On Jan. 26, Indian farmers broke into the nation’s capital, New Delhi, sending a great message to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government. What was once supposed to be a military parade was derailed by the farmers who tore down the barricades with their tractors.
Violence unfolded in and around the city; police exerted great force on the farmers, which culminated in the death of one farmer and injuries on many others.
The farmers and authorities argued over what started the storming of the capital as farmers claimed that the police agitated their peaceful protest.
At one point throughout the protest, the farmers breached India’s historic Red Fort, a beautiful red sandstone palace that was once home to Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan.
They occupied the fort for some time before police forced them out.
This wasn’t the first protest though, nor will it be the last, large peaceful protests have been going on since August of last year.
India’s farmers’ protests began in opposition to a set of proposed laws by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which would completely change agriculture in India.
Farmers have demanded that these bills be thrown away, but instead the government has only put them on hold.
What is the Farmer Bill of 2020?
The first bill is titled, “The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill 2020.”
This creates the framework for contract farming where farmers enter legal contracts with mostly corporate buyers who have the ability to dictate product, pricing, delivery and more.
This law was put in place to attract private buyers and ultimately stimulate profit, which it will, but the government fails to realize that the profit will not go into the pockets of the working farmers.
Powerful wealthy corporations will be able to legally assert overbearing power in these contracts, raising prices and in the end exploiting the farmers for the most produce with the lowest price.
The winner here is not the hard working farmers, but instead the corporate buyers.
The second bill is the, “The Farming Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, 2020.”
This bill gives farmers the option to sell outside of the Mandis (wholesale markets) and the state. Again, this attracts private companies to come in and buy, but at what cost?
Mandis are operated by committees of farmers and are regulated to somewhat protect the farmers. It is not a perfect system, but Mandis also offers minimum support prices for goods, which ensure fair pricing for farmers through market standards.
Farmers have already been able to sell privately in other states, like Bihar, where farmers earn the lowest income compared to other farmers around the country. The bill gives this private selling opportunity to every farmer regardless of their state.
This enters the farmers into the free market — unregulated and not protected by the government — subject to volatile prices.
Big farmers will have more options to sell, while small farmers will likely stay within the Mandi’s, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be unaffected. Like in the state of Bihar, it is likely that the wholesale markets will begin to disappear in the years to come.
The elimination of Mandi’s means that farmers will be forced into negotiating with private buyers, opening many doors for exploitation and unfair pricing.
The third and final bill, “The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill, 2020,” affects the government made “Essential Commodities” list.
Under the list, certain commodities are deemed essential and thus are given a set price, this prevents wealthy buyers from hoarding these commodities and raising prices due to demand.
However, with this amendment, commodities specific to farmers, like potatoes and onions, are removed by the essential commodities list. One may argue that this means that farmers can sell their products at higher prices than the usual government price, but this also opens the opportunity for hoarding.
Now, anyone with enough money can hoard, create monopolies over commodities and raise prices drastically for the products of the farmers.
Nobody wins under this bill unless you are an extremely wealthy buyer; consumer prices are going to be raised and farmers are further pushed aside by the government that is supposed to protect them.
If these bills become set in stone, the life of all farmers in India will worsen more than it already has.
A Desperate Cry For Help
Since the days of the Green Revolution — when India transformed its farming economy from severe famines to a surplus of food — the economy has worsened for farmers.
50 years after the Green Revolution, agriculture went from contributing to 50% of the economy, to contributing a mere 15% in the late 2010s.
According to the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, Government of India, 52% of all farming households in India are in debt.
There’s a clear financial crisis among farmers and when COVID-19 broke out last year, it made their situation far more severe.
With the lockdown, there has been nobody to buy their crops. Mandi’s suffered because there was a fear that the produce was not being handled cleanly. Moreover, many crops were going to waste and there has been a tremendous loss in profit.
In a country where farmers were already struggling in the first place, the effects of COVID-19 were felt devastatingly. Unfortunately, a suicide crisis has been on the rise for Indian farmers.
According to the National Crime Records Bureau, in 2019 alone, 10,281 farmers have taken their own life. Government officials have largely ignored this crisis, despite rising statistics. In fact, people in the farming sector accounted for 7.4% of all suicides in 2019.
Since 2015, in the state with one of the highest farmer incomes in the country, Punjab, farmer suicides have increased by more than 12 times.
If these new laws are implemented, the financial situation of Indian farmers will only worsen at the hands of large corporations. In turn, the suicide crisis may be amplified.
Response From the Indian Government and the Western World
Recently, one of America’s most beloved musical acts, Rihanna, expressed her support for the farmers in India. She linked an article about the protests and tweeted “Why aren’t we talking about this?!”
Days after, climate change activist Greta Thunberg also tweeted out her support, “I still #StandWithFarmers and support their peaceful protest. No amount of hate, threats, or violence of human rights will ever change that. #FarmersProtest”
While this inspired a wave of support from the western world, especially from young people who look up to these two figures, the response from India has not been welcoming.
They silenced the influx of support, claiming that the coverage of the protests from outside of India has been largely misinformed.
Home Minister of India, Amit Shah tweeted out in response, “No propaganda can deter India’s unity! No propaganda can stop India to attain new heights! Propaganda can not decide India’s fate only Progress can! India stands united and together to achieve progress!”
This in turn prompted the support of famous Bollywood actors in India, adding their own pro government sentiment to the mix.
Pranjaly Ghenand, a 17-year-old student who was born in India, told Slice of Culture her discontent with how the government has handled the coverage of the protests.
“I feel like a lot of people in India depend on celebrities to legitimize the validity of these issues, otherwise some don’t pay any attention.”
“Yes everyone has the freedom of speech, but when you are taking on more of a liberal stance, those actors would rather choose to be quiet than speak up and lose fortune and contracts.”
She later added, “Whereas right winged celebrities are faced with the same risk, but not as much because they can easily showcase their opinions as ‘nationalism’ and ‘unity’ when it is not fighting for that at all.”
Her concern is a valid one, all of the government’s statements and support from Indian celebrities have taken away from the farmers’ plight.
Famous figures in India have pushed them aside, calling for unity, but the farmers have been fighting for that for months now.
Approximately 60% of India’s population works within the agriculture industry, their genuine grievances about the farming bills have been largely ignored.
How can unity be found when the government is trying to serve the interests of corporations at the expense of suffering farmers?
Like Ghenand pointed out, this could inspire other working individuals in India to take on a pro-government stance against the farmers. Class solidarity is a necessity for the demands of the farmers to be met, but disapproval from Bollywood stars threatens that.
“It may not seem as important in a first glance but many in India look up to actors, cricket players, and other famous individuals. So much so that they have them up on a pedestal and it’s extremely disappointing because when it’s time to choose between supporting the people or the upper class, they will always stand with the latter,” Ghenand said.
These events transpired around the same time as the Indian government cut off internet in major protest sites after the protest on the 26th. The blockage was explained by the Ministry of Home Affairs, stating that this was done “in the interest of maintaining public safety and averting public emergency.”
Masha Musthafa, a 16-year-old student born from Indian immigrants, expressed his own criticism about the internet blockage.
“I feel that cutting off the internet at protest sites is just restricting basic rights like freedom of speech. They (the government) know that the internet is the best place for things to proliferate.”
Musthafa is right, when it comes to the internet blockage, the government is simply covering up the real reasoning behind it.
“Maintaining public safety and averting public emergency” is an interesting way to explain the undemocratic blockage of information about the protests flooding in and out.
He later explained his own stance on the protests:
“I most definitely stand in solidarity with the farmers. I understand both sides, but I feel like the government is mostly trying to help the big companies in the name of “modernizing” India.”
“It makes sense to want to open up the farming industry so that the farmers can directly negotiate with the companies for pricing. At the same time, the government was negotiating with farmers about pricing, which offered a lot of security to these farmers.”
Ghenand shared a similar sentiment with Musthafa.
She said that, “The new laws allow unregulated corporations to dictate prices on farmers. Which to I ask, why are we as people making big corporations and wealthy individuals even richer as the poor get poorer and suffer the real consequences? This results in things like the suicide crisis of the farmers.”
The reality of the bills proposed by Prime Minister Modi cannot be better summed up by Ghenand, the rich will become richer and the poor will become poorer.
These neoliberal bills will only harm India’s working class, while benefiting the wealthy 1%.
The farmers know this, and it’s only right for them to not back down until these bills are completely thrown away.
The future is uncertain for the farmers right now, but their spirit is still alive and well. They currently have protest camps outside New Delhi, taking over the highways.
The camps act as mini functioning communities with any essential service you can imagine: medical centers, food centers, places to wash your clothes and more. It is not only home to protesters, but their families as well, all to support the farmers and their cause.
The scene is not saddening either, there are people playing games, singing, and children having fun. The sense of solidarity between these camps is genuinely inspiring.
While the farmers fight for their rights with the world watching, it is only right that the rest of the world stands with them. The unification of all working people is in the best interest of all of us to create the equitable world we deserve.