Popular Unrest: A deep dive into the Farmers’ Protests in India

india farmer protest

Without a doubt, a large amount of British produce is imported from all over the world. We are hugely reliant other nations to feed us, to the extent that 80% of the food and ingredients on supermarket shelves come from beyond the borders of the UK, with areas like South Asia being a major supplier of grain. India is one of the largest producers of not only grains, but milk, cotton, vegetables, and pulses. On a personal level, as an Indian living in the UK, we heavily rely on the exports of the Indian subcontinent, beyond industrial food production, even down to relatives or farmers in general. Whilst many of these imports may seem small – clothing, spices and perhaps cultural imports – there is also a large population in the UK who favour produce from abroad. Take mangoes, for instance; mangoes grown in the UK or Europe are inherently different to those grown in India, due to the very different climate of the regions in which they’re grown. The proof is in the pudding; a lot of South-Asians and British residents spend nearly £20 on a small handful of bright Indian mangoes.

Though we’re often blind to where our food comes from, produce doesn’t magically appear on the British shore. An estimated half of India’s 1.8 billion population work in the farming industry, a very large community which work hard to produce, often for the express purpose of exporting their harvests, rather than it being used to feed India. Agricultural conditions in South-Asia are prone to less regulation than those in the UK, too. Farmers often have unbelievably small incomes, as well as very few workers’ rights and labour protections. Prior to the protests that have erupted in India over the last few months, conditions for farmers were barely pleasant with a lot of farmers having to work long hours for little reward. Accounting for around 58% of the population’s livelihoods, the farming industry is an essential pillar of the economy. What’s worse is that given these pre-imposed expectations, India will likely increase reliance on the farming industry, aiming doubling its profits by 2022, without a parallel commitment to improve workers’ welfare and labour conditions.

The reforms that lit the fuse

On September 27th, 2020, President Modi essentially gave his seal of approval to impose the farming laws initiated by the Indian parliament. The recent bills imposed by the Indian government have created a multitude of harmful outcomes for the Indian farmers. Though the bill was positioned as improving the freedom of both farmers and large private corporations, the result was the stripping of regulations that protected farmers from exploitation, in order to maximise profit and sales. There are three bills which particularly sparked these waves of popular unrest – The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, 2020, The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, 2020 and The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill, 2020.

The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill 2020’ contain acts which can prohibit and restrict freedom of farmers in their own fields of work – a large problem given the scant likelihood that individual farmers could go to court against the big suppliers who could aggressively outcompete them. It is framed that there would be numerous benefits for farmers – they’d ideally have more choices and better prices when selling their produce. This, however, is highly unlikely to play out. By dismantling ‘mandi fees’, farmers and whole states are at risk of losing revenue for themselves in favour of private corporations; it could very easily lead to exploitation by not enforcing minimum prices. By opening up the market, laws which were supposed to protect individual farmers have been discarded, putting predatory corporate interest in the driving seat.

The second bill is the rather ironically named ‘The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, 2020‘. This bill disguises its naivety under the terms ‘empowerment and protection’, idealistic concepts in a landscape of greedy corporations and already-vulnerable farmers. The bill proposes that farmers would have the right to enter contracts with companies seeking their produce, hoping to negotiate and conclude on prices themselves. It hopes to boost farmer’s rights but ultimately benefits the corporations, ignoring the fundamental power imbalance at play that gives individual farmers little bargaining power. By placing both farmers and large corporations into a supposedly ‘beneficial’ bargaining space, it is more likely that any negotiations would inevitably swing in favour of the big guy.

Lastly, The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill, 2020 is aimed to reduce ‘essential commodities’ down and place limits on those items for extreme circumstances. A few examples of these newly defined ‘non-essentials’ are pulses, onions, potatoes, and cereals, which make up a lot of the South-Asian diet. This bill is openly aimed at benefitting the private sector, by giving them the ability to hold and hoard ‘non-essential’ items, working in tandem with other legislation that has given corporations more freedom to dictating terms to farmers. At best, this is naive lawmaking; at worst, it is knowingly vindictive, stripping control of the fruits of their labour from farmers, and allowing financial power to plunder and dominate.

The popular reaction

There is clear disdain amongst the wider population towards these reforms, not just the protesting farmers. When discussing the protests with my relatives in Gujarat, they highlighted the harshness of the government and the evident priority of profit rather than the welfare of Indian people. For over two months, farmers led by those in Punjab and Haryana. have been protesting against these unfair bills, with a mixture of peaceful demonstrations and rallies. Soon after these bills were introduced, unions began preparing themselves for the fight against these harmful pieces of legislation, with local farmers joining the movement now named ‘Dilhi Chalo’ (‘Lets go to Delhi).

Unsurprisingly, the government has reacted badly to the requests for justice and issued violent police forces to target the movement to dismantle the worsened inequality. India has always had a troubled past with class-related issues, and their injustices have once again highlighted the classism so deeply rooted into the government and system in place. On February 3rd, the Indian police force clashed with protestors in Delhi and added to the now 200 death-count. The government has horrifically cut internet access in Delhi and its surrounding states, thereby cutting communication and media coverage. These sorts of acts made by the Indian government, mirroring the Black Lives Matter protests in America, demonstrate the clear tension between systems that produce and reinforce injustice, and an entrenched failure for governments to make meaningful change.

Recent advancements have also extended into the Western cultural hemisphere from activism spread on social media. This has led to both fortunate and unfortunate encounters between Modi-supporters and Human Rights Activists. On February 2nd, shortly after the ‘tractor rally’ of January 26th, Rihanna tweeted an article highlighting the atrocities of the treatment against protesters and urged people to look into the topic. Shortly after this led to numerous Western celebrities shedding additional light onto the topic, causing the hashtag #FarmersProtest to regain momentum in the Western eye. Another tweet by Greta Thunberg, the teen environmental activist, also shed light on the protests in a respectful manner much like Rihanna.

These Western celebrities somehow have managed to anger many right-wing Indian celebrities, specifically the actress Kangana Ranaut. With a simple tweet stating “why aren’t we talking about this?! #FarmersProtest”, Rihanna sent Kangana into a hate-spewed rant about not only her, but the farmers themselves. The focus of right-wing celebrities on Western discourse about India, rather than the poor decisions made by the government, is perhaps indicative of a certain lack of self-awareness and hypocrisy. Kangana, followed by many other right-wing figures took to twitter to insult Rihanna, Greta Thunberg, and any Western influencer with a platform speaking on the subject, calling the latter a “dumb, spoilt brat”, later deleting many of her more harshly worded tweets.

Interestingly, Kangana makes some very broad claims on the situation by insisting that the farmers are in the wrong. From what has been discussed prior, it appears clear that the farmers protesting in this ongoing movement are simple people who simply wish to not be exploited. By not supporting the farmers, figures such as Kangana are disregarding rightful acts of protest and opposing basic human rights, in turn manipulating the debate to fearmonger about terrorism and free speech. Hopefully this movement opens more discussion on not only farmers’ rights, but human rights and the regular tendency for vital protests to be ignored and delegitimised on a global scale.

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