Week 31: Farmer Protests in India

On August 9, 2020, one of the largest protests in world history began in New Delhi, India. Tens of thousands of farmers took the streets, forming blockades to five major highways leading into the capital and setting up camps outside the city limits to protest new agricultural regulations. To show their solidarity, over 250 million Indian citizens participated in a 24-hour strike.

Over half of India’s population works in agriculture, and due to a combination of factors including colonial-induced famines, oppressive government policy, and climate change, they have been struggling for decades.

Unlike in the United States, where huge industrial farms are the norm, India’s farming infrastructure is made up of many small, individually owned plots, so that each farmer works a few acres of land. While this system has some advantages, the competitive nature of the marketplace gives farmers less control over their prices.

In an industry where prices are already volatile, farmers faced additional pressure this year because of the pandemic and a recent locust plague (crop-destroying insects). All of these difficulties were exacerbated with the passing of new legislation this past summer that removed price protections for farmers. 

Previously, the government guaranteed farmers a minimum price for essential crops, ensuring some profits even with fluctuating prices. Although government subsidies have been vital in providing financial stability for farmers, Prime Minister Modi now wants to remove them in order to reduce government involvement in agriculture and create a freer market.

In this new system, private investment is encouraged and farmers can trade directly with customers, which has the potential to be more profitable than the current system. However, farmers, who continue to struggle despite government support are afraid that large corporations will drive down prices and strip them of income stability previously provided by the government.

Farmers, who make up 58% of India’s 1.3 billion residents, are a powerful political force in the world’s most populous democracy, and their support is important if Modi wants to get re-elected.

For this reason, the government has been negotiating with farmer unions since the protests started trying to reach a compromise. Currently, negotiations are at a standstill as the government refuses the demands of farmers to repeal the new laws. While these discussions have been taking place, the government has also taken direct action to suppress the protests.

Modi, who came into power as Prime Minister in 2014, has had a disturbing trend of manipulating the press and influencing the courts. In response to the protests, the government has intermittently blocked access to water, electricity, and internet for people in protest camps. They have also restricted journalists from accessing protesters, thereby obstructing media coverage. In states with leaders that support Modi, individuals could be at risk to face repercussions for social media posts or protesting.

For example, in Uttarakhand, the police chief made a statement saying that social media posts with anti-nationalist sentiments could lead those applying for passports to be denied. 

Like we saw in the 2020 US election, Twitter has been navigating these political conflicts with difficulty. The Indian government has been strongly requesting that Twitter suspend the accounts of individuals and organizations posting anti-government content. While at first they refused, an order by the government that threatened local employees of Twitter to possible imprisonment forced the company to relent and temporarily ban over 500 accounts. However, they refused to ban any accounts that were run by organizations, activists, or politicians as orders to block those accounts were not legal under Indian law. 

Along with increasing control over the free press and monitoring social media, there have also been several violent outbreaks between police and protesters.

As the caravan of protesters approached Delhi last year, police forces used tear gas and violent crackdowns to keep them out of the city. Although the encampments remain largely peaceful, tensions continue to run high. 

The protesters have come ready for a long fight, and they are set on reversing the government policy that is putting them further at risk. Although the realities of climate change are going to make farming difficult no matter what the government does, it is still their responsibility, both in India and elsewhere, to provide as much stability and support for farmers as possible.