Kiranjit Kaur was barely 20 when she saw her father Gurnam Singh’s lifeless body hanging from a tree on their family farm in Punjab’s Jhunir village. This was, just after a white fly infestation had devastated the entire cotton crop in Mansa district. While the family was already saddled with a debt of around Rs 8 lakh, Kaur was bitten by a snake. With the local government hospital lacking medicare facilities, her father had rushed her to a private hospital in Bathinda. Her life was saved only after her debt-ridden father paid a hospital bill of Rs 2 lakh.
“After that, he hanged himself as he was finding it very difficult to deal with the growing financial distress,” Kaur tells Outlook, upset that her father didn’t get any help from any quarter. But his suicide brought her face to face with Punjab’s biggest problem post Green Revolution—farm distress. “When I saw even close relatives turning their backs on us, I realised that there are other farming families torn apart by similar circumstances, when people have committed suicide due to growing debt, as agriculture has ceased to be remunerative. I felt that all the distressed families face the same problem, yet everyone is suffering in isolation.”
Soon, she started educating widows of farm suicides about their rights, and eventually built a strong solidarity network. A postgraduate in political science, Kaur is planning her doctoral thesis on farm distress. She is the current convener of Committee for Farmers and Families of Agrarian Suicide Victims. “People can get scared of even a needle prick. One can imagine the kind of trauma a farmer undergoes before he decides to end his life,” she says, criticising the government’s apathy towards the plight of small and marginal farmers and landless farm labourers in Punjab. “A sizable section of society here have extravagant lifestyles. Look at the big fat Punjabi weddings...the sheer wastage of money,” she says. “The male farmers dying by suicide are also victims of patriarchy. Men feel they are the sole providers for their families. They see crop failures as their failures. Therefore, they find it beneath their dignity to share it with the women of the family. This mindset needs to change.”
Due to her efforts, many farm widows have become articulate. “We have held several conferences in the past few years and invited political leaders to listen to the woes of farm suicide widows,” she says, elaborating how her efforts instilled confidence in women like Veerpal Kaur from Ralla village in Mansa district. Veerpal, 43, unsuccessfully contested the 2019 Lok Sabha elections as an independent candidate from Bathinda. “Even though symbolic, it was a strong statement that a poor widow can challenge the established political parties and the rotten system.”
During the protests to scrap the three contentious farm laws, Kaur was at the forefront, mobilising women. Though she is unhappy that the plight of farmers remains unchanged even after the rollback of the laws, she says, “The year-long agitation revived hopes that farmers can get their demands met through democratic means.”
(This appeared in the print edition as "Farm and Feminism")
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