“Why is the Indian farmer angry?” asked Rajdeep Sardesai on an episode of India Today’s News Today on June 6. The word ‘angry’ was several font sizes larger than the rest of the question, and in the background, a thin old man with dark, deeplywrinkled skin and greying hair glared at you. You, who were sitting in the comfort of your house, stomach full after dinner, with your dog at your feet.
On that day, five farmers had been shot dead by the police in Mandsaur, Madhya Pradesh, after the protests spread there from Maharashtra, where they had begun on June 1. In deep trouble, the farmers were demanding loan waivers and an increase in the minimum support price. So like everybody else writing think pieces, Sardesai asked the five men on his panel if farm loan waivers were the best solution to the Indian agrarian crisis. Could India afford it? A week later, on another show on June 12, he wondered (to four men on his panel), if waivers were just a tool for political parties to win votes. By June 13, two more farmers in Madhya Pradesh had committed suicide, and by June 20, the number stood at 17.
This month on TV and in the many years of our country’s existence before TV channels, a lot of men have had a lot of things to say about what’s being called the ‘farmer crisis.’ A crisis believed to be a very male problem.
In all the decades, it’s unclear whether there has been any response quite so Marie Antoinette as that of Union Agriculture Minister Radha Mohan Singh freshly inspired by the Baba Ramdev yoga camp he attended, after which he thought the best response to a question on the horrific police shooting that killed the five protesting farmers at Mandsaur, was to tell them to do yoga.
And because the inspiration that goes around comes around, Baba Ramdev said that he has helpfully dedicated this year’s International Yoga Day celebrations (on June 21) to Indian farmers, like Justin Bieber dedicating a concert to dissenters in North Korean prisons. This was while lakhs of farmers across India reportedly planned to perform shavasana, the ‘corpse pose’, on the day.
On TV, the farmer crisis has continued to be a male crisis. Across channels. Across languages.
Here are three stills from three different news videos of serious discussions on the widespread protests by farmers in India in the last month.
Here is one more if you aren’t convinced yet.
And if it isn’t a panel discussion but an anchor reporting from various protests, it’s only male farmers who are spoken to.
For a while now it’s been obvious that when we think farmer, we think man. We don’t think of the woman farmer, who does the most intensive of all agricultural operations, except perhaps running machinery, (and many women are doing that too). She sows the seeds, spends days removing weeds and harvesting the crop, cares for the cattle, manages the composting, and does the threshing and winnowing, all while completing house work. But she isn’t considered a farmer, because she doesn’t own land. An Oxfam report from 2013 found that while 80 per cent of women are engaged in farming activities, only 13 per cent of them owned the land.
You may think that women are not in farming anymore. Not like the good old days, when they sang as they worked, extras to the cinematic vision of the village hero. You’d be wrong. In 2015, India Spend analysed census data and found that 98 million women in India worked in the agricultural sector, with a 24 per cent increase in the number of female agricultural workers, from 49.5 million in 2001 to 61.6 million in 2011.
It’s not just Mandsaur. When have women farmers been included in conversations and policy that directly affect their work? When demonetisation hit in late 2016, almost nobody talked about its effect on women farmers, who remained largely invisible. And considering that women don’t own land and hence aren’t considered farmers, there’s also disturbing proof that when we talk about the horror of farmer suicides (it crossed the 3 lakh mark from between 1995-2015), we simply forget to talk about women farmers.
It’s the same amnesia that’s showing clearly in every channel that’s been reporting the farmers’ protest over the last month.
TV9 Telugu, for instance, used the hashtag #BJPAntiFarmers for their show on June 9 with three men, and the ticker at the bottom played on Modi’s ‘Acche Din’, freezing on ‘Chacche Din’ [Telugu pun meaning dying days] instead. Of course, the conversation descended into a battle between the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party, with N Thulasi Reddy of the Congress shouting, “Is there, or is there not a problem”, while the BJP spokesperson GVL Narasimha Rao kept saying ‘kaadu’ [no]. No, there is no problem, and his party had kaadu role in the kaadu crisis.
Just before this, Rao had talked eloquently about the loans that the BJP gave to farmers at zero per cent interest (“Have the Congress’ eyes closed?” he asked), ignoring the anchor’s pointed question of why farmers were getting no returns if the production had increased as the BJP claimed.
Why hasn’t the media made an effort to talk to women farmers? Mirror Now ran a short segment covering a meeting held in Delhi by farmers from 14 states in India. The farmers had met to discuss the crisis and the implementation of the Swaminathan Report, the anchor said. From the visuals though, there seemed to be no women at the meeting. Much like visuals from tech conferences would have you think that only men work in tech. No, only men are invited to conferences.
It was inevitable then, that when the Mirror Now anchors spoke to farmers involved, they only talked to the men.
Just like anchors from News18 Hindi only spoke to the male farmers working on the fields in Nainital, where after the rains, they said, it was now the market that had hit the farmers. If women were written about, it was like in this Hindustan Times piece, that asked us to ‘spare a thought’ for the women left behind after their farmer husbands had committed suicide — just like Aaj Tak spoke to women farmers only when they needed to show distraught widows and mothers.
What’s in a TV segment you might think? Why would mere #manels hurt farmers when they are affected so much worse, you might say. Alas #manels on TV are only a reflection of #manels in real life.
Remember how there are no women on the GST Council that’s headed by Arun Jaitley, which as Mirror Now’s Faye D’Souza showed us explains their ridiculous move to slap an 18 per cent GST tax on glucose biscuits? Or as recently as October 2015, when we checked that the Telangana chief minister’s 19-minister Cabinet wasn’t alone in not having a single woman member. Ten other states in 2015 were the same.
We know exactly where things are going when nobody thinks it’s important enough to talk to women farmers, who might have new, old and different problems to talk about. Nowhere.
Ila Ananya writes for The Ladies Finger (TLF), a leading online women’s magazine. Visit the website here.