Dalit Women Workers in Punjab's Agrarian Crisis

Navsharan Kaur

The ongoing farm protest movement and the demand to repeal the three farm laws have raised a fundamental question on the role of agriculture in India's development model in the future. But there are many hidden layers of the agrarian crisis that are yet to be uncovered.  The ongoing discussions have also made it clear that the agrarian crisis is not limited to remunerative prices, huge debt burden, or access to markets. But it is fundamentally about farming as an occupation for an overwhelming majority of rural people and the survival of agriculture in its present form.  A related, and most significant question is about the future of landless farm laborers, and the future of Dalit women farm laborers. Agrarian crisis is today a festering wound on the body politic, the pain of which is borne equally by landless Dalit working women. Today, land use is changing due to rapid changes in agricultural land relations and development projects. At many places, farm land is being acquired for development projects and the farmers are struggling for fair compensation for their land. But the newly pushed Land Acquisition Act, and amendments to the law to set up industries on Shamlat and Panchayat lands are also having a profound effect on the rights of the rural dalits and their right to bid on one-third of Shamlat lands. With lack of employment opportunities and the depletion of land in villages, the farm laborers are being turned into perennial casual labour.  Men are forced to work in the cities while the women workers are left behind in the villages to fend for themselves.

In the villages, there is a severe shortage of employment for women farm laborers. Our surveys show that in Punjab, women farm laborers get a maximum of 150 days of farm work in a year and the average wage is far lower than the stipulated minimum wage. Women’s wage is also lower than the male wage. The result is that the women laborers are pushed into very low-wage, bone-crushing, low paid occupations such as tending of animals, cleaning of cow sheds, cooking, cleaning, storing and other care work. These occupations command little economic value because while it is labor intensive hard work, it is considered an extension of the housework, which is seen as women’s responsibility which has no value in the labor market. Every woman laborer enters the labor market with the disadvantage of her gender but Dalit woman laborer also suffers from an additional caste disadvantage. The worth of Dalit woman’s labor is so low that their status in the labor market is reduced to insignificance. The evil eye of the landowners, obscene language, sexual assaults, violence on Dalit women are the result of the increasing power of the land owners and the marginalised social existence of dalit working women. A worrying example of the social degradation of Dalit women has emerged in a recent UN report, “Turning promises into action: Gender equality in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”. This 2018 report records that the average age of a Dalit woman in India is 14.6 years less than that of an upper caste woman. How do we understand this statistic? Who has robbed Dalit women of their 14 years and 6 months? Why is the government not responding? Why are the policy makers not held to account? Why are we as a society not ashamed?

Public policy research did not pay any attention to Dalit women labor when the so-called Green Revolution was ushered in.  What happened to farm labor? How did their means of livelihood disappear? How are they making a living or managing to send their girls to school?  How will the next generation survive? No policy maker asked these questions or done anything in this regard. But that does not mean that these questions were not asked. In Punjab, these questions were raised in the democratic, cultural and political mobilisations.  These questions resonated in the poems and songs of the legendary dalit poet Sant Ram Udasi who composed songs of the working daughters.  They appeared in Gursharan Singh's inspiring plays. These became part of several unions’ charters.

More recently, issues such as caste-based sexual harassment and violence against Dalit women, the disappearing rights of Dalits on the common land and other shared resources, caste atrocities and humiliation, and land acquisition have become the basis of organized resistance. With all these struggles, Dalit working women, and especially the younger generation, have entered the contested political space.  Courageous young women like Nodeep Kaur and Rajveer Kaur are raising their voice for justice.  We must stand behind them and add our voice to the just demands of rights over Shamlat land, equal right to minimum wage, fair rates for farm labor, land for housing, compensation for farm labor suicides and redistribution of surplus land under the Land Ceiling Act. The heroic farm struggle waged by the farmers and workers has given hope; hope that a new just, and more equal society is possible.  The ultimate success, however, is directly linked to how the demands of Dalits are articulated in this ongoing struggle.