This week, a sea of tens of thousands of farmers riding tractors and horses stormed India’s historic Red Fort, a drastic expansion of their protests, posing a huge challenge to the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
What is at the centre of two months of protests and what it means for the government of Modi is clarified by the AP.
Who is to protest?
Farmers from the northern Punjab and Haryana states, the two leading agriculture growers, are the bulk of the demonstrators. They are seeking the reversal of legislation enacted by Parliament in September that they argue would help huge industrial farms, devastate the incomes of many producers, and leave behind others who own small parcels while big businesses win out. To modernize Indian farming, Modi has billed the laws as required.
Many of the protestors in New Delhi appear to be from the minority Sikh religion of India because of the demographics of Punjab and Haryana, but their concerns are rooted in economic problems, not religious ones. Among Indians of other backgrounds, demonstrations also occur in other parts of the country.
People who are not farmers have also joined in recent weeks, and in November, when farmers attempted to march into New Delhi but were blocked by police, the protests gathered traction. Since then, at the edge of the city, they have vowed to hunker down before the laws are repealed.
What are their worries?
At the heart of these demonstrations are the concerns of Indian farmers that the government’s attempts to implement agriculture sector market reforms will make them weaker at a time when they are already dissatisfied with their diminishing clout as the government tries to transform India into a global corporate centre.
It is not clear from the new regulations whether the government would continue to guarantee prices for such important crops, a scheme implemented in the 1960s to help India build up its food supplies and escape shortages.
Although the government has said it is ready to promise that assured prices will remain, farmers are wary and want new legislation that specifies that their legal right is to pursue those prices.
Farmers also fear that the law shows that the country is moving away from a scheme in which a vast number of farmers sold only to marketplaces approved by the government.
They fear that this will leave them at the hands of businesses that will no longer have a legal responsibility to pay them the promised amount. The government says that this is meant to allow farmers more options as to who to market their crops to.
Clauses in the law often prohibit farmers from bringing contract disputes to arbitration, leaving them, apart from government-appointed bureaucrats, with no independent means of recourse.
Indian farmers, who are mainly smallholders, are frightened by these potential threats to their income: A whopping 68 percent own less than 1 hectare of land.
Farming families receive just 20,000 rupees ($271) on average annually in some states. Why are such protests meaningful? In India, farmers form the most powerful voting bloc and are frequently romanticized as the nation’s heart and soul.
It has long been considered unwise by policymakers to alienate them, and farmers are also especially important to Modi’s base.
His party controls Northern Haryana and only a handful of other states with large agricultural communities.
Modi’s government has lost two political coalition allies since the law was passed and some of his own lawmakers are cautioning him to tread carefully. Since he first came to power in 2014, the demonstrations against the Modi government have been the strongest.
They come at a time when the economy of the world has tanked, social struggle has widened, demonstrations have raged against legislation that some consider unjust, and over its reaction to the coronavirus pandemic, the government has been criticized.
What Does the Government Say? By improving productivity through private investment, the Modi government says the law would benefit farmers.
The government has promised to amend the laws for 18 months and delay their enforcement, but that has not satisfied farmers who want a complete repeal.
The government of Modi also attempted initially to undermine the Sikh farmers by denying their complaints as inspired by religious nationalism.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, some figures in Modi’s party called them “Khalistanis,” a reference to a campaign for an independent Sikh homeland called “Khalistan.”
India has seen a growing wave of Hindu nationalism under Modi, which has ranked minority groups, especially Muslims.
The farmers have been branded “anti-national,” a term frequently given to those who oppose Modi or his policies, by some leaders of Modi’s party and India’s freewheeling TV channels, who have long favored the Hindu nationalist government policies. Such charges, however, seem to have backfired, further angering the farmers, many of whom serve in the Indian army, police, and civil service as family members.
Since then, they have also been joined by regular people and the demonstrations have gained momentum. What does Modi mean?
While this is a major challenge for his administration, the popularity of Modi is still growing, and because of his Hindu-nationalist policies, his approval ratings remain strong. Many farming experts accept that reforms are required in the Indian farming sector, but they challenge the way laws and corporate participation in agriculture were implemented by the Modi government.
“It would be like a death sentence for them to leave farmers at the mercy of the markets,” said Devinder Sharma, an agricultural specialist who has spent the last two decades fighting for income equality for Indian farmers.
“We’re talking about the individuals who feed us.”
Critics also stress what they see as the propensity of the Modi government to drive through changes without creating consensus.
When the legislation was passed in Parliament, facing repeated calls from the opposition, Modi’s party declined to expand the discussion on it.
It also opposed sending the laws to a special committee where they could be addressed further by representatives.