Tens of thousands of Indian farmers on the outskirts of the Indian capital New Delhi have been protesting for more than a week against controversial laws.
The protestors have launched a “Bharat Bandh” (nationwide general strike) to demand the scrapping of three farm laws they say will hurt their livelihood and benefit only corporations.
Thousands of farmers, mostly from the northern states of Haryana and Punjab, have blocked three key highways linking Delhi to neighbouring states and have refused to move until the government accepts their demands.
Farmer associations and trade unions have joined the agitation and opposition parties declared their support for one of the biggest protests in decades. Roads and rail lines are blocked across the country and the Modi government has seen its biggest protest in years.
Farmer leaders said the laws are pro-corporate and will gradually lead to the government withdrawing the current guaranteed price mechanism under which it buys agricultural produce from farmers. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has defended the three laws passed in September, saying they will boost private investment in the agriculture sector and boost farm income.
Why are Indian farmers protesting?
The farmers are protesting against three new bills the government says will open up the tightly-controlled agriculture sector to free-market forces. The bills, passed by India’s parliament this week, make it easier for farmers to sell their produce directly to private buyers and enter into a contract with private companies.
The government hopes private sector investments will stimulate growth. The laws will also allow traders to stock food items. Hoarding food items for the purpose of making a profit is a criminal offence in India.
Under the Agriculture Produce Marketing Committee (APMC) Act passed in 1964, it was compulsory for farmers to sell their produce at government-regulated markets, or mandis, where middlemen helped growers sell harvests to either the state-run company or private players.
The government said the monopoly APMC markets will end but they will not be shut down and the Minimum Support Price (MSP) will not be scrapped. The new laws give farmers additional choices to sell their produce anywhere in the country, in contrast to the earlier situation where inter-state trade was not allowed. State governments, which earn an income through transactions at markets, stand to lose out on tax revenues as trade moves out of state or into the domain of private deals.
Modi has been under pressure to bring private investments to an agriculture sector that has stagnated badly. For decades, farmers have found themselves into debt by crop failures and the inability to secure competitive prices for their produce and many have resorted to taking their own lives. The agriculture sector contributes nearly 15 percent of India’s $2.9 trillion economy but employs about half of the country’s 1.3 billion people.
Revocation of laws
Indian farmer unions have rejected the latest proposal by the government to amend controversial new farm laws and have warned they will intensify their protests if their demands are not met. The government sent a written proposal to farmer unions, laying out a series of amendments including written assurances for Minimum Support Price (MSP), one of the key demands of protesting farmers.
The other assurances from the government included the scrapping of the Electricity Amendment Bill opposed by farmers and allowing them to go to court in case of disputes. The farmers rejected the proposals outright and called them an “insult” and have demanded a complete revocation of the three laws rather than any amendments.
Farmers say the three farm laws which deregulate crop pricing, will hurt their livelihoods and will only benefit large corporations. The farmer unions have called for countrywide protests on Monday and have threatened to block the highways on Saturday leading to New Delhi.
Six rounds of talks have so far been held between the government and the farmer unions but the deadlock continues. A group of farmers’ representatives met India’s Home Minister Amit Shah but that meeting also failed as the farmers stuck to their demands. A meeting between farmer leaders and government ministers in New Delhi was cancelled by farmers.
The talks between the government and representatives of the farmers have failed to break the deadlock as farmers refuse to accept anything less than the scrapping of the three laws and assurances of a guaranteed minimum support price for their produce.
Political reaction in India and abroad
The governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) accused opposition parties of opportunism over the protests. The main opposition Congress party has called the bills “black law” and “pro-corporate”. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi accused Modi of “making farmers slaves of the capitalist”. The Aam Aadmi Party claimed the Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s had been placed “under house arrest” to prevent him from joining the protests.
Several politicians from the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and the United States have expressed their solidarity with Indian farmers over the past few days and criticised the Modi government’s handling of the biggest protests in years.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau became the first head of a country to comment on the issue that has set the Modi government on the back foot. India summoned the Canadian High Commissioner to formally register a complaint against comments by Prime Minister Trudeau on the farmers’ protests.
While speaking at an event to mark the 551st birth anniversary of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, the Canadian leader said earlier this week that the news coming out of India was “concerning” and his country would “always be there to defend the rights of peaceful protest”.
New Delhi had denounced Trudeau’s comments, terming them as “unwarranted”. Indians politicians have taken strong exception to comments by foreign leaders or officials on issues facing the country.
Ram Madhav, a leader of the governing BJP, said that the Canadian prime minister’s comments were “tantamount to interference in India’s sovereign matters”. The Indian foreign minister had skipped an event on the coronavirus hosted by Canada.
The Khalistan movement
Indian politicians have accused Canadian leaders, including current Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, of having links with Khalistani groups. Now questions have been raised whether farmers’ protest will strengthen the Khalistan movement.
The groups have been behind an armed rebellion in the state of Punjab during the 1980s for a separate Sikh state. The Khalistani issue cast a shadow over Trudeau’s 2018 visit to India during which the Canadian prime minister was snubbed by the Modi government.
Canada is home to a large number of Indian immigrants, mostly from India’s Punjab state where most of the current protesters have farms. Trudeau has been hailed for his pro-immigrant policy and has inducted four Indian-origin ministers into his cabinet, three of whom are from the Sikh minority community.
Modi has defended the controversial laws and accused opposition parties of misleading the farmers, who have dubbed the bills “anti-farmer”. His government said the new laws will bring much-needed private investment to the crisis-hit agricultural sector.
India’s economy has plunged into its worst recession in nearly 30 years due to the effect of the coronavirus pandemic, with Gross Domestic Product (GDP) contracting by 7.5 percent and recovery expected to take time. Modi is facing even greater challenges as his anti-farmer laws take the nation down even further.