Women: Overlooked Stakeholders at Delhi’s Borders

Written by: Kamika Patel

Since November, tens of thousands of farmers across parts of Punjab, Haryana, and Uttar Pradesh have been protesting near the outskirts of Delhi, India’s capital, demanding the repeal of the three new agricultural ordinances passed in September by the Union Cabinet of India. The government claims that these ordinances will foster and promote an environment of free trade of products as well as open up private investment opportunities in agriculture.

The Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi personally justified the laws by saying they would allow for more freedom for farmers to set their own prices, sell directly to buyers and corporations, and participate in private investment to increase agricultural growth. 

The essence of these three bills is not difficult to summarize. The first law introduces private mandis (agricultural markets)—mandis that are not regulated by the government. Traders do not have to be licensed nor can the government claim the taxes it ordinarily levies to run its own mandis in these marketplaces. The second law enables contract farming so that companies can strike deals with farmers to plant and sell specific kinds of produce. The third law allows traders to stock agricultural commodities with fewer restrictions. The government can only intervene during emergencies when prices rise so sharply that hoarding goods become a public danger.

Angry and concerned farmers believe these laws favor the “money-hungry” corporations. They are afraid that minimum support prices (MSPs), an agricultural product price set by the Government of India to purchase directly from the farmer, will not be guaranteed. They also fear that the private intervention would lead to instability in the existing trade area as the reforms around the sale, pricing and storage of farm produce will loosen. It is assumed that these laws will most hurt the small-scale and marginalized farmers. As the most marginal of India’s small farmers, women, especially, may suffer the most if the laws go into effect. 

Previously, government-regulated negotiators provided women an avenue to conduct bargaining and price discovery, not requiring them to physically enter the male-dominated agricultural markets and haggle with traders over crop prices. While a less restricted market may enable farmers to sell and or purchase agricultural produce anywhere in the country in hopes of a better price, women’s access to markets may now be limited due to deep-rooted gender inequality making Indian female farmers much less able to travel than men.

Overall, farmers feel a lack of support from the government and are also frustrated with the lack of concern. The key demand for these protests is to reverse the three new agriculture policies that could hurt farmers through exploitation by corporations and result in fewer earnings.

While the laws directly impact the farmers in India, they could also have a significant impact on global consumers, who rely on India as the world’s largest producer, consumer and exporter of spices, producing about 68% of the world’s spices. 

Additionally, agriculture is the primary source of livelihood for about 58 percent of India’s 1.3 billion residents, and as farmers are the biggest voter bloc in the country, farming is a central political issue. As the average age of the Indian farmer in 2016 was 50.1 years, we see more older people protesting the new farm laws. This vulnerable demographic is facing the brunt of arduous protests and backlash. These waves of protests by angry farmers could possibly lead to Modi losing a significant amount of votes during the next general election in 2024. 

In November, enraged farmers drove in tractor conveys from different parts of India to set up three campsites on the outskirts of Delhi. Protesters were met with police resistance as police fired tear gas and water cannons to stop them from entering the capital. The protests continued throughout December and January, with supporters across the country participating in labor and hunger strikes. The protests continue to gain more traction internationally as demonstrations grow in size. Currently, security forces at the camps on the Delhi border keep watch from the outer edges. However, no direct attempts have been made to clear the camps, as it would likely cause an unpopular political outcry. 

While authorities have not given an official figure on protester deaths, Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM), a coalition of over forty Indian farmers’ unions has reported at least 147 farmers have died during the protests due to suicide, road accidents and exposure to cold weather, among other causes.

Despite months of negotiation, government leaders have failed to reach any agreement or compromise with different farmers’ unions. In December, officials suggested a proposal that state governments would be able to impose fees on private firms. Farmers rejected these proposals, describing the government as “insincere” in its efforts to appease them. In mid-January, India’s Supreme Court temporarily suspended the three new agricultural laws, hoping the farmers might be willing to negotiate with more reception to different proposals. Despite these actions, protests have continued, with some farmers going so far as vowing not to leave Delhi until the laws are fully repealed.

In January, the Supreme Court of India specifically persuaded the elderly, women and children to leave the protests. The Court reasoned that it harmed the safety of these groups to continue to spend cold days and nights in makeshift shelters across multiple protest sites surrounding Delhi.

In response, women farmers demonstrated resistance and have continued to remain onsite at the border of the Indian capital. Women, who form the spine of Indian agriculture, are more vulnerable to corporate exploitation. 85 percent of rural women work in agriculture, but only around 13 percent own any land. Women of rural India contribute directly towards agricultural production by laboring on family-owned farms, as well as indirectly through domestic chores within their individual households. 

In addition to protesting, many women have assumed the responsibility of managing their farms and households back in Punjab by themselves while their husbands or men within their families protest near the capital. They are also providing a continuous supply of rations, blankets and other essentials needed at the protest sites. The men could not have camped on the borders of Delhi for more than a month had it not been for this logistical support provided by the women in their families and the assurance that their farms are being tended to. Women are managing about 100 protest sites in Punjab to keep up the momentum of the widespread movement in the home state.

Due to their contributions, female farmers and activists are being acknowledged in a reverent manner, potentially offering a new vision of what gender equality might look like for the country. Entrenched gender inequality has permitted women to embody what agricultural experts call an “invisible workforce” on India’s vast farmlands. However, the female farmers and activists are taking advantage of the awareness they are raising and are increasing the discourse on women’s work and their contribution to the rural economy.