Protests by Indian farmers forced Modi to renounce new laws. So why don’t they go home?
But Singh has not been in the Punjab for a year since he joined farmers at one of three protest sites in the Indian capital to campaign against new farm laws that they say would leave them open to l ‘exploitation.
“When I first got here I thought I would be here for 15, maybe 20 days, but Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a whole year go by,” Singh said, sipping his morning tea. , surrounded by young demonstrators, at a campsite in Singhu on the outskirts of Delhi.
Numbers at all three protest sites rose on Friday as farmers gathered to mark a year of civil action that prompted Modi last week in a rare policy reversal.
On November 19, the Prime Minister said he would formally repeal the law because the government had failed to convince farmers of its importance.
âI urge all my restless fellow farmers (…) to return to your homes, fields and families. Letâs make a fresh start,â Modi said.
But they did not return home.
On the contrary, union leaders say farmers will continue to demonstrate until the government responds to several other demands, including increasing the minimum price of their produce, withdrawing legal actions against some farmers and paying compensation for families of hundreds of farmers who died as a result of the civil action.
Plant a loss
For 12 months, Singh slept on a wooden camp bed draped in blankets inside one of the hundreds of shacks that invade Singhu, the main protest site.
Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata (BJP) party had insisted that the reforms would solve a troubled system. Previously, farmers had to sell their produce at auction, where they received at least the minimum support price (MSP) agreed by the government for some of their crops.
Farm laws were aimed at relaxing the rules around the sale, pricing and storage of agricultural products that have protected farmers from an unfettered free market for decades. However, farmers said market forces could push prices even lower and small farmers might find it difficult to negotiate favorable deals with the giants.
Agriculture is the primary source of livelihood for about 58% of India’s 1.3 billion citizens, according to a report by the India Brand Equity Foundation. The country is the world’s second largest producer of rice, wheat, sugar cane, cotton, peanuts, fruits and vegetables.
But farm households earned an average of just 10,218 rupees ($ 137) per month in 2018-19, according to government statistics, which is 316 rupees less than the country’s average wage that year.
Economist Devinder Sharma said most farmers do not cultivate enough land to generate profits, resulting in debilitating debts.
âWhen farmers plant their seeds to grow crops, they are already making a loss,â he said. “They sacrificed their income for the sake of consumers, and it was the small farmers who were exploited the most.”
The abject poverty and debt facing many Indian farmers has forced some to take extreme measures. In 2019, more than 10,000 people in the agricultural sector took their own lives, according to government data.
“This protest results in heightened anger,” Sharma said. “Farmers know this may be their last chance to secure a stable future. It’s a do or die.”
What farmers want
Delhi police put up roadblocks to limit access to the three protest sites on Friday, but turnout was lower than at the peak of the protests.
The days of celebrations were over – despite their smaller numbers, tens of thousands of people still showed up with clear demands.
Rakesh Tikait, national spokesperson for farmers’ organization Bhartiya Kisan Union, urged the government to talk to farmers to find a solution – which he suggested as increased government support.
“They can help us with electricity, by providing fertilizer, with other equipment used in agriculture. They can help us increase the harvest rate,” he said. âThe government can support us by providing medical and health services to the inhabitants of the villages, by providing education for their children. “
For 15 years, farmers have said successive governments have ignored recommendations to alleviate stress on farmers made by the National Farmers Commission, chaired by Professor MS Swaminathan, the so-called father of the ‘green revolution’ in India.
From 2004 to 2006, Swaminathan published five reports suggesting measures, including increasing the Minimum Support Price (MSP) to give farmers more financial stability and control over their income.
The government says it has implemented 200 of the 201 recommendations, but farmers say land ownership and food distribution have yet to be reformed, and they want all farmers to be legally entitled to an MSP for their entire harvest. .
The unions also made more specific demands regarding the demonstration. For example, they are calling for the arrest of young interior minister Ajay Mishra Teni, whose convoy they say 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 calling for reforms.
Paramjeet Singh Katyal, a media representative for Samkyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM), an umbrella organization for farmers’ unions, said most of the deaths were due to severe road accidents and cold weather.
Modi’s “rare” retreat
Modi’s overthrow on farm laws was an unusual departure from his usual hard-line style, said Giles Verniers, assistant professor of political science at Ashoka University of India.
âIt contradicts the brand of leadership that Modi has built since taking office – that image of a strong, decisive leader, making tough decisions, impervious to criticism,â Verniers said.
In 2016, Modi upheld his decision to ban most Indian banknotes after ruling the 500 and 1,000 rupee notes “worthless pieces of paper.”
Three years later, he faced fury from angry protesters after introducing the controversial Citizenship Act, a law that promised to speed up Indian citizenship for all faiths in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. , except for Islam.
And more recently, it faced a public backlash for its alleged mismanagement of the pandemic, after India faced a brutal second wave that saw cases skyrocket and crematoriums run out of space.
“It’s rare for (the BJP) to admit that it needs to change course,” Verniers said. “This makes this decision all the more important.”
Some point to crucial 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 pullback was politically motivated.
“Uttar Pradesh is slipping away from him, the Punjab is slipping away … that’s why he has taken over the laws,” she said.
In May, the BJP suffered a defeat in West Bengal – a state it saw as a guaranteed victory. Meanwhile, polls show the BJP’s lead in Uttar Pradesh has weakened.
Angry farmers could see Modi lose a significant number of votes.
“If the elections had been later, he would have delayed them further. They only work for the elections, they don’t care about the 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 requests, we will leave, otherwise we will stay there,” 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 of the Observer Research Foundation, said their repeal would make it difficult for other governments to come up with similar reforms.
“The future of farmers is sealed for the next quarter century – no political party will have the courage to touch these reforms,” ââChikermane said.
For some farming families, it is too late.
At the Singhu protest site, Harjinder Singh, 45, says he is one of the last generation of farmers working on the acres of land he owns in his village in Punjab. Her children have moved elsewhere.
âThey saw no point in staying in farming,â he said. “But I am fighting to preserve an industry that I cannot see ruined.”
Santosh Singh carries a dagger, as many people of the Sikh faith do, but for him it 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 is why he is committed to fighting for the entire Indian farming community, no matter how long it takes.
“We will not leave. If we die here, we die,” he said.
“We know it will be a long struggle.”
CNN’s Vedika Sud contributed reporting.