Jagrutha Mahila Sanghatane (JMS)

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Struggles for Dignity

Dalit Women’s Struggle Against Mechanised Harvesters to Protect their Work and Wages 2003-04:

Raichur District in Karnataka witnesses the phenomena of landlords belonging to the upper castes owning on average 200 acres of land and a majority of the Dalit population being totally landless also is there. The benefits of irrigation from the Tungabhadra Dam have been harvested by the land holding classes, peasants and socially advantaged castes, the traditionally discriminated communities have seen marginal increase in their income and still struggle for their survival.

During the years 2000-2004, the daily wage income of agricultural labourers was Rs.30/- (males) and Rs.20/- (females) during lean season and would be a contracted out piece work rate during harvesting, where people would earn about 100-125 rupees for their work from morning 8.30 am to 9.00 p.m. the agricultural labourers would camp near the fields days together where they contract for harvesting. Dalit women constituted a substantial proportion of the agricultural labourers. Drought persisted for over 3 years which people recalled as ‘once in 50 year drought’. Raichur is a drought prone area and milder form of drought is not very infrequent, hence when they refer to once in fifty years drought it means it has great impact on their socio-economic and cultural life. During these years men and women looked forward to the agricultural season especially the harvesting season, as those who had canal irrigation facility would grow crops irrespective of drought and was the only means of survival.

However, during these same years, mechanised harvesters had started making their presence in the district of Raichur and big farmers (landlords) had started employing these machines. Based on the amount of work (harvesting) the machine and people did it was estimated that the harvester would complete in one hour,  the work of 100 labourers a day. Since the harvester was running almost for 18-20 hours a day, about 2000 labourers work was displaced (per day basis calculation). This was creating a huge unemployment for labourers as the demand for labourers dwindled and even those who were employed, they had to negotiate for lower wages. The state had not initiated any food for work or drought relief schemes and Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) started after 2007. The growing unemployment and people’s migration was assessed by Jagrutha Mahila Sanghatan (JMS), a Dalit Women Agricultural Labourer’s Collective. Households had borrowed a lot of money, had borrowed loans from the SHGs of which they were members, some had sold animals and other assets, members from families had migrated to other places, children’s education was disrupted to look after the houses, in many households women and children had no food-grains left. The stories of people falling ill but not taking medication, women borrowing money for health care and the like were also being listened to in the village meetings. Though the drought was faced by everyone, the greatest adverse impact was on the landless Dalits and women who depended solely on agricultural labour for survival and livelihood.

JMS held rallies in the district, made representation on behalf of agricultural labourers, used media and campaigned for banning the use the machines in the district of Raichur persistently during the intervening years between 2001 and 2004. In the third year (2003-04), due to the growing pressure, the entry and use of harvester machines were banned in the district of Raichur and this immediately resulted in labourer’s wages being increased (instead of usual Rs.500 per acre contract now it jumped to Rs.1500 per acre), provided them work for at least two months, reduction in migration, and of course more food in their houses flowing was witnessed. The wage and work which increased due to the ban on the machines not only helped the members of JMS, but agricultural labourers in the entire district for another year till the normal season was seen again in 2005.

This case study illustrates how important wage and work is for people not only for survival but also for their good physical and mental health, healthy and peaceful social and family life, to have adequate food and nutrition in families and also to have education for children. Health in its broad sense and in terms of medical /health care too depends on work and wages, food and nutrition. This case study demonstrates that health is determined by various factors – biological, social, climatic, wage and work, social relations, social status based on resources (land, business etc), caste (being lower or upper), gender, age (children, aged), ability (physically able or disabled/challenged, mentally ill/challenged etc.)