Barnala, Punjab, INDIA – Dozens of brightly colored turbans line the street where men from different villages and towns have come together to demand peasant rights. At this meeting on October 2nd in the northern Indian state of Punjab, Sumandeep Kaur is the only one without a turban. She is a 20-year-old journalism student and came with her father, a farmer.
She wears a green shirt and white pants and winks at her father Kewal Singh, who turns to the farmers who are blocking a tollbooth on a highway. They are protesting against three new laws, all passed on September 20th by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The first, the Farmers (Empowerment & Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, claims “to empower farmers to work on equal terms with processors, wholesalers, aggregators, wholesalers, large retailers, exporters, etc.” It promises farmers “price protection before sowing”. The second law, the Law on Essential Raw Materials Law (amendment), aims to “encourage investment in cold stores and the modernization of the food supply chain” and creates a “competitive market environment” and also prevents the waste of agricultural products resulting from insufficient Raw materials are made warehouses. “And the third law, Farmers Trade and Trades (Encouragement and Facilitation) Act, is designed to” act as a catalyst to encourage private sector investment to build supply chains for the supply of Indian agricultural products to national and global markets as well as in India to attract agricultural infrastructure. “
The government has claimed that its new laws will streamline agriculture in India and transform the agricultural sector through increased private investment. However, many activists believe that policies will help some businesses while creating unemployment and increasing indebtedness for smaller farmers. Farmers also believe that if they were forced to sell their property to companies that are directly involved in the production and marketing of goods, many could lose land.
In a tweet, Modi responded to this criticism with the words: “The Indian farmer was bound by various constraints for decades and was bullied by middlemen. The bills passed by parliament relieve farmers from such adversity. “
What happens to India’s farmers is no small matter. The agricultural sector employs half of India’s 1.35 billion people and contributes nearly 15 percent to India’s $ 2.7 trillion economy. In 2019, amid growing debt, poor harvests and drafts, 28 people who depend on agriculture died of suicide every day. If protesters are right about the effects of the new law, that number could rise. That’s why Kaur, who was five years old when she and her father took part in her first peasant protest, came out that Friday.
Noseemo Kaur, who has no relationship with Sumandeep, wears a faded green floral kurta and sits in the front row. In another protest on October 22nd, he sang slogans with over a dozen other women in front of a grain elevator in Moga, Punjab. The silo belongs to Gautam Adani, an Indian industrialist with an estimated net worth of $ 25.2 billion. Adani has been accused of taking advantage of Modi to expand its business network across the country. The farmers’ union that organized this particular protest accused Modi of passing new laws that benefit his “industrial friends” like Adani. When every speaker at the protest accused the government of facilitating corporate pillage of the agricultural sector, Naseemo paused to drink water in the scorching heat.
She and her neighbors left their house in Bhagike village early in the morning to drive the tractor for two hours to protest. Two months earlier, their son Karamjeet Singh, 48, took his own life by drinking pesticides. After Singh sold his family land to marry his two sisters, he left as a laborer for other farmers. With an inflation rate of 7.4 percent in India, Singh’s debt had risen to over $ 13,000.
“He owed enormous amounts of money,” Naseemo later says while sitting on a cot in her house. “He sold and repaid his land and harvest. He worked as a worker, but could hardly earn anything. He often cried and said, “What are we going to do, how will I marry my children, how are we going to survive?” Then he thought that his life had no meaning and drank pesticide spray. “He was pronounced dead in the hospital three days later. The family now has his framed portrait photo with his birth and death dates that they would like to hang next to a similar one of his father, who was diagnosed with cancer on December 15, 2017.
“After selling all of his land, he firmly believed that he was going way beyond helping. During this pandemic, he couldn’t find work every day. How can a government that has lost the respect of the world be a good government? The government didn’t give us anything, it never did anything for us, ”said Naseemo.
With no farmland or savings, it is now Sukhwinder, Singh’s son and Naseemo’s grandson, who is looking for work to support his family. There is still a bit of debt from his father that has to be paid back – and of course always the fear that the family could take on more.
Back at the protest, Sukhdev Singh Khokri speaks. He is Punjab General Secretary of the Bhartiya Kisan Union – Ekta Ugrahan – a nationwide non-partisan farmers’ organization. In his remarks, he takes up the issue of debt and railed against the government, which “says that its treasury is not able to resolve debts”.
In his yellow turban and white kurta, Khokri is respected by everyone during the protest. Modi’s new measures would lead to more debt. “These laws will fundamentally destroy the occupation of agriculture,” he said, “they will plunder the crops produced by the farmers; in the name of the free market, these laws will sell the market space to the private traders.”
As the sun touches the lush rice fields, farmers get into tractors, bicycles, and cars to drive home. Naseemo also works. But she is not ready to stop protesting. “I’ll fight too. I will not stop protesting for what is right. People like me who protest understand my struggles, ”she says.
Back in their village, Sumandeep Kaur vows to keep fighting too. Kaurs College has been closed since March 2020, when a nationwide lockdown for the COVID-19 pandemic was announced. She lives with the families of her two uncles on a large property with a one-story main house and two outbuildings adjacent to farmland. Over a dozen buffalo turn their heads as she goes to pour water for them into the stable.
“I recently returned home and have since joined protests after the central government passed the new laws,” says Kaur, while her father listens. “We go to the villages to inform the people about how the laws will destroy agriculture, withhold everything from us and wrest our land away. I see this as a threat to Indian democracy if we legislate on people without their consent. “
According to the government, the new laws are intended to reform the agricultural sector in the country by giving farmers more choice and helping them get better prices for their produce. It also aims to enable farmers to improve their trade through the use of technology and reduce marketing costs, which can improve their incomes. The government move, viewed as a trap by farmers, also paves the way for business investment in agriculture.
Days after the farm laws were passed, a Punjab-based political party, Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) – one of the BJP’s oldest allies in the government – resigned from the alliance. SAD President Sukhbir Badal said the party could not watch as the BJP tabled “such bills against farmers and Punjab”. In the last state elections in 2017, the BJP only won three out of 117 seats in Punjab, and the protesting farmers hope their standing will decline even further in the next elections in 2022.
Kaur believes it is possible to defeat the BJP, especially if the “youth face this threat”. Not only do farmers have sons, she says, they also have daughters who will also fight for farmland. “We will fight the Modi government and the regulations.” However, the protests have not yet drawn any significant attention from the Modi government.
This month, the Ministry of Agriculture officials met for talks with farmers’ unions, but the meeting ended with union officials leaving after an hour because the unions demanded that the Agriculture Minister or Modi himself attend the talks. So far, Modi and his senior ministers have refused, and the protests have escalated. On November 5, at least one million farmers in over 5,000 locations in 20 states took to the streets to protest against the law. Another march is planned for Delhi from November 26th to 27th.
Kaur, who wants to become a journalist to tell the story of her people, family and farmers, says that in the past six years she has only seen the poor sections of society get poorer. Most Indians have to feel that acutely.