The Biggest Protest In History Is Happening Right Now In India
250 million people have gone on strike against new farm laws. For context, that is more people than there are adults in the United States. It is unrelenting with further strikes planned as the situation intensifies. The capital city, Delhi, is surrounded by at least tens of thousands of peaceful protestors. Many have enough supplies to last them the cold winter sleeping under their tractors.
These large numbers can be hard to comprehend and it’s easier to think it’s in a faraway country so doesn’t matter for the West.
That would be wrong.
These farmers who are struggling to make ends meet, with 20,000 taking their own lives each year, probably produced something you eat or wear. India is the largest exporter of Basmati rice, milk, spices, cotton and second for fruits and vegetables. They don’t just feed India, they help feed the world. Even if you don’t directly benefit from their back-breaking work, it doesn’t make their lives matter any less.
I hope you read on and understand why this is such an important issue for so many people. The more people care and can throw the spotlight on India, the safer the protestors will be, and hopefully, in the future, the better their children’s lives will be.
The pandemic has made 2020 difficult for everyone in India. In June, new laws were announced while the country was in complete national lockdown to fundamentally change the way farming works.
The main components are:
- Large businesses can now interact directly with farmers and buy crops, previously they would need to go through the government or middlemen
- Farmers have lost the right to challenge large corporations in courts instead they would need to go through local government
- Companies will now be allowed to stockpile food
To understand how important these changes are, we need to know about the reality in India and the reliance on farming.
The country has made much progress from 50% of the population living in extreme poverty a generation ago. One aspect that helped lift many people out was the introduction of the Minimum Support Price (MSP) for crops. Now farmers could sell their crops to the government and have a basic standard of living rather than be exploited by corporations. This makes a huge difference with 60% of the population dependent on farming for their income.
However, even with this, farmers are still struggling and the average monthly income is just $140 compared to a GDP per capita of $2104. While India is now rightly investing heavily in education, many of the elderly farmers did not have this opportunity. Farming is all they have known and it’s impossible to magic new suitable jobs for 4x the population of the UK for them. Life was tough even before these latest laws.
The government claims the new changes empower farmers to find the best price possible for their products. They want to cut out the middlemen to give the farmers more control and more options. Supporters of the act say the MSP is not being removed, and it could allow Indian farmers to sell in international markets at much higher prices.
So what’s the problem?
86% of land holdings by farmers are less than 5 acres according to the 2016 Agricultural Census. The companies looking to enter the market include Reliance and Jio which are worth billions of dollars. Who do you think has the bargaining power? One farmer expressed the worry succinctly:
“First, farmers will feel attracted towards these private players, who will offer a better price for the produce. The government mandis* will pack up meanwhile and after a few years, these players will start exploiting the farmers. That’s what we fear” — Multan Singh Rana, a farmer in the northern state of Punjab, told BBC Punjabi.
*a mandi is a marketplace where farmers can sell their goods at MSP
There is a lack of trust and transparency as no farmer union claims to have been consulted about the new laws. If the government can make a drastic change at short notice without consultation, what’s to stop them from removing the MSP unilaterally later on? Abhijit Banerjee, a noble laureate in Economics, shares the view that the erosion in trust is more important than the laws themselves.
You may be thinking this happened in September, why didn’t they protest earlier? They did, you just didn’t know about it. Farmers across the country had been protesting in their own states but their voices were not being heard or attracting much media attention. This changed when farmers mainly from the northern states of Panjab and Haryana drove their tractors to Delhi and formed a blockade.
Even pro-government media sources could not ignore thousands of tractors parked blocking the entrance to the capital. International media has been slow to follow but it is now being covered by the BBC, FT, NYT, CNN, and Reuters (see links at bottom). India is seen as a major trading partner and foreign governments seem to prefer not to speak out with the notable exception of Justin Trudeau.
It’s still difficult to get credible sources for what is really happening on the ground. Farmers have complained the local media labeled them terrorists and anti-nationalist. The police have been told to take a hardline against protestors with water cannons, tear gas, and baton charges a regular unnerving feature.
This is an all India issue and many farmers are protesting across the country. Yet many of the protestors who came to Delhi are Sikh which is a minority religion in India but is the majority religion in Panjab. Members of the government have used this against the protestors by claiming it’s a smokescreen for a separatist religious movement. Misinformation is rife with images from a completely unrelated protest in 2016 used to try to turn public opinion.
This characterization is a source of immense sadness for the protestors, many of who are elderly and been proud Indians their entire lives. The major farming states also disproportionally supply soldiers to the Indian military. Some of the farmers fought for the country in the past and have children protecting the country right now. It seems ludicrous to suggest the farmers who feed the police are anti-nationalist. The farmers come from all races and religions. They are more closely unified by their poverty and struggle than anything else.
Other attacks rely on blasting the farmers for being uneducated as if it is their fault the country did not provide them with an adequate education. The issues are complex, there is no denying that. Yet look at the responses from two independent intellectuals who fully comprehend the detail of the new laws.
Firstly from Kaushik Basu who is the former Chief Economist of the World Bank:
“I have told them that the recently passed farm laws are unconstitutional and illegal. These laws will legalise the exploitative money-lending system in the villages.
This will promote profiteering. There is no protection to the farmers as most of them are small and marginal. How will they enter into agreements with traders and understand the terms? The situation will become such that traders will destroy the farmers.
The government should think about these laws as it is their responsibility to hear the farmers, address the legal issues and bring an amendment to the law. The most important amendment should be that the trader should give in writing that the Minimum Support Price (MSP) will be ensured to the farmers.
This law also impacts the ‘democracy at the grassroots’. The farmers till now could do collective bargaining at Agriculture Produce Marketing Committees (APMC). It is true that all APMCs were not working fine. But that does not mean that the government should bring in an even more exploitative law.”
Many economists, either side of the argument agree the previous situation wasn’t sustainable. There was too much incentive for certain crops while simultaneously discouraging investment and providing a lack of social mobility for farmers. This is a complex situation and simply agreeing to the protestors’ terms does not fix the systemic problems.
The current government likes making big and bold changes as a show of strength and decisiveness; the sudden demonetization in 2016, the lockdown in Kashmir since 2019, and The Citizenship (Amendment) Act also in 2019. Earlier this year were general strikes on a similar scale to the current ones. In a democracy, ignoring the views of hundreds of millions of people to appear strong seems out of place.
India doesn’t have a minimum wage or social security system. The MSP while imperfect is the lifeline for farmers. Imagine if at 3 months’ notice a change was made in a western country that led to believing the minimum wage would disappear.
When the decision affects more people than there are in the EU, it deserves political attention. All the stakeholders should be consulted to come up with the best solution for the entire country. There are many issues I haven’t covered such as the fines for crop burning and the lack of a legal definition for MSP.
I don’t have the answers, all I know is a solution that leads to the kind of hysteria happening right now surely cannot be the best option. In the Indian constitution, people have the right to peacefully protest and this should be respected. The government has made some concessions but these have been rejected as “an insult”.
I hope I have inspired you to learn more and have included a long list of resources below from both sides of the story. The more the world shows it cares, the harder it is to ignore. Thank you for reading.
‘“People have a right to demonstrate peacefully, let them.” — Stephane Dujarric, spokesperson for UN Secretary-General
Ways to help:
- Share this article, another article, or tell a friend who doesn’t already know about the situation
- Sign petitions: A, B, C, D, E, F
- Donate money to charities working to give aid to farmers such as SaveIndianFarmers, Khalsa Aid (not accepting donations as of 17/12 but may reopen) & Sahaita.
- Write to your local representative, no matter where you are in the world, to make them aware. Large scale protests have been happening in cities across the world.
- Reach out to people in the media to show people care about this story and want to hear more