Fatima Burnad is a member of the Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development (APWLD) and she advocates for women farmers’ rights. She and other Dalit women in India are concerned that Dalit women will be the most affected by RCEP and that land grabbing for corporate agriculture will impact food sovereignty, rights over land and seed preservation. But they will resist.
Q : Who are the Dalit people ?
Fatima : Dalit is the word given by Dr B. R. Ambedkar. He’s the person who framed and worked on our constitution. Ambedkar was born in the Dalit community. In India, 160 million people are Dalits throughout the country, and they are treated like untouchables. Untouchable means they cannot marry from other communities, they cannot enter the house, they cannot have food with them. Not equal status. And Dalits are the most poor, landless people in this country. And there are 250 million people all over the world so the Dalit issue is a global issue. It’s not a minority issue. Because of so many millions, in European countries, each country has that population. For us, Dalit is still living and separated, segregated from the main religions, main towns. In cities, they have a separate occupation, they are not allowed to mingle with other communities. You cannot have a house with other communities so they have their own “ceris” - ghettos, colonies they have named us. Being very poor economically, the social status is also not an equal status. For Dalit women, the so-called Dalits among Dalits, that is their condition. Dalit women are also treated - cheap sex for the other communities. There are also religious practices where they use Dalit women as devadasis called Mathamma in various communities. And they are not allowed to marry, they are dedicated to the temple, to the goddess Mathamma and let them dance during the temple festivals. And not being allowed to marry means they are public property, so pushing them into religious sexual exploitation. It’s mainly done by landlords and mostly it’s also related to land, since Dalits are dependent on land, they work for the landlords in the rural areas or in factories, they work for the factory owners. But in the rural areas there’s so much economic dependence so they have to let the women serve the other men. Even within the marriages, the first night is spent with the landlord.
Q : How would RCEP impact the condition of Dalit women ?
Fatima : RCEP would have a very big impact on Dalit women. Dalit women face multiple discriminations in the community. The economic impact would be very much, because they are manual scavengers, landless labourers agricultural workers. So when the trade agreements bring investments to the country, first thing is they occupy land through establishing big special economic zones. And these zones employ Dalit women, exploit them because there is no agriculture work so these women are taken into these factories - the younger Dalit women. These factories exploit them a lot. This is all foreign investment. Multinational corporations are coming in. Koreans, Japanese. At present in Tamil Nadu I’m saying - they have the glass factories, they have the Nokia company, they have the car companies.
Q : In terms of agriculture specifically, and seeds for example, a lot of traditional farming is done by women. What would be the impact of RCEP on this issue ?
Fatima : One example. There is a place called Kosalnagar. Tribal women were given two hectares of land under the Land Reform Act ten years ago. They cleaned the land, cultivated it. They grew vegetables. They had a very good land, they were very happy. As a Dalit women’s movement, we helped them to grow vegetables and they marketed it. You know, the women, after collecting her vegetables and greens, she carries them in a basket, she goes to the village. She’s not going to the big vegetable market for money making. Producers, food sharing. She sells it, comes back home, keeps something for her and again she harvests. That’s a beautiful way of sharing food with the community. That’s what we call food sovereignty. Her land, her seeds. She tries to get water. She decides what to grow. She knows what the community wants. Whether they want keerai – that is spinach – which is not eaten during the rainy season. And she grows tomatoes and all kinds of things. She knows what the community needs and it’s healthy food without any pesticide use. Today, after 10 years, the government is coming, saying that they want to take away all the land given to them by the Land Reform Act and build solar power. Ten years of hard work they put in, especially women. The land was given to women, tribal women. What kind of attitude is that ? What state government, what national government think of these people ?
Vimala : Before the women preserved the seeds for the next planting. But nowadays or after RCEP coming, they have to go to the shop and depend on companies like Monsanto and Syngenta. And for this seed, they also have to put fertilisers also. But with our seeds, no need to put fertilisers. But the companies give seeds that only come out if you put fertilisers. After the seed has come out, we have to put another fertiliser to remove weeds. So we have to depend only on the companies. We cannot assert our rights or preserve our seeds.
Shakila : Nowadays in agriculture, Dalit women do organic farming. They grow lady’s fingers (okra), keerai, vegetables. They go to the local markets to sell them and then come back. They’re very small vendors. Every day, they cultivate, sell and run the family.
Fatima : In one particular village, 55 women removed their uteruses because of the hazardous pesticides that are used in the fields. And in floriculture, especially school children before going to school, we did a study. They go plant flowers for one rupee or less than two rupees. And some of the children do not wear panties so they collect it from their frocks like this. And then the thorns hurt their private parts. It’s very bad. Now Dalit farmers commit suicide in a village called Thazavedu. Now we are studying in those particular two villages which corporation’s pesticide is used in floriculture where children are also used as child labour. We have to expose this.
Geetha : Already there’s a farmers crisis in Tamil Nadu. There are many issues attached to it. We haven’t managed our water resources. There hasn’t been adequate credit. And women farmers are not recognized as farmers. These are existing issues. From morning to night she works, but she’s not recognized as a labourer. And there’s no social security measures for a woman labourer. She’s always seen as a farmer’s wife or a farmer’s daughter. So that puts an emphasis on a big issue for the movements to address : no social security, no health measures for these women and all that. And what happens - in our scenario, the land reform hasn’t been done adequately. If you take the delta region of our state, where the Kaveri (River) flows, the lands are owned by three religious organisations. That’s all. So it’s given to a big farmer and the big farmer leases it out to small farmers. And the small farmers’ wives work there. And imagine when the crop doesn’t come, the farmer dies or commits suicide, this woman has to work as a labourer to safeguard their entire family. This is a hardcore livelihood issue we’ve been fighting. Now, when this is the scenario, there’s no water management, no land ownership, no labour status, this RCEP comes in and the seed sector is going to be completely in the hands of the corporate sector.
Fatima : So we have all these problems. RCEP and the centre government, state governments are neglecting a prosperous life to be given to the Dalit women and children.
Q : And in terms of mobilisation ?
Fatima : She (pointing at women sitting next to her) took all of her women and occupied common land.
Komala : My husband and I have been associated with Dalit women. We were landless. I got in touch with the Tamil Nadu Dalit movement and Tamil Nadu Womens Forum and they gave me the confidence to become a farmer. So we took up this common land and we started ploughing it and they planted and now millet has come out. There were a lot of legal issues that we had to face. Even the police came in and handled everything. So this is one way, you know. Occupying is asserting your rights, your land rights, your Dalit rights, your women rights, your farmer’s rights.
Fatima : Occupying common land against corporate landgrabbing, this is the main thing.
Komala : I’m from a district called Kanchipuram, close to Chennai. Dalit landless women have collectivised themselves. We were working with the government, filing right to information petitions to find out about the status of land around them. We did it continuously and we got something like two acres of land. And now we’re cultivating vegetables, millet, greens and other things. And since we know it, we’re doing it for others, finding out about land status of other lands. So we can collectivise more women collectives and continue farming. Now Dalit women are driving tractors. Water supply is also a very big issue. Tamil Nadu has a water management crisis, whether it is rivers or other bodies of water. But we’ll continue with our struggle, we’ll collectivise, we’ll get more lands, we’ll carry on our farm collectives.
Q : Are you afraid that RCEP might change that ?
Komala : When land is seen as profitable business, you cannot find common land for collective farming. Land becomes a profit. No poor person can access that land. It becomes alien. So that is a problem. We cannot do this kind of an experiment when RCEP comes in. And another thing is that when such huge corporations come with such huge products, the local products don’t have any value. A Dalit woman or a tribal woman going and selling a products in a local market doesn’t have any value when it’s taken over by huge corporations. One more thing is that when the income goes down, the persistent issue is men drinking, poor men drinking with all these issues. The implications are on the women and children. Already it is there when they get marginalised further, the drinking becomes more, the violence becomes more. The whole issue of women and children becomes very crucial. And more widows. I know some villages where you will see a lot of men dying at the 50, 52, 54 and all that. You will see a lot of young widows. Men die because of excessive drinking of alcohol and all that. The woman becomes then a single person to take of the family, to do the labour in the fields, to be fighting with all these things. So that becomes very complicated, that complicates the lives of women.
Fatima : Wherever possible, occupying common lands and bringing other NGOs and iNGOs to give them support. Like she talked about water. Now we’re training for rainwater saving, building tanks, check dams for the land so that it’s useful. They need this support. Without that, it’s not possible. Legally as well as personally, we need support. Dalit women are in many collectives now in our area. What we are doing, we are also making a dent with the national women federation, Kisan Sabha where they talk about various other things but they should also talk about the caste-related class issues. So we are also part of MAKAAM, the national legal women for women farmers.
Q : Do you think these initiatives are the best alternatives to global trade policies ?
Fatima : We are challenging GMOs by saving our own seeds. They go from village to village to collect seeds from farmers. And they keep them in their huts with matti kunda (mud pots). And then those seeds are distributed. If women farmers take one kilo, they will return two kilos after harvest. So it multiplies. The seeds will be given to the other villages. Whatever seeds you bring we don’t care about it. We don’t buy the plastic-covered Monsanto seeds. We just bought from us. And they make it colourful and bring it back to us. So this is a big challenge. No pesticides in our agriculture. We will not give them our land, but we occupy lands, common lands. And we cultivate. So it’s a challenge for land grab. Also we have women traders. We encourage them. With all their big retail shops, we will help people to come and buy from us so we can try to build a consumer – producer relationship. So it’s a small challenge, in a small way, in a small unit in the villages. Hope it will spread. We don’t dream of bigger things, you know. This is leading them to take part in the local governments. It’s not just economic activity but also a political entrance so their voices are raised. They’re fighting. They’re mobilised. So they will become members of the community, presidents, councillors in the local governments. That’s going to be very soon.
Interview by bilaterals.org, live translation by Geetha Narayanan