Indian farmers forced Modi to back down on new laws. So why aren’t they going home?

Indian farmers forced Modi to back down on new laws. So why aren’t they going home?
Anushree Fadnavis/Reuters

Santosh Singh’s earliest memory is of tilling soil on his family’s farm. Now, the 70-year-old farmer’s eyes gleam with pride as he recalls watching his grandson do the same.

But Singh hasn’t been home to Punjab for one year since he joined farmers at one of three protest sites in the Indian capital to campaign against new farming laws they claimed would leave them open to exploitation.

“When I first came here, I thought I’d be here for 15, maybe 20 days, but Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made one whole year go by,” said Singh, as he sipped his morning tea, surrounded by young protesters, at a campsite in Singhu on Delhi’s outskirts.

On Friday, numbers at all three protest sites swelled as farmers gathered to mark one year of the civil action that last week pushed Modi into a rare policy reversal.

On November 19, the Prime Minister said he would formally repeal the legislation because the government had failed to convince farmers of its importance.

“I urge all my agitating farmer companions… return to your homes, fields and to your families. Let’s make a fresh start,” Modi said.

But they didn’t go home.

On the contrary, union leaders say farmers will continue protesting until the government meets several other demands, including raising the minimum price of their produce, withdrawing legal action against some farmers, and paying compensation to the families of hundreds of farmers who have died as a result of the civil action.

Planting a loss

For 12 months, Singh has slept on a wooden cot draped with blankets inside one of hundreds of shacks that crowd Singhu, the main protest site.

Since last November, he and tens of thousands of others have lived rough through a harsh winter, scorching summer, and a global pandemic.

Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had insisted the reforms would fix a system plagued with problems. Previously, farmers had to sell their goods at auction, where they received at least the government agreed minimum support price (MSP) for some of their crops.

The farming laws aimed to loosen the rules around the sale, pricing and storage of farm produce that protected farmers from an unfettered free market for decades. However, farmers said market forces could push prices even lower, and smaller farmers could find it hard to negotiate favorable deals with corporate giants.

Agriculture is the primary source of livelihood for about 58% of India’s 1.3 billion citizens, according to a report from the India Brand Equity Foundation. The country is the world’s second-largest producer of rice, wheat, sugarcane, cotton, groundnuts, fruits and vegetables.

But farming households only made an average income of 10,218 rupees ($137) per month in 2018-19, according to government statistics — 316 rupees less than the nation’s average salary that year.

Economist Devinder Sharma said most farmers don’t till enough land to yield a profit, leading to debilitating debts.

“When farmers plant their seeds to grow crops, they are already making a loss,” he said. “They sacrificed their income for the sake of consumers, and it’s the small farmers who have been exploited the most.”

The abject poverty and debt faced by many of India’s farmers has forced some to take extreme measures. In 2019, more than 10,000 people in the agricultural sector ended their own lives, according to government data.

“This demonstration culminates from compounded anger,” said Sharma. “Farmers know this may be their last chance to secure a stable future for themselves. This is a do or die situation.”

What farmers want

Delhi police erected blockades to limit access to the three protest sites Friday, but turnout was lower than at the peak of the protests.

The time for celebrating was over — despite their smaller numbers, tens of thousands still turned out with clear demands.

Rakesh Tikait, national spokesperson of farmers’ body Bhartiya Kisan Union, urged the government to talk to farmers to find a solution — which he suggested was more government support.

“They can support us with electricity, with providing fertilizers, with other equipment used in agriculture. They can help us increase the rate of crops,” he said. “The government can support us by providing medical, health benefits to those in villages, by providing their children with education.”

For 15 years, farmers say successive governments have ignored recommendations to ease farmers’ stress made by the National Commission on Farmers, chaired by Prof. M. S. Swaminathan, the so-called father of India’s “Green Revolution.”

From 2004 to 2006, Swaminathan published five reports suggesting measures including raising the minimum support price (MSP) to give farmers more financial stability and control over their income.

The government claims it has implemented 200 of 201 recommendations, but farmers say land ownership and food distribution still need reform, and they want all farmers to be legally entitled to an MSP for their entire crop.

The unions have also made more specific demands relating to the protest. For example, they’re calling for the arrest of junior home affairs minister Ajay Mishra Teni, whose convoy they allege hit protesters in Lakhimpur Kheri, Uttar Pradesh in October.

Farmers also want a permanent “martyrs’ memorial” to be erected at the Singhu border to commemorate the 700 farmers who union leaders say have died while calling for reforms.

Paramjeet Singh Katyal, a media representative for Samkyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM), an umbrella body of farmers unions, said most of the deaths were due to severe cold and road accidents.

Modi’s ‘rare’ backdown

Modi’s reversal on the farming laws was an uncharacteristic departure from his usual hardline style, said Giles Verniers, assistant professor of Political Science at India’s Ashoka University.

“It contradicts the brand of leadership that Modi has been building ever since he’s been in power — that image of a strong leader, decisive, taking hard decisions, impervious to critique,” Verniers said.

In 2016, Modi stood by his decision to ban most of India’s paper money after deeming the 500 and 1,000 rupee notes “worthless pieces of paper.”

Three years later, he faced the fury of angry protesters after introducing the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act — a law that promised to fast-track Indian citizenship for all religious faiths from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, except Islam.

And most recently, he faced public backlash for his alleged mishandling of the pandemic, after India faced a brutal second wave that saw cases skyrocket and crematoriums run out of space.

“It’s rare that (the BJP) would admit that they need to change course,” Verniers said. “That makes this decision all the more significant.”

Some point to pivotal state elections next year.

Seven Indian states will hold elections to determine whether the BJP will retain power. Modi’s ruling party currently governs six of the seven states, including predominantly agricultural Uttar Pradesh.

Paramjeet Kaur, a 57-year-old farmer at the Singhu protest site, said Modi’s backdown was politically motivated.

“Uttar Pradesh is going from his hands, Punjab is going from his hands … that’s why he took back the laws,” she said.

In May, the BJP suffered a loss in West Bengal — a state it had considered a guaranteed win. Meanwhile, polls show the BJP’s lead in Uttar Pradesh has weakened.

Angering farmers could see Modi lose a sizable number of votes.

“If elections had been later, he would have delayed it further. They only work for elections, they don’t care about people,” Kaur said.

Now, she sees the repeal as an opportunity to put more pressure on Modi to meet their remaining demands.

“These are our rights, we will not leave without our rights … if he accepts our demands we will leave, otherwise we will stay put,” she said.

‘If we die here, we die’

For some experts, Modi’s farm laws were one of India’s “biggest reforms” which had the power to transform its damaged agricultural sector.

Economist Gautam Chikermane, vice president at Observer Research Foundation, said their repeal would make it difficult for other governments to propose similar reforms.

“The future of farmers has been sealed for the next quarter century — no political party will have the courage to touch these reforms,” Chikermane said.

For some farming families, it’s too late.

At the Singhu protest site, Harjinder Singh, 45, says he is among the last generation of farmers working on the acres of land he owns in his village in Punjab. His children have moved elsewhere.

“They saw no merit in staying in agriculture,” he said. “But I am fighting to preserve an industry that I cannot see ruined.”

Santosh Singh carries a dagger, as many people of Sikh faith do, but for him this has been a resistance of patience and peace.

For generations, his family has worked the land, and he hopes his grandchildren will carry on the tradition.

That’s why he’s committed to fighting for India’s entire farming community — no matter how long it takes.

“We won’t leave. If we die here, we die,” he said.

“We know this will be a long struggle.”

How to get help: AASRA’s Suicide Prevention Helpline Directory provides contact information for crisis centers across India.

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