop in some post-socialist societies in Europe, they have been rare in capitalist societies where agriculture is based largely on private landownership and markets for inputs and outputs are dominated by agribusiness.
Agarwal’s study of group farming by women in two states of southern India, Kerala and Telangana, is especially valuable since it tests the impact of cooperative faming on women empirically with analytical rigor. It is based on data painstakingly collected weekly for all inputs and outputs for an entire year from a sample of several hundred group and individual farms. Kerala is a fertile region on India’s southwestern coast, while Telangana is a semi-arid region in the mid southeast. In both states the experiments were launched through collaborations between the government and civil society, in Kerala under the state’s poverty eradication program, and in Telangana as an experiment in economic empowerment where groups had already been constituted for women’s education and social empowerment.
In both states, agriculture is a major sector employing women and men, but is especially important for women as men have been migrating to non-farm work. Both states focused on economically poorer communities, but Kerala proactively constituted small groups, heterogeneous in caste, and including both the poor and those just above the poverty line, thus allowing for wider social capital and eschewing the common assumption that homogeneity is necessary for collective action. Telangana focused on the preexisting large and homogeneously disadvantaged groups.
By enabling women to combine their financial and labour resources, they were able lease land and cultivate as independent farmers, rather than working as unpaid labour on their husband’s fields. Land leasing involved higher transaction costs and difficulties in getting consolidated plots and fertile land, but it enabled them to have larger fields than individual male farmers. Government support in terms of a start-up grant, subsidized credit, and training in farm practices (including organic farming) leveled the playing field for them somewhat vis-à-vis male farmers, although they still faced gendered constraints in access to land and machinery.
Yet, as Agarwal’s sophisticated quantitative and qualitative study of the productivity and profitability of women’s group farms demonstrates, cooperatives can significantly transform women’s lives. In Kerala, the women’s group farms greatly outperformed individual male-managed family farms in both annual value of output per hectare and net returns per farm. Important gains accrued from pooling labor and saving costs of hired labor and economies of scale facilitated by larger holdings. The groups also helped women deliver on contracts better than individual farmers. Since family landholdings were too small to occupy women’s entire time, there was not much conflict between working in a cooperative and working on the family farm. In fact, the knowledge and contacts women gained proved useful at home as well. Where the groups did less well was in rice cultivation, due to the lack of good land. In Telangana, too, the groups did well in net returns and in cotton but not in food grains. The research thus calls to question the common assumption in rural programs in developing countries that women should grow food crops for household food security.
Agarwal traces the effects of differences between the two states in their design and implementation, using the comparison to makes several recommendations for those who are considering setting up cooperative farms. First, security of tenure, access to good quality land, and direct access to state subsidies and advisors are important to ensure the economic success of these ventures. Second, group composition matters. Their optimal size appears to be 6-10 women—small enough to engender trust and mutual monitoring of absenteeism, but large enough to generate efficiencies. They work best if the women come from diverse backgrounds, within the bounds of disadvantage, rather than uniformly from the lowest class and caste, and particularly including some literate women who can negotiate with landlords and disseminate technical information about agriculture to members. Third, connecting the groups in a federated organizational structure can greatly strengthen their ability to bargain with government agencies on behalf of the women and withstand political pressures when governments change.
Participants whom Agarwal interviewed report that these groups also empowered them socially. Women “developed stronger identities as farmers in their own right, rather than being counted simply as farm labourers or farm wives.” They learned what crops and techniques best suit their ecology. They established direct contact with the public institutions and services that farmers use, including banks, extension agencies, and markets for land and inputs. One participant said, “Our relationships with our husbands have improved a lot. They now treat us with more respect. Before . . . , women were treated as if they knew nothing. Whatever the men said, we had to agree. Now we have started questioning our husbands.” Another testified that “Husbands have started caring for their wives more, now that we are earning money from agriculture. They now take their wives to hospital if they fall ill.” In Telangana scheduled caste cooperative members are now treated with respect by upper castes.
The link between group farming and social empowerment is as strong in Kerala, where although there is 100 per cent female literacy many women did not go out to work. “I was just a housewife before,” one participant said. “Everybody used to call me by my husband’s name. . . . Now the situation has changed.” Another explained: “Now . . . I work and earn for my family, so people respect me.” With their new capacities and solidarity, women participating in group farms have also run for and been elected to local offices in unprecedented numbers.
This short summary cannot convey the full complexity of these experiments and their results in the social context of rural India, and it only gestures at Agarwal’s robust theoretical framework and her exemplary methodology. I encourage everyone in RWSA—scholars, extension agents, and farmers—to read these two new articles.
 Bina Agarwal, A Field of Ones Own: Gender and Land Rights in South Asia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994); Bina Agarwal, Gender Challenges, vol. 2, Property, Family, and the State (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).
 Bina Agarwal, “Can Group Farms Outperform Individual Family Farms? Empirical Evidence from India,” World Development 108 (2018): 57–73; Bina Agarwal, “Does Group Farming Empower Rural Women? Lessons from India’s Experiments,” Journal of Peasant Studies (2019), https://doi.org/10.1080/03066150.2019.1628020.
 See Agarwal, “Does Group Farming Empower Rural Women,” 21–26.