4 things you should know about the Indian farmers protests

Indian farmers have been protesting against law reforms for three months straight. They fear the reforms will allow the market to fall into the hands of big corp, leaving the farmers with zero power and an even lower price. Fairfood is watching the protests closely and lists 4 things you should understand about these protests.

Anyone who cares about fair food, ought to watch the farmers protest in India very closely. On one hand, a “free market” sounds like something we should want: farmers in a position to negotiate a good price. But denying an assured price already proved to impact farmers negatively, even in high-income countries. “If the markets were so good, and despite receiving monumental subsidies, I see no reason why American farmers should be saddled with a record-high debt of $425 billion in July 2020”, journalist Devinder Sharma wrote in an article for Fairfood, “With suicides in rural areas being 45% higher than in urban areas. Rural communities have been left devastated, and there is a kind of eerie silence that greets you.”. 

Even after five rounds of talks with the Modi Government, no solution to the continuing siege of Delhi seems to have been found. While the biggest farmers’ protest of the world unfolds and seems to be carrying on for months to come, we invite you to pay attention to 4 important facts about the protests, that will definitely end up in history books.

1. The many faces of a single protest 

A few hundred meters from the police barricades, a massive 2 kilometer makeshift town was built for the almost 10 thousand farmers that have set up camp in Delhi. The settlement includes a medical department, a school for children, a library and, of course, a kitchen that feeds whoever is visiting – including police officers, who are often spotted grabbing a bite. Supply “stores” were also improvised with donations from supporters, where shampoo and even free period pads are distributed. The face of the protest may be that of bearded farmers in tourbants, female farmers are also present, along with entire families, including young and college-going children. “My father is able to support my education only through farming. If this is lost, we will be left with nothing. That’s why I’m here”, the student Raman Gill told BBC. “Initially many of my friends made fun of us for joining this movement. Now they tell us how proud they are. It feels nice that they understand why we are here.” 

The impressive organisationational level is also reflected in the “leaderless strategy”. Leaders of the 31 protesting unions have avoided the formation of a single power centre by taking turns to participate in talks with the government. In other times, many of these groups would be disagreeing, but this time around the focus is on the collective fight. “No union leader should feel that because he is heading a smaller union he does not have the same say as the head of a larger union,” Gurmeet Singh, vice-president of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU), told The Print. “In this kind of leadership everybody matters.”

2. Terrorism: how can farmers be the enemy?  

Right wing supporters call the movement separatist and accuse farmers of wanting to divide the country. Behind that lie several ideological debates and internal conflicts based on religion, the cast systems and nationalist narratives that lead the right wing to refer to farmers as “terrorists”. Which, of course, inflamed more supportive expressions stronger, including from foreigners such as the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, activist Greta Thumberg and, of course, Rihanna, that ended up experiencing the anger of Modi’s crowd.

Protests are fairly common in India, the world’s largest democracy. In 2019, large crowds rocked the country after the approval of a controversial bill that gave Indian citizenship to immigrants from three neighbouring countries, but not if they are Muslim. However, the current protests are a particular challenge for Modi’s Government. Agriculture accounts as the direct or indirect source of livelihood for 58% of India’s 1.3 billion population, making farming not only the main economic activity of the country, but farmers the biggest voter block. What makes particularly incomprehensible that parts of society can see them as an enemy. Aren’t they the backbone of Indians’ society after all? Although the Prime Minister swears he’s trying to support and transform the agri-sector, as long as they remain angry it could cost Modi a significant chunk of votes at the next general election in 2024. 

Last week, the Supreme Court suspended the legislation for 18 months, but farmer leaders said they are ready to stay until the election. And although Punjab and Haryana are seen as the epicenter of the protests, the Jharkhand Chief, Minister Hemant Soren warned the government that other regions can soon join the protests

3. Censorship alert: what’s wrong with the world’s largest democracy? 

Although we are constantly reading that “farmers clashed with the police”, the protests were peaceful until January 26, India’s Republic Day, when protesters broke through police barricades to enter Delhi and, indeed, clashed with police officers violently. It all started when the group breached the historic Red Fort and hoisted the Sikh religious flag, that stands as the religion of a big part of the group, alongside the national flag. Quickly, “pictures” of the new flag alone went viral, insufflating non-supporters with the false idea that farmers replaced the Indian flag. The wave of fake news kept going as Delhi police said nearly 400 police officers were injured, and reported the death of one protester only, while investigations from the Wire pointed to a massive number of protesters hurt. The death of Navreet Singh Hundal, 26, brought more controversies: his family says that he died from gunshot injuries, but the police insists he died when his tractor overturned. 

The event led to internet shutdowns imposed on different areas around Delhi’s borders, with India’s Ministry of Home Affairs saying the move was “in the interest of maintaining public safety and averting public emergency”. The internet sanction, again, is not something new to the country. In 2019, a months-long internet blackout was imposed in Indian-controlled Kashmir after the region’s protected autonomy was removed from the Constitution. 

Another undemocratic old ghost emerged in the protest, as the journalist Mandeep Punia was arrested while covering the protests, and kept in custody for 14 days. Accused of obstructing a public servant from discharging his duty, she was just one among eight others according to the Humans Right Watch. Following, the 22-years-old activist Disha Ravi was arrested at her home and her alleged crimes are related to a “toolkit” document connected to India’s ongoing farmer protests, which police say is evidence of a co-ordinated international conspiracy against India.

This all quickly led to supportive protests happening in the UK and USA to gather more international media attention. India’s Congress Party, along with 15 other Opposition parties, wrote a joint letter, condemning the way the protesters had been handled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, calling their response “arrogant, adamant and undemocratic”.

4. The failure of the Green Revolution: farming in crisis

Announced in the 1960s as the way out of hunger, the “revolution” of mechanised agriculture based on high-yielding seeds and a lot of water quickly took over the country. The novelty was everything, except green. Enough food was finally being produced, but all the enthusiasm masked the commodifying process. Instead of exploring biodiversity, a better deal for farmers became complying with the programme to supply staples to the poor at subsidised rates through designated wholesale markets. Eventually, it all led to land depletion by monocultural cultivation of high-yield seed varieties, to a poor-nutritional diet, while the costs of inputs needed to keep producing pushed farmers into a cycle of debt. 

Why are we talking about the 60s? Because the dynamic is still there, and because together with climate change it forms the ecological roots of the crisis. Today, 82% of farmers in India own a piece of land smaller than 2 hectares, while they grapple with drought and flooding. The new laws make it almost impossible for small landowners to succeed, as they allow the government to trade outside the designated markets, and stockpiling grains without being prosecuted for hoarding. “I don’t want my children to enter this occupation, even though we’ve done it for generations”, said a farmer from Tamil Nadu state, Raja, says to DW. “We farmers no longer trust the government.” Although the word “transformation” is constantly being used by the Government, no environmental or nutritional standards such as focusing on biodiversity or organic farming are being discussed. Raja explained that the frustration lies in the fact that, instead of engaging with the farmers as equals, the government has left them at the mercy of courts and corporations to decide what’s next for the sector. That, as mentioned by Devinder Sharma right at the beginning of this article, didn’t seem to go well in other countries and could drive farmers out of work altogether.

Read also: why the world should watch the Indian farmer protests very closely

Photo in header via Twitter.

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