Rajveer Kaur grew up with her parents and siblings in the fields of the village of Gandhar in Muktsar, Punjab. After her school day she would harvest wheat and feed cattle; During the summer break they sowed cotton and rice for the monsoon season. “If you want to eat, you have no choice,” she said. “It is a matter of survival from one day to the next when you are born into a working-class family.”
Kaur is a Dalit woman, a dual identity that reflects the most marginalized hierarchy of the oppressive caste in India. She is also one of the millions of women who are protesting against laws passed by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to liberalize the agricultural sector. In Punjab and elsewhere, the majority of farmers work according to the mandi system, in which the crops are procured by state brokers at minimum support prices or floor prices. Proponents of the new laws say the move to a free market system will allow farmers to sell directly to private buyers at potentially higher prices than they are currently receiving from the state.
But millions of Indian farmers remain unconvinced and are calling for the abolition of what they see as an agricultural takeover, which employs around 40 percent of the country’s workforce. In rural areas, where as of 2018 58 percent of workers – and 71 percent of women – earned their living from agriculture, the dependency on the sector is even higher. These women, many of whom are Dalit, are largely invisible in the industry. Most do not own land or are small farmers, earn less than male workers, and have virtually no power to negotiate prices or wages. In an unregulated market without protective measures, India’s disempowered peasant women have the most to lose.
In recent years, women have increasingly dominated agriculture as crises such as droughts and crop failures caused by climate change have forced rural men to move to cities to work. Women have to manage farmland, housework, and care for children and elders – but less than 14 percent have land on their behalf. Women’s agricultural work is often not included in census data, making it ineligible for government programs, which accordingly predominantly benefit male farmers.
In interviews with peasant women translated from Hindi and Punjabi, many said they feared being marginalized even further.
Revanti Dhayal, who was attending a sit-in in Delhi that started in November and is ongoing – she planned to stay there until the laws were repealed – spoke passionately about caring for her two toddlers who were caring clung to her sari. “Everyone else who works in a company can have a say in the prices they charge,” she said. “We too want fair prices for the food we grow!” She wants the government to make the minimum support prices legally binding. (They are not required under the new law.)
Dhayal’s husband owns 15 acres in the state of Haryana, but her name is not on the title. “I’m a farmer too,” she said. Countless religious inheritance laws convey women’s ownership of farmland. While they can legally own land, patriarchal cultures often prevent them from doing so.
60-year-old Balveer Kaur (no relationship with Rajveer Kaur) leases an acre of land for more than $ 800 a year and saves less than $ 70 a year, leaving her with virtually no financial cushion. Now she fears the laws will disrupt her relationship with the middlemen who facilitate sales in the mandis or agricultural markets and also act as informal sources of credit. “Negotiating the mandis is difficult,” she said. “If our relationship with the middlemen is broken, it will be next to impossible to earn enough to survive.”
Private investment, a major driver of the Modi government’s deregulation, is also far from secure. The local government in Maharashtra state deregulated parts of its agricultural sector in 2016, but the move has not sparked the influx of investment in agriculture that Modi predicts as a result of the new laws.
Indeed, many protesters fear a situation similar to that in Bihar, which was deregulated in 2006. The government offices there were eventually closed, making the minimum support prices irrelevant. Over time, many Bihari farmers have had to move outside the state to Punjab and Haryana to find work on the farm or in other types of day laborers.
Opponents argue that the government is pulling the carpet out of states that typically dictate agricultural policy, regardless of regional differences in crop production and distribution, and with few protective measures for smallholders – some of which barely exist as they are. Nirmal Kaur (no relationship with Rajveer or Balveer Kaur), a farmer who had traveled from Haryana to Delhi to participate in the protests, said she came as the last stand against “total ruin”.
85 percent of female farm workers belong to tribal, Dalit or other marginalized castes, and most are landless or small farms of their own, making the caste dynamic an integral part of opposition to the new farm laws. In rural Mukstar, where Rajveer Kaur’s family lives, 96 percent of Dalit farm workers do not own the land on which they work.
In the past, oppressed caste communities in India have been prevented from owning land, inducing intergenerational poverty and relying on exploitative labor agreements. This inequality persists to this day, despite regulations on paper designed to protect these communities from discrimination. In Punjab, for example, a third of the publicly owned agricultural farmland is legally reserved for Dalits, but attempts by them to claim that land have been brutalized.
Dalit women usually work as day laborers and are at the mercy of the mostly male landowners who often pay the bare minimum – only US $ 2 a day – especially if they come from a marginalized caste. Their wages can change as they please – there are no salaries and often no fixed contracts – and they have little influence on the conditions.
In addition to the volatility caused by market fluctuations, Modi’s reforms are boosting online trading activity, ignoring low literacy rates and rural women’s access to smartphones and the internet. “Most of the houses here don’t even have internet,” said Phoola Devi, a Dalit farmer from Badokhar village in Banda, southeast of Delhi. “How would we use a smartphone? Most of us peasant women never went to school. If we had that, we wouldn’t still be farming! “
Many of the young women protesting are the first of their farming families to attend university or graduate school – often at protest locations that are themselves explicitly male and casteist spaces. “First of all, you could count the number of women in the protests,” said Rajveer Kaur. “Those who came were completely out of sight at the back. It took months of meeting union leaders and setting standards for women to speak regularly on stage. “During the trial of the protests, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of India said he did not understand” why old people and women “were being” detained “at the protests.
In January, Rajveer Kaur’s sister, labor rights activist Nodeep Kaur, was arrested from a protest site near Delhi and charged with a number of criminal offenses, including attempted murder. (No one actually died; police alleged protesters turned violent, an accusation Nodeep and others refute.) They posted national news with a viral video deciphering the government’s move to privatize.
Not only do Nodeep and other protesters want to repeal the new agricultural laws, they also want to repeal the comprehensive labor reforms passed in 2020 that water down the protection of workers, including farm workers. The protesters are also calling for the reforms proposed by India’s National Commission on Farmers to be implemented in 2006. In particular, they want minimum support prices that are one and a half times the cost of production.
Harinder Bindu, president of the women’s wing of the farmers’ union Bharatiya Kisan Union (Ekta Ugrahan), sees the protests as an opening. “You can see a shift in responsibilities and gender roles. We have done so much work over the past few years organizing and educating door to door and it is paying off. Where women were at home, they are here now. “