Fighting One Battle At a Time
By Kirthi Jayakumar
“As usual, in every scheme that worsens the position of the poor, it is the poor who are invoked as beneficiaries.” ― Vandana Shiva
Image (c) Srini Swaminathan (2020)
In October 2020, the World Food Programme was lauded with the Nobel Peace Prize "for its efforts to combat hunger, for its contribution to bettering conditions for peace in conflict-affected areas and for acting as a driving force in efforts to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war and conflict." About a fortnight before that, the Lok Sabha, India’s Lower House of Parliament, passed three contentious bills despite strong opposition, which are seen as being anti-farmer laws. These bills received presidential assent and became law. The irony hits you in the face: where an organization is being lauded for its efforts to end hunger, another is busy bartering away farmers’ rights, effectively kicking the agricultural sector in the gut.
The Farmers' Protest
The first of these acts is the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, which expands the scope of trade areas of farmers to any place of production, collection, and aggregation. It pursues the government’s idea of “One Nation, One Market.” It allows electronic trading and e-commerce of farmers' produce, and prohibits the levy of any market fee, cess, or levy on farmers, traders, and electronic trading platforms by state governments for any trade in farmers’ produce conducted in an 'outside trade area'. The second is the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, which establishes a framework for contract farming by way of an agreement between a farmer and a buyer before production. The third is the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, which allows the center to regulate particular food items during extraordinary situations.
What these laws set out to do effectively leaves the farmers worse off, more than anything else. The farmers see major and affluent agricultural corporations as the key beneficiaries of this legislative measure. Further, the new regulations allow traders to stockpile food, which means that they can hoard produce and benefit from the rising prices during emergencies, such as during the pandemic. Earlier, such practice were criminal offences. The new laws also remove several of the farmers’ safeguards – with over 86% of India’s farmland in the hands of smallholder farmers with under 2 hectares each, they have frugal bargaining power to secure the prices they need to eke a living.
In the words of the Indian Farmers Union, “Due to these laws, farmers are in danger of becoming captive to companies. Law control, free marketing, storage, import-export, is not in the interest of farmers. The farmers of this country are also suffering because of the policies of World Trade Organisation. During the drought in Bengal, in 1943-44, 40 lakh people died of hunger due to hoarding of food grains by the East India Company.”
The farmers have called on the government to repeal these laws, and to make the minimum support price (MSP) and the state procurement of crops their legal right, and demand an assurance that their conventional procurement system will continue to prevail, among other things. The protests began in August 2020, when the Farm Bills were made public, and when the bills became law (Acts), the protests intensified. Farmers from all over the country have come together in solidarity, protesting peacefully despite a Cold Wave.
Women at the forefront
Women have been key actors in the farmers’ protests. Either farmers themselves, or students, teachers, housewives, nurses, or allies, these women arrived in large numbers. Some were also seen driving tractors with flags mounted atop bulky metal bonnets that called for a “revolution.” Having travelled long distances, these women are out on field to demand that these new laws be repealed. At the protest site, these women continue to work hard: from cooking and making beds for themselves and other protesters, to taking an active part in the protest dynamics, these women are in it for the long haul.
Image (c) Srini Swaminathan (2020)
These women fight for the collective rights of all farmers against the oppressive laws, pursuing strategic essentialism in the process. Unlike their identities in the agricultural sector, where they remained “the invisible workforce on India’s vast farmlands that often goes unnoticed,” these women are at the forefront in the protests. An Oxfam Report from 2013 showed that close to 75% of India’s rural women in the full-time workforce work as farmers – a number that may have increased in this time. However, somewhere under 13% of these women owned the lands they tilled. The Mahila Kisan Adhikaar Manch (MAKAAM), an Indian forum for female farmers indicates that 75 percent of all farm work is conducted by women, who own only 12 percent of the land. This has ramifications for the women – as they are not seen as farmers because they do not have land, but make massive contributions to the agricultural sector. Under the new laws, this means that they are all the more vulnerable.
The dismantling of governmental safeguards automatically implies that women will bear the brunt of a poor payoff, as the gender gap will widen further. The notion of increasing competition is inherently patriarchal in nature, because it does not account for the challenges women face because of gender limitations. Women face challenges to their mobility in the form of the lack of accessible transport and patriarchal restrictions around their movement. They do not own the land they till, but their livelihood depends on their labour. They also have to run their households and engage in caregiving labour – a dual job that their male counterparts do not culturally share. Add to this another layer in the form of the caste system, which complicates the gender dynamic as well. Women in these positions have little-to-no access to healthcare and education. When the system has already rendered women invisible despite their significant contributions, an added layer of structural violence would hurt them further with no respite.
Today, these women stand shoulder to shoulder with their male counterparts. They sit, stand, and sleep in protest, braving the biting cold. Some sing, some dance, some perform street theatre. Some are engaged in communal kitchens, while some work hard to document the protests as they unfold. But their battles will not end with the end of these protests. In the words of Kavitha Kuruganti, a farm leader and member of a 40-member farmer delegation, “That fight is for another day.”