Why Are India’s Farmers Staging the Biggest Protest in History?

by Simran Jeet Singh

29 January 2021

Indian farmers protest 2020
Randeep Maddoke

Indian authorities cut power and water to a protest camp on Thursday night in a bid to end farmers’ months-long sit-in against damaging new agricultural reforms. Despite the outages and an increased – and increasingly violent – police presence, farmers remained defiant in their struggle, with thousands more arriving at the camp on tractors in solidarity. 

Yesterday’s face-off comes in the wake of violent demonstrations earlier this week in New Dehli, which saw police fire tear gas and baton charge protesters. According to the Indian government, the violence started when a group of protesters diverged from the agreed-upon route and broke through barricades at the capital’s historic Red Fort. But videos taken on the ground show multiple instances of police officers attacking protestors unprovoked. At least one protester died when his tractor overturned as police fired tear gas; while hundreds of police officers were injured. 200 protestors have since been arrested.

While most of the protesters are committed to continuing the fight, two farmers unions have announced they will be withdrawing from the demonstrations, as a result of the violence.

This week’s escalation is the latest in an over two-month-long stand-off between farmers and the Indian government over the implementation of new agricultural laws, which were enacted in September, to deregulate the farming sector.

The unrest began in late November when over 250m people across India participated in a general strike in response to the new laws, which were hailed by prime minister Narendra Modi as a “watershed moment” for India’s economy. Critics, however, condemn the reforms as “a death warrant” for agricultural workers.

In response, hundreds of thousands of Indian farmers set up camp at various sites on the outskirts of the capital in what many have dubbed “the largest protest in human history.” Protesters have been made to endure a bitter winter and approximately 150 have died as a result – a further 18 more have committed suicide.

Undeterred by such harsh conditions and harrowing losses, the demonstrating farmers – who hail from a diverse range of backgrounds, crossing traditional lines of religion, caste and class – vow to remain until the new laws are repealed.

On 12 January, amidst mounting pressure and 11 rounds of failed negotiations, India’s supreme court suspended the new laws and marshalled a committee to examine the farmer’s concerns. Protest leaders, however, argued that the suspension was not in good faith. “The members of the supreme court-appointed committee are not dependable as they have been writing on how agri laws are pro-farmer,” said Balbir Singh Rajewal, a senior farmer leader. “We will continue our agitation.”

From the outset, farmers unions have called for a complete and absolute withdrawal of the legislation, remaining steadfast in what they argue are only half-hearted offers at amendment. “We have unanimously rejected the government’s proposal,” said Jagmohan Singh, state general secretary for Bharatiya Kisan Union (Indian Farmers Union). “This is an insult to us…We don’t want amendments.”

With neither side willing to concede, and tension rising between protesters and authorities, farmers are determined to fight on, even in the face of violence, saying, “We are ready to face the bullets, but we will not end our protest.”

What are the new laws?  

The new legislation is comprised of three bills – the Farmers Produce Trade and Commerce Act, the Farmers Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Act and the Essential Commodities Act. Taken together, these laws will remove government protections for farmers that have been in place for decades, including guaranteed minimum prices for crops. While farmers are protesting all three bills, they are particularly concerned by the Farmers’ Produce and Commerce Bill, which empowers corporations to negotiate directly with small farmers to purchase their crops.

This is an untenable situation for small farmers, most of whom do not have the skills or resources to outmanoeuvre multinational companies. Small farmers across the country worry that their livelihoods will be decimated and that they will fall even further into indebtedness.

The consequences of these laws will be felt on an enormous scale, given that the national economy is largely comprised of, and dependent on, agriculture. Nearly half of India’s 1.35bn population is made up of small farmers and their families. According to the 2011 national census, nearly 60% of India’s working population – roughly 263m people – rely on agriculture as their primary source of income.

This new legislation is the final confirmation of critics’ fears that small farming is no longer a profitable or sustainable livelihood in India. For the past few decades, small farmers have seen their profit margins shrink and their debts rise. A recent study by economist Sukhpal Singh from Punjab Agricultural University, shows farm labourers in Punjab have four times as much debt as their annual income.

Indeed, a number of studies have demonstrated that the unrelenting cycle of indebtedness is the primary factor for India’s epidemic of farmer suicides. Over the course of three years – from 2015 to 2018 – more than 12,000 farmers took their own lives in the state of Maharashtra. But this mental health crisis is not limited to a single state. In 2019, more than 10,000 Indian farmers committed suicide, according to data from India’s National Crime Records Bureau.

Consider that these alarming statistics were recorded before the new, “death warrant” laws were introduced. Indeed, many experts worry that the new legislation will only serve to push farmers further into debt, exacerbating both the economic crisis and the suicide epidemic in the process.

As Kaushik Basu, former chief economist for the World Bank wrote on Twitter: “I’ve now studied India’s new farm bills and realize they are flawed and will be detrimental to farmers. Our agriculture regulation needs to change, but the new laws will end up serving corporate interests more than farmers. Hats off to the sensibility and moral strength of India’s farmers.”

A legacy of abuse.

The current protests are just the latest chapter in a much longer struggle for India’s farmers – one that is inextricably tied to the implementation of the ‘Green Revolution’ program in the late 1960s.

The US-backed initiative, which was rolled out across the global south, saw Punjabi farmers pressured by the government into abandoning traditional farming methods in favour of an Americanised, industrial system, which vastly improved crop yields. Such rapid ‘progress’, however, came with profoundly damaging consequences.

While the new seeds were able to produce much bigger yields, the crops needed much more water than was possible with natural rainfall. This meant that farmers had to dig wells and irrigate with groundwater. They were also been forced to rely on harmful pesticides and fertiliser to support the ‘miraculous’ growth of the modified seeds – practices that continue to this day. However, as prices for seeds and pesticides have risen, and government-approved minimum prices have remained low, farmers have been forced to turn to banks and private money lenders for loans to keep their business afloat. Such is the context for the current ecological, health, and economic crisis plaguing India’s farmers today.

Decades of toxic pesticide use has ruined the country’s soil. While government studies show that farmers have pumped so much groundwater to irrigate their crops that the water table is dropping as much as three feet every year.

Punjab is one of the highest consumers of pesticides per hectare in the country, a factor residents have said fuelled one of the worst rates of cancer in India, earning the region the title of India’s “cancer belt”. A 2017 study found significant traces of uranium and other heavy toxic elements in drinking water samples, and multiple studies have linked the sharp uptick of cancer cases in Punjab to heavy pesticide use in the region.

Many farmers are also spiralling in debt thanks to both crop failures as a result of the damaged soil, and the failure to pay off the interest on loans or secure competitive prices for their produce. These conditions led to the suicide epidemic. The new legislation is only going to exacerbate what is already a crisis in farming communities all across India.

A critical juncture.

The situation for Indian farmers was bleak even before the introduction of the new legislation. Far from being an aberration, these demonstrations are, in fact, the logical conclusion to decades of governmental exploitation and neglect.

Even if the farmers are victorious in repealing the legislation, agricultural workers will still be forced to return to the same untenable conditions, which have resulted in the shocking reality that a farmer in India commits suicide every 30 minutes.

If the government fails to address the root causes of this crisis and allows business as usual to continue, protests like these will only become more and more common – as poverty deepens, cancer rates grow and the suicide epidemic spirals even further out of control.

With tensions increasing every day, it is clear that the Indian government has reached a critical juncture. Will it continue to ignore and neglect millions of its most vulnerable people; or, will it finally seek to address the long-standing issues at the heart of this struggle? How the government chooses to respond now will determine whether India stays trapped in an exploitative past or boldly steps forward to create a fairer, greener future.

Simran Jeet Singh is a scholar and historian of South Asia. He is a term-member with the Council on Foreign Relations, senior fellow for the Sikh Coalition, and a Truman National Security Project fellow.

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