Over 300,000 farmers marched on New Delhi on December 1 to protest new agricultural laws introduced by the government.
Hundreds of thousands of farmers have set up vast protests and camps around the capital, effectively barricading the borders of the city in protest of new agricultural laws they fear will destroy their already-meagre livelihoods. One of the groups most affected financially by the pandemic, farmers from the states of Punjab and Haryana travelled down to the capital over the weekend, claiming that the laws passed by the government were not in their best interests.
As protesters approached the city on foot and in tractor convoys, small crowds managed to enter, while the rest were stopped by roadblocks and barbed wire fences erected by police along the borders. This did not stop the farmers, however, who set up camps along five major roads into the city with a view of staying for months if their needs are not fulfilled. Police also used tear gas and water cannons against the protestors in a bid to deter their attempts to breach the border, also requesting the Delhi government for permission to convert nine stadiums in the city into temporary holding cells for the protesters. However, the city government denied these requests, saying “Farmers are not criminals”.
Over half of the country’s total population (1.4 billion) makes its living through agriculture, according to Indian census data, “but they are not getting due respect, nor the political and economic space they deserve,” says Medha Patkar, a social activist who showed solidarity with the farmers at protests in New Delhi and Madhya Pradesh. “This sector is not just neglected, but deliberately ignored and underestimated because of the present paradigm of development, which is not just market-oriented but consumerism-based,” she says. “We want production by the masses – as Gandhi said — not mass production.”
The laws in contention were announced in September, effectively deregulating crop pricing, and removing the government’s accountability as ‘middle-men’ between farmers and buyers. This, farmers say, will leave them at the mercy of big corporations. The government, however, has challenged these claims with the argument that the laws offer farmers more autonomy over the selling of their produce, and end monopolisation of the market.
Although farmers’ unions have been leading similar protests in Punjab and Haryana since October, they have not had substantial response from the government, which motivated the organisation of the ongoing Delhi protests. Unions want the laws to be rescinded, calling them “anti-farmer” and “pro-corporate interests”. President of the Indian Farmers’ Association in Haryana, Ratam Mann Singh, said: “I took part in this protest to the Delhi border because the central government has sold out the farmers with these new laws, which did not have any consultation or input from farmers. If they are passed, then the farmers’ rights will be finished.” Singh added that the protesters had brought enough supplies to last up to three months. “We are prepared to stay here for as long as it takes, even in the cold winter, we are ready for that. The farmers of India have been betrayed,” he said.
“The heart of the matter is that India has too many farmers,” said Sadanand Dhume, a columnist for The Wall Street Journal. “So what you have is a government that is trying to improve the lives of those farmers by giving them more choices. But you also have a section of farmers who are gripped by a very understandable anxiety about what these changes may end up meaning for their lives.”
Development economist Jayati Ghosh said: “Alternative occupations are not emerging. We are not industrializing rapidly enough, and we are not generating manufacturing employment. So there’s nothing else for people to do…The way to diversify is not to kill off a sector, but to make another sector much more attractive and available, with income opportunities and that hasn’t happened.”
Union minister Amit Shah has promised to deliberate with the protesters, saying that “each and every demand” will be acknowledged and discussed, with an aim to reach agreeable terms. In the event that this doesn’t happen, however, farmers are prepared to protest for as long as it takes. As an unidentified farmer told local news agency ANI, “We won’t move until the government comes up with a solution. No matter what, we don’t care if it is chilly winters or bullets or water cannons are used, we are not afraid.
We are willing to sit here, even if it takes a year or two or three for that matter.”