Women Cotton Pickers Get New Coats: A Useful Clothing Accessory


By Nitin Jugran Bahuguna,Womens Feature Service

For Jankabai Muley, 50, of Kachhighati village in Maharashtra’s Aurangabad district, body aches, bleeding hands and rashes were a part of life. For most of her adult life, she has been engaged in picking cotton from the eight acres of her land devoted to this cash crop. “Sore and bleeding fingers, scratches and rashes are an occupational hazard for women farmers who grow cotton,” she observes.

When she was presented with a cotton picking coat being distributed to women farmers under an innovative project meant to alleviate their hardships on the fields, Jankabai was sceptical. She didn’t like the bright white garment, which reminded her of a shroud, nor was she enamoured of the sac attached to it that she doubted would be able to contain as much cotton as she generally gathered in the ‘pallav’ of her sari.

But just one day of using the new garment and she knew that her misgivings were unwarranted. “The coat actually covers and protects my whole body! And my neck and back pains have also miraculously disappeared with the continued use of this new garment,” she exclaims.

And just how was this achieved? Women traditionally pick cotton by hand and gather it in the ‘pallav’ of the sari kept in front. This means that the load of the cotton picked falls on the head or shoulders, resulting in aches in the neck and back and occasionally even headaches. They also have to contend with skin irritations and sunburn. But the new cotton picking coats, with their sacs attached behind, distribute the weight evenly. “Also, the sac is not as small as it looks. Now I collect up to six kilos of cotton at one time, almost double of what I used to gather earlier,” Jankabai claims.

In the adjoining district of Jalna, Rukmini Rajender Mule, 27, of Harthkheda village confesses that when the coat was first made available to them, she and other women suggested mechanisation as an alternative to reduce their workload and the discomfort from picking cotton. “I now realise that the coat is more cost-effective and comfortable. It has made life easier for us,” she says.

Rukmini is especially happy with the half-inch foam belts resting on both shoulders of the coat, which, she maintains, reduce the stress of picking cotton. “My overall health has improved and my daily output has also increased,” she observes.

The cotton-picking coat has been introduced as part of a project launched in Aurangabad and Jalna districts by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF)-India to promote sustainable cotton production among farmers using environment-friendly organic fertilisers.

Cotton picking is mainly done by women and the work demands a high level of physical activity, which translates into additional suffering for them, observes Sumit Roy, WWF-India’s Project Manager for the Freshwater & Wetlands Programme. “The coat is made from cotton cloth with seven to nine kilograms of storage capacity. A polyester sac on the back along with foam belts on the shoulders has greatly reduced the drudgery of the cotton pickers,” he states. “The plus point is that it is easy for women, with a minimum knowledge of sewing, to make them. So this is a sustainable innovation,” he adds.

A study conducted by the Marathwada Agricultural University (MAU) in Parbhani, Aurangabad, on 100 farm women using the coat in these two districts found that there was a 60.9 per cent reduction in scratches on the body; a 29.53 per cent reduced frequency in muscle-skeletal problems; 21.65 per cent increased wages to farm labour; 10 to 15 kilos increased output of cotton picking per day; 80 per cent reduced average perceived exertion; and 1.58 per cent reduction in average heart rate.

But these figures don’t mean much to women like Latabai Pandey, 30, of Kachhighati village. What matters to her is that she has a lot more energy and vitality now than earlier. “I used to have weal marks on my shoulders because of the load I carried and my body used to ache throughout the day. It is amazing how a simple garment like this has made my job so much easier and more pleasant,” is her verdict.

The WWF-India Project – that is underway in Warangal district of Andhra Pradesh as well – offers an opportunity to farmers to learn about Best Management Practices (BMP), which promises to equip them to produce quality cotton by using environment-friendly organic fertilisers. Its thrust is to encourage farmers to reduce the use of expensive chemical pesticides that damage the crop and environment besides leading to long-term illnesses for themselves and their families.

Though women normally don’t spray insecticides in the fields, they are indirectly affected as they help the men in mixing and diluting the insecticides prior to spraying and help in carrying these solutions to the fields, thereby inhaling the sprays. Studies have shown that women participating in such activities have complained of multiple symptoms such as nausea, fainting, skin irritation, infertility, and uterine problems. According to Roy, some have even given birth to physically challenged babies.

Besides promoting awareness among farmers with regard to using chemical fertilisers, BMPs include the use of bio-pesticides, managing water in cotton fields, mobilising farmers to attend Farmer Field Schools (FFS) set up in villages, and providing training on managing pests, water and nutrients.

That the farmers are benefiting from the exercise is evident. Rukmini has learnt to identify cotton pests at different stages of development of the crop as well as how to prepare organic pesticides. “Earlier, I used to spend Rs 3,000 (US$1= Rs46.6) on chemical pesticides to manage the mealy worm (a common cotton pest) for one acre of cotton crop. But now, with my organic preparations, I spend just Rs 200,” she discloses.

On the health front, too, she has emerged a winner. Says she, “My coughs and cold, persistent itching and irritation of the skin and symptoms of vomiting, nausea and headache have all gone after I switched over to organic pesticides.”