Thousands of women farmers marched into Mumbai alongside their male peers on Monday demanding the government recognises their rights over forests and stops the takeover of land for industrial projects.
The protesters, who over several days walked 180 kilometres (112 miles) from the town of Nashik, northeast of Mumbai, also demanded waivers of farm loans, and higher prices for cereals and vegetables.
Among the more than 30,000 protesters, many wearing red caps and waving communist party flags, were groups of women farmers. Many till land they do not own, often because their husbands have migrated to the cities for jobs or committed suicide.
Their presence in the “long march”, as the rally was dubbed, was significant, analysts said.
“The agrarian crisis is a very gendered issue. It is the women who are working on the field and bearing the brunt of lack of titles and lower food prices,” said Nirja Bhatnagar, regional chief of rights group ActionAid, which works with women farmers.
“This is as much their cause as it is the cause of the male farmers,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
More than two-thirds of rural women in India depend on land for a livelihood, yet only about 13 percent own land. Thousands of farmers commit suicide each year in Maharashtra state, where Mumbai is located, over failed crops and mounting debt.
Their widows face abuse and threats to their children’s safety when they demand their share of land, a study published last year showed.
Indigenous women and others who rely on the forests for a living face additional challenges in claiming rights to forest land and produce, despite the 2006 Forest Rights Act (FRA) that was meant to benefit a fifth of India’s population.
Campaigners say its implementation has been crippled by conflicting legislation and a lack of political will.
Maharashtra, one of India’s most prosperous states, leads the country in granting rights under the FRA. Yet there are wide disparities within the state and a dilution of community rights, according to research by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) in Mumbai.
“Forest rights are key to increasing farm incomes, and is rightly one of the key demands,” said Geetanjoy Sahu of TISS, who led the research.
Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis assured protest leaders on Monday that their demands would be met.
“Within six months, all disputes related to forest lands will be settled,” he said.