December 1, 2020
Last Friday, tens of thousands of Indian farmers — primarily from the states of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh — started their march upon Delhi, on foot and in convoys of tractors. Some managed to enter the capital; the majority were stopped, first by barricades and barbed wire erected on major roads into the city, then by tear gas and water cannons deployed by police. The protesting farmers have set up camps along five major roads; they plan to stay for months if their demands are not met. According to one representative, the line of demonstrators at one of Delhi’s three borders stretches for nearly 30 kilometers.
What are they protesting? The inciting incident is the passage of three new agricultural laws, pushed through parliament in late September by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration without due consultation with states. Farmers say that these laws are the beginning of the end of government-guaranteed minimum prices for certain crops, a move that they fear will leave them at the mercy of big corporations. On its part, the central government claims that these laws will collectively help the agricultural sector grow in the private sector. “These reforms have not only broken the shackles of farmers but have also given new rights and opportunities to them,” Modi said in a recent interview.
Some supporters of the prime minister and the new laws claim that opposition parties were misleading farmers. Supporters say deregulation will help an already broken agricultural industry, while protestors argue it’s the final nail in the coffin. “The government has become a slave of the corporates. They want to turn us into their slaves as well,” farmer Sukhwinder Singh Sabhra told the Washington Post.
But in a country where approximately 60% of the population works in agriculture — accounting for 16% of India’s GDP — observers also see this as a watershed moment for the long-held frustrations of Indian farmers, who have grappled with increased debt and with poor land productivity, in the aftermath of India’s Green Revolution in the 1960s, which was aimed at farmers adopting more modern technology — such as tractors, chemical pesticides, and irrigation facilities — to yield more crops. Farmer suicide has been a much-publicized issue since the 1990s; thousands of agricultural workers ingested pesticides after being unable to repay government loans. Agriculture is also a declining sector in India — its share of GDP and share of the national workforce has been mostly declining for the past decade.