The uprising of India’s farmers: The significance and history behind the worldwide protests

Farmers in India continue to stand their ground at border points in the country.

A standoff between the Indian government and tens of thousands of farmers — who are peacefully protesting against three farming reform bills — continues to grow near Delhi.

The #DelhiChalo peaceful protests have sparked others to take place across India and other countries, with many from Punjabi and Sikh farmers leading the charge on the ground locally and abroad to raise awareness about the issue.

On Sept. 20, the bills were passed into law by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

“What we see in India is an incredibly powerful dominant party, like we’ve not seen since the 1970s, and a prime minister who looms large over the political landscape,” said Sanjay Ruparelia, Jarislowsky democracy chair and associate professor of politics at Ryerson University.

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Ruparelia said the protests, which have essentially unfolded as a farmer’s movement, are truly “remarkable.”

The Indian government has argued the changes will give farmers more freedom, but farmers argue the new legislation will drive down their products’ prices with no safeguards to protect them against corporate takeovers and exploitation, further devastating their livelihoods.

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“The political side is that this government has been very autocratic in the way in which it has pushed through big reforms,” Ruparelia said.

“I should say on the agricultural side, the reforms they put through in September, there were a lot of economists and others who thought there had to be some reforms in the agricultural system, whether these are designed properly or not, is the question,” Ruparelia said.

Sixty per cent of India’s population works in the agriculture sector, but only represents about 15 per cent of India’s GDP, with a majority being small scale farmers.

The concern behind the protests

Many protestors by the Delhi border points are from the states of Punjab and Haryana, which are considered India’s bread basket.

Although, the peaceful demonstrations turned violent when the government used military tactics to clamp down on the dissent being express by frustrated farmers.

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Protestors have been met with water cannons on some of the coldest winter days Delhi has experienced, along with tear gas, concrete barricades, and some were even beaten with batons. Many of the farmers are also seniors.

Despite the agitation from the government, farmers remain strong in their resolve to see the bills repealed in order to protest their future.

Khalsa Aid International is a non-governmental organization that has been providing protestors with food, water, first-aid kits, hygiene products, and even fire-extinguishers at the encampment site by the Delhi border.

The organization said it’s deeply troubled by what its volunteers have witnessed as protestors have endured the implementation of brute force by the Indian government.

“For us, it was very difficult to see the families, the elderly farmers being subjected to the water canon and tear gas,” Khalsa Aid Canada national director Jatinder Singh said.

“You know people often say India’s this vibrant democracy, but the only thing really vibrating were the tear gas canisters, that were being thrown at these peaceful protestors.”

Singh said he hopes the negotiation talks between the dozens of farmer’s unions and the Indian government will result in an outcome which help farmers sustain their livelihoods.

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He also said Khalsa Aid is not currently fundraising for the farmers, despite receiving some voluntary monetary donations from people. Singh said those donations will go towards helping protestors with their humanitarian needs.

Singh said the farmers have made it clear that they do not want funds to be raised for them, instead they ask that people continue to show solidarity by raising their voice and concerns over the bills.

The World Sikh Organization of Canada (WSO), which promotes and protects the interests of Sikhs in Canada and around the world and advocates for the protection of human rights for all, has also expressed concern over the troubling treatment of protestors as they try to practice their democratic right to peacefully protest.

“I was particularly worried and terrified for my own family members. We actually have an uncle who’s part of a union and he’s out there,” said Harman Kandola, Alberta vice-president with the World Sikh Organization.

Kandola said the Indian government has a history of violence against Sikhs and other minorities in the country.

“So it’s unsurprising in some elements where there is use of violence when you’re talking about peaceful protestors,” Kandola said.

He continues to say the protestors are simply asking to be heard, and based on his conversations with people on the ground in Delhi, many feel disenfranchised due to the barriers that have been put in their way when they tried marching to their own country’s capitol, making them feel like foreigners.

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The anti-farm bills being protested

The first, the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, will allow farmers to deal directly with corporations and private buyers.

The bills allow farmers to sell their produce outside government-controlled agricultural markets called ‘Mandi’s’, which ensured prices wouldn’t get too high.

The bill may also mark an end to a decades-old system guaranteeing minimum support prices for staple crops called an MSP.

The second law, the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, deals with pricing. The bill will push farmers, corporations and private buyers to negotiate contracts. However, several farmers have voiced their concerns over not having the bargaining power to negotiate with corporate powers.

The bill also curtails farmers’ ability to challenge contract disputes in court.

And the third, the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill, seeks the “modernization” of India’s food supply chain by reducing stockpiling, removing commodities like “cereals, pulses, oilseeds, edible oils, onion and potatoes” from the current list of essential commodities.

It also aims to “drive up investment in cold storages” and give farmers the “freedom to produce, hold, move, distribute and supply” their products.

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However experts have noted that since most of India’s farmers are small-scale farmers, they wouldn’t have the ability to compete with corporations when it comes to stockpiling and producing on a large scale, giving rich investors an unfair advantage over price manipulation.

“With the entry of the corporate private players into this agricultural procurement and agricultural production, what they see is that they will have complete control over how much they produce and how much they’ll pay back the producers,” said Chinnaiah Jangam, associate professor, History of modern South Asia, Carleton University.

Jangam goes on to say it is important to note the legitimate fear many farmers have of losing their ancestral lands to corporations, due to not being able to compete at the same level.

In some cases where debt has gotten unbearable, farmers have had to give up their lands when they’re unable to pay back their loans.

An additional concern is that these bills were passed without stakeholders being consulted or deliberation from the opposition.

“What has agitated a lot of opposition in India is precisely the fact the government rammed through these bills, these momentous bills, essentially liberalizing agriculture without any deliberation in parliament,” Ruparelia explained.

“The opposition requested these bills go to parliamentary committee for further scrutiny, the government disallowed it.”

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India’s agricultural history

Although, crisis in the agriculture sector in India is nothing new as the industry has been suffering for decades.

The face of agriculture changed significantly in the 1960s, when India went through the green revolution, under then prime minister Indira Gandhi, who implemented the growth of high-yielding wheat and rice crops to address famine in the country.

The revolution marked the beginning of industrializing the agriculture sector, and introducing new methods of fertilization and the use of pesticides, and some farmers felt they had been exploited in order to produce these high-yielding crops for the government.

“One line of critique was that it lead to growing inequalities and disparities in the Indian countryside between richer farmers with large farm holding assets and a vast surplus of agricultural labour,” Ruparelia said.

Post-Green Revolution, the production of wheat and rice doubled because of initiatives put forth by the government, and the production of food crops such as indigenous rice varieties and millets declined.

This then lead to the loss of distinct indigenous crops from cultivation and even caused extinction.

Fast forward to the 1990s when corporate genetically modified seeds were introduced to increase even higher yields.

Ever since then farmers have been taking huge loans to pay for irrigation, fertilization and pesticides, but in instances where they saw no return on their investments, some die by suicide in large numbers, when they feel trapped in a cycle of debt.

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More than 300,000 farmers have taken their own lives in India over the last two decades.

Suicide, along with substance abuse and the mental health of farmers have been additional ongoing concerns in the Indian agriculture sector.

History professor Jangam said in a historical sense, farmers symbolized a lot of dignity and self respect, but he said these reforms, and the decades leading up to them, have placed many farmers in unaffordable debt, stripping them of fair prices for the crops they labour over.

Jangam goes on to speak of a time when farmers where more self-reliant, were able to take more pride in their work and weren’t on the brink of being at the mercy of corporations.

“They are the most self-respecting people, because they don’t have to work for anyone, they can just live on their land,” he said.

“This system has robbed their dignity.”

And now these protests may just be the farmers way of saying ‘enough is enough,’ as many see this most recent legislation as the straw that broke the camels back.

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The unwavering farmer’s protests represent a symbolic fight towards reclaiming their depleting livelihoods.

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-With files from Global News’ Emerald Bensadoun

© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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