Indian farmers continue to make international headlines as their protest persists. On January 26th, Republic Day in India, thousands of farmers, including 10,000 tractors, entered India’s capital city, New Delhi, and marched on the Red Fort.
According to observers, this act demonstrated increasingly elevated commitments to resist Prime Minister Modi. For instance, they flew religious and farmer union flags from the fort’s ramparts, where traditionally, India’s prime minister ceremoniously erects India’s national flag. Unlike earlier protests, this one turned violent. Police deployed water cannons and used tear gas to combat the demonstrators and used barricades to try and block the farmers from leaving. It was reported that over 300 to 500 police officers were injured in the fracas by protesters wielding clubs and other sharp weapons. It was also reported that one demonstrator died. One farmer, Satpal Singh, was quoted saying, “we want to show Modi our strength … we will not surrender.”
In September 2020, the Indian parliament passed three bills that sparked the unrest. The laws around the sale, storage, and pricing that had been a source of protection from the forces of the free market for farmers were eroded. For instance, one of the controversial points is the fact that under the new rules, farmers will be allowed to sell their goods directly to private enterprises rather than at government wholesale markets, which in the past have controlled the market by guaranteeing a base price.
Called the ‘mandi system,’ it is a complicated network of committees whose regulations and relationships have been thrown in doubt by the new bills. Farmers fear that private enterprises will use higher prices to attract sales away from the mandi system, which will eventually lead to the government closing down the mandi system altogether, at which time the private buyers will hike their prices up. While they are currently able to sell the private buyers, they fear the loss of the mandi system as a bargaining chip against private interest and a measure of last resort. Economist Ajit Ranade argues that while the new government rules are “a welcome step, in unshackling the farmer,” he stresses that “the government needs to come out with a written law that they will not withdraw the MSP or the mandi system.”
Over one half of Indians work on farms, yet the sector only accounts for one-sixth of the country’s GDP. According to the BBC, most of India’s farmers are on a small or marginal plot of land, with nearly 70 percent of them farming less than a hectare. 90 percent of farmers sell in the mandi system, with a tiny six percent actually receiving the guaranteed price support. Persistent high debt, lack of storage infrastructure, little modernization, and declining productivity have combined to put additional stress on Indian farmers. Between 2018 and 2019, over 20,000 farmers committed suicide. According to one economist, more than half of the farmers do not end up with enough extra crop to sell. Most experts agree that leaving farmers at the mercy of the world agricultural markets is not the right path. For its part, the government has suggested minor alterations to the three bills, and as the protests continued, extended an offer to suspend their implementation for eighteen months while continuing negotiations.
In the wake of the violence, the Indian government shut down parts of the internet in the city in an attempt to stifle the demonstrations. According to the Ministry of Home Affairs, the shutdown was “in the interest of maintaining public safety and averting public emergency.” Government forces have erected barricades in an effort to prevent protester movement. Some journalists have been charged with sedition for covering the protests. So far, the security forces have held back from using force to remove the demonstrators. There are concerns that the restricted movement has reduced the ability of the farmers to receive supplies and have led to worsening sanitary conditions. In a year where the world is still grappling with COVID-19, and new strains threaten the increased spread of the virus, this situation could quickly become a humanitarian crisis. Bhupender Chaudhary reports that “many of the farmers are old, some of them are struggling in the cold, some of them have had heart attacks.” Over 70 protesters have died, and some observers argue that the numbers are much higher.
There has been widespread criticism of the violence, with some arguing that the demonstrators have lost legitimacy after turning violent. Farmer union leaders have argued that it was “rogue elements” within their organizations, condemned the acts of violence, and stressed that the majority of the protesters remained peaceful and did not stray from the government assigned route. Entering the third month of the protest, farmers seem to be more committed than ever. Agricultural expert Davinder Sharma argues that the current demonstrations roots are much deeper than a reaction to the 2020 bills. He stated that the protests are “challenging the entire economic design of the country” and that “inequality is growing in India and farmers are becoming poorer. Policy planners have failed to realize this and have sucked the income from the bottom to the top. The farmers are only demanding what is their right.” Prime Minister Modi has argued that the farmers fears are not legitimate and are the result of ‘agitation’ by opposition parties. Neither side seems willing to back down, and this crisis will likely continue in the months to come.
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