'If Food Isn't Essential, What Is?': Women Farmers Have Questions – and Answers – for Modi Govt

“They (the government) couldn't even get us oxygen, how can we trust them with our food? We cannot lose relatives to hunger now.”

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After eight months and no consensus between farmers’ leaders and the Union government, over a thousand women gathered at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar to run a ‘Mahila Kisan Sansad’. While 200 women ran the parallel parliament set up by farmers, hundreds of others guarded them – politics and security were both led by the women.

To get a glimpse of the action, I quickly crossed the checkpoints and found myself sitting under a neem tree, facing 200 women parliamentarians. Debate on the essential commodities amendment was in full swing.

“Why did Modi use the pandemic to pass laws?” “Why is government selling our food system to Ambani-Adani?” The women parliamentarians had many questions, but only two minutes to express their views. They used Hindi, Punjabi, Haryanvi and English to shoot down the farm laws and poke holes in the essential commodities amendments.

“If food is not essential, what is?” asked Pooja Kanojia from Sultanpur, Uttar Pradesh. She was dismayed at how the UP government handled the COVID-19 crisis. “They (the government) couldn’t even get us oxygen, how can we trust them with our food? We cannot lose relatives to hunger now,” she said. During the Sansad, I saw many women who had come straight from the hinterlands of Punjab, Haryana, UP and some from even Bengal. They carried with them their pride and pain.

The Mahila Kisan Sansad. Photo: Indra Shekhar Singh

Manish Birla presented the case for non-paddy and -wheat farmers, “I come from the Rajasthan-Haryana border, we grow bajra, moong, cotton and other dry land crops. We neither get the MSP nor the does the government procure our crops. When white-fly attack our cotton, its doesn’t become news and our farmers and homes are destroyed waiting for compensation.”

“When the farmers themselves can’t eat dal and mustard, what has India come too?” asked Jaspreet Kaur, an elderly women from Punjab. Another women from Punjab, Harpreet Kaur, spoke out against the WTO. “Indian farmers have suffered for years due to WTO; as member of the parliament, I request for withdrawal from the WTO,” she said.

The Women’s Sansad also saw well-known faces make an appearance – from veteran activist to Medha Patkar to actor Gul Panang. But many women were media shy, too. Pooja Singh from UP said, “For us the solution is simple, repeal the three laws, and send us home. The ball is Modi’s court, why are you asking us for solutions, go ask Modi.”

Also read: Farmers to Intensify Their Protests Across UP, Uttarakhand: Rakesh Tikait

Amidst the hustle-bustle, I found veteran farmer leader Yudhvir Singh, the official observer for the Sansad. “Women run the house and the household budget. Inflation and bad policies of the Modi government are hurting their home budgets. Each home is suffering, and hence women have been a big part of this kranti (revolution).”

“We want repeal of the laws, but also implementation of 50% reservation for women in parliament. There can be no social justice without the empowerment of women,” said Sapna Yadav, a young woman farmer. The Sansad held three sessions which saw a variety other issues emerge – scarcity of water, rising fuel prices and women’s education.

“By handing over our fields to corporations and stealing all our grain, Modi ji wants to fulfil his promise to us. Our farms don’t generate profits, our children unemployed and slowly hunger is rising in the villages,” said Paramjeet Kaur, a 46 year old from Rajasthan.

The Mahila Kisan Sansad. Photo: Indra Shekhar Singh

There was much to say, but very little time left for the Sansad. I asked Medha Patkar, what does it all mean? “This farmers’ uprising has brought together the workers, peasants, farmers and women all together. This is a people’s movement for social justice and fairness. No government should ignore it. The women have shown us that they are resilient and will not be defeated.”

The Sansad continued, more speeches were made and issues discussed. Finally, a woman ‘agriculture minister’ addressed the gathering, “I accept all your criticisms, these laws are not for our country. This Sansad repeals these black laws, and I pray, both Narendras (Modi and Tomar) hear the call of the mothers and sisters of India. God shall prevail and we will win.”

The day ended with women getting into buses and going home. Stillness returned as a lone tricolour under the neem tree fluttered.

Indra Shekhar Singh is director – policy and outreach, National Seed Association of India.