Yellamma is a landless migrant farm worker, who started working as a labourer from the age of 8. She realized that a group of workers have a better chance at finding farm work and formed her first group 15 years ago. This improved their incomes and reduced the time they spent finding work. Her group has grown to 60 women today who have learnt new techniques of planting rice that makes them highly sought after by landowners. Despite being landless, she educated land owners on the benefits of using less water and has ensured that her group’s farming skills are a highly demanded asset.
I was born in Kattagihalli village of Yelburuga taluk in Karnataka. We were a family of 13 children and moved to Halabaraguru when I was five years old in search of a better life. As we didn’t have any land, everyone in the family had to contribute to our family’s earnings. In Halabaraguru, the government donated land to my family to build a house. Marriage happened when I was eight years old. My husband was a 16-year old alcoholic who often beat me. Twenty days after my marriage, I decided to leave him as I was unable to tolerate his torture. Since then, I have been living in my parent’s home.
We did not own any land for farming. My family had a flock of 40 sheep. We earned 1500-2000 rupees from each of them by rearing wool. One day, someone stole 8 sheep. Angered and worried, my father decided to sell all the sheep. As a result, my siblings and I started working as farm labourers. These conditions forced me to stay away from school and education.
As a daily wage labourer, it was hard to find work in the villages and on a good day I would make about 25 rupees. A few women in my village worked on farms as a group of labourers. They travelled together and negotiated their salaries as one unit. Inspired by them, I formed a labour group as well. We started as a group of twelve and took up anything - from working in the fields to constructing houses and canals. As a group, we started making 40-45 rupees each. It became cheaper and easier to find transport to farms. It also gave us bargaining power to secure our rights and prevent harassment from farm owners. Having emotional and social support from my group members improved my self-confidence and esteem as well.
“As our group grew bigger, we spent lesser time finding work. This gave me more time to watch television and speak to people in my village”.
It has been 15 years since I formed this group. We are now 60 members strong. I limited this group to 60 members, as it would have been hard to manage a larger group. On a good day, especially during the harvesting season, I make 500 rupees. Large land owners come home regularly to enquire if I could send my group for farm activity. I work as the bridge between them and our labour group. Often, the land owners reward me with rice for this reason. After the success of our group, the number of groups in our village has increased significantly.
Four years ago, an organisation* introduced our group to new farming techniques. They told us about the benefits of planting seeds in lines, as opposed to broadcasting them on the field. This technique is called line planting. Initially, our group members found it hard to adapt to this technique. At the same time, farm owners started hiring cheaper labour from other states. This was a worrying trend and I convened several meetings to convince my group to learn line planting. In the first year, we covered only 10 acres of land. This year, we used line planting on 270 acres of farm land.
“Nowadays, I have started educating farm owners. I never imagined I would have this sort of power. Wherever I go for weeding, I tell the farmer to put less water, to reduce pest problems. I never forget to add that the saved water would help other farmers too”
As a group, we are happy with a steady increase in demand for our skills. Every farm owner in the area wants us to work for them. They get a better yield through line planting. They face lesser problems from pests as well. Our group earns 500 rupees more per acre using line planting, as against conventional methods. Moreover, we cover 30% more land using this technique every day.
Testimonial- “Today, our labour group is always busy. We look out for each other. Our incomes have significantly increased. Our work has helped us garner more respect, value and time. I live alone in my house but never feel lonely. Previously, I never found time to do anything except work. Today, I enjoy my time in solitude, cooking, speaking to my friends and watching television”