Thousands of Farmers Lay Siege to India’s Capital Protesting New Farm Laws
New Delhi, India — For the eighth day, tens of thousands of Indian farmers continued their protests against new agriculture laws, disrupting traffic and threatening to block all entry points to the nation’s capital of New Delhi.
The protests began Nov. 26 against three farm laws introduced by the government in September 2020, which purportedly aim to break the monopoly of state government-run market places (mandis), allowing farmers to sell directly to private entities. The farmers believe the move will reduce the authority of state governments as their revenues from the mandis will dwindle.
A meeting chaired by India’s agricultural minister Narendra Singh Tomar on Nov. 1 to discuss the three farm laws and the proposed Electricity (Amendment) Bill 2020 to regulate the tariffs to boost India’s ailing power sector was inconclusive.
“The government came unprepared to the meeting. They reiterated the same points they have told us earlier to convince us that the new laws were beneficial for the farmers,” Hanan Mollah, a member of parliament from the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and general secretary, All India Kisan Sangarsh Coordination Committee, told Zenger News. “We rejected their claims. We have a one-point agenda — repeal all the farm laws — which is non-negotiable
India’s Defense Minister Rajnath Singh, who was supposed to co-chair the meeting, was absent.
The government’s demand for forming a smaller committee of about five representatives, instead of the current 35 representatives was also rejected by the farmer leaders.
“The government wants to create fissures between us by only asking a few people to come and talk,” said Surat Singh Dharmkot, member of Punjab-based Polind Kisan Sabha, who attended the meeting.
“It is not possible as everyone is a stakeholder. So, we declined their demand for a committee. Also, the formation of a committee would only delay the process.”
Further, the proposed Bill on electricity tariffs, to be tabled in the upcoming winter session of the parliament, will mandate the farmers to pay at the rates decided by the power companies instead of the current subsidized rates.
“Currently, the prices for the sector are around 0.4 paisa per unit,” Abhimanyu Kohar, a spokesperson for 20 farmers associations, told Zenger News. “The proposed Bill will make it mandatory for the farmers to pay the money upfront, which will be reimbursed after six months. How can a poor farmer pay so much in one go and then wait for such a long time to get their money back.”
The farmers also accuse the government of using strong-arm tactics against them.
Farmers scuffled with police at various places on the outskirts of the National Capital Region. Security forces responded by deploying tear gas shells and water cannons to disperse them. Thousands of farmers continue to camp on the roads leading to New Delhi. The National Capital Region encompasses the National Capital Territory of Delhi, and several districts from the states of Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, and Rajasthan surrounding it.
“The government tells us these laws will benefit the farmers, but it is a lie. Don’t we know what would benefit us?” said Kuldeep Singh, a 41-year-old farmer at the Singhu border between New Delhi and Haryana.
“By introducing these laws, the government is trying to run away from its responsibility and leave us at the mercy of corporations,” Parminder Singh, a 72-year-old farmer from the northern state of Punjab told Zenger News.
The three farm laws — the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill — were passed by parliament on Sept. 20.
Since then, the laws have faced opposition from farmers across the country, particularly in the northern and western states of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Uttarakhand.
“Our senior leadership, including Defense Minister Rajnath Singh, Agricultural Minister Narendra Singh Tomar and Chief Minister of Haryana Manohar Lal Khattar, have reiterated the government’s commitment towards the welfare of the farmers and also appealed for their calm on the issue,” said Nalin Kohli, national spokesperson for India’s governing Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP).
Anger over the laws has been simmering for two months among farmers’ unions across the country. Railway lines to the northern states of Punjab and Haryana were blocked after the laws were passed, but eventually, the protesters called off their blockade.
A major point of contention among the farmers is the Minimum Support Price (MSP), the government’s set price to buy agricultural products from farmers. The price is meant to ensure farmers a minimum profit for their harvest, even if the open market offers a lower price than the costs incurred during cultivation.
Farmers fear the new laws will eventually do away with the MSP, leaving them at the mercy of big corporations.
Agricultural economists, researchers, and some political parties agree with the farmers’ concerns over price support.
“There is nothing directly said about the MSP in these laws, but the concern is that with the entry of big corporates, the regulation of government will wither away,” said Arindam Banerjee, an agrarian development expert and associate professor at Ambedkar University in New Delhi.
“The farmers, especially those in north India who have been protected by the MSP, particularly for grain production, fear the entry of big corporates will deprive them of the guaranteed prices from the government.”
Bhakta Charan Das, the spokesperson for the opposition Indian National Congress, said, “The entire system from the field to the market was under the watch of the government. They want to change it to absolve themselves of responsibilities.”
The protesting farmers said the government was working at the behest of corporations to privatize the agricultural sector, which will only make it worse for the farmers.
“The Modi government does not care about the farmers. They want to sell off the lands belonging to the farmers to Adani [Gautam Adani] and Ambani [Mukesh Ambani]. Their intentions are clear. These laws are meant to kill the farmers,” said Vir, an ex-Indian Navy officer, protesting at the Singhu border.
“My son Randeep is in the Indian Army and is currently posted at the border [Indo-Pak border]. Look at me, his old father. I have to fight for our basic rights at this border. This government is pitting people against each other,” said Jagdev Singh at New Delhi’s Tikri border.
Jagdev, a farmer from Punjab’s Mansa district, is among many such farmers whose sons are serving in the Indian Army, while they protest at the borders on the outskirts of New Delhi.
Kohar also said the BJP government is not serious in its efforts to help ease the plight of farmers and called for legal backing to ensure that purchasing below the MSP would be a recognized offense.
“When the market is open to private players, the mandi system existing for centuries would get defunct, and there is a huge possibility of farmers becoming vulnerable to the corporates, who would then be in a position to dictate terms,” said Ranjit Singh Ghuman, professor at the Centre for Research in Rural and Industrial Development.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently praised the new laws on his signature radio program Mann ki Baat.
“The agricultural reforms in the past few days have opened new doors of possibilities for our farmers,” he said.
India’s agricultural sector accounts for just 16 percent of the country’s economy but nearly 50 percent of total employment, according to Statista.
Historically, the agricultural sector has been plagued by numerous challenges.
India recorded 10,281 cases of farmer suicides in 2019, accounting for 7.4 percent of all suicides in India, states a 2019 report by India’s National Crime Records Bureau.
According to the report, agricultural laborers and sharecroppers committed more suicides than farmers in 17 of India’s 28 states. The state of Maharashtra recorded nearly 4,000 suicides by laborers.
“The maximum number of suicides happen in our state. We grow onions, grapes, maize, among other crops. The government removed onions from the list of essential commodities some time back. The rates at which they now procure onions have been reduced to less than half. In such a scenario, a farmer has no option but to commit suicide,” said Shankar Darekar, Maharashtra state president, Rashtriya Kisan Mazdoor Mahasangh.
The government will be meeting the farmer representatives on Dec. 3 for the second round of talks.
Video by Danish Pandit, Aquib Siddiqui, Nikita Jain, Anand Mangnale, and Gaurab Dasgupta. Additional reporting provided by Gaurab Dasgupta.
(Edited by Siddharthya Roy and Judith Isacoff)