The farmers of India and their fight for justice

Image credit: Photo by Gayatri Malhotra on Unsplash

In late 2020, the Indian Government passed what has been termed as "The Farmers Bills," three acts that have caused an outcry on the part of the farmers and their supporters.

The Presidential assent was given to these bills by Ram Nath Kovind in late September 2020. This followed its passing in early September by the Indian parliament. Why has there been such an outrage and why has this been marginalised on an international scale?

What are the Farmers Bills and why is there opposition?

The Farmers Bills consist of three bills: The Farmers' Produce Trade and Commerce Bill, Essential Commodities Bill, and The Farmers Agreement on Price Assurance Farm Service Bill. These bills were proposed on the 5th of June 2020 by the Minister of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare: Narendra Singh Tomar.

The First Bill aims "to provide for the creation of an ecosystem where farmers and traders enjoy the freedom of choice relating to sale and purchase of farmers' produce". This will allow the farmers to sell their produce outside the Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMCs) regulated markets. The APMCs are government-controlled marketing yards or 'mandis'.  Farmers will not be restricted by the type of trade they can engage with to sell their produce. Additionally, a licence will not be required for traders purchasing agricultural produce from the farmers, generating trade in the farmer's agricultural produce.

Whilst this may appear positive, the mandis under the APMC law will be abolished and farmers will be forced to sell crops to corporate companies whom they do not trust, fearing their interests will be marginalised. Furthermore, farmers will be subjected to an increased risk of fraud with no licence required.

The Second Bill is an amendment to the 1955 Essential Commodities Act. Under this Act, the central government can declare certain commodities essential and regulate their production, distribution, and supply to protect consumers who will receive a fair price. They can ensure there is no stockpiling of certain commodities.  For example, during COVID-19, the government declared masks and hand sanitisers essential to cap prices and check on black marketing.

This amendment increases the competitiveness within the agricultural sector, which benefits farmers and protects consumer interests by bringing in price stability. The central government can regulate the supply of certain food products under extenuating circumstances, for example, war, famine, natural disasters, and extraordinary price rise. However, this bill has price limits set for these extenuating circumstances which mean it is highly unlikely they will ever be triggered. For the farmers personally, the big companies will have the freedom to stock commodities, therefore holding power over farmers. This could result in lower prices for the produce the farmers cultivate.

The Third Bill strives "to provide for a national framework on farming agreements that protects and empowers farmers to engage with agri-business firms, processors, wholesalers, exporters or large retailers for farm services and sale future farming produce at a mutually agreed remunerative price framework". This aims to protect farmers by enabling them to work with their buyers towards an agreement before production. However, it is believed the farmers will be weaker in terms of their ability to negotiate. Moreover, the buyers may not particularly like to engage with small and marginal farmers to receive the goods they require.

These Bills may seem beneficial for the farmers with protection, empowerment and autonomy promised in theory however, the farmers and their supporters have not supported these bills.

How have the farmers and their supporters expressed their opposition?

Farmers located predominantly in the Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Haryana regions have voiced their concerns about these bills. The new legislation introduces private sector forces to play a role in a heavily government dominated sector.

Since August 2020, local protests have been taking place, especially in the Punjab area. The first national protest occurred on the 25th of September, with farmers and farming unions from across India uniting for a Bharat Bandh (a nationwide shutting down).

On the 26th of November 2020, the largest protest occurred with farmers across the country marching to Delhi as part of the "Chalo Delhi" (Go To Delhi) protest. 250 million workers went on strike nationally against the laws and, many over the next three months have occupied temporary shelters outside the Indian capital after being refused entry to protest.

Farming organisations accommodated the needs of farmers by providing Langar. Langar is the free community kitchen and the community meals served by Sikhs to every individual irrespective of their background. With support from NGOs, facilities have been supplied. For example, Khalsa Aid has provided foot massagers.

On the 26th of January 2021, the day of the Republic Day parade, thousands of farmers paraded tractors into Delhi. Whilst the majority of their opposition has been peaceful, violence emerged at this protest with some farmers clashing with police. This resulted in the death of one farmer and approximately 300 police were injured.

In response, the Indian government have shut down the internet of protest sites and demanded social media platforms suspend those accounts criticising the government.

Police have responded with unjust brutality using tear gas and riot gear, despite the peacefulness of the protests.

The death toll of farmers at the end of December was 41 and, there have been further casualties since. Additionally, ten farmers have committed suicide in protest of the laws as of February 2021.

Protesting has spanned globally with Sikhs sharing their solidarity with the farmers.

420,000 people in England and Wales identify as Sikh. In London, a socially distanced rally was held in December and subsequent rallies emerged across the country for example, in Birmingham. These rallies were held following a letter by 36 MPs given to Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab calling for action.

In the USA, approximately 10,000 people travelled across the Bay Bridge in early December demanding support for the farmers, disrupting traffic. Protests have also taken place across Houston, Michigan, Chicago, and Washington D.C.

How have the government justified these measures?

The Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi tweeted in support of the measures:

“For decades, the Indian farmer was bound by various constraints and bullied by middlemen. The bills passed by Parliament liberate the farmers from such adversities.”

For the Modi administration, the introduction of the private market forces will allow the farmers to have the opportunity to negotiate higher rates and develop their economic prosperity, fulfilling his promise of doubling farmers incomes.

Whilst this justification, in theory, is valid and beneficial for all involved, in practice, the farmers lose out when these laws are implemented.

Bharatiya Kisan Union, a farming organisation and All Indian Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee, an agricultural body alongside political parties such as Bahujan Samaj Party, have voiced their concerns about these bills which only support big corporations and negatively impact the livelihood of the farmers.

How have social media platforms given rise to awareness of this issue?

Social media has raised awareness with images emerging of the farmers protesting and many travelling to protest. Global superstar Rhianna tweeted: "Why aren't we talking about this?! #FarmersProtest" with an image of the protesting, which generated widespread media attention.

In response, the United Nations investigated and consequently, on the 5th of February 2021, tweeted for authorities to:

"exercise maximum restraint in ongoing #FarmersProtests. The rights to peaceful assembly & expression should be protected both offline & online. It's crucial to find equitable solutions with due respect to #HumanRights for all."

How has the global mainstream media marginalised this issue?

Despite the laws being controversially passed in September 2020, reporting of the issue did not emerge until December and, even this was limited. In the beginning, the farmers were deemed as sensationalists and were undermined. During protests, individuals held placards criticising the media who branded them as terrorists.

Western media did not begin reporting until December 2020 and even then, focused on the minimal violence that has occurred on the part of the farmers. The New York Times, for example, stated what is happening in Delhi "promoted the police to fire tear gas" and deemed the farmers and their actions: "a direct challenge" to the government. In the UK, the Guardian spoke of how the "chaotic and violent scenes" of the protesting took precedence over celebrations of Republic Day in India.

As protesting continues after failed talks and negotiations with the government, the voice of the farmers has become more prevalent in mainstream media, though this is still limited.

How have global politicians responded?

Western politicians especially have marginalised, dismissed, and refused to acknowledge the mistreated farmers in India, whose work is essential for many of the commodities we consume.

Boris Johnson, when asked by Labour MP Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi during a weekly Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday the 9th of December, responded that "We have serious concerns about what is happening between India and Pakistan. But these are pre-eminently matters between those two governments to settle...”

It was not until Monday the 8th of March, that the House of Commons discussed the farmers protest and the freedom and safety of protestors in Delhi.

President Joe Biden supported the Modi administration who: "Welcomed steps that would improve the efficiency of India's markets and attract greater private sector investment".

This response from politicians has undermined the farmer's outcry and has not acknowledged the detrimental impact these laws will have upon their livelihood.

How as a global community we can support and make a difference?

As we come to the end of April 2021, the farmer's fight for justice continues and their voices remain unheard. Globally, we must take a stance against the human rights atrocities negatively impacting the livelihood of our fellow citizens, namely in this instance, the farmers of India. The right to protest and the right to voice concerns should be respected. Using our voices through social media, protesting and education, we can raise further awareness and support the farmers together as a global community.