Resilience through flexibility – the story of peri-urban agricultural workers in India

Article, 06 June 2022

This case study highlights the way that women working in peri-urban agriculture in India have to adapt to changing circumstances in order to sustain themselves and their families.

Peri-urban agriculture is located on the fringes of a town or city. As cities expand, and people from rural areas move to cities, the frontiers between urban, peri-urban and rural activities blur and merge. 

For labourers living in informal settlements in the city, there is little difference between peri-urban agriculture and rural agriculture. The women in the following stories represent the last remaining link with their native rural villages in terms of livelihoods. 

Indore, the largest city in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, has been growing and villages that were once outside the city are now peri-urban slums. Agricultural farms near these peri-urban slums attract women labourers living nearby. 

Madhya Pradesh has a thriving agriculture and horticulture industry. Indore is surrounded by farms and is a commercial hub for the distribution and sale of agriculture and horticulture produce. A variety of crops are grown, including flowers, vegetables, grains, legumes and lentils. 

Work in peri-urban farms includes sowing seeds, irrigating the fields, weeding, harvesting, bundling the produce in bushels, transporting it to a storage space or vehicle and preparing the field for new crops. 

Because the work is seasonal it is an uncertain livelihood that can be challenging for agricultural workers. And as the city limits expand and engulf these rural areas to pave way for further urbanisation, these livelihoods face further uncertainty.

This case study is part of work by IIED and partners exploring responses to occupational, environmental and public health risks faced by workers in the informal economy, while also helping to build their resilience to climate change.

Kashi Damke: working in the fields and selling vegetables

Kashi, 45, has worked in the farms near her settlement for over 15 years. She is called whenever there is need of labour for tilling, sowing, weed sorting, harvesting and related work. 

At times when there is no agricultural work, she supplements her family’s income by picking vegetables from the farms and selling them on foot in nearby settlements. 

A woman in a yellow sari and wearing a facemask is standing in a field of crops. She is putting the plants into a bag tied around her waist.

Kashi plucking brinjals from the field (Photo: UHRC)

She needed that flexibility during lockdown: “The farmer knows me and is aware that I need to sell vegetables when farm work is not available. During COVID-19 lockdown when no work was available, I sold vegetables in the lanes in my neighborhood and could sustain on those earnings. We also used the vegetables for our meals.” 

One of the benefits of farm work for Kashi is access to grains during harvest time at a substantially lower price than that of the market, even though she has a government food subsidy card enabling her to access subsidised grains. 

She can also maintain reserves for uncertain times more easily, and finds farm work easier to manage than factory work because it is self-paced. 

“While cleaning wheat after harvesting, a lot of grains are lying on the field. I collect them, clean and then store them at home” – Kashi Damke

Through her years of work, Kashi has been able to construct a two-storied house with walls and roof of permanent material, a toilet and a kitchen. 

As farms are on the brink of being sold, Kashi is prepared to sell vegetables. “Farm work will be not available then," she said. "I will procure vegetables from mandi (wholesale market) and sell.”

Premlata Lodhi: picking flowers and seasonal farm work 

Premlata, 46, has spent a large part of her life doing different forms of farm labour. She works every morning picking flowers, which are sent to flower markets and sold for weddings, festivals and as prayer offerings in temples. 

Away from the flower blooming season she looks for work in other farms. Over the years, she has been able to build a rapport with other farmers in her area, who provide her with work such as tilling the soil and sowing and cutting wheat during the harvest season. 

A field with rows of shrubs. A woman stands and reaches to pick a flower from one of the shrubs.

Premlata plucking flowers from the field (Photo: UHRC)

However, this stopped during the COVID-19 pandemic: “During the lockdown, all work was shut. Restriction in lockdown also prevented us from reaching our native village. We lost our share of wheat, which we usually get from the village every year.”

Premlata’s family did not having a food subsidy card, so could not access subsidised grains. “My husband and I went to the nearby field and sorted and picked some grains lying on the ground. That is how we managed the crisis.” 

“These farms will be sold to build commercial establishments or residential colonies. I will have to find work in a nearby factory, such as packaging work, as one needs to do something to sustain oneself” – Premlata Lodhi 

Premlata worries about farm work declining in the coming years, as agricultural land is sold for development. 

Despite these struggles, Premlata’s family has been steadily building their house. She is supporting her daughter’s university education.

Ramila Dharviya: agricultural labour and stitching shirts

Ramila, 39, is a farm worker, engaged in preparing the soil, sowing, picking grass, weeds and vegetables from the field. Her secondary source of income is from stitching shirts at home. She earns up to INR150 (US$2) depending on the intricacy of the garment.

The lockdown was a challenging time for Ramila. She could not go to work, and her family was unable to access subsidised food since they did not have a food subsidy card. They had to borrow money and buy food at inflated urban prices. The farm owner helped them by lending vegetables from the farm.

A woman wearing an orange headscarf stands in a field surrounded by tall plants. She is holding an uprooted plant in her hand.

Ramila clearing weeds in the farm (Photo: UHRC)

Even though stitching work resumed after lockdown, she is unable to earn as much she earned before COVID-19 because there is reduced demand for the garments. 

“I come home for lunch break from the field. Whatever little window of time I can find, I stitch shirts. I subsequently finish the rest of the task at night. During the days when farm work is not available, I pursue stitching which helps me get sustained income” – Ramila Dharviya

Ramila aspires to educate her children and hopes to see them self-reliant and successful. Despite the interruption to studies during the pandemic, due to limited internet access, her younger son has secured a scholarship to a government school. She also wants to buy a small plot of land so that the family can live in their own house.

Amruta Pawar: working in farms and a factory

Amruta, 42, works on a farm cutting wheat, chickpeas and soyabean. She also cuts grass and separates the chaff from the wheat for animal fodder. 

She has been working there for 20 years. However, she has noticed that less work is now available due to the mechanisation of many of the wheat harvesting processes. During the months when agricultural work is not available, she works in a nearby factory manufacturing potato chips.

A woman sqauts in a field of bare brown earth. Next to her on the ground is a small hand tool.

Amruta tilling the farm to prepare the soil for sowing (Photo: UHRC)

During the 2020 lockdown, Amruta worked in the fields picking coriander. The wheat had already been harvested by a machine so there was no work there. 

To cope with their depleted purchasing power, the family asked the farm owner for vegetables: “We could get vegetables free of cost from farms, such as onions, potatoes and garlic, which we could cook during the lockdown. We also sometimes got grains from the nearby farms.” 

Through her years of working, Amruta has managed to construct a pucca house with the savings. 

“We have seen good times and difficult times as well. Many times, there was not a single penny at hand, and everyone at home was troubled, but then I used to work no matter how hard the situation was” – Amruta Pawar 

Conclusions

Agricultural work is one of the major forms of livelihood for peri-urban workers. Many peri-urban workers chose this form of work because they already had the skills by working in their native rural farms. 

Women find agricultural work convenient because of its self-paced nature and because farms are mostly close to where they live. Food security is another benefit, as many women are able to procure vegetables and food grains from their farming work. 

Peri-urban women workers are resilient, adapting to an ever-changing peri-urban ecosystem and often pursuing an additional livelihood in seasons when agricultural work is not available. Their strategy of forming links with more than one employer offering different forms of work is key to this resilience. 

They express anxiety about the uncertainty of sustaining agriculture work in the future. But are also preparing themselves for a future with alternative livelihoods when farms will be sold to developers and builders.

The adaptability and resilience shown by the workers can be tailored to other situations and promoted among vulnerable urban women workers.


This case study was produced by Siddharth Agarwal, Kanupriya Kothiwal, Shabnam Verma and Sampurna Kundu of the Urban Health Resource Centre, India

This research was commissioned by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), Global Health Research Group using UK aid from the UK government. The views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the NIHR or the Department of Health and Social Care.

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