In the middle of December, farmers on Delhi’s Tikri border protesting the three new agriculture laws were joined by hundreds of women farmers from Punjab’s Malwa region. They came in 17 buses and 10 tractor trolleys, nearly 1,000 of them, to demand that the ‘‘black laws” be repealed.

As they descended from the vehicles, the women held union flags. But many also clutched something else – large and small photo frames held tightly against their chests. These were the portraits of their sons and husbands who had died by suicide over the years when they were unable repay the farm debt.

When they held the grainy pictures high, a wave of corpses rose. The voice of Joginder Singh Ugrahan, the farm leader, reverberated from the makeshift podium. “The debt-ridden families have been carrying their dead on their shoulders,” he said. “With the new laws, the crop of suicide will only swell.”

While the government contends that the new laws will ensure that farmers get better prices for their crops, farmers fear that this will open the doors to a corporate takeover of the sector and will threaten their livelihoods.

Deep agrarian crisis

The Green Revolution in Punjab is now ashen with grief. Over the decades, the high costs of growing commercial crops and low incomes have pushed small farmers into a debt trap, throwing Punjab into a deep agrarian crisis. Between 2000 and 2015, at least 16,000 farmers and rural labourers took their own lives in Punjab, according to a joint report by Punjab Agriculture University, Punjabi University and Guru Nanak Dev University covering 22 districts of the state.

Out of total 16,606 cases, 9,007 were farmer suicides and 7,234 were suicides by agricultural landless labourers. The overwhelming majority who took their own lives were small and marginal farmers.

The suicides by landless labourers are usually ignored in farm suicide debates. According to the report, the maximum number of such suicides took place in the Malwa region (97%).

The study found that farm debt as the reason behind most of these cases. It pointed out that 64% of total farm income in the state goes to repaying loans. Thirteen per cent of farmers in Punjab had debt that was greater than their annual income for two years.

Credit: Navsharan Singh

“They may not look it, but the farm agitators surrounding Delhi are lakhpatis in annual subsidies and crorepatis in assets,” wrote journalist Swaminathan Aiyar in The Times of India last month, as he counselled Prime Minister Narendra Modi to “wait out the agitators. … smile warmly at them, swear your heart is with them, guarantee MSPs [minimum support prices], and insist they have been misled by opposition politicians. … announce a big wheat procurement bonus in the coming rabi season … overflow with sweet words and inducements but stand firm on the eminently sensible reforms.”

This vulgarism stands in contrast to the dignified ingeniousness of the farmers with photos. The women ask: What is sensible about these laws? Why don’t they ask us, how we lost our dear ones to debt, our land to the moneylenders and how we struggle to feed our children? What’s for us in these laws?

While the minimum support price at which the government buys staples such as grain has been revised by 4% to 5% year-on-year, the cost of cultivation has been rising by 8% to 10% with more money spent on diesel, pesticides, to deepen tube wells as water table plunges and more. As the gap widens and indebtedness mounts among farmers, it also spills over to landless labourers who are dependent on the farmers for livelihoods.

The mounting debt has not only accelerated the incidents of suicides, it has also led to farmers quitting their farms to look for other work. A study by the Punjab Farmers and Agriculture Labour Commission and another study based on a field study during the year 2012-’13 found that nearly one-sixth of the state’s small farmers had left farming since 1991.

A considerable proportion of those who left farming became wage labourers, putting pressure on an already overcrowded agricultural labour market.

Informal employment

In the absence of a strong development of the industrial sector based on a classical agrarian transition, those who left farming are not fully absorbed in the industrial sector on a permanent basis. They are left in the low-paying informal employment in the grain markets, on construction sites or working on manually operated vehicles such as rickshaws and pulling carts.

The migration of workers to these low-paying jobs in nearby towns and cities is mostly temporary and circular because the non-agricultural sector fails to absorb farm workers permanently.

As a consequence, they remain tied to the agricultural sector, which provides them with some relationships and with a fallback option. The critical value of this was evident during the lockdown against the coronavirus imposed in March as workers from across India walked back to the villages to seek survival when cities in which they were working turned their back on them.

Because of these very precarious jobs, informalised labourers cling on to any tiny plots that they might have in their villages. This explains the intensity of their struggles against being dispossessed from their land. Even for marginal farmers, whose small holdings provide a very subsidiary income, this is an income that is crucial for their bare survival. The access to foodstuffs from their very small plots are greatly valued because of high food prices.

Farmers Hansaben (left), Geetaben (right) and Jesingbhai (centre) plough a field in preparation for sowing cotton seeds in Nani Kisol village in Gujarat in 2012. Credit: Sam Panthaky/AFP

But while men leave for these precarious jobs, women are left behind to fend for the families. There is an acute lack of earning options for women in the villages and they remain stuck in extremely low-paying, back-breaking odd jobs. In Punjab, nearly 85% cultivation is a combination of wheat and rice, which is mechanised. Women’s paid labour is almost non-existent in the cultivation of these crops.

In farming, women find jobs only in vegetable farms, potato harvesting and sorting, citrus fruit farms and cotton fields confined to one region of Punjab.

Non-farm options range from employment under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme, cleaning cow sheds, making cow dung cakes and odd jobs like minding cattle. According to estimates, most women get jobs in their villages between 60 days-180 days a year. Mobility of women to cities and towns is severely restricted.

For most families, dairy remains an important generator of income. However, this requires a place to keep cows and grow fodder. If fodder has to be bought, dairy becomes another loss-making activity. For women, stalking by the landowners, humiliation and sexual harassment are part of the daily experience.

Written out of the debate

Livelihoods, a life of dignity and freedom from fear rest on being able to obtain control over some land. This is why in several villages in Punjab, landless Dalits are fighting hard to regain control of village common land that has slipped away from them over the years. Over the last few years they have been getting unionised and staking claims over the commons as is enabled by the Punjab Village Commons Land (Regulation) Act of 1961.

However, because they are largely invisible and have an extremely low labour participation rate, women farmers and labourers have been written out of the agrarian sector debates. Despite this, women are affected in profound ways by the agrarian crisis, which manifests itself in the form of stagnating productivity, rising costs of production, shrinking incomes and employment, depleting land holdings, mounting indebtedness and ecological damage.

Now, hundreds of them have come to Delhi to tell their stories and so they insist that they be heard. What else to do, they ask with a calm confidence.

In seeking answers, the women are questioning the policy wisdom that remains stuck on freeing the agriculture sector of intervention by the government while advocating the elimination of minimum support prices and the public distribution system. They are throwing a challenge to policy makers and economists think solutions afresh and ensure that the hard-working poor are liberated from loss making, low productivity, low income generating agriculture and not made the inevitable casualty in the process. The state may want to wait out the agitators on the advice of corporate think tanks, but the women say they are in the Capital to stay until solutions are found to their satisfaction.

Navsharan Singh is an independent researcher.