For over two months, hundreds of thousands of Indian farmers have been conducting sustained sit-ins on the outskirts of New Delhi. Undeterred by COVID-19 or violent police crackdowns, and despite the cold northern Indian winter, the protesters are demanding the repeal of controversial new farm laws that they say harm their livelihoods.
The sit-ins have been largely peaceful, though tensions have risen in recent weeks. On Jan. 27, a group of farmers took to the streets on the occasion of India’s Republic Day holiday, clashing with security forces. At least one protester died and hundreds more were injured, including more than 300 police officers.
The Indian government has also faced mounting international criticism for its heavy-handed response to the unrest. Police have detained hundreds of protesters; eight journalists were arrested while covering the protests and charged with criminal offenses that include sedition. Last week, authorities even moved to shut down the internet in areas around New Delhi.
Despite the unprecedented scale of the farmers’ protests, they are just the latest evidence of India’s ongoing agrarian crisis. For decades, urbanization and development have caused plot sizes to decrease, while pollution and the impacts of climate change degrade the country’s soil and water resources. Production costs are increasing relative to farm incomes, driving more and more agricultural workers into vicious cycles of debt and despair. Over the past 25 years, more than 350,000 farmers in India have committed suicide.
Women are bearing the brunt of this burden, partly due to deeply rooted patriarchal attitudes that are common in India. Asked by local journalists about their motivation to participate in the sit-ins, female farmers spoke not just about their active involvement in farming work, but also how their food and education are often the first things to be sacrificed during hard times.
Farm work in India has become increasingly feminized in recent years, to the point where female farmers now produce 60 to 80 percent of the country’s food and the agriculture sector employs 80 percent of all economically active women, according to Oxfam India. Nearly 75 percent of full-time female workers in rural areas work on farms, compared to just 59 percent of men. Of the female agricultural laborers, 81 percent belong to marginalized segments of the population, including Dalits, the lowest rung in India’s caste system, or Indigenous Adivasi communities.
Yet despite being the most vulnerable to this crisis, Indian women’s voices continue to be overlooked at the highest levels of society. During a Supreme Court hearing last month on petitions against the new farm laws, Chief Justice Sharad Arvind Bobde reportedly said he could not understand “why old people and women are kept in the protests.” Still, he and two other judges ordered a temporary stay on the implementation of the laws while a court-appointed panel of experts tries to find a compromise between the protesters and the government.
The three pieces of legislation that are in question were passed by India’s parliament in September, with the aim of modernizing the agriculture sector and reducing regulations. Supporters of the measures, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, have argued they will give farmers more freedom to sell their produce by removing intermediaries and expanding opportunities for online and interstate trading. But farmers fear the new laws will remove what little protection they currently have from predatory business practices.
Their biggest concern in the recent legal changes is the dilution of the Minimum Support Price, a government-guaranteed price at which farmers have long been able to sell their crops. Farmers fear that without this support, they will have to participate in contract farming with private corporations and big agribusinesses. The new laws also remove restrictions on companies buying land and stockpiling goods, while creating a new dispute resolution mechanism that the protesters say will make it difficult to reach a fair settlement.
Farm work in India has become increasingly feminized in recent years, to the point where female farmers now produce 60 to 80 percent of the country’s food.
A more deregulated market could further damage the wellbeing of female farmers by putting them at a disadvantage vis-à-vis those who buy their produce. Most small farmers are women, many of them from marginalized communities, and they will now have to sell to large corporations with fewer safeguards to prevent their exploitation through unfair contracts.
Women will also be disproportionately affected because of their increasing overrepresentation in India’s agricultural labor force. As more men migrate to cities in search of higher incomes and opportunities, women are often left behind to manage the farm and the household with little support. In many cases, when male farmers commit suicide, their widows are also left with crushing debts that they cannot repay.
In a study released in 2017, a team of Indian and Australian scholars found that women’s increasing role in the farming labor force is undermining their wellbeing and contributing to rural poverty. The authors argue that “the feminization of agriculture may better be described as the feminization of its agrarian distress,” an echo of a related phenomenon in the United States, which the sociologist Martha E. Gimenez described as the “feminization of poverty.” In some Indian states like Maharashtra, increasing debts are a likely contributor to the doubling of suicides in the past four years among female farmers.
Women’s agricultural work remains largely undervalued in India. About one-third of female cultivators are unpaid workers on family farms. Those who work on someone else’s land receive at least 30 percent lower wages than their male counterparts, according to Oxfam. They also own little land. Despite making up a large percentage of the agricultural labor force in India, women own barely 2 percent of the farmland, according to the nationwide India Human Development Survey, the most recent edition of which was conducted in 2011 and 2012.
It was not until 2005 that the government amended the Hindu Succession Act to give Hindu, Buddhist and Jain women equal inheritance rights to agricultural land. (In India, different sets of family law exist for different religions.) Since then, issues of implementation have largely undermined the amendment’s impact and many women continue to fall outside the purview of this law. Even when women do control land, it is often smaller in size and of lower quality than land held by men.
Without land titles, women have little access to credit and are barred from government programs to support farmers. One study, in the state of Uttar Pradesh, found that only 6 percent of women own land. Less than 1 percent have participated in government training programs. Four percent have access to institutional credit, and only 8 percent have control over agricultural income.
One of the farm laws passed in September, the amended Essential Commodities Act, removes food oil, onions, cereals, potatoes and pulses from the list of essential commodities. This means that the government will no longer regulate the production, supply and distribution of these commodities. As a result, corporations will have a freer hand to hoard stockpiles of these essential supplies in order to inflate their prices.
This aspect of the laws is particularly troubling given that malnutrition and hunger remain high among the rural poor, particularly women and children. Preliminary results released last year from the National Family Health Survey found that across much of India, rates of childhood malnutrition and growth stunting have gotten worse in the past five years, reversing decades of progress.
The new farm bills also aim to expand an online trading platform for agricultural commodities, known as the electronic National Agriculture Market, or e-NAM. However, absent measures to bridge the digital gender divide in India, this platform could further increase gender inequality in the agriculture sector. Currently, fewer than 3 out of 10 women in rural India and 4 out of 10 women in urban areas have ever used the Internet.
In response to all of these grievances, the protesters are demanding nothing less than the complete rescission of the three farm laws. Until that happens, they have vowed to continue their sit-ins.