Words by Aiala Suso
Farmers in India have been protesting since August 2020 against three new government laws which deregulate agricultural activities. Farmers fear that these new regulations around sale, prices and storage will drive them out of business. Their confrontations with the police have been increasingly violent in recent weeks. So far, one protester has died, many have been injured, hundreds have been detained and some journalists have been charged for covering the protest.
Under the new legislation, farmers can sell their products directly to big businesses, bypassing wholesale markets. The Indian government said that these changes will protect their rights and benefit them financially. That is because they believe that opening up agricultural trade will attract investment and technology, and will create alternative markets for farmer families to benefit from.
During the annual meeting of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) last December, Indian Prime Minister said: “The aim of all government reforms is to make farmers prosperous. The new legislation, which was approved in the previous Parliament session, gives farmers an additional option outside of the designated mandis to buy or sell their crops.”
Farmers, on the other hand, believe that it will mean the end of the long-established guaranteed price on crops, and that would make them vulnerable to exploitation from big corporations. The government has offered to suspend the laws for 18 months, but farmers will not stop protesting until these laws are officially repealed.
The guaranteed price on crops is called Minimum Support Price (MSP) and it has provided insurance to agricultural producers since it was first established in the late 1960s. Since then, the crops are procured by government agencies at a promised price to farmers that cannot be altered. For decades, this ‘safety net’ has protected farmers from financial fluctuations, either derived from market price falls or natural disasters.
During the protests, tens of thousands of farmers have blockaded highways across the country and have set up camps in busy streets around the capital, New Delhi.
On 26 January, during a public holiday that commemorates when India adopted its first Constitution in 1950, a procession of tractors turned violent when protestors deviated from the pre-agreed routes, tearing down barricades and clashing with the police. Protestors also stormed in the emblematic New Delhi’s Red Fort that day. These violent clashes resulted in the death of one protester, many people injured and 200 protesters detained.
The government has responded to the increasing violence by setting up iron spikes and steel barricades to prevent protesters from getting to the capital. The authorities have also cut internet access in different locations where protestors gather in big numbers, especially in New Delhi and surrounding areas.
Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, has also requested Twitter to delete over 1.000 accounts claiming that they spread misinformation about the farmer-led national protest. Whereas Twitter has already deleted some accounts, it has refused to accommodate Modi’s request, considering it inconsistent with the Indian law. The government has responded by threatening the social media giant with jail terms for its executives.
Other social and mainstream media have also received similar threats, and nine journalists have been charged so far for covering the protests. Some critics believe the government is using the protests to crackdown on freedom of speech.
Some international human rights NGOs have asked the Indian government to retract itself from some of its actions. For instance, Human Rights Watch has asked the government to drop the “baseless” cases against journalists in order to protect media freedom. Amnesty International has demanded that the government stops “crushing farmers’ protests and demonizing dissenters”.
A counter-protest movement has also arisen after public figures like pop singer Rihanna, and Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, showed their support to Indian farmers through social media posts. Government supporters in Delhi have burnt pictures of both denouncing their interference is neither appropriate nor welcomed.
Picture Credit: Tasnim News Agency