Produce Market

Women Make Their Voices Heard at the Farmers Protests

Every morning at six a.m., farmer Jagat Singh Rathi can be found giving out breakfast to anyone he lays his eyes on. “The farmer is a person that feeds everyone,” Rathi said as he stirred the giant pot of channa and called out to people around him to grab a plate.

Rathi, affectionately known as chacha or uncle, has been at the Ghazipur border of New Delhi for over 100 days now. At the border, farmers have set up a self-sustaining camp that stretches three kilometers both on and below the highway, in protest of the land laws proposed by the national government in India. These land laws would lessen government involvement and open up more room for private investors, which the government believes will allow for agricultural growth. Farmers, however, are against the laws because they fear that the further removal of already limited state protection will leave them at risk of being taken advantage of by private companies. They believe these laws will deregulate crop pricing and lead to the elimination of the Minimum Support Price that provides them with guaranteed income by setting a uniform crop price. “The government has set farmers back thirty years,” said Rathi. “The rate of everything is increasing and the value of our crop is decreasing. That is why we’re here,” he said, pulling crates of water bottles out of the supply tent to hand out.

What started as a few tents on December 16, 2020, has now evolved into a community of hundreds of farmers at the Ghazipur border, determined to keep protesting until the government accepts their demands to repeal the new farm laws. “Right now we’re on the streets. In a while, it will be our children. We will bring our animals and tie them here,” said farmer Choudhary Mahender Singh, who has been at the camp since the first day it was set up. With no intention of returning to his village any time soon, Singh said, “we're building our homes here - we will not leave till they reverse the three black laws. We belong to the movement.” Veggies! Photo by Iñigo De la Maza from Unsplash Men like Rathi and Singh are at the forefront of this movement visually. When farmers took to the streets of New Delhi on January 26, a day that is celebrated nation-wide as Republic Day to mark the implementation of the Indian constitution,  it was primarily pictures of men driving tractors that took center stage. It would be a mistake, however, to think that these pictures are representative of the protests as a whole.

Not only are women present at the protests, but more importantly, they are active and passionate participants. Jasween Kaur arrives at the Ghazipur border nearly every day at 2 p.m. and jumps right in, chopping vegetables, cooking, and serving food. She explains that they hold langar - a community based food service - all day, with delicacies ranging from lassi to jalebi, and that anyone is welcome to the food, even those who are not a part of the camp.

The farmers at the camp have welcomed underprivileged children from nearby slums, taking it upon themselves to feed them and provide them with an education. In the initial stages of the protest, Nirdesh Singh recognized that there was a need to provide the children at the protest with the means to continue their education. With the help of volunteers, she set up a tent that would serve as a temporary classroom for the children of farmers present at the protest, complete with school supplies such as pencils, notebooks and books, and even a projector for the children to log on to online classes from.

However, when most of the farmers’ children were sent back home after the violence at the Red Fort on January 26, Nirdesh Singh and the volunteers found a different reason to keep the school open. “We saw that the underprivileged children of the surrounding areas were more in need of an education,” explained Vishant Singh Sohna, one of the many part-time teachers at the school.

Women can be found not just in the food and education tents of the camp, but also in administration. Harsharanjeet Kaur, one of the volunteers at the camp, is a 28 year old cloud consultant from Dubai and has been at the Ghazipur border since the protests started in December. Kaur manages the organization of events at the protest, organizing several different themed events such as “Youth Day” and “Women’s Day”.

Kaur is also responsible for overseeing the stage built by the farmers on the highway where many of these events take place, and says that in her experience, the women at the camp are some of the most enthusiastic and passionate members of the movement. She explained that typically, 11 designated volunteers sit on the stage at the protest every day and fast from morning till evening as a symbol of resistance. On the days that women are designated to sit on the stage however, there is always an abundance of volunteers. “On women's day there were so many women that we had to seat 28 women. We have to stop the women from sitting because there are so many.” In addition to her administrative role, Kaur aids the women at the protest, finding them bedding and helping them with sanitary needs. She explained that many women spend months on end at the protest and to accommodate for this, there are women’s tents with sanitary provisions, as well as designated tents for women to sleep in.

Despite government recommendations for women to return home, they remain at the borders of Delhi, fighting alongside their male counterparts for justice and a repeal of the proposed land laws. This January, The Chief Justice of India SA Bobde posed the question “why are women and elders kept in the protest?” and asked lawyers that were representing the farmers to persuade women and elderly citizens to return home.

This points to a misunderstanding of the role of women, not just in the protests but in the agricultural industry of India. According to a 2018 report by The National Council of Applied Economic Research, “women comprise over 42 percent of the agricultural labor force in the country, signifying increasing feminization of agriculture, and yet they own less than 2 percent of its farmland.” A report by the People’s Archive of Rural India stated that nearly two-thirds of the female workforce is engaged in agriculture, “either as cultivators or agricultural laborers”.

Though the role of women in agriculture in India is largely invisible, within the protests, their passion and hard work do not go unnoticed. Sitting on stage in the midst of “Youth Day” preparations, Kaur said that despite what many may think, “You’ll find women in every sector - from administration to volunteering to making food. This is a farmers’ protest, it is not a man’s protest. There is as much respect for women as there is for men. In the end, it is ultimately for the farmers.”