Farmer protests: a representation of India’s inequalities

By Prateek Srivastava
South Asia Analyst 

India is more than two months into the wave of protests rocking the country. Thousands of farmers from all across the country have been camping outside New Delhi (1) in the braving winter and rain to protest the infamous New Farmer’s laws. As the country awaits its 72nd Republic day celebrations, India’s inequality is at representation for the world to see.

Although these protests might be only for new laws, they are a representation of India’s long-lasting inequalities and relative deprivation of small and marginalised farmers, against big corporates, who are now stepping into their very house of worship.

India’s farmers are among the poorest people of the country, (2) who sustain their lives with hardships of less income, scarce resources, and minimum opportunities. India’s policies have long protected them and their interests, from special loan protocols to ravages of open market prices. This is now changing.

A set of three laws were passed in September 2020 that PM Modi will “liberate” (3) farmers from the tyranny of middlemen who run the government-regulated markets (Mandis) (4), essentially deregulating India’s gigantic agriculture sector. These new laws now allow farmers to enter into contracts with private and corporate companies and sell across state borders. These new regulations also allow traders to stockpile food, a practice that was a criminal offense under the old law. “The government has left us at the mercy of big corporations,” a poor farmer told Reuters (5).The major problem is that these new regulations remove many of their safeguards. About 86 percent of India’s cultivated farmland is controlled by small and marginal farmers (6) who own less than two hectares (five acres) of land. What farmers are worried about is that they do not have enough power to bargain their prices that they need to make enough and earn bread for their families.

The new laws also do not make written contracts mandatory. So in case of any violations of farmers’ rights, there is no hard-proof of their prior agreements. Also, one of the legal provisions states that the matters of disputes will be overseen by a ‘conciliation board’, made of district-level administrative officers or other authorities. Meaning, these matters will not go to a regular court (7).

With these concerns, farmers have taken to the streets to reach the ears of the leaders in the nation’s capital. Police and other law enforcement agencies have tried their best to keep these protesting farmers away from federal buildings and other key areas, by using barbed wires, water cannons as well as force (8).

There is no doubt that India remains one of the most unequal places, where the majority of the wealth is held by the 2% of the nation’s richest. Wealth and inequality in India have seen a massive disparity in the past decades.  Data collected by various institutions shows how far the rich and the poor have grown (9).

So as we speak of the tires of inequalities among the rich and the poor, various levels of inequalities advance the already existing ones. India’s unequal wealth and income have affected farmers for as long as one can remember, however, several policies did save them a piece of bread for their own homes. Policies like  Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana (Prime Minister’s People’s Wealth Scheme), Grameen Kaushalya Yojana (scheme for helping the poor by providing skill training), and Antyodaya Anna Yojana ( provide highly subsidised food to millions of the poorest families) did show some progress in rural development of the nation, however with a population of a nation such as India, much remains to be done.

Although the agrarian sector reels under a crisis, inequalities among the farmer’s communities are also at a stark. 86 percent of India’s farmers are categorised as small and marginal farmers, and the rest are large or medium scale farmers. It is surprising to see that  86 percent of farmer households earn 9 percent of the total income (10), while the rest (14 percent made up of large and medium scale farmers) earn 91 percent. This is far too high on an inequality scale. Although these new laws affect every category of the farmer groups, the small and marginal groups remain majorly hit. Most of these protests are marginalised not just by big-companies or privatisation but also within their groups. Wealth and income inequality is staggering and is well recognised as the outcome of public policy making driven by elite interests. This is why these protesters do not just call for policy reform, but a radical transformation of the system. Moving away from stark inequalities of income, opportunities, and wealth.

India’s longest-running farmer protest has ultimately exposed Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s failure (11). From comprehending the level of opposition to the controversial new agricultural laws and addressing the issues that have united powerful, and often competing, voting blocs against his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Since he came to power in 2014, Modi has opted for shock policy announcements with little preparedness that have left the populace scrambling to cope with the fallout – humanitarian and economic – of his populist moves. His policies since 2014 have made it worse for the farmers to survive in a corporate-pressured world. From demonetisation in 2016 to ignoring the plight of farmers during massive droughts of 2017-2018, and water-shortage in key-farming areas, it has only angered the farmers, leading to a massive global protest. India reported that a total of 296,438 Indian farmers had committed suicide since 1995 (12). According to a financial inclusion survey by (NABARD) in 2018 (13) , 52.5 percent of all agricultural households in India were indebted, with an average debt of Rs. one hundred thousand. Since the BJP led government has taken charge of the country, there has been a complete ignorance of farmer’s problems, massive suicide rates, and increasing debt.

So why have the farmers taken their voices to the streets? Because they are done! Done with massive industrialisation of the agricultural sector, privatisation of resources (14) and being manhandled by corporate powers (15). What we are seeing in the country is a translation of objective sources of grievances to subjective perceptions of relative deprivation. Farmers of the nation have been deprived of their equal distribution of wealth and income, opportunities, and accessibility to resources, and these constant deteriorating conditions have resulted in gross outcomes.

While the protests were a sign of resistance against authoritarian laws and the capitalisation of public sectors, the news media in India painted it in communal colors. Indian news media is often called “Godi Media” or Lapdog Media, for its ultra-nationalist stand, given communal and religious angles to various issues, often sponsored by the ruling BJP led government (16). The media initially started reporting these protests as ‘Khalistani Separatists’ and ‘Terrorists’ mainly on their baseless claims picked up from fringe groups’ social-media accounts (17). These narratives later found their way to the highest court of India, as attorney general KK Venugopal told the Supreme Court that “Khalistanis” had “infiltrated” the farmer protests along Delhi’s border (18). Various news channels continue to report the protests with baseless claims and made-up conspiracy theories, even questioning – How can farmers wear jean pants, speak in English, and have smartphones (19)?As a response to these fake and baseless allegations, farmer groups and protesters banned any contact with the ‘godi-media’ and gave preference to local and vernacular channels, and independently-run media sites. Trust in the press has seen a radical decline since the protests, as no one is giving the channels content to show, so they are making it up on their own (20).

So at this crucial time, the government decided to bring regulations to take away safeguards of these farmers, kick them out of mandis and let them bargain with suited-booted corporates, and if they have any issues of violations, they may not even have a written record of their agreement. As of today, after 11 rounds of talks between the farmers and the government and close to hundred  farmer’s deaths later, there is still no tangible outcome (21).The Supreme Court of India and the government came to an agreement that the laws could be temporarily halted for 18 months (22). This was a mere tactic to “buy time” and to break the protests. Pushing the laws by 18 months means that these would be raised in 2022 again, much closer to the 2024 general elections. This would suit the BJP’s re-running agenda as they can ( and will) make it a re-election promise. A practice common since their major win in 2014. The BJP and the cabinet had described these protests with narratives of ‘Pakistan’ ‘Khalistani Conspiracy’ and “Farmers are not educated enough to know what the laws are”, which has only angered the farmers more.

On the 72nd Independence Day of India, farmer’s pre-planned parade turned violent causing loss of lives and property. According to reports, Delhi Police. which has been called the tool of the central govt. (23) fired tear-gas at the farmers parade causing huge chaos. This led to farmers breaking the barricades and going into the main city. By afternoon, the farmers had entered Red Fort and unfurled the Nishan Sahib, the Sikh religious flag (24). News channels labelled the rally as “violent” and “chaotic”, even as a form of “anarchy”while spreading fake news such as “vandalised national flag and raised a Khalistani flag” (25). Various social media account campaigned under the hashtag #operationbluestar and #Repeat1984, calling for mass violence against Sikh protests. 1984 is a reference to the mass killings and riots against Sikhs that happened in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s assasination. The violence has left the country at shock, a response from the government and various farmer unions is yet to be received.

These protests are not merely for the re-evaluation or repealing of the new regulations, but a wake-up call for the Indian government and its policymakers to understand and undertake responsibilities for pre-existing inequalities. These farmers are not just protesting for the three new regulations, but a reform of the system that ignores the 85% of the agricultural marginalisation groups (26). A system that looks away from privatisation and, and provides schemes to benefit the people from a very ground level. Unlike older generations, today’s protesters are unwilling to compromise, unafraid to defy, and outraged by structural inequalities that they associate openly with crony capitalism, sectarianism, and authoritarianism. What these protests represent is far larger than the three regulations. These represent the value of the lives and livelihoods of Indian farmers. The sector that stands as the backbone of the nation’s economy.

These protests are representing India’s unequal society on a stage, where the world is seeing the need for change, but a vital consideration from the Indian authorities is yet to be seen.

(Image credit to Anushree Fadnavis via Reuters)

References:

  1. “#DilliChalo:‌ ‌Farmers‌ ‌face‌ ‌tear‌ ‌gas,‌ ‌water‌ ‌cannons,‌ ‌barricades‌ ‌as‌ ‌they‌ ‌march‌ ‌to‌ ‌Delhi‌ ‌ ‌.” The News Minute. November 27, 2020. Accessed January 22, 2021. https://www.thenewsminute.com/article/dillichalo-farmers-face-tear-gas-water-cannons-barricades-they-march-delhi-138538.
  2. Suneja, Vanita. “Why Ending Poverty in India Means Tackling Rural Poverty and Power.” Oxfam India (blog), January 25, 2015. Accessed January 22, 2021. https://oxfamblogs.org/fp2p/why-ending-poverty-in-india-means-tackling-rural-poverty-and-power/.
  3. Kuchay, Bilal. “Why Indian Farmers Are Protesting against New Farm Bills.” Agriculture News | Al Jazeera. September 25, 2020. Accessed February 02, 2021. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/9/23/why-are-indian-farmers-protesting-against-new-farm-bills
  4. THE FARMERS’ PRODUCE TRADE AND COMMERCE (PROMOTION AND FACILITATION) ACT, 2020. Report. (Legislative Department, MINISTRY OF LAW AND JUSTICE. Vol. NO. 21 OF 2020. New Delhi: Government of India, 2020.
  5. Bhardwaj, Mayank, and Manoj Kumar. “Sikh Diaspora Drums up Global Support for Farmers’ Protest in India.” Reuters. December 18, 2020. Accessed January 22, 2021. https://www.reuters.com/article/india-farms-protests-diaspora/sikh-diaspora-drums-up-global-support-for-farmers-protest-in-india-idUSKBN28S0Y6.
  6. Deshpande, Tanvi. State of Agriculture in India. Issue brief. PRS India, 2017.Accessed Here: https://www.prsindia.org/sites/default/files/parliament_or_policy_pdfs/State of Agriculture in India.pdf
  7.  “Agricultural Reforms: Here’s a Look at Key Measures in the Legislation Passed in Lok Sabha – Landmark Agricultural Reforms.” The Economic Times. September 19, 2020. Accessed January 22, 2021. https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/economy/agriculture/agricultural-reforms-heres-a-look-at-key-measures-in-the-legislation-passed-in-lok-sabha/farmers-empowerment-protection-agreement-of-price-assurance-farm-services-bill/slideshow/78201770.cms.
  8. Pandey, Geeta. “India Farmers: The Viral Image That Defines a Protest.” BBC News. December 02, 2020. Accessed January 22, 2021. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-55156219.
  9. “Share – WID – World Inequality Database.” WID. Accessed February 02, 2021. https://wid.world/share/#0/countrytimeseries/sptinc_p90p100_z;sptinc_p0p50_z/IN/2015/eu/k/p/yearly/s/false/12.607500000000002/60/curve/false/1951/2019.
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  11. JACINTO, Leela. “With Flags on India’s Red Fort, Farmers Challenge Modi and Protest Movement Unity.” France 24. January 26, 2021. Accessed February 02, 2021. https://www.france24.com/en/asia-pacific/20210126-with-flags-on-india-s-red-fort-farmers-challenge-modi-and-protest-movement-unity.
  12. JACINTO, Leela. “With Flags on India’s Red Fort, Farmers Challenge Modi and Protest Movement Unity.” France 24. January 26, 2021. Accessed February 02, 2021. https://www.france24.com/en/asia-pacific/20210126-with-flags-on-india-s-red-fort-farmers-challenge-modi-and-protest-movement-unity
  13. Sainath, P. “Have India’s Farm Suicides Really Declined?” BBC News. July 14, 2014. Accessed February 02, 2021. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-28205741
  14. Raman, Mini. “The Government Of India’s Tryst With Privatisation – Government, Public Sector – India.” India: The Government Of India’s Tryst With Privatisation. May 26, 2020. Accessed February 02, 2021. https://www.mondaq.com/india/government-contracts-procurement-ppp/941298/the-government-of-india39s-tryst-with-privatisation.
  15. Krishnan, Vijoo. “Doors Unlocked for Corporate Loot as Farmers Kept in Lockdown.” https://www.outlookindia.com/. September 24, 2020. Accessed February 02, 2021. https://www.outlookindia.com/website/story/india-news-doors-unlocked-for-corporate-loot-as-farmers-kept-in-lockdown/360826.
  16. Ara, Ismat. “At Farmers’ Protest, Field Reporters of ‘Godi Media’ Channels Face the Heat.” The Wire. Accessed February 02, 2021. https://thewire.in/rights/farmers-protest-godi-media-channels-ground-reporters.
  17. Arora, Kusum. “Farmers’ Protest: Despite Rightwing Propaganda, ‘Khalistani’ Angle Finds Little Traction.” The Wire. December 02, 2020. Accessed February 02, 2021. https://thewire.in/agriculture/farmers-protest-despite-rightwing-propaganda-khalistani-angle-finds-little-traction.
  18. “Khalistanis Have Infiltrated Farmers Protests: Attorney General KK Venugopal.” Bar and Bench – Indian Legal News. January 12, 2021. Accessed February 02, 2021. https://www.barandbench.com/news/litigation/khalistanis-have-infiltrated-farmers-protests-attorney-general-kk-venugopal.
  19. Anandan, Sujata. “Mr Minister, Why Shouldn’t Our Farmers Wear Jeans?” Hindustan Times. June 06, 2017. Accessed February 02, 2021. https://www.hindustantimes.com/mumbai-news/why-can-t-our-farmers-wear-jeans-pray/story-TjKbQEJ8PtUU4FpNoE97SM.html.
  20. Suresh, Nidhi. “‘Media Has Lost Our Trust’: Why Protesting Farmers Are Angry with ‘Godi Media’.” Newslaundry. December 01, 2020. Accessed February 02, 2021. https://www.newslaundry.com/2020/12/01/media-has-lost-our-trust-why-are-protesting-farmers-angry-with-godi-media.
  21. Al Jazeera. “Indian Farmers Reject Government’s Offer to Suspend New Laws.” Agriculture News | Al Jazeera. January 22, 2021. Accessed February 02, 2021. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/1/22/indian-farmers-reject-governments-offer-to-suspend-new-laws.
  22. Trivedi, Upmanyu. “India Top Court Says It May Halt Farm Laws That Spurred Protests.” BloombergQuint. January 11, 2021. Accessed February 02, 2021. https://www.bloombergquint.com/business/india-s-top-court-proposes-to-put-three-new-farm-laws-on-hold.
  23. “Delhi 2020 Religious Riots: Amnesty International Accuses Police of Rights Abuses.” BBC News. August 27, 2020. Accessed February 02, 2021. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-53891354.
  24. Suresh, Nidhi. “‘You Cannot Unsee Us’: Driving with Farmers during the Tractor Rally.” Newslaundry. January 27, 2021. Accessed February 02, 2021. https://www.newslaundry.com/2021/01/27/you-cannot-unsee-us-driving-with-the-farmers-during-the-tractor-rally.
  25. Jha, Pooja Chaudhuri & Priyanka. “Farmers’ Protest: No, Protestors Did Not Replace Tricolour with Khalistan Flag at Red Fort.” Alt News. January 26, 2021. Accessed February 02, 2021. https://www.altnews.in/farmers-protest-no-protestors-did-not-replace-tricolour-with-khalistan-flag-at-red-fort/.
  26. Mahapatra, Richard. “Inequality among Farmers Keeps 85 per Cent out of Discourse.” Down To Earth. Accessed February 02, 2021. https://www.downtoearth.org.in/news/agriculture/inequality-among-farmers-keeps-85-per-cent-out-of-discourse-62584.

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