Why tens of thousands of farmers are blocking roads into India’s capital city

More than 200,000 Indian farmers and their supporters took to the streets of New Delhi for days to protest against three new agricultural reform laws, blocking major highways leading to the capital and pledging to remain camped there until that the laws be repealed.

The legislation, enacted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at the end of September, aims to deregulate India’s agricultural industry to an extent that the government says will give farmers more autonomy in pricing and will make the agricultural sector more efficient.

Under the new policies, farmers sell goods and enter into contracts with independent buyers outside of government-sanctioned markets, which have long been the primary trading places for farmers. Modi and party members believe reforms will help India modernize and improve its agricultural industry, which will mean more freedom and prosperity for farmers.

But the protesting farmers are not convinced.

Although the government has said it will not give up minimum support price for essential crops like grains, which the Indian government has secured and guaranteed for decades, farmers fear they will disappear. Without them, farmers believe they will be at the mercy of large corporations that pay extremely low prices for essential crops, plunging them into debt and financial ruin.

“Farmers are so passionate because they know these three laws are like death warrants for them,” said Abhimanyu Kohar, coordinator of the National Farmer’s Alliance, a federation of more than 180 non-political farm organizations to me. across India, in an interview. “Our farmers are making this movement for our future, for our very survival.”

Indian farmers sit at the border between New Delhi and Haryana state, India on December 1, 2020.
Partha Sarkar / Xinhua via Getty Images

The plight of farmers in India is worrying. A 2018 study by the Indian National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development found that more than half of Indian farmers are in debt. More than 20,000 farmers in the country death by suicide from 2018 to 2019, and while there is considerable debate, several studies suggest that farmer debt was a major factor.

In comments premiered on November 30 on the banks of India’s sacred Ganges river, Modi sought to reassure farmers that the new laws would benefit them. “These reforms have not only served to liberate our farmers, but have also given them new rights and opportunities,” Modi said.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Varanasi, India

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks at Bhaisasur Ghat on the banks of the River Ganges as he attends the Dev Dipawali festival in Varanasi on November 30, 2020.
Ritesh Shukla / NurPhoto via Getty Images

Modi criticized Indian opposition parties, which spoke out strongly against the bills, for agitating farmers by spreading rumors.

“I know decades of lies put apprehension in the minds of farmers, I mean this from Mother Ganga’s bank – we don’t work with the intent to deceive. Our intentions are as holy as the water of the Ganges river, ”Modi said.

The farmers, who mostly come from the neighboring regions of Punjab and Haryana, started walking towards New Delhi by the thousands in tractors and cars on November 26 to call on the Prime Minister to repeal the laws. They were met by large numbers of police in riot gear, who used tear gas, water cannons and batons to keep protesters on the New Delhi and Haryana state border.

Protests resumed on November 27, but following the clashes, authorities allowed farmers to enter New Delhi and gather peacefully at an approved location later in the evening.

A delegation of farmers had talks December 1 with BJP officials, including Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar, but negotiations failed.

“The government did not accept our points and categorically rejected our demands,” Chanda Singh, member of the farmers’ delegation, Told Al Jazeera, referring to farmers’ insistence that all three laws be repealed. “We will continue our protest if our demands are not met,” Singh said.

Tomar, however, seemed to have a more favorable view of the talks, story Indian News Agency ANI that the meeting went well. Another round of talks with more farmers is scheduled for December 3.

It remains to be seen whether these discussions will allay the concerns of farmers.

“In Western countries, agriculture is a source of business, but in India, agriculture is a source of income,” Kohar, the coordinator of the National Farmers’ Alliance, told me. “In India, cultures make their life come alive.”

Some experts say the laws are “a tough call needed”, but farmers are not convinced

Agriculture plays a crucial role in the Indian economy because nearly 60% of India’s 1.3 billion people depend on agriculture for their livelihood. But agriculture is also incredibly unproductive, as the sector only accounts for about 15 percent of India’s GDP.

By allowing farmers to sell to whomever they want, the government hopes to attract private companies to agriculture, which will benefit some farmers.

“It’s a difficult and necessary call,” said Sadanand Dhume, resident researcher at the American Enterprise Institute and expert in South Asia. “It should have been done 20 years ago. It is a small part of a much larger and much more complex solution to a problem. “

The problem, Dhume explained, is that there are just too many farmers in India. He and others argued that the country is expected to make a similar transition from agriculture to industry, as China has done.

But so far India has been unable to generate the kind of manufacturing growth needed to support millions of farmers in their transition to new jobs. Manufacturing was only about 17% of India’s GDP in 2020.

As Dhume said, “If the economy created jobs, there wouldn’t be so much anxiety. In India, because job creation has been so low, the idea of ​​losing the collateral is troubling to farmers.

Part of the fear of farmers is also due to the urgency of the current moment, where the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has made farmers even more alarmed. Indian economy Shrunk 7.5% from July to September compared to the same period in 2019. A June survey by the All India Manufacturers Organization found that more than a third small and medium-sized businesses were considering closing, despite government help.

Farmers protest against border reforms in Delhi, India

Farmers rest in a tractor cart on December 1, 2020, near a roadblock at the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh state border in Ghazipur, India.
Mayank Makhija / NurPhoto via Getty Images

The farmers, who have brought enough supplies with them to last at least six months, are determined to stay until Modi’s government repeals the new farm bills and enshrines the minimum support price in law, among other demands. .

“We want everything to be written down,” Kohar said.