How a women’s movement in the 1970s shaped India’s battle against inflation, gender inequality, and caste bias

Published : Feb 08, 2024 10:18 IST - 23 MINS READ

Veteran politician and union leader Mrinal Gore addressing a women’s rally against rising prices. The late 1960s and early 1970s saw thousands of women take part in anti-price rise protests in Maharashtra and Gujarat.

Veteran politician and union leader Mrinal Gore addressing a women’s rally against rising prices. The late 1960s and early 1970s saw thousands of women take part in anti-price rise protests in Maharashtra and Gujarat. | Photo Credit:

Meet latniswomen whose rolling pins fought corruption and hunger. Their story offers insights into women’s relationship with money and the economy.

In the early 1970s, an unusual spectacle unfolded in front of Mumbai’s Mantralaya, the administrative headquarters of the State government. On a measuring scale, a group of women weighed an effigy of the then Chief Minister Vasantrao Naik next to a pile of kachra (waste). The kachra collected was not of the generic kind—this was the dust and debris found in foodgrains distributed through ration shops.

The “kachra tula” was inspired by a ceremony from the times of kings and noblemen, when men of distinguished royalty decked with ornaments would weigh themselves against gold and silver. The scales would divine how much charity poor households deserved.

The women’s “kachra tula” measured not divinity or wealth, but corruption and hunger. It was poetic justice; kings, politicians, trash, all whispered in one breath. This was February 1974. A few days earlier, women beat thalis (plates) with latnis (rolling pins) at more than a thousand places in Mumbai. It was an ishara ghanta (warning bell) for the government and a call to the people to awaken, to arise.

From 1967 until the day Emergency was declared in 1975, thousands of women, famously called latnis, built a resistance at a scale independent India had never witnessed. Hopeful but angry faces descended upon parts of Maharashtra and Gujarat, rallying against rising prices, unemployment, and corruption under the banner of the Anti-Price Rise Women’s United Front. Domestic workers, teachers, students, industry workers, and homemakers “gheraoed” official buildings and swarmed street corners with the message that could no longer wait. The tremors of India’s economic crises were being felt by women first and often fatally.

When prices test the threshold of economic tolerance, it naturally becomes a women’s rights issue “because economic distress touches women the most”, according to Vibhuti Patel, a gender studies scholar. Then in her 20s, she too marched with the latnis in Baroda, which witnessed “extraordinary” sights where women from different castes, classes, and religions shared a common vocabulary of resistance.

This image, however, is hard to configure today, she says, even though the jolts of 2023 are unmissable. The COVID-19 pandemic, the Russia-Ukraine war, and climate irregularities have caused consumer and food price indices to breach the “upper limits of tolerance”; the cost of preparing meals at home has risen by 65 per cent in the last five years.

Women, still the shock absorbers of economic distress, are working more and earning less, a recent survey revealed. Measures of their health, education, safety, and visibility tell a worrying tale of neglect and exclusion. Yet, the possibility of another anti-price rise movement feels quixotic to Vibhuti Patel.

The politics and economics of money may have changed, but for the alert, the latnis’ ishara ghanta is still ringing. Listen closely, and in the rhythmic drum, one may learn how economic currents affect the smallest levels of women’s realities, which, when told through numbers, can be disputed and denied.

The precarity of today echoes that of the 1970s: the poor became poorer; the demand for jobs surpassed supply; prices of foodgrains, sugar, and cooking oil rose by 25-30 per cent. The country increased expenditure in non-development fields such as military, police, and bureaucracy as wars with China and Pakistan unfolded.

A damning “Towards Equality” report (1974-75) by the Committee on the Status of Women in India found that women were at risk of becoming a “minority” right after Independence: their sex ratio declined, their access to health care and education was negligible, and their participation in the labour force had been declining since the 1950s. The promise of freedom was shrinking, and the economic turbulence felt like the last blow to a section already marginalised by their social and economic status.

Women working in a field as part of the MGNREGA scheme, in Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu, on August 30, 2018.

Women working in a field as part of the MGNREGA scheme, in Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu, on August 30, 2018. | Photo Credit: B. VELANKANNI RAJ

A new women’s movement

Then came the latnis with a message composed by and for women. Veteran union leader and politician Mrinal Gore famously called the rolling pins’ protests a “new women’s movement”, a breathing documentation of women refusing to become footnotes in the economic story India would eventually tell itself.

Vibhuti Patel was in her second year of college at the time, eagerly participating in study circles that dissected through all manners of social rumblings: education inequities, price rises, the wars with China and Pakistan and how they impacted the common people. “We realised that it was not enough to just study. Once you understand the problem, you have to fight for the causes,” she told Frontline.

She joined the latnis when the movement edged towards Baroda in 1973. The protests started slowly, like a rivulet flowing to the sea. Women like Vibhuti carried a mic in one hand, as the pedal rickshaw took them into areas where working class families lived. There were no memos or pamphlets that spoke of generic concerns; instead, local women activists gathered in alleys and street corners, urging women to talk about how prices, hoarders, and taxes disrupted their lives.

A local mobiliser later told Nandita Gandhi, the activist and writer who documented the anti-price rise movement in a book, how this medium helped connect with women: “You cannot say look, the prices are going up, so we have to take out a morcha.... Rather I would say, look, there is no kerosene, you know that because you have returned empty-handed from the ration shop.... then they would come.”

Also Read | Why women get fewer jobs and earn lower wages than men in India

At the peak of the movement, there were about 20,000 women. “Women from the organised sector joined the self-employed, casual workers and lower middle-class housewives for a common show of strength against unemployment and prices,” Nandita Gandhi wrote. They demanded essential commodities and a crackdown on hoarders and black marketers. In 1973, prohibitive milk prices saw 30 women circling the office of Maharashtra’s Agriculture Minister; he was stuck inside for four hours as demands for his resignation penetrated the empanelled offices with the slogan: “Cheaper liquor, dearer milk, Naik government shame, shame.” (Vasantrao Naik was the Chief Minister at the time.)

“The feeling was that this is something new, extraordinary—that Indian women, who are believed to lead sedentary lives, can come out, and come out with a rolling pin at that,” Vibhuti said.

Emergency and its ramifications

The Emergency of 1975 extinguished political activity. Activists and civilians, including the latnis, were arrested and jailed, some for days, others for months. “The Emergency generated a peculiar kind of psychosis among people, especially housewives, who are already under so much of control by husband and in-laws and community,” Vibhuti said.

Vibhuti was arrested with 200 other women and jailed in Baroda prison for three days. One woman was visibly shocked—the police had taken away her mangalsutra. “Women, who had children and family and lived in joint families, could not risk their lives.”

Were the rolling pins successful in what they set out to do? There were wins: the Maharashtra government made arrangements to clean foodgrains after the “kachra tula” protest, the kerosene quota increased after the ishara ghanta morcha drew national attention. Their success, however, cannot be measured statistically, according to scholars Usha Mehta and Usha Thakkar, in an article published in the Canadian Women’s Studies journal.

It was the first spontaneous and democratic acts of resistance led by women at a time of scarce public involvement, exploding the myth that “women, because of their social conditioning, do not participate in or reflect on politics as men do”.

Vibhuti was demystified too upon meeting other women, who were accessible to common women and “articulate, funny, so clear in what they want to do”. They felt like “very different kinds of women”, those who made other women believe.

And, for the first time, their rebellion connected the seemingly distant worlds of economics and politics with women’s lives.

Women labourers with lunch boxes and tools, in Vijayawada, Andhra Pradesh, on March 6, 2023. They are often underpaid for the work they do in agriculture, construction and other fields.

Women labourers with lunch boxes and tools, in Vijayawada, Andhra Pradesh, on March 6, 2023. They are often underpaid for the work they do in agriculture, construction and other fields. | Photo Credit: G.N. RAO

How prices impact women

A 2022 World Economic Forum report found that higher fuel and food prices, symptoms of the cost-of-living crisis, disproportionately impact women. This does not surprise Pratima Paswan, an activist in Patna, who works to improve women’s access to education and employment. She sees familiar faces on board the train that departs Patna junction—women who travel almost 25 km a day to work as cleaners at hospitals, shops, and houses. They wake up at dawn and drink a concoction of sattu (flour) powder, hoping it fuels them for the rest of the day.

Last month, one woman told Pratima: “Subah se khana nahi khaya, bhukhe pet sar dard de raha hain (I have not eaten since the morning. The hunger is giving me a headache).” Her daily wage had reduced to half of what it was before the pandemic; she did not want to spend extra on food that day.

Money is more expensive today than it was before: recent Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) data showed that the lowest 25 per cent of taxpayers took home less real income in 2022 than in 2019. The hand that balances ledgers knows the asymmetries best: a tiny reservoir of resources that would once trickle down for women’s health or education is now bone dry. Still, no one links inflation with women’s safety, their hunger, their oppression, says Pratima. Inflation challenges people’s access to basic necessities, and the bulk of such people tend to be women, according to experts.

The reason seems instinctive: Indian women formed only 19 per cent of the workforce in 2021, according to World Bank and ILO data. While there was a spike in labour force participation following the pandemic, the increase reflected women opting for self-employment opportunities “out of distress”, an Azim Premji University report found.

  • From 1967 until the Emergency in 1975, thousands of women, known as latnis, protested against rising prices. In 1975, many latnis were jailed.
  • According to the WEF, higher fuel and food prices disproportionately impact women.
  • Money is more expensive today: the lowest 25 per cent of taxpayers took home less real income in 2022 than in 2019.

The PLFS data pointed to another irony: the group showing a rise in employment also registered the largest decline in monthly real gross earnings. Economic distress may force men to migrate to cities for work, but the radius of employment for women does not stray far from the house, thus they end up seeking low-paid, flexible opportunities.

Also Read | Claudia Goldin wins 2023 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics for understanding role of women in the labour market

The same report also illustrated where Indian women would fall on Claudia Goldin’s U-shaped female labour force curve—the theory that women’s employment was high in the pre-industrial era, declined, and then rose again as countries developed and women gained access to education and contraceptives. (Claudia Goldin, who won the 2023 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, has spent decades trying to solve the mystery of how education, jobs, and reproductive rights shape women’s economic lives.)

Women and workforce participation

Indian women, however, are stuck. Their participation in the formal workforce fell as white-collar jobs swelled, but the promised upward rise of the U has not happened yet. Jobs that could bring women into the formal workforce have not come up or are unable to accommodate women. India is also an exception among other countries of comparable economic growth, such as Vietnam. The pace of development should have ensured a higher women’s participation in the formal economy. That is not the case.

“Women are responsible for the collection of fuel, water, and wood, and providing food…. Families need care work, and women are compelled to provide this under any circumstances,” Vibhuti said. Suman, who works with an NGO named SAKHI in Bihar, said: “If prices increase, men work more outside. Women can’t do the same: they don’t get enough opportunities that pay well; they can’t work at night. If they sell vegetables in the morning, they can’t do it the whole day.”

Women may be working more but are still earning less, as evidence shows that women’s wages are less likely to keep pace with inflation. The gender pay gap, as Claudia Goldin demonstrated, is a symptom of a broken economic order that deliberately rewards inflexible, long-work hours.

“If men do the same work for eight hours, they get Rs.350 per hour. A woman will get half of it. If the discrimination starts from there, then of course inflation will impact women’s economic lives most,” Pratima said.

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, while announcing Karnataka’s Gruha Lakshmi Yojana scheme which aims to give women Rs.2,000 a month, said at a rally in August last year: “It is the women who suffer its blow. Thousands of women told me that they couldn’t bear the inflation.”

Take the price of domestic gas cylinders, which has risen by 56 per cent in the last four years, as per government data. The Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana aims to make LPG cylinders available to rural households at subsidised rates, but activists said that the scheme discounts women’s experiences.

“For an LPG cylinder, you have to spend Rs.1,200 at a time. This is very difficult for many women—in many houses, women don’t have the resources or autonomy to spend, and the LPG cylinder lies idle in most houses,” Suman said. “Women have to think twice before spending Rs.1,200 at once, even if it’s for a cooking cylinder.” No wonder that one in four Ujjwala beneficiaries took no refills, or just one, according to RTI data. They continue to use wooden stoves or coal, even though it is hazardous to health.

Others said that healthy vegetables and pulses have vanished from women’s plates. “In the last six-seven months, the women who sell green, leafy vegetables are not able to cook them at home. The waste from that day is allocated for household cooking, most of which goes to the male members of the family,” Pratima said.

Anganwadi workers protesting for higher honorarium for themselves and helpers and regularisation of their services, in Kalaburagi, Karnataka, in July 2023.

Anganwadi workers protesting for higher honorarium for themselves and helpers and regularisation of their services, in Kalaburagi, Karnataka, in July 2023. | Photo Credit: ARUN KULKARNI

Access to food, healthcare, and education

Historically, gender norms meant that women ate last, the least, and leftovers—a trend reflected in the recent National Family Health Survey where women’s anaemia and malnutrition levels left experts worried. Vibhuti added that “whenever there is scarcity, women are the ones who are going to be malnourished”.

India has hovered around the 130th rank in the Global Gender Gap index that measures women’s access to education, economic participation, health, and survival. Historically, cost, low financial autonomy, and restrictions on mobility have discouraged women from seeking healthcare and accessing education. As inflation stretches family incomes, the cost of taking a bus to the hospital or school becomes “additional expenditure” that needs to be minimised. Suman knows several families which have been forced to take their daughters out of school.

Three out of four women aged 15 and above are not financially independent, according to some studies. And, according to experts, if women are not the financial decision-makers of the house, their needs and well-being are neglected. For as far back as investigation goes, the rules of money have remained unchanged for women. The greater the proportion of household income they provide, the greater the say they have in financial decision-making. An asterisk to the rule is how gender norms and historically low wages regulate this relationship.

Suman said that in many households, it was widely understood that the man of the house made the financial decisions, and whatever income a woman brought was additional, their money thus existing in a liminal state. (Working women who participated in the anti-price demonstrations viewed their money as “seasonal” and not ‘secure”; they believed that the “house is not run and cannot run on our money”.)

Also Read | UNDP report exposes India’s gender bias crisis 

The ease of microfinancing loans in rural areas, targeted at women, is accelerating the pace of churn. A.B., 32, who lives in Bihar, took a loan to pay for her husband’s tuberculosis treatment. As the sole earner of the house, her Rs.5,000 is used for medicines, travel, food, and then to pay off debt. She has now taken on another loan to pay off the interest from the original sum.

In Maharashtra, the number of microfinance loans rose from 82.89 lakh to 91.66 lakh between 2021 and 2022. “Every house is drowning in private debt,” said Pratima. As of September 2020, almost 12.88 lakh women borrowers in Punjab owed an outstanding principal amount of Rs.4,387 crore, according to a statement from the MicroFinance Institutions Network. “Woh ek loan chukati nahi, ki ek dusra loan lag jata hain un par (before she can repay a loan another is thrust upon her)…. How will they survive with so much weight?” Pratima said.

Private financers also play modern-day zamindars, Pratima said; they lend money at usurious rates (sometimes at 36 to 42 per cent as opposed to 25 per cent charged by local moneylenders) and often resort to threats and exploitative measures. In September, media outlets reported that a Dalit woman in Patna was allegedly stripped and forced to drink urine when she refused to pay extra money to lenders.

In 2010 there was a spate of suicides in Andhra Pradesh linked to microcredit debt repayments; the majority of those who took their lives were Dalit women. The Central government formed the Malegam committee in October 2010 in response to the suicides. The report flagged the need to protect low-income borrowers “who lack individual bargaining power, have inadequate financial literacy, and live in an environment which is fragile and exposed to external shocks which they are ill-equipped to absorb”.

Vibhuti said that these institutions remained unregulated and did not acknowledge the social support that women needed. “If the government really is interested in it as a political way to empower women, they should invest in women-run self-help groups.”

The Micro Finance Institutions (Development and Regulation) Bill was tabled in the Lok Sabha in 2012 but is yet to be taken up for discussion.

Strained household budgets have a way of commanding women’s compromise, but in the 1960s and 1970s, they evoked collective action too. The anti-price rise movement managed to last for three years without much hairsplitting, and Nandita Gandhi credited this to the members sharing a “common ideology on the oppression of women”.

Women’s living conditions and social status were in decline; part of it had to do with inflation, but much of it had to do with government inaction. Even before, Gail Omvedt in her research showed that while the urban, educated, middle classes established unions, movements were still tethered by a feminist consciousness, and the active participation of women from different castes deftly articulated the “women’s question”. “Now, we don’t see that kind of movement,” Vibhuti said. The women and activists Frontline spoke to said that most people operated out of frailty, familiarity, and fear. They placed the blame on a monolithic sarkar, but carried an acute awareness of their limited bandwidth to react and respond.

Some partake in local protests (a cycle rally in Delhi to protest rising prices and unemployment in 2021, for instance), but they are too context-specific or regional to draw civilians or the media’s attention. Suman cannot but help but notice that it is mostly privileged caste-class women, attached to women’s wings of political parties, who initiate protests against inflation. “These are political protests…. They think this flag is of a political party and each party has its own agenda, which it uses us for, so what’s the point.”

Protests appeal to partisan ideologies, weaving “tel, dal, petrol” into slogans to draw attention, but the “women’s question” is supplementary, not central to the conversation. “Even if they participate, there are lathicharges, violence, they throw you in jail. It’s better to just stay like this,” she said.

Moreover, women’s movements are embedded with an acute consciousness of repercussions: it is not only government or social systems they challenge, but also gender norms. Suman said that many women wanted to speak up but preferred not to because of the additional cost on commute, or the thought of getting arrested.

Once upon a time, saving money would be defiance itself. Women’s protests, as scholars have noted, elude collective imagination: they are not always marked by big rallies on streets, but are often sombre, silent undertakings, blurring the private and public worlds.

Hiding money in “safety boxes”, every household’s best kept secret, took resolve: many women speak of bundling up notes and tucking them away under mattresses, stashing them in rice and biscuit tins, or inside nooks of steel cupboards. Money was theirs as long as it remained hidden from the world. These savings added up over time, contributing to an emergency fund used for a child’s schooling or marriage, or their own well-being.

This secret came undone when the government demonetised some currencies in 2016: civil society organisations said that several women faced violence at home, were abandoned, or left helpless with a “worthless” pile of cash.

These spaces of refuge have eroded with the cost-of-living crisis, according to Suman. The Centre announced the Mahila Samman Savings Certificate in 2023, a two-year experiment to encourage women’s and girls’ inclusion in the financial system. To this, Suman said, “Who thinks about savings when you have barely anything to get by? Plus, the bank is situated far away. Going there and coming back presents another set of limitations.” Whatever women have left, they keep it with themselves, and it inevitably gets spent on household expenditure.

Some women of privileged socio-economic groups are still able to chart the route of SIPs and investments. Protima Tiwari, a Bengaluru-based entrepreneur in her 20s, has invested for the last 10 years but acknowledges that the cost-of-living crisis has tightened purse strings. “It gets difficult to save,” she says, but still maintains a buffer in the bank. “Having that amount to fall back on is very important.” Therapy also helps her make peace with a lingering sense of financial insecurity.

Studies have recorded a 42 per cent growth in the number of women investors, but these numbers only reflect trends of financial literacy and independence in urban cities.

In local meetings, women tell Pratima that they jot down each wage earned in a notebook, feeling a flicker of joy as the sum builds up. “Woh din bhar bhukhe rahe jayenge, lekin jodhenge ki yeh mere ration ka paisa hain, doodh ka paisa hain, yeh mere bacche ki school ki fee (they will go hungry all day but jot down each earning as money for ration, milk, or school fees),” she adds.

Disintegration of movements

What changed?

An observation from Nandita Gandhi’s essays identifies capitalist development and strict patriarchal and Hindu traditions to have “devalued women’s lives”. She writes: “Women are not unaware of their non-entity status and oppression in the family but are cornered by helplessness into a silent acceptance.”

The origin story of this response is both simple and complicated. Vibhuti concurred, chalking this “defeat” to market neoliberalism, religious fundamentalism, and identity politics today. “There’s a lot of atomisation—all social movements seem to have disintegrated,” she said.

The damage of neoliberal capitalism, an economic policy India officially adopted in the 1990s, drips and drains: the state has fragmented and privatised social welfare, from the public distribution system to contract-based labour, while ignoring the gendered roots of care work.

“When there is universalisation, it’s easy to mobilise, to assert that I have a right to food, to education, to earn livelihood,” she adds. “But this targeted approach is very divisive. Everyone first sees their interest and identity; not their common survival struggle.”

In the urban setting, when caste-class-religious hierarchies are exploited for political gain, the now-alien worker is implicated: it appears easier to pursue singular quests, sit deep in mutual funds research holes, and keep the focus limited to getting by on a daily basis. Vibhuti wonders who will show up today to advocate for, say, domestic workers, mostly women and girls from Dalit, OBC, and Adivasi communities, whose dignity and wages are compromised by the same privileged caste households.

Women rush to board a train at the crowded Thane station on July 3, 2019. Millions of women across India commute considerable distances every day to work long hours for low pay amid tough economic times.

Women rush to board a train at the crowded Thane station on July 3, 2019. Millions of women across India commute considerable distances every day to work long hours for low pay amid tough economic times. | Photo Credit: VIBHAV BIRWATKAR

Caste is never invisible, even when wages slump or prices rise. “I have never met a woman who has not faced harassment, violence, stigma when working at someone’s house. They hide their caste and work,” said Pratima. A 2019 paper documented Dalit women’s struggles in accessing work through the MGNREG Scheme: women faced challenges at the time of applying for work, in negotiating wages, and were paid lower salaries in comparison to privileged caste women and men.

As a Dalit woman, Pratima has received vicious messages and rape threats and has had FIRs filed against her. A flood of abusers have called her greedy and shameless. “They are angry that as a woman, as a Dalit, how can she work more, earn more? Or how can she work without taking advice from us, or bowing down to us, or respecting us,” Pratima said.

She thinks twice before joining any local protest: they talk about petrol, pulses, and oil, but the role of gender and caste is left untouched. “No one discusses how inflation increases violence against women, how it cripples women’s self-respect, the burden they bear. Everything is limited to politics and voting and power.”

The fear of violence has never pressed on her more; the pressure of care work, partaking in the informal economy, debt payments, caste stigma—all weigh on her. She said: “If Dalit women get work, get commensurate wages, we won’t suffer this discrimination and violence.”

The story of rolling pins is a revolutionary story. But it is also an unfinished story. The anti-price rise protests were a “campaign”, not a “movement”, Nandita Gandhi pointed out in her essay. The former called for corrective measures without challenging the fundamental oppression; shying away from demanding compulsory childcare, the recognition of domestic care work, oppression of caste or gendered division of labour. Could it have mushroomed into something greater, if not bludgeoned by the Emergency? “Perhaps the militancy and enthusiasm of the mass of women might have transformed the agitation into a dynamic movement of women, giving a new identity, pride and place to women in the making of a truly egalitarian society,” she wrote.


In a different world, Vibhuti said, the younger generation would be the modern-day rolling pins, continuing a “legacy of feminist assertions, fighting for rights and strengthening our power—[because] that is the only way”.

The campaign loudly demonstrated that economic crises inflate social inequities. Pratima lamented that inflation is seen “through the lens of the men and the elite”. The government has said that it is committed to deploying all policy instruments to bring inflation under check. Seeing inflation through women’s eyes, however, would dispel illusions and be another exhibit of Claudia Goldin’s works: that economic and social structures need to change for women to prosper meaningfully.

Pratima hopes that their reality and resistance articulate India’s economic story. This protest is scattered and complex; an incomplete tapestry, weaving images of reading circles, of women building communities where they can listen to each other and help each other. Suman holds conversations with women about ways to manage their earnings; sometimes conversations foray into how women define their value inside and outside families. “We have a bonding. We listen to each other—about money, savings, safety. These friendships matter,” she says.

Pratima’s protest is marked by making herself and her labour visible. For others, simply getting through the day feels like a battle fought. There is no beginning, middle, or end; resistance is perpetual, offering space and reassurance when sought.

On bad days, Pratima feels like giving up. But then, almost as a chant uttered in times of distress, she reminds herself of her mother, grandmother and ancestors who suffered through the same violence. “People threw dirt at Savitribai Phule. Ambedkar is abused even today. I can’t give up. If I do, how will my children learn to fight?”

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