Tens of thousands of farmers blocked main roads across India on Saturday to continue a month-long protest movement against new agricultural policies that they say will strengthen businesses and destroy them financially.
The continued demonstrations show that the protest energy remains strong as the government and farmers remain at a stalemate after several rounds of talks between them and have not made any major breakthroughs.
According to Reuters, protesters used tractors, trucks, tents and boulders to block roads during a three-hour “chakka jam” or road blockade across the country.
According to Avik Saha, a secretary of the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee, an association of farmers’ groups, blockades were set up in over 10,000 locations across India on Saturday.
“We will continue to fight until our last breath,” Jhajjan Singh, an 80-year-old farmer at a protest location in Ghazipur, told the Guardian. He said India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi “should know that either he will stay or we will”.
Tens of thousands of police officers were deployed across the country to handle the protests. While the peasant demonstrations were largely peaceful, on January 26 a group of demonstrators broke away from a demonstration route and fought with police officers in Delhi, resulting in hundreds of injuries and the death of one protester.
Peasant leaders condemned the violence, but security has increased since then. According to the Guardian, police have put iron spikes and steel barricades around protest sites to prevent farmers from entering the capital.
Why the protesters mobilize
Protesters have mobilized against three agrarian reform laws passed by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in September. Together, the laws aim to deregulate India’s agribusiness.
As Jariel Arvin of Vox explained in December, the protesters argue that this will only exacerbate their economic precariousness, while the government believes it is necessary to modernize the economy:
Under the new guidelines, farmers will now sell goods and enter into contracts with independent buyers outside of government-sanctioned marketplaces that have long served as prime locations for farmers to do business. Modi and members of his party believe that these reforms will help India modernize and improve its agriculture, which will mean more freedom and prosperity for farmers.
But the protesting peasants are not convinced. Although the government has announced that it will not cut minimum support prices for important crops such as grain, which the Indian government has set and guaranteed for decades, farmers are concerned that they will disappear. Without it, farmers believe that they will be at the mercy of big corporations paying extremely low prices for vital crops and plunging them into debt and financial ruin.
“Farmers are so passionate because they know these three laws are like death sentences for them,” Abhimanyu Kohar, coordinator of the National Farmer’s Alliance, a federation of more than 180 apolitical farm organizations across India, told me in an interview. “Our farmers are doing this movement for our future, for our survival.”
The protests have drawn international attention, partly because of their size. According to Reuters, although agriculture accounts for only about 15 parents of India’s GDP, around 50 percent of the country’s workers are farmers – and hundreds of millions of farmers have taken part in street demonstrations and strikes since last fall.
Farmers have had a strong voice in Indian politics – and don’t want to lose it
Experts say the government’s attempt to change agricultural policy has touched a third rail in Indian politics that exposes tensions created by modernization while threatening to unravel decades-old market norms for farmers.
Since the 1970s, a sophisticated system of farm subsidies and price guarantees, organized through a system of marketplaces known as mandis, has been a central feature of agricultural policy in India and, as Arvin noted, has been instrumental in providing farmers with a kind of safety net.
Aditya Dasgupta, an assistant professor of political science at the University of California, Merced, who specializes in Indian politics, says that politics was the result of large-scale mobilization by farmers, agribusiness unions, movements and parties during the time of politics Politically powerful became the Green Revolution, the enormous leap in agricultural productivity in the country that took place in the 1970s and 1980s.
“Today’s peasant protests go back to this tradition of protest and demonstration of agricultural power, but the context is very different,” said Dasgupta. “India is urbanizing, agriculture is a shrinking share of GDP, and the main source of politico-economic support for the ruling BJP party is urban big business.”
“So, in a sense, it is not just a conflict over specific policies, but also a larger focal point of the sectoral basis of political power and whether or not farmers remain a politically powerful interest group with India’s urbanization,” he said .
While it is unclear what kind of compromise or concession could ease tensions over current reforms, experts like Dasgupta point out that the underlying dynamics that led to them – questions about who is in India’s developing economy should hold power – will likely stay in the EU long term.
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