The Chief Justice of India, while hearing a bunch of petitions on the new farm laws, asked, “Why are women and elders kept in the protest?” He was referring to their presence in the agitations against the new farm laws and he went on to ask them to leave the protest sites. This paternalistic outlook not only denies women the agency to protest, it also erases the crucial role of women in the agriculture workforce, an erasure that is mirrored in official recognition, data and policies.
Women farmers in the protests are not an inconvenient appendix to be removed. They have been an integral part of the movement since it started. Cutting across class and caste, they have actively mobilised public opinion in villages and towns of Punjab since last July. “We held special meetings across villages to educate women on how these laws would impact them,” says Harinder Kaur Bindu, general secretary of Bharatiya Kisan Union (Ekta Ugrahan), the largest farmer’s union in Punjab. Many farm unions have active women’s wings.
From the villages, markets and gurudwaras, these women have taken the agitation to corporate sites like Vedanta’s thermal plant, the malls and warehouses owned by the Adani and Ambani groups, the petrol pumps run by Reliance and to toll plazas. In protest sites across Punjab, women have performed pit siyappa (mourning songs).
Since October, Manjeet Kaur, 40, and Charanjeet Kaur, 39, have taken a tractor every day from their village Wara Bhaika in Faridkot district of Punjab to Jeeda toll plaza, 4.4 kilometres away, to educate people about the laws. In these few months, the agitation has taken precedence over everything, including household responsibilities.
In Mansa district, Kiranjeet Kaur, 25, runs Kisan Mazdoor Khudkushi Peedit Parivar Committee. She organised a 92-day campaign between November 1 and January 31 to educate the wives and families of those farmers who died by suicide due to the deepening agrarian crisis and rising debt.
Women farmers have a reason to worry — the new laws will have a very gendered impact, especially on small and marginal farmers who already have unequal access to land, water and other resources. Deregulation of the Agricultural Produce Market Committees (APMCs), popularly known as mandis, is a big cause of concern for women farmers with varying landholdings. Apart from the proximity to their villages, thus offering them safety, the mandis, even while being male-dominated spaces, serve as an important mechanism for price discovery for women farmers, narrowing the margins of exploitation.
“We sell a quintal of rice for ₹2,200 now. If the Mandi Board is dismantled, we may have to sell our harvest for half the price. See what happened in Bihar? Sanu is gal di wadi tension hegi aa (I am worried about this factor),” says Manjeet Kaur, a small farmer with two acres of land, referring to the dismantling of APMCs in Bihar in 2006 which led to a crash in prices of produce.
Women farmers are also worried about the loss of their land holdings because of the contract farming provisions in the new laws. According to these provisions, farmers will produce crops as per contracts with large corporate investors for a mutually agreed price. This leaves them on an unequal footing since big businesses can exercise indirect control over farmland in the guise of securing farmer services, says agricultural economist Sudha Narayanan.
“Our only source of livelihood is our land. If it is taken away from us, what will we be left with,” asks Charanjeet, whose family of five depends on the yearly income of ₹50,000 per acre they earn from leasing out their 12-acre holding after Charanjeet’s husband suffered a spinal cord injury. She is particularly worried about the lack of a legal redress mechanism in case of contract failures. Women farmers will face a particularly weak bargaining position as they cannot afford the time or financial resources for legal fights.
The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020, which removes cereals, pulses, oilseeds, edible oils, onions and potatoes from the list of essential commodities, also removes the limit on stocks and storage of these commodities. This too opens the gates for large businesses to enter, raising another concern for small farmers and increasing their worry about tackling hunger and malnutrition. “If farm produce is purchased by the corporates, how will the government provide rations to those below the poverty line? Everyone has understood this,” says Rajinder Kaur, 42, a Dalit landless agriculture wage worker from Gurditpura village in Patiala district.
The new laws affect not just farmers but everyone dependent on land. Landless Dalits who work as agricultural labourers are particularly worried. When their earnings depleted with mechanisation after the Green Revolution, they came to rely on schemes like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA). They fear their wages will again be hit under contract farming. “The farm laws will compound our hardship. They will take away the minimal work we now get in the fields,” says Gurmail Kaur, 65, a Dalit agricultural labourer from Muktsar district and a member of the Punjab Khet Mazdoor Union for 30 years.
Dalit landless labourers have always faced caste discrimination, including sexual violence, from upper caste landlords. In response, groups like the Punjab Khet Mazdoor Union and Zamin Prapti Sangharsh Samiti, an umbrella organisation that advocates for land rights of Dalits, have come up over the years. With a large membership of women, these organisations have been at the forefront of the protests, finding common cause with landlords. “We have faced caste discrimination for generations. But this time, we have all come together,” says Taravanti, 70, a Dalit labourer from Muktsar district.
Young women students from universities across Punjab, many of them from farmer families, have been active participants. They fear that falling farm incomes will push back their freedom and agency. “With falling farm incomes, girls like us who could dream of education will be pushed back to household chores or raising children,” says Sukhpreet Kaur, a second year Master’s student in Economics at Government Brijindra College in Faridkot district, whose family laboured hard to put her through university.
The Supreme Court recently put a stay on the new laws and set up a committee to talk to the protesters. It has cut no ice. “We have turned down the Supreme Court’s decision for a committee. On behalf of the women farmers, I want to say that we will not leave until these laws are fully repealed,” says Harinder Kaur Bindu.
Bhanupriya is the founder-editor of BehanBox, a platform for gender journalism. Sanskriti is a New Delhi-based independent journalist.