Rural struggles in India against exploitation bring women to the fore

A fair day's wage for a fair day's work has been the main goal of women workers in rural India. As the following article illustrates, although this struggle has been bitter and protracted, women workers have demonstrated great tenacity in fighting and organising themselves to realise this goal.

Bharat Dogra

IT was a bitterly cold night and several villagers huddled around a small fire in Chilkana village, trying to snatch fragments of warmth to comfort their inadequately clothed bodies. As the weather turned even colder, the discussion became hotter. Everyone agreed that stagnant farm wages were making it very difficult for them to make ends meet, but they could not agree on the details of how the demand for higher wages should be raised.

Then one woman farm worker spoke up, 'Why not start with us? After all, we are the most exploited among the exploited workers.'

This was a new suggestion - no one had imagined that women workers would initiate the struggle for better wages - but it appealed to almost everyone present at the small gathering.  Even though they toiled as hard as the men, women workers received just around half the wages. While the wages for both men and women were inadequate, what the women workers got was doubly so. So once the suggestion came up, it made eminent sense to accept it.

The reason the idea of a women-led struggle could be readily accepted in this otherwise conservative rural society in Saharanpur district in India's northern Uttar Pradesh state was that a voluntary organisation named Disha had been active here in resisting all forms of discrimination, including gender, religious and caste-based discrimination. Disha had organised camps where lawyers came to provide information to workers regarding minimum wage laws and the legal rights of workers. Hence Dalit women farm workers in particular were very responsive to the call for action as they were absolutely fed up with the negligible payment they received after toiling hard for the entire day. (The Dalits constitute the lowest caste in India's caste system.)

Thus was started a campaign which would become well known as a struggle initiated and won by women farm workers, and that too in very hostile conditions. The support extended by Disha was crucial for this rare success of the poorest women against the most influential landlords in the area.

Women workers took the lead in organising a strike at a time when farm work was badly needed. The big landowners were very angry as workers were seen to be more willing to work for smaller farmers. They tried to bring in workers from outside but women workers mounted guard at key locations so that workers from nearby villages could be persuaded not to break labour unity.

A flashpoint arose when one of the younger women workers slapped a youth from a powerful family. She complained that he had been stalking her. Several influential personalities in the area collected arms and entered the house cum office of Disha secretary K N Tiwari where he was working with his wife Jahnvi and two other women activists.

The leader of the mob told Tiwari to stop instigating the workers. Tiwari replied, 'The struggle of the women is a just one. We can discuss this in detail whenever you want. You are threatening me with a show of force and arms, but we will never give up our support for this movement.'

Women activists stood in front of Tiwari and challenged the mob to first face them. They were local residents but the members of the mob had never seen them in a state of such fury. They had thought they would scare Tiwari into submission but the situation had turned out very differently. Gradually the mob started dispersing.

After this there was no turning back for the movement. Uma, one of the participants, recalled, 'It seemed we had forgotten how it was to feel scared.'

Many landowners actually did not want a big confrontation but up till that point, they had been overruled by a dominant few. The moderates now asserted themselves to get on with their farming, and soon an agreement was reached to increase the wages of women workers. This was later followed by a rise in the wages of male workers too. Thus the wage gap between the men and women remained but the women workers accepted this as their overall family earnings had increased to enable them to meet their immediate needs, which was what they had sought.

This struggle took place about three decades back but it is still remembered by women in the area as this proved to be a landmark movement and the confidence which it engendered encouraged them to mobilise on a larger scale.

It was subsequently decided to consolidate this success by forming a broad-based organisation of farm workers and small/marginal farmers with a leading role for women. A meeting of several villages was called which attracted nearly 10,000 participants. At this gathering the formation of a morcha or front called the Women Workers and Small Peasants Front was announced. This organisation, simply called Morcha by the people here, has since been taking up issues of injustice affecting weaker sections of the community.

While this work was initially concentrated in the Sarsawa and Sadhaula Qadim blocks of Saharanpur district, eventually it spilled over to a much wider region as people, particularly women, from several other villages came to Disha with their complaints. Disha too on its own initiated development projects in other areas and started collaborating closely with other organisations elsewhere, mostly in western Uttar Pradesh but to some extent also in neighbouring Uttarakhand state.

Disha was soon involved in another confrontation, this time with middlemen who had a grip on rope-making artisans, controlling the raw material supply and other aspects of the work in such a way that the artisans earned very little. Disha managed to procure a direct supply of the bhabhar grass used in rope-making but the middlemen conspired to set the entire stock on fire. Undaunted, Disha then collaborated with another voluntary organisation Vikalp to form the Ghaar Area Workers Front to protect the interests of the artisans. This helped in raising their earnings for some years before this artisanal work declined under the impact of wider market forces.

Disha and sister organisations also helped landless households, particularly Dalits, to get land pattas (records of land ownership) and to cultivate the land. When a big scare appeared in the form of an administrative order to take back some of these pattas, Disha collaborated with Vikalp to obtain stay orders so that this reversal of land reforms could be checked.

The year 1993 proved to be very challenging for Disha. With rural women again taking the lead, Disha became the focal point of a determined anti-liquor movement against politically connected liquor contractors. After a long struggle which saw incidences of police violence, they succeeded in closing down a liquor shop in Pather village.

As the women activists of Disha became better informed and more confident, they took up numerous individual cases of victimised women and helped them to obtain justice. Now the efforts of Disha to help out distressed women enjoy a lot of credibility not only in its main areas of work but also beyond.

In the course of these efforts, the capabilities of the women activists themselves have grown, enabling them to reach out and help even more distressed people. One such activist is Rajjo, who comes from a cobbler household and went on to serve as Vice-Chairperson of the Sultanpur Chilkana Town Area Committee. After being elected to this position, she found herself busier than ever in serving the poorest and resolving their problems. She says, 'I had never imagined that I would be able to help so many people, but thanks to working with Disha and Morcha, new opportunities were created such that the impossible became possible.'  

Bharat Dogra is a freelance journalist based in India who has been involved with several social movements and initiatives.

*Third World Resurgence No. 319/320, Mar/Apr 2017, pp 56-57