India’s farmers take to the streets to protest agricultural bills

Numbering in the hundreds of thousands and growing larger by the day, India’s mass farmers’ protests have quickly become one of the largest protests in human history. Since September, farmers and their supporters have taken to the streets to demonstrate against three agricultural reform bills pushed through Parliament by Prime Minister Narenda Modi.

Before the passage of the bills, markets were heavily regulated, and the interests of small-scale farmers were considered. Farmers took their crops to mandis, state-run wholesale markets where all initial sales had to occur, and then sold them to licensed middlemen and traders. 

More essential crops, like grains, were bought directly by the government at Minimum Support Prices (MSPs). MSPs are price floors established to ensure that farmers are being paid fairly for their labor. Though it is not a perfect system, MSPs are one of farmers’ main safeguards against exploitation in the market, and they provide farmers with a degree of stability.

However, with the passage of the new agriculture bills, which seek to deregulate the market, farmers fear that they will lose the very mechanisms once put in place to protect them. The bills allow more room for trade outside of the mandis, reduce government oversight into dealings between farmers and traders, and remove previous storage limits set to control prices.

Modi claims that these new agricultural reform bills help farmers by giving them the opportunity to cut out the middleman and sell directly to buyers. However, farmers argue that the development of an unregulated marketplace benefits the private sector while leaving small farmers vulnerable. Since the reform bills make no mention of MSPs outside of the context of mandis, farmers believe that the large corporations will take over the farming industry and either pay farmers an unlivable wage for their crops or cut small farmers out completely in order to deal exclusively with big farming companies.

In November, thousands of farmers marched in protest of the farm bills and headed toward New Delhi, India’s capital city. Most of the farmers came from Punjab and Haryana, two northern states with majority-Sikh populations and with the largest agricultural industries in the country. 

On the way down, protesters were confronted by police who deployed tear gas in an attempt to contain the march. Though the farmers successfully pushed past several obstacles, they were forced to a stop at the outskirts of New Delhi, where large, barbed-wire barricades blocked any further advancement. Undeterred, protesters set up camp along several major highways, blocking off once-busy roads and transforming them into makeshift towns complete with supply stores, medical centers, and community kitchens.

Protests continued for two months while negotiations stalled, as both the farmers and the government refused to budge on their positions. Despite facing cold temperatures and rainy weather, the farmers affirmed that they would continue camping and protesting until the agricultural bills are repealed and MSPs are expressly written into law. Since the most that the Modi administration was willing to concede was an 18-month suspension of the bills, the two sides were at a complete deadlock.

But on January 26, violent clashes between protesting farmers and government authorities markeda significant escalation in the conflict. In India, it was Republic Day, a national holiday that celebrates India’s Constitution officially coming into effect. During a planned protest to disrupt a parade, some farmers broke from the group, rode their tractors into the police barricades, and then entered into Delhi as the barricades broke down.

Police with tear gas and water cannons stepped in to try to stop the surge of protesters, and some officers were even armed with assault rifles. Other officers tried to beat back the protesters with sticks, but farmers pushed past them into the center of New Delhi. Farmers stormed the Red Fort, where the national flag usually flies, and waved their own farm union and Sikh religious flags.

At the end of the day, many were injured, and at least one person, a farmer, had died. The government claimed that he died from his tractor overturning, but farmers say that he was shot by police.

The events that unfolded on Republic Day, however, and all the protests that have occurred in direct response to the farm bills, are the culmination of tensions that have been building between farmers and the government for years now.

Farmers once produced a third of India’s GDP, but their share has now dropped to 15% despite the country’s growing economy. More than half of farmers in India are in debt, and some farming families already earn as little as 20,000 rupees ($271) annually. Additionally, 68% of farmers own less than one hectare of land. As a result of the poverty and insecurity that they face, many farmers have committed suicide.

In fact, India has one of the highest farmer suicide rates in the world, with over 10,000 farmers dying in 2019 alone. These numbers are expected to reach record levels with the COVID-19 pandemic and the new farm bills, which have caused farmers to feel even more anxious about falling incomes and economic instability.

India’s government is no stranger to civil unrest, and in response to these protests, they have employed some of the same tactics they used to discredit protests in 2019 against a discriminatory citizenship law that targeted Muslims. Some officials from Modi’s party have dismissed the farmers’ movement by labelling the protests as mere religious nationalism. After Republic Day, Modi also shut off telecommunications around New Delhi and the majority of districts in Haryana state, citing public safety as his justification. Without Internet access, it is much more difficult for the farmers to organize and escalate their protests.

Modi has also taken steps to censor media coverage surrounding the protests. The government turned to Twitter to block accounts associated with the farmers’ movement, though these accounts have since been reinstated. Eight journalists have also been arrested for their coverage of the protests.

These actions have elicited widespread international outcry. A slew of actors — from international organizations like Human Rights Watch and the United Nations, to world leaders like Canada’s Justin Trudeau, and even some celebrities — have criticized Modi for his harsh crackdown on the protesters. The U.S. embassy in New Delhi has also spoken up, calling on the Indian government to continue talks with farmers.

In India, however, Modi still remains popular among the Hindu majority. But whatever happens next, one thing is clear: the farmers have no plans to back down, and the protests show no signs of abating. As Sukhvinder Kaur, a 65-year-old Punjabi woman protesting outside New Delhi remarked: “We are not ready to go home until these laws are scrapped. We are ready to sacrifice our lives — even ready to die.”

Recommended Readings

  • “In the Cold and Rain, India’s Farmers Press Their Stand Against Modi” — The New York Times
  • “India has a farmer suicide epidemic — and farmers are protesting new laws they fear will make things worse” — Business Insider
  • “Free speech under threat as India clamps down on farmer protests” — Al Jazeera

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