By Nilanjana Bhowmick | TIME |
The message to women was clear: Go back home. Since November, hundreds of thousands of farmers had gathered at different sites on the outskirts of the Indian capital to demand the repeal of three agricultural laws that they say would destroy their livelihoods. In January, as the New Delhi winter set in, the Chief Justice of India asked lawyers to persuade elderly people and women to leave the protests. In response, women farmers—mostly from the rural states of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh—scrambled onto stages, took hold of microphones and roared back a unanimous “No!”
“Something snapped within us when we heard the government tell the women to go back home,” says Jasbir Kaur, a sprightly 74-year-old farmer from Rampur in western Uttar Pradesh. It’s late February and Kaur has been camping at the Ghazipur protest site for over three months, only returning home once. She was stung by the court’s suggestion that women were mere care workers providing cooking and cleaning services at these sites—though she does do some of that work—rather than equal stakeholders. “Why should we go back? This is not just the men’s protest. We toil in the fields alongside the men. Who are we—if not farmers?”
Questions like this have rarely been asked by women like Kaur, long used to having their contributions to farming overlooked as part of their household duties. But this wave of protests—the world’s largest ongoing demonstration and perhaps the biggest in human history—has prompted thousands to make their voices heard. Indians of all ages, genders, castes and religions have been united by a common goal: to roll back new agricultural laws passed in September by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government. The laws, suspended in January by the Supreme Court but not yet repealed, would allow private corporations to buy directly from farmers, which they say would leave them at the mercy of buyers and do away with the traditional wholesale market system or mandis, where they are assured a minimum set price for certain crops.
Women, who form the backbone of Indian agriculture, may be particularly vulnerable to corporate exploitation. According to Oxfam India, 85% of rural women work in agriculture, but only around 13% own any land. “Women are not seen as farmers. Their labor is immense but invisible,” says Jasbir Kaur Nat, a member of the Punjab Kisan Union, who is mobilizing farmers in Tikri, the protest site at the border of Haryana and Delhi.
“This law will kill us, will destroy what little we have,” says Amandeep Kaur, a farmer from Talwandi in Punjab, whose husband died by suicide five years ago, following a bad crop that landed him with a debt of around $7,000. As well as farming, Kaur works as a community health worker to support her family; she and her two daughters only got rights to the land after her husband’s death. She lost out on compensation of almost the same amount that the Indian government gives to families of farmers who die by suicide because she did not secure a post mortem of the body to certify the death as suicide. “I didn’t even know the procedure to claim compensation from the government for my husband’s death,” she says. “How am I going to negotiate with businessmen?”
The U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization has urged action on the gender gap in agriculture, saying women’s voices must be “heard as equal partners” to ensure both agricultural development and food security. And at the protests in India, women are speaking up. Before now, some women had never stepped out of their homes without a veil, let alone spoken onstage in front of thousands of men. Many arrive at the sites in tractors, a powerful—and previously male—symbol of farming in India. “Women are changing women here,” Nat says, praising the spirit of protest among these women. “They are claiming their identities as farmers.”
See the full story, ‘’I Cannot Be Intimidated. I Cannot Be Bought.’ The Women Leading India’s Farmers’ Protests’ (TIME, 4 March 2021), here.
India Farmer Protests: Women Like Dr. Ritu Singh Are on the Front Lines(Asia Samachar, 2 March 2021)
Labour activist Nodeep Kaur granted bail (Asia Samachar, 26 Feb 2019)