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Singur's women: From warriors to worriers

By Panchali Ray

In Singur following the exit of the Tatas, with no farmland returned and no land development either, landless agricultural labourers were the first to slip into the ‘food unsecured’ category, followed by sharecroppers, fisher folk and marginal landowners. Most affected in each category have been the women

Lata Patra is an agricultural worker in Singur block, West Bengal. She used to earn Rs 30,000-40,000 annually, with which she ran the household. Her husband, who owns a small piece of land, worked both on his own field and as a sharecropper. He never hired himself out for agricultural work. Lata, on the other hand, worked two shifts as wage labour in other people’s fields in the mornings, and both on her husband’s land and as a sharecropper in the afternoons. 

A 35-year-old mother of two school-going children, Lata’s paid and unpaid labour was the mainstay of the household. She claims that though not well-off, the money she earned and the subsistence farming that she helped her husband with ensured food, clothes, medicines and money for the children’s education. 

With the forced acquisition of land by the West Bengal government in 2006, to set up a Tata small-car factory, their lives turned upside down. Things are not the same any more. 

Singur shot to the national headlines in 2006 when a people’s movement built up against the state government’s drive to forcefully acquire land for a Tata small-car factory. With the unanticipated withdrawal of the Tatas from Singur, and the change in political equations in the state in the recent Lok Sabha elections, the struggle against land acquisition has reached a deadlock. While farm land has not been returned to the owners, there has been no further land development either. 

Women farmers and agricultural workers were at the forefront of the resistance against land acquisition in Singur; it was they who faced the violence perpetrated by the police and political party cadres. (Militancy expressed by women is not new -- historically, women have always taken part in land struggles whether it be Tebhagha or the Bodhgaya land movement.) In spite of this, however, the situation on the ground has not changed much for women. Deprived of land pattas and ownership of land, women’s agricultural work is largely looked upon as an extension of domestic work and is categorised as ‘family labour’. 

I realised this during a survey I did in Dobandi, a village of mostly landless labourers and marginalised farmers, in Singur block. Most investigative and scholarly work has focused on land losers and the politics of compensation and alternatives, to the neglect of the most marginalised among the poor sharecroppers and agricultural workers. While there has been some assessment of what displacement has meant to landless labourers and unrecorded sharecroppers, there have been no attempts to study gender as a category of people affected by displacement. 

My survey revealed that land acquisition has had a different impact on both men and women in this particular village, and that women’s experiences of the aftermath of the acquisition and what it means to their life are completely different from men’s.  

Lata Patra’s story is not unique in the state. In West Bengal, women have been involved with waged agricultural work to a large extent -- 32.18% compared to 22.69% for men. In Hooghly district (where Singur is located), the percentage of women waged agricultural workers is higher -- 36.18% compared to 21.10% for men (Census of India, 2001). The feminisation of agriculture has been widely reported by scholars and researchers. This was the case in Dobandi village too. Most men concentrated on sharecropping or working on their own lands, while land-allied entrepreneurship like driving van-cycles to ferry agricultural inputs and produce and renting livestock out on contract during the peak season were often more lucrative than agricultural work and much more popular among men. Fishing in Daibakh khal also offered a good income and was a source of sustenance during the monsoons. All sources of income, however, waged or otherwise, were closely allied to the land. 

When Lata was asked whether she owned land, she denied it as the land was not in her name and she did not consider herself the owner. Yet she was actively involved in sharecropping/working on the land, fishery and entrepreneurship although her work was looked upon as supplementary and part of ‘family work’. 

The forceful acquisition and fencing off of land in this area has predictably cut off all sources of livelihood for these agricultural households. Worst affected are the women. Although waged agricultural work declined for both men and women, it was the latter that are more directly affected. While the men are still trying to eke out a living from non-agricultural activities, women are unable to make this transition. Feminist economist Bina Agarwal argues strongly that women’s domestic work burden, lower mobility, less education and fewer investable assets limit their entry into non-agricultural occupations and makes the transition from agricultural to non-agricultural work that much more difficult. 

Take the case of Allahadi Mallik, the unmarried daughter of a landless labourer in Singur. While her married brother has started a fishery business, Allahadi walks anything between two to four hours to get work as an agricultural labourer, that too at depressed wage rates of Rs 35-40. 

Women are not just badly affected in terms of paid labour, the controversial land acquisition has intensified their domestic work too. Apart from walking long hours in search of work, they now also spend three to four hours travelling to look for fuel. Earlier, because the fields where they worked were close to their homes, they could return every now and then to cook, clean and feed the children. Allahadi says: “Now I spend all my time walking -- for fuel, for water, to go to work and come back. I have to cut down on my sleep and leisure. In spite of all this, the men in the house don’t help at home. They won’t feed the children, they won’t help with the cooking, and I don’t even expect them to. It’s not a man’s job.” 

Another issue that is worrying people in this small hamlet is food security. Earlier, with the fields yielding vegetables that they had access to (as bonus payment, or by stealing), vegetables were rarely bought from the market. If they were, it was during times of scarcity. And almost everybody fished -- Daibakh khal yielded plenty fish, especially during the monsoons. Following the land acquisition and construction of a wall, the canal no longer yields any fish. Even subsistence fishing has come to a standstill. Although some men travel a long way to catch and sell fish in the market, they are barely able to eke out a living. With young children and elderly parents to look after, women’s contribution to fishing has become further marginalised with the site of production now too far away. 

Landless agricultural labourers who were dependent on daily wages were the first to slip into the ‘food unsecured’ households category. As time passed and resources became depleted, sharecroppers, fisher folk and marginal landowners too entered this category. The onus of ensuring food for the family has fallen on women as they search for leafy plants, snails and small fish to cook. With unequal rights and entitlements to both resources within the household and at the production site, the level and quality of food consumption and nutrition has impacted women the most.

As against household food security, individual food security depends on various invisible intra-household factors like gender and age. Young girls and elderly women, whose labour is perceived to be unproductive, are the most affected. Lata Patra says: “Before at least everybody had enough to eat. Now there is not enough food to go around, so whatever comes our way we ensure that my father and brothers eat first and then my mother. My grandmother and I eat last. It’s according to need -- they need it more than we do.” 

Neetu Choudhary and D Parthasarathy note in their article ‘Gender, Work and Household Food Security’ that women’s role in the three pillars of food security -- food production, food accessibility and food utilisation -- is far greater than men’s. Working as wage labour as well as non-waged labour on family farms, they make invisible contributions to food production. Women have traditionally taken up food processing as part of their unpaid labour -- from preparing the meals, to collecting fuel, etc. Compromising on their dietary intake, to make food available during periods of shortage, is an important coping mechanism against shocks to food security.

Though intra-household allocation of resources remained the same, women and girls’ share in food consumption fell drastically in Dobandi, following the land acquisition, as their traditionally disadvantageous position within the household ensured that they fared badly on the register of consumption and nutrition.

While both men and women were involved in the resistance against land acquisition, women also had the private realm to take care of -- ensuring food for the family, taking care of the children and elderly, looking for work, etc. When it seemed that the acquisition was here to stay, women found themselves marginalised in the movement, with the onus of ensuring the survival of the household firmly on their shoulders. Their experience of the aftermath of the acquisition, apart from loss of work, income, food security and increasing pauperisation and indebtedness, also reflects their bewilderment and sense of loss as activities like annual visits to relatives, festival celebrations, cooking special food for the children all came to a grinding halt. The loss of safe places to use as toilets, lack of clean water supply from the tubewell near the settlement, which the panchayat has not repaired; the fear of losing their homes once the disputed land goes out of their hands; their seeming helplessness at being unable to find suitable partners for unmarried sisters-in-law and daughters. All these things take up most of their energy now. Kalpana Dhibar, a 65-year-old sharecropper and head of the household says: “Every year we would visit my daughter, take gifts and maintain good relations with her in-laws -- we really looked forward to it. This is also the time of harvesting. If you had come last year, you would have seen the festivities even in a poor household like ours. There are new clothes for the children, sweets are made in every house, and we all celebrate together. This year, all we can think of is getting through somehow. No one really cares for us.”

Indeed, these concerns find no place either in the agenda of the resistance or in the government’s policy on compensation and alternatives. While most of the politics of resistance has focused on forceful acquisition of land, compensation and alternatives, very little attention has been paid to women’s concerns and experiences.

(Panchali Ray is a PhD scholar at the School of Women's Studies, Jadavpur University) 

Infochange News & Features, August 2009