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Economy & Labor , World

India’s Suffering Female Farmers Have the Most to Lose

by Riddhi Dastidar April 13, 2021

This story was published in partnership with Foreign Policy and The Fuller Project.

What you need to know
  • Millions of farmers are protesting laws enacted by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to deregulate the agricultural sector, which employs some 40% of the country’s workforce.
  • Proponents say moving to a free-market system will allow farmers to sell directly to private buyers for potentially higher prices. Labor activists say marginalized female farmers stand to lose the most in an unregulated market with no safeguards.
  • Caste dynamics are an inextricable part of the opposition to the new farm laws. The vast majority of rural women in India rely on farming to make a living, and, among them, 85 percent belong to tribal, Dalit or other marginalized castes. Most are landless or own small farms and have virtually no power to negotiate prices or wages.

Rajveer Kaur grew up working in the fields of Gandhar village in Muktsar, Punjab, alongside her parents and siblings. After her school day, she would harvest wheat and feed cattle; during summer break, they sowed cotton and rice for the monsoon season. “If you want to eat, you don’t have a choice,” she said. “It’s a question of survival from one day to the next when you are born into a family of laborers.”

Kaur is a Dalit woman, a dual identity that reflects the most marginalized of India’s oppressive caste hierarchy. She is also among the millions of women protesting laws enacted by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to deregulate the agricultural sector. In Punjab and elsewhere, farmers largely operate under the mandi system, in which crops are procured by government intermediaries at minimum support prices, or price floors. Proponents of the new laws say moving to a free market system will allow farmers to sell directly to private buyers for potentially higher prices than what they currently get from the state.

But millions of Indian farmers remain unconvinced, demanding the repeal of what they see as a corporate takeover of agriculture, which employs some 40 percent of the country’s workforce. Dependence on the sector is even higher in rural areas, where, as of 2018, 58 percent of workers—and 71 percent of women—got their livelihoods from farming. These women, many of whom are Dalit, are largely invisible in the sector. Most own no land or are smallholders, earn less than male laborers, and have virtually no power to negotiate prices or wages. In an unregulated market with no safeguards, India’s disempowered female farmers arguably have the most to lose.

In recent years, as climate change-induced crises like droughts and failing crops have forced rural men to migrate to cities for work, agriculture has become increasingly female-dominated. Women are left to manage farmland, domestic work, and care for children and elders—but less than 14 percent have land in their name. Women’s farm labor is also often uncounted in census data, making them ineligible for government programs, which, accordingly, tend to overwhelmingly benefit male farmers.

In interviews with female farmers translated from Hindi and Punjabi, many said they feared being pushed even further to the margins.

Revanti Dhayal, who joined a sit-in in Delhi that started in November and is still ongoing—she planned to stay there until the laws were repealed—spoke passionately about needing to provide for her two toddlers, who clung to her sari. “Everyone else who works at a company gets a say in the prices they charge,” she said. “We, too, want fair rates for the food we grow!” She wants the government to make minimum support prices legally binding. (They aren’t mandated under the new law.)

Dhayal’s husband owns 15 acres of land in the state of Haryana, but her name isn’t on the title. “I’m a farmer, too,” she said. Myriad religious inheritance laws mediate women’s ownership of farmland. While legally they can own land, patriarchal cultures often prevent them from doing so.

60-year-old Balveer Kaur (no relation to Rajveer Kaur) leases an acre of land for more than $800 per year and saves less than $70 annually, leaving her with virtually no financial cushion. Now, she worries the laws will disrupt the relationship she has with the middlemen who facilitate sales at 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, then it will become near impossible to even earn enough to survive.”

Related Coverage: As India’s Credit Sector Falters, So Do Women’s Livelihoods

Private investment, one of the Modi government’s main justifications for deregulation, is also far from assured. The local government in the state of Maharashtra deregulated parts of its agricultural sector in 2016, but the move hasn’t yielded the influx of investments in agriculture that Modi is predicting as the outcome of the new laws.

Indeed, many protesters fear a situation more akin to what happened in Bihar, which underwent deregulation in 2006. Government mandis there were eventually shuttered, making minimum support prices irrelevant. Over time, many Bihari farmers had to migrate outside the state, to Punjab and Haryana, to find work doing farm or other types of daily-wage labor.

Opponents argue that the government is pulling the rug out from under states, which typically set agricultural policy, and doing it without regard for regional differences in crop production and distribution and with few safeguards for small farmers—some of whom are barely subsisting as it is. Nirmal Kaur (no relation to either Rajveer or Balveer Kaur), a farmer who traveled from Haryana to Delhi to be part of the protests, said she came as a last stand against “complete ruin.”

Among female farm workers, 85 percent belong to tribal, Dalit, or other marginalized castes, and most are landless or own small farms, making caste dynamics an inextricable part of opposition to the new farm laws. In rural Mukstar, where Rajveer Kaur’s family lives, 96 percent of Dalit agricultural laborers do not own the land they work.

Historically, oppressed caste communities in India were prevented from being landowners, breeding intergenerational poverty and a reliance on exploitative labor arrangements. This inequity persists today, despite regulations on paper meant to protect these communities from discrimination. In Punjab, for instance, a third of publicly owned village agricultural land is legally reserved for Dalits, but attempts by them to claim this land have been met with brutal violence.

Dalit women typically work as daily-wage labor, putting them at the mercy of mostly male landowners who often pay the bare minimum—as low as $2 a day—especially if she is from a marginalized caste. Their wages can change at whim—there are no salaries and often no fixed contracts—and they have little say over terms.

In addition to the volatility brought about by fluctuations in the market, Modi’s reforms encourage trading activity to move online, ignoring low rates of literacy and access to smartphones and the internet among rural women. “Most homes here don’t even have internet,” said Phoola Devi, a Dalit farmer from Badokhar village in Banda, southeast of Delhi. “How would we operate a smartphone? Most of us women farmers never went to school. If we had, 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 sites that are explicitly masculine and casteist spaces themselves. “At first you could count the number of women at the protests on one hand,” Rajveer Kaur said. “Those who came stayed mostly out of sight, at the very back. It took months of meetings with farmer union leaders and setting norms for women to start speaking on stage regularly.” During court hearings about the protests, the chief justice of India’s Supreme Court said he didn’t understand “why old people and women” were being “kept” at the protests.

In January, Rajveer Kaur’s sister, the labor rights activist Nodeep Kaur, was arrested from a protest site near Delhi and charged with a number of offenses, including attempted murder. (No one actually died; police claimed that protesters became violent, a charge that Nodeep and others refute.) She had made national news with a viral video decrying the government’s move toward privatization.

Nodeep and fellow protesters want a repeal not just of the new farm laws but also of sweeping labor reforms passed in 2020 that diluted protections for workers, including farm laborers. Protesters are also demanding the implementation of reforms proposed by India’s National Commission on Farmers in 2006. In particular, they want to see minimum support prices one and a half times the cost of production.

Harinder Bindu, the 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 organizing and educating door to door these past years, and it’s paying off. Where women were at home, now they are here.”

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