Workshop on women agricultural labourers

A STATE-LEVEL workshop of cadres of the Bihar unit of AIPWA was held in Samastipur on 21-22 September, 2001. There were about 75-80 delegates, who participated in discussions for 2 days. Papers were presented by Com. Saroj Chaubey, Shashi Yadav, and Meena Tiwari and Anita together on impact of globalisation on women Agricultural labourers, women’s development in Bihar and women’s education in Bihar, respectively. The workshop was also addressed by SCM, Com Dhirendra Jha, AIPWA Secretary, Jita Kaur and GS, Kumudini Pati. Almost all the delegates participated in discussions, narrating their experiences and raising some questions regarding the policy and tactics to be adopted for furthering the struggles.

In the first presentation, a study of Bhabhua district was placed. Since the beginning of this year, around 300 harvesters have been put to use in the district; hence non-availability of work in the agrarian sector has become the major issue for women. Issues like minimum wages and equal wages for men and women have now been relegated to the background, issues which had been taken up by AIPWA at state level through strikes organised by women agricultural labourers. The phenomenon of employing harvesters is new to Bihar; it first began in UP and has now picked up in some Bihar districts bordering UP. In the concerned area of struggle some 200-300 labourers were brought in from North Bihar or Jharkhand for transplantation work. They are given work on contract basis. In most of the villages of Bhabhua, Kudara and Mohania, this is a discernible feature. On the one hand, it is cheaper for the local farmers and, on the other hand, labourers coming from outside are unable to challenge the feudal authority of the employers. Some of the delegates recounted that when they go to collect hay, they are abused and chased away; the hay after harvest is later burnt in the fields. Tetra Devi and Phoola Devi, who are local leaders, say that 10 years back women agricultural labourers were being paid Rs. 5-10 or 2 Kgs uncooked grain, this being much less than what the males were being paid. It was through a long struggle for minimum and equal wages that by 1995, the wages for women went up to Rs.30 or 5 Kg. grain and breakfast or lunch. However, by this time the minimum wages stood at Rs.49.50. These leaders feel that this coupled with the agrarian crisis was one of the reasons for harvesters coming into the countryside. First there were just 5-6 harvesters in the district. Transplantation work would take only about 15 days and harvesting began to be done at a very fast pace with these machines. While the male workers began to flee to Punjab, Delhi or other districts of Bihar in search of work, women lost their livelihood, their situation worsened, and some of the womenfolk began to work as contract labour in brick kilns or as construction labour. Government agents began to visit the affected villages and talk about saving schemes and loans for starting self-help groups and setting up cottage industries for making incense-sticks, bindis or soap etc. Some of the delegates felt that contradictions between the agricultural labourers and peasantry increased, though the kisan sabha felt that it could never reject outright the use of machines or scientific techniques in the agrarian sector. Another question that came up was that during militant struggles, the labourers coming from outside were becoming the victims, which could not be justified in any way. Despite a great deal of persuasion, they would adamantly continue to work because of non-availability of work in their own villages and extreme economic hardship.

A district-level convention was held in Bhabhua centering demands of women agrarian labourers. It was decided that protest demonstrations would be held in 2 subdivisions, viz. Mohania and Bhabhua. Middle class women also participated in these demonstrations, shouting slogans, delivering speeches and walking almost 3 kms. along with the women agricultural labourers. The slogans and speeches stressed worker-peasant unity. Memoranda were submitted to the subdivisional officers demanding: local labourers be given preference over labourers from outside; guarantee of work for women throughout the year be made; committees with representatives from peasants and labourers be formed to decide on the extent of use of harvesters; social security be guaranteed for women labourers; and Bihar be declared a famine-stricken state.

According to Phula Devi, the struggle generally takes the form of persuading the outside labourers to leave, chasing them away in case of resistance, gheraoing local officials, forcibly trying to cut the crops, threatening local landlords through gheraos, and trying to set fire to harvesters in extreme cases. The local landlords often employ armed goons to beat up the labourers, open fire at protesters and even burn down villages. She stressed the need for providing licensed arms for self-defense and for continuing the struggle in the face of severe repression. According to another leader, Ramata Devi, it is easy to chase away the outsiders with lathis but very difficult to fight the guns of the landlords.

In West Champaran, women have a different story to tell. Here, the wage for women agricultural labourers remains as low as Rs.15 in some areas it goes up to a maximum of Rs. 25 or 4 kg. grain. While sugarcane is the main crop in this region, peeling sugarcane for a whole day would fetch a meagre sum of Rs.15 for a woman agricultural labourer. Labourers belonging to the Tharu community (4-5 blocks) get the least wage. Under the ‘Hatai’ system, which is prevalent among them, they get just 800 gms. of grain.

Some of the delegates said that forest land had been occupied by an American entity WWF, affecting the lives of the local populace. As trees were being felled, local villagers protested leading to their being beaten up and subsequent arrest. It was only through the militant struggle of the womenfolk that they were finally released. Others recounted instances of sexual harassment of women working in the stone quarries.

Women delegates from Nalanda said that it was possible only to get 150 days of work in the whole year. This has resulted in families having to live in extreme penury. Children’s education and health, particularly that of girls is the first casualty. In some areas the wages are as low as 1 kg grain for the whole day. During the transplantation period the maximum wage in the district would be 5 kg grain but women labourers got even less. The local landlords had already begun discussing how to pool their resources and purchase harvesters if the labourers protest low wages. Strikes have most often resulted in a ban on the labourers’ cutting grass or grazing their cattle. In Nawada, the women workers get as low a wage as 3 Kg rice plus Rs.5 for arrack. Their male counterparts get 5 Kg rice and Rs.10 for arrack (which is referred to as ‘pilai’). Some of the delegates also spoke of the plight of Bidi workers in the district. There is a great disparity in wages of men and women workers. There are more than 8000 bidi workers in this district, mostly belonging to Muslim families. Earlier a woman worker would be paid just Rs.12 per 1000 bidis. After a lot of struggle and lodging FIRs against the employers, the wage has gone up to Rs.16 for women workers, while their male counterparts get Rs.40 per thousand. According the women workers, the wage can be raised further through struggle.

In Bhojpur, in the agrarian sector, earlier the wages were as low as Rs.10-15 for the women labourers. After struggle the wages went up to Rs.25-30 in several areas. Wages could not be increased further because landlords began to make their womenfolk work in the fields so as to break the strikes. In Sahar, one of the areas of struggle, women get a wage of Rs.30.

In Siwan, in several blocks, after struggle the wages have increased from 3Kg. grain to 5 Kg. But wages differ from area to area. In some areas women labourers are still getting a low wage of Rs.6 whereas in some areas they get Rs.15. Strikes have been conducted, and in Darauli, warning has been issued that the harvesters and other implements and fields would be set on fire if their pleas went unheeded. In Gopalgunj, wages for men and women for transplantation work are the same and women’s wage has gone up by Rs.25 in the last 5 years.

Women working as construction labourers have to face a lot of harassment at the hands of the employers. Now women are being enrolled as members of the Nirman Mazdoor Union. Meanwhile, the Bihar govt. has formed a Nirman Mazdoor Board in which AIPWA has demanded formal representation. AIPWA is also taking up the cause of safai karmachari women, who are being retrenched and being denied proper wages. In Patna, street hawkers, vegetable vendors and other women who live on daily wage are being first organised in slum areas as unorganised urban poor. Recently, an impressive rally of about 300 women was organised in Patna on their demands, their main demand being to put a stop to demolition drives in the name of beautification of the city.

On the question of impact on education of women in Bihar, Com Meena Tiwari said that the escalating cost of education has taken its toll on the girl students. She said that there is a high dropout rate for girls and even those who are sent to school are sent to govt. schools whereas the boys are sent to public schools. Several delegates felt there is a lack of infrastructural facilities and the schools are too far away for the girls to travel. Moreover, there is no security for them. In Bihar, there has been a block on scholarships and freeships for the last 10 years. In most of the Govt. run schools in the countryside, there is no drinking water or electricity. The buildings are dilapidated and the teachers do not attend to their classes. There are no degree colleges in the rural areas and the colleges in the cities are out of the reach of the girl students both economically and geographically. Some primary level education programmes are to be conducted through the anganwadis but hardly any function. In the rural areas, many school buildings have been converted into camps for the police and paramilitary.

In Patna, post-graduate courses are being abandoned. Most delegates demanded one higher secondary school in each block and one degree college in each district for women. Science teaching is not being carried out in most girls’ colleges, rather subjects like “home science” are being taught. Delegates from Samastipur said that they have decided to raise issues related to girl students separately within the students’ movement. Delegates from Nalanda felt that security of girl students was the main problem. Anita, President of the Patna unit, said that in Patna, eve-teasing and molestation near the premises of girls’ colleges and hostels had become an everyday affair and AIPWA has started protesting on this issue.

On women’s development in Bihar a paper was placed by the Bihar state secretary of AIPWA. It was the unanimous opinion of all delegates that women’s’ development in Bihar was only possible through a struggle against the feudal system. Issues like education, health care, drinking water, employment, widow and old-age pension, housing and separate toilets were some of the major issues. Though under the employment guarantee scheme women are entitled to 30% of the wage labour plus 100 days of work, the benefits go to the dominant section of the rural populace through the local elected representatives. The social security scheme is hardly implemented. In many areas feudals have obstructed literacy campaigns and did not even allow the womenfolk to come out of their houses. Leela Devi who has been elected in the Zilla Parishad on CPI(ML) banner, said that in Dulhin Bazaar RJD as well local goons and police were trying to thwart her efforts. She said that through her intervention she has been able to fight corruption in the development programmes, resulting in lots of villagers demanding her direct intervention physically in their villages too. Malati Devi another ZP member says she is being prevented from carrying on developmental work in Darauli by RJD men. Even signature campaigns for implementation of widow and old age pension schemes being conducted by panchayat mukhia are being obstructed by them. They also obstructed sincere workers from running Anganwadis. In several areas loans are being blocked in CPI(ML) areas of influence under the pretext of non-payment of dues by one or two persons. In many areas, propaganda campaigns are being conducted to make the villagers aware of their rights and make them organise to fight this terror. While in Aurangabad, block-level meetings are being conducted for this purpose, in Madhubani, women have organised for pressing the demand of implementation of the TRYSEM scheme. Several delegates said that a large number of NGOs have entered the countryside with the agenda of development but a thorough investigation has to be made and their work assessed to understand their functioning and level of commitment to the cause of women’s development.

In the next phase more experiences of direct struggles on these issues and their fallout has to be brought out so as to expand AIPWA’s vision and gear it up for action.

Kumudini Pati