Thanks to the Twitter war between India’s Ministry of External Affairs and Meena Harris, the niece of US Vice President Kamala Harris, 23-year-old Dalit labour activist Nodeep Kaur has become a major topic of news in India and abroad over the last few days – and so has the cause she represents.
Weird to see a photo of yourself burned by an extremist mob but imagine what they would do if we lived in India. I’ll tell you—23 yo labor rights activist Nodeep Kaur was arrested, tortured & sexually assaulted in police custody. She’s been detained without bail for over 20 days. pic.twitter.com/Ypt2h1hWJz
— Meena Harris (@meenaharris) February 5, 2021
Nodeep, a member of the Mazdoor Adhikar Sangathan, was arrested on January 12 when she participated in a protest held by unpaid labourers near the Singhu border between Haryana and Delhi. She has been in Haryana’s Karnal jail since then, charged with offences including rioting while armed, and attempt to murder. Her bail plea was denied by the Sonepat sessions court on February 2 and there have been allegations that she was beaten and tortured while in jail.
According to her sister, Rajveer Kaur, Nodeep had been part of the farmers’ protests at the Singhu border since December 2020, bringing with her 1,500 labourers to highlight the plight of India’s labour force, particularly the landless and marginalised labourers. Rajveer alleged that the police have filed the battery of charges against Nodeep because she is a Dalit and that the mainstream media has been silent about her arrest for the same reason.
“Our caste status and our economic deprivation taught us to fight for our rights even when we were children,” said Rajveer, an activist herself and a PhD student at Delhi University. “Even my mother was jailed on one occasion because she stood up for women who were exploited by the ‘upper’ castes when they worked on farms. The fight for workers’ rights is important.”
Low wages for women farm labourers
The farm labourers who have joined the protests, particularly the women, are in a particularly vulnerable position because their livelihoods depend on the financial health of the farmers. Karnail Kaur, a Majhabi (Dalit) Sikh from Jethu village, Punjab, is terrified of a future in which the members of her family will lose their jobs.
“We don’t have land,” she told The Wire. “My sons work as farm labourers for eight hours a day, which earns them Rs 250 in daily wages. We must stand with the farmers. If they lose their lands, where will we go?”
Gurdeep Kaur from Jethu village, Punjab, said, “My daughter gets Rs 150 a day working on a 12-hour shift. If the land is sold to Ambani, we will starve to death.”
Small farmers have steadily been losing their land as shown by the 2011 census data compared with the census data of 2001. In 2001, there were 1,273 lakh farmers. In 2011, that number was down to 1,187 lakh, meaning that 86 lakh farmers either went out of business or changed their profession. Of the 10.6 crore agricultural labourers recorded in the 2011 census, 4.9 crore are women, making up 38.9% of all the women workers in the country. Their role is rarely valued and they are paid much less than the men.
“Women work for 10 hours a day and earn daily wages of Rs 150-200,” said Gurdeep Kaur. “We do demand more pay, but unemployment is so bad that we cannot do anything. Men are paid Rs 300-350 in daily wages. According to our employers, men work more than women. But I wake up at 4 am and only sleep at 11 pm, working in my home and my employers’ fields. We are so badly off that our meals consist of roti with chutney.”
Statistics from the periodic labour force survey for the year 2018-19 show that 71.1% of women and 53.2% of men worked as farm labourers. According to a report by NewsClick, nearly 100 small farmers in India become landless every hour.
“Farm labourers do not get a minimum salary,” said Rajveer Kaur. “The 2020 amendment to the Essential Commodities Act will also affect the workers very much because rice, wheat and lentils have been removed from the list of essential goods. A farmer can eat what she grows in the field and sell the surplus in the market, but the labourers have to buy what they need from the market because they don’t have land.”
Inequality in the rural economy
Most landless labourers come from marginalised communities, according to agricultural census data of 2020-21. The census separates farmers into two categories: cultivators, who have an ownership stake in the land, and agricultural labourers, who work for wages on land they do not own. The agricultural census of 2015-16 reported that Dalits own only about 9% of the total agricultural land in the country and the latest census data shows that 71% of Dalits are landless labourers. In rural areas, 58.4% of Dalit households do not own land at all.
Almost 88% of the scheduled castes are poor and vulnerable on multiple fronts, according to the 2007 Arjun Sengupta Committee Report. India is a krishi pradhan desh (farming-prime country), but it is also a jaati pradhan desh (caste-prime country). When merged, these two phenomena create the toxic cocktail of a jaatiya-krishi pradhan desh (caste-prime farming country), responsible for poverty, atrocities and low productivity.
“We only talk about the suicides of landowners, but never talk about the suicides of Dalits and landless labourers,” said 49-year-old Bhaji Lashman from Faridkot, Punjab. Lashman is associated with the Punjab Khet Mazdoor Union, one of several farm workers’ unions that deal with the social and economic issues of the farmers.
“We forced the government to make laws providing the families of workers who die by suicide with compensation and fought to ensure that the laws are implemented,” Lashman said. The Punjab government’s scheme of 2009 provides relief of Rs 2 lakhs to the suicide-aggrieved families of debt-ridden farmers and farm labourers.
Lashman added: “The Punjab Land Reforms Act of 1972, which stated that no one can have more than 17 acres of land, should be implemented. The state government considers Dalits as second class citizens. If a Dalit is raped, we have to struggle for justice. If a Dalit is tortured, no first information report is registered. When Dalits unify, they are socially boycotted in the villages. As the farmers protest, we can hope that the voices of Dalits, labourers and landless cultivators, which had been silent for so long, are also being heard.”
Jagisha Arora has an MA in History and has worked as a freelance writer. She writes on issues of gender, caste and democracy.