In September 2020, India's Narendra Modi government bypassed parliamentary norms to pass three measures that loosen agricultural market regulations for private firms. Farmers were outraged by the move, particularly in Punjab, a northern state that has been at the forefront of the Green Revolution since the 1950s. Following two months of fruitless farmer protests, tens of thousands of Punjab farmers embarked on a march to New Delhi in late November. The Modi government retaliated by stationing paramilitary troops on the outskirts of the capital city, armed with water cannons and tear gas shells and surrounded by barricades, concertina wires, and deep trenches dug into freeways.
The protests have since extended across the country, resulting in the largest-ever farmer mobilization in independent India. They have already claimed the lives of nearly 70 people; many have perished of exposure to the elements, while others have committed suicide as a political statement.
The stalemate extends beyond the repeal of the three laws to the demand that the state guarantees minimum support prices (MSPs) for all public and private produce purchases. In a broader sense, though, this movement is writing the Green Revolution's obituary.
What is the reason behind the farmer protests?
The Indian government has enacted a set of new legislation that will alter the way farmers sell their agricultural products. Agriculture-related issues fall under the jurisdiction of the provincial or state governments. The national government, on the other hand, took the unusual step of passing these three new laws as trade and commerce bills.
The government not only ignored the opposition parties' criticisms but also failed to engage in serious conversations with farm unions and other stakeholders to assuage their fears.
The stated motive for enacting these rules was to liberalize the agriculture market by incentivizing major corporations to connect directly with farmers and farm produce.
The first of the proposed regulations intend to de-regulate agricultural product purchases, bypassing existing marketing agreements that prevent crops like wheat and rice from being sold below a particular price.
The second establishes a framework for "contract farming," in which a farmer enters into an advanced contract with a buyer, who then decides what seeds to plant and how to develop the production.
The third is a change to existing legislation that removes earlier restrictions on the storage of food grains and other agricultural products in order to deter large-scale hoarding.
Together, they open up India's agricultural sector to active commercial activity by large corporations, allowing them to buy and stockpile products in order to sell them at a far greater price than they pay farmers for their crops.
What is the situation now?
At the Tikri demonstration site, protestors are increasingly wearing face masks or pieces of fabric to cover their mouths and noses. However, numerous people are seen wandering around with their faces exposed.
Volunteers are providing hand sanitizers and masks to demonstrators of all ages and using a central platform to raise awareness about the infection.
The capital city of India, New Delhi, was pummelling by record rains just after Cyclone Tauktae slammed the western coast of the country last week. Thousands of protesting farmers sought shelter under tarpaulin sheets, despite the fact that some individuals had the luxury of staying home. They believe they're in it for the long run, even though their "revolution" is no longer making headlines.
They've been sleeping in the trolleys they've brought along and set up massive pandals (temporary auditoriums made of canvas tents) for their protest speeches. They also perform protest music, the majority of it is written and performed by their own Punjabi vocalists from Punjab, Mumbai, and Canada.
Their fortitude has been incredible. They've endured a hard winter, with nighttime temperatures in Delhi as low as 1-2°C. They are now protesting in the sweltering heat, unfazed by a deadly second wave of Covid sweeping India. As some Indian news outlets have observed, this has not been a pleasant experience.
What has the farmer protests achieved so far?
Despite months of negotiations, government leaders have been unable to achieve an agreement or compromise with the leaders of more than 30 farmer unions.
Officials proposed changes to the three laws in December, including the ability for state governments to levy taxes on private businesses, but farmers rejected the proposals, accusing the government of being "insincere" in its attempts.
The three regulations were temporarily halted by India's Supreme Court in mid-January in the hopes that farmers would "come to the negotiation table with confidence and good faith."
The administration said a few days later that it was willing to postpone the laws for another 12 to 18 months while it worked with farmers' unions to find a long-term solution.
Farmers believe that if they continue to put pressure on the government, it will be obliged to give in to their requests. But, perhaps most importantly, they have reintroduced farming to the national agenda.
Politics of Mass Mobilisation
It's unsurprising that the demonstrators' lexicon has been based on "love" and "solidarity."
Every day living in the tent communities on the outskirts of Delhi presents a vision of a shared society based on voluntary labor and striving to be inclusive. These protest cities did not arise from pre-existing solidarity but rather created the possibility to develop new bonds through the demonstration itself.
After half a year, the original farmers' protest has grown into the largest public mobilization in post-colonial India's history, encompassing both rural and urban populations and uniting the fight against deregulated capitalism with the fight for civil freedoms. The general sense of vulnerability, as well as the fear of exploitation at the hands of an overbearing state and huge corporations, is fueling the protests. “It won't be a market for farmers, it will be a stock market,” one farmer said of the impending regulations.
The demonstrations have not been limited to India. The protests are able to garner support from people all over the world, which is a big accomplishment. The protests are about "the people who feed all of us" and their equitable treatment, according to Simran Jeet Singh, a historian of religion and history now teaching at Union Seminary and a Stephen M. Keller Term Member for the Council on Foreign Relations.
Twelve key opposition parties had backed the Samyukta Kisan Morcha's proposal for a nationwide protest on May 26 to mark the six-month anniversary of farmers' protests at Delhi's borders against the Centre's farm policies.
The joint statement has been signed by Sonia Gandhi (Congress), H D Deve Gowda (JD-S), Sharad Pawar (NCP), Mamata Banerjee (TMC), Uddhav Thackeray (SS), M K Stalin (DMK), Hemant Soren (JMM), Farooq Abdullah (JKPA), Akhilesh Yadav (SP), Tejaswi Yadav (RJD), D Raja (CPI) and Sitaram Yechury (CPI-M).