Indian Farmers Pose a Daunting Challenge to Modi

Photo source: Al Jazeera

By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe Upfront

In August 2020, a movement erupted in India of around three hundred thousand protestors. It was led by farmers, who were multi- generational, multi-faith, and multi caste. Concentrated in north India, the central theme of protests was their discontent against three laws passed by BJP led federal government that the farmers saw as an exploitation of India’s agricultural sector by the private corporations. It emerged as one of the largest protest movements in South Asia. At the same time, the movement also reflected global issues of worker rights, and labour regulations. For their retaliation, farmers were met with water cannons, barbed wire, and Internet shutdowns.

In the first initial months, these protests didn’t get worldwide attention. This, however, changed on India’s republic day, the following year, when farmers drove their tractors into Delhi’s city centre, and stormed New Delhi’s Red Fort, where they had clashed with the police. According to BBC, one protestor died and around three hundred police officers were injured. More than two hundred farmers were detained, as were eight journalists, as per Human Rights Watch. The images of farmers marching in New Delhi on India’s republic day recall similar scenes in Washington DC, during the farming crisis of the late 1970s and early 1980s, when hundreds of trucks and tractors flooded the National Mall.

Growing number of celebrities from Rihanna, to climate activist Greta Thunberg, actress Susan Sarandon, and football player Juju Smith Schuster showed their solidarity, as the government didn’t pay heed to their demands. A full page advertisement in the New York Times was another instance of a pivotal international attention. This ad was paid for by Justice for Migrant Women, an advocacy group that focuses on amplifying voices of migrant women globally. The organisation was founded by Monica Ramirez, an American civil rights attorney and activist.

In February 2021, the federal government began restricting Internet access in the areas around the ongoing protests, reflecting that the government showed no signs of accepting farmer demands. They also arrested online activists, suspended Twitter accounts, who tried to stoke anger against the ruling regime.

According to PRS, a non-profit Indian legislative research institute, the three bills decrease trade regulations on farmers' goods, allow for online and interstate trading, and limit the government's ability to regulate the supply of essential commodities.

The bills, intended for greater liberalisation, were presented by Modi and other legislative supporters as giving farmers more freedom to control their own trade and expand their own markets. The farmers, however, argue that the increased competition enabled by this deregulation will give all the power to corporate buyers, rather than agricultural workers, who constitute sixty percent of India's population. Since the buyers will have access to a wider pool of suppliers, they'll therefore be able to lower the prices. This phenomenon is further compounded by the bills' removal of government-imposed minimum prices for certain goods, which farmers say were already only barely helping them. There are also clauses of contract farming, and restrictions on the storage of food grains, and other agricultural goods to prevent hoarding.

Despite decades of economic growth, nearly half of India’s population relies on growing crops on small parcels of land, typically less than 1.5 hectares (3 acres), and farmers worry that without guaranteed prices they will be forced to sell their land, and lose their livelihoods.

The dispute raises questions not only about agriculture but about dwindling populations in rural India where small communities are already struggling to survive.

The challenges facing India are common to many developing countries in Asia, where farmland has been gobbled up, often for property development and factories, leaving hordes of farmers without adequate compensation and bereft of their livelihoods. Indian farmers are also not suited to large scale farming, like in the US, because much money is needed for expensive equipment. They are comfortable with small scale farming due to abundant labour, showing that the Indian agricultural sector is not inclined towards modernisation. There might be even greater environmental concerns if India shifts to large scale farming.

Indian agriculture has been in a state of crises for the past two decades or more. The most painful manifestation of the crises has been the rising rate of suicides among farmers (28 per day in 2019). Many of farmers who kill themselves are indebted to informal money lenders such as relatives or other usurious creditors.

Since the protests started in August 2020, ahead of the bills' passage, dozens of protestors had died from severe weather conditions, health conditions such as heart attacks, car accidents while approaching the protests, and even suicide, according to Al Jazeera.

The protestors want nothing short of removal of these laws. Representatives from more than thirty agricultural unions that oppose the bills have met with government officials in eleven rounds of talks, to no avail. Officials have invited the farmers to participate in mediation, negotiation, and amendment of the laws, but the farmers have refused, citing their demand to repeal the bills.

"The government has the sharpest of brains working for it. The fact that they've not been able to come up with a proposal which meets our demands means that our case is strong," Kiran Vissa, a union member and a leader of the protests, told The Wire in December 2020, noting that merely amending any of the bills would nullify the others. "So the only way the demands can be met is by a complete repeal of the laws. The government has refused to look into the nature of our demands in a substantive manner."

In January 2021, supreme court of India suspended the bills and appointed a committee to oversee future negotiations, The Guardian reported. It gave the farmers another reason to stand firm on their demands.

In one of the rounds of talks, the government said its best offer was a suspension of the bills for up to eighteen months, but farmers rejected it out rightly, showing that its repealing is a matter of life and death for them.

Supporters of the laws have also claimed that the farmers simply do not understand their provisions. It had led Modi blaming the protests on a misinformation campaign spread by the opposition parties. However, the lack of tangible results from the eleven rounds of talks, plus growing evidence of misleading details being spread by the bills' supporters, prove that the protests are based not on a misunderstanding, but on a fundamental disagreement over the rights and treatment of agricultural workers.

These protests also show that the moral force of the Indian farmer cannot be lowballed. It even shows their collective guilt, as many of these protestors had voted for Modi in 2014 and 2019.


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