Impact of Agrarian Crisis on Peasant Women

Preliminary findings of a survey in Punjab

Ranjana Padhi

The havoc caused by capitalist-intensive agriculture in a deeply traditional and feudal society is borne out in the daily lives of women, dalits, children, youth and the elderly. Each peasant suicide in Punjab is an indicator of the plight of millions of agricultural poor who are struggling for survival. This article shows how the economic and social realms are inextricably linked in the lived reality of the peasantry, including peasant women. The current grave situation threatens to not only engulf even more lives but along with it the dreams and aspirations of the next generation too. The picture of the laughing Punjabi farmer in calendars was mere propaganda of the Green Revolution as there’s depression, alienation and suicide written on many young faces today. Both research and ground reality show how it is the Green Revolution and the measures undertaken then that led to the rapid deterioration of soil conditions, increased demand of high cost pesticides and chemical fertilizers, and a network of institutional funding that extended to non-institution sources too; the latter subsequently brought almost the entire of the farming community into the vicious grip of indebtedness. In this article, I share some preliminary findings of a survey of women of 125 families across 10 districts of the Malwa region – the region most affected by the agrarian crisis in Punjab. This survey has been made possible with the active support and co-operation of BKU Ekta (Ugrahan), Punjab Kisan Union and BKU Ekta (Dakonda).
The findings will show the aftermath of farmer suicides triggered by indebtedness and other related reasons. The interviews have been held in 47 villages across the districts of Ferozepur, Muktsar, Bhatinda, Moga, Mansa, Sangrur, Patiala, Ludhiana, Barnala and Faridkot. Approximately 40% of the sample is of dalit landless agricultural labourers, the rest being largely small and marginal peasants. 80% of those who committed suicide are between age 21 and 50 – the most productive years in a person’s life. There are also 4 suicides of women and cases of double or even triple suicides in a single day. The mode of suicide is consumption of pesticide in 70% cases; hanging, drowning, railway tracks and other means in the rest. Since agriculture is per se based on family labour with the household economy being an integral part of the agricultural economy, these 125 interviews of mothers and wives and other female relatives reveals how the total number of affected people is 595 i.e., five times the number of suicides. Of this total, the percentage of dependents (below 18 and above 60) forms 55%.
The study delves into the various aspects of the agrarian crisis as it is lived out in the lives of peasant women and dependents – both children and elderly. These aspects construe the realm of the “social” – aspects that traditionally do not get taken into account in either resistance strategies or literature addressing the agrarian crisis in general and peasant suicides in particular. The sheer burden of managing the demands of fatherless families takes its toll on women in the form of depression and other health problems caused by the overwhelming psychological pressure of grinding poverty. And most importantly, women’s economic activities in tending to livestock, fodder collection, and doing all kinds of work within the house to make ends met are still not accorded the status of labour in our society. Housework, childcare and nursing of the elderly become more arduous as women are left with all the traditional responsibilities of marriage and family without any semblance of protection. Finally, women’s participation in seasonal labour and daily wage work remain very poorly paid, if available at all.
What do the survivors of these families do? How does life continue? The restriction on women’s mobility restricts almost all Jat Sikh women from taking on wage work. It is the Majhabi, Ramdasia and Ravidasia Sikh women (Dalits – ed/-) who work on daily wages largely and seem proud of it too. One or two Jat Sikh women in the survey expressed their longing to do such work but fear being ostracized from the village the day they enter wage work. Even then, a 65 year-old Jat Sikh woman who has nobody to look after her has resorted to wage work by picking cowdung for Rs 450 per month. She has defied caste norms since there is no one left in her family. There are many elderly women like her without any support. Seasonal labour like picking gaajar and muli or cotton picking fetches Rs 50-60 per day. Most get such work for a maximum of two to three months a year including the season of paddy and wheat harvesting. Even the paltry widow’s pension of Rs 250/- per month given by the Punjab government that seems a mockery in today’s times does not reach many of the survivors of peasant suicides for months on end! Over 65% women in the sample are engaged in maintaining livestock and fodder collection. Household expenses are met by selling milk to local shops or to Nestle or Verkey agents in some areas. They are able to make Rs 1000 to Rs 2000 per month. Even while engaging in any odd work available like tailoring and weaving, 94% of the women are engaged in intense domestic labour and 54% in caring and nursing the elderly.
The devaluation of women in Punjab is most evident in its declining sex ratio. As per the 2001 census data, it is 876 females per 1,000 males while the national average is 933. Many of the families interviewed had a consistent pattern of two sons only or a single son in fewer cases. When the agricultural system is completely dependent on high cost inputs wiping away the poor and when caste plays the biggest barrier to try other options of earning, girls are viewed as liability because of the dowry system. It is the poor in Punjab paying a heavy price in the form of dowry; many suicides are related either directly or indirectly to increased indebtedness because of dowry among other factors. Even families where suicides have taken place, the minimum expectation of dowry was Rs 2 lakhs among Jat Sikhs and over Rs 60,000 amongst the landless dalits. While 74% of families in the sample are in debt for agricultural or housebuilding purposes, debts are also related to dowry or health purposes. Of the 46% of families who have used loans for dowry and marriage, 89% are landless labourers and small and marginal farmers. Evidently, this cruel patriarchal practice places the heaviest burden on the most vulnerable sections of the peasantry. Almost all peasant unions today in Punjab are campaigning against lavish weddings and dowry.
Of the 36% families who have used loan money for health reasons, 82% have resorted to private health care for surgeries involving stones in the gall bladder or kidney, accidents, hysterectomies, eye surgeries, hernia – what should be available in public hospitals as a basic right to any citizen. Incidences of stomach cancer -caused by the heavy presence of pesticides in the ground water and on cotton crops - and heart problems involve huge expenses exceeding 1 or 2 lakhs at times. Most people resort to traveling to Bikaner for free cancer treatment by traveling in a daily passenger train that is now popularly called Cancer Train (which others therefore consider a stigma to travel in). Some of cancer patients in the villages of Bhatinda district related how they cannot even afford to travel up to Bhatinda to catch this train.
While 14% women agreed they get some sort of support from their mother’s families or in-laws, a clear 86% said there’s no support from anywhere or expressed ambiguity. Almost all women shared the sheer mental anguish and psychological distress they are undergoing in the face of the acute agrarian crisis and the struggle for survival. Lack of sleep is faced by 47% women while anxiety with or without reason is experienced by 67%. Fear and nervousness accompanied by palpitations in the chest is experienced by 16% while 35% complained of fatigue and intense physical weakness.

The biggest concern of most women is the future of the children. The education system is in shambles while private schools cost the earth; yet women are entering fresh loans to somehow provide a decent education to children while the even poorer families see a higher rate of school drop outs. The impact of this on the youth in Punjab is severe. On one hand, a rigid caste structure characterized by an invincible pride of being landowning Jat Sikhs prevents many of them from stepping out of agriculture. On the other, the prospects of employment seem bleak because this collapse in agriculture is one side of a reality where there has been little or no growth in the secondary and tertiary sectors in Punjab. A majority of the youth in villages visited suffer from drug addiction, helping themselves to dubious supplies of allopathic drugs like proxyvon, grillinctus cough syrup and many other medicines taken in overdose that is sold in black. Young girls are seen a responsibility by mothers and brothers – whose marriage often entails sale of land or fresh debts even after a suicide has taken place in the family. For mothers who are barely in control of their own lives, a decent marriage of a daughter is the only aspiration. At times of such economic crisis, the devaluation of women and women’s labour is further worsened as daring to dream beyond the existing reality becomes impossible when mass suicides are happening..