Travelling with a group of American friends visiting India this spring, I was pondering over an article in a leading daily with the bold caption “Farmers against development”, and of course my mind was racing in several directions trying to figure out what could have prompted this caption and headline?

I know that we have a current logjam and a raging controversy in India regarding the land reform bill that is making every political party in the country jump into the fray and add their two cents to appear pro-farmer.

I was still engrossed in this thought when our driver stopped for lunch at a small unknown town, which is probably just a dot on the map of India, called Jhala Tala in Rajasthan.

A young girl named Neena in the small town of Jhala Tala. Photo by Shilpa Pandey

Neena – a young girl living in the small town of Jhala Tala. Photo by Shilpa Pandey

Next to the farm lands and a harvest in process, I saw many young women in the fields happily going about their daily chores and I wondered what their life would be like if there was a thriving shopping mall here instead of the fields they were working in. After all, is that not how most young people in India picture development?

Living in Delhi, I talk to many friends of mine who believe that India is on the way up and their argument is that the shopping malls now carry all the top of the line brands! They sell everything now in India! We get what you get in the US or Europe now, including the top models of Audi or Mercedes.

With this in the backdrop, the vision of young women almost barefoot, in tattered old clothes going about their daily business felt like a huge contrast. Noteworthy is the fact that the majority of employed women in India are agricultural workers.

Statistics from

Statistics from

In fact, nearly 98 million Indian women have agricultural jobs, but around 63% of them, or 61.6 million women, are agricultural labourers, dependent on the farms of others, according to 2011 Census data.

There has been a 24% increase in the number of female agricultural labourers, from 49.5 million in 2001 to 61.6 million in 2011. Reflecting growing distress in Indian agriculture, millions of women have gone from being land owners and cultivators to becoming labourers over a decade, according to census data analysed by IndiaSpend.

Over the years the land has continuously been acquired for various projects – in fact Special Economic Zones (SEZs) were created to promote business and touted as economic growth engines. However, according to a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India, no more than 62% of  the land for SEZs—much of it acquired from farmers—has been used for its intended purpose: to boost manufacturing, exports and jobs.

Most SEZs are populated with information technology (IT) and IT-related companies, while manufacturing accounts for only 9% of all SEZ projects. SEZs fell short of their job, investment and exports targets by wide margins. For instance, they generated less than 8% of the jobs expected.

With all this information in mind, as I start a conversation with these women, I realise that they work for a paltry sum of Rs 150 a day as agricultural labourers. When I dig further I realise that these women were once land owners, and as the land grabs continue in the name of development these women and their families continue to get displaced.

This is the only occupation that they have known for generations and with the corporate-driven globalisation reaching a new phase that undermines peoples’ self-determination, food sovereignty and survival as never before, we see more of landless labourers than farmers.

Below is Meena Roti-Maker, an example of someone who went from land owner to land labourer. When the government forcibly took the land away from her and her family she was compensated a lump sum amount that was far below the market value. The land was her life line, and the onetime amount was barely enough for her to buy a roof over her head. Seeing as the resettlement options and resettlement assistance of many Meenas is completely disregarded in these situations, I wonder which development and whose development are we talking about?

Shilpa Pandey with Meena-Roti Maker

Shilpa Pandey with Meena-Roti Maker

Aside from doing seasonal work as a farm help, earning Rs 150 a day (approximately $2 a day), she cooks 1,500 rotis (Indian tortillas) a day as a help in a local roadside eatery for the truck drivers that stop by on the highway for lunch.

I took these pictures for my friends in Delhi leading a cushy life, telling me stories about the latest brand of clothing they bought and talking about India that is making great strides as the world’s largest democracy and third largest economy.

I had to remind them that there are more Meenas in my country and that more than ever before it is imperative that our sisters are not left far behind in the mindless race towards development.


Shilpa Pandey

Peace Activist
Vice President – WILPF India