On 26 January, India’s Republic Day, thousands of farmers and agricultural workers will drive their tractors and walk into the heart of the capital, New Delhi, to bring their fight to the doors of the government. For two months, these farmers and agricultural workers have been part of a nation-wide revolt against a government policy that seeks to deliver all the gains of their labour to the large corporate houses, whose profits have ballooned during this pandemic. Despite the cold weather and the pandemic, the farmers and agricultural workers have created a socialistic culture in their encampments with community kitchens and laundries, distribution points providing free essentials, recreational activities and places for discussion. They are quite clear that they want three laws repealed and are demanding their right to a greater share of their harvest be established.
The three laws that the Indian government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi pushed would – the farmers say – eviscerate their bargaining power over the national and global commodity (food) chain. Without any state protection – including price supports and a public distribution system for food – the farmers and agricultural workers would be forced to pay prices set by the large corporate houses. The government’s laws ask farmers and agricultural workers to surrender to the power of the corporations, a maximalist position being imposed on them that makes negotiation impossible.
The Indian Supreme Court entered the impasse with an order to create a committee to evaluate the situation, while the Chief Justice made a remark that the farmers – particularly women and the elderly – should vacate their protest sites. The farmers and agricultural workers rightly felt outraged by the disrespectful remarks of the Chief Justice (Satarupa Chakraborty, a researcher at Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, has refuted those statements). Women are equally farmers and agricultural workers, and drivers of the farmer’s revolt – a fact demonstrated by the mass attendance on Mahila Kisan Diwas (Women Farmers’ Day) celebrated on 18 January at all the encampment sites. ‘When women farmers will speak’, their banner declared, ‘the borders of Delhi will shake’. ‘Women are going to be the worst sufferers of the new farm laws. Though very much involved in agriculture, they do not have decision-making powers. The changes in the Essential Commodities Act [for example] will create a lack of food and women will face the brunt of it’, says Mariam Dhawale, general secretary of the All-India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA).
Furthermore, the committee created by the courts is made up of well-known people who have taken a public position in support of the government’s laws. None of the leaders of the farmers and the agricultural workers organisations are on this committee, which means – once more – that laws and orders will be made for them rather than by them or with their consultation.
This recent attack on Indian farmers and agricultural workers is part of a longer series of assaults. On 10 January, P. Sainath, the founder of the People’s Archive for Rural India and a senior fellow at Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, addressed a meeting in Chandigarh at which he talked about the broader context. ‘It is not only about the laws, which they have to take back’, Sainath said. ‘This struggle is not only about Punjab and Haryana; it has gone beyond this. What do we want, community or corporate-led agriculture? The farmers are directly confronting the corporate model. India now is a corporate-led state, with socio-religious fundamentalism and market fundamentalism ruling our lives. This protest is in defense of democracy; we are reclaiming the republic’.
The Indian farmers’ revolt is certainly their fight to repeal the three anti-farmer bills. But their fight is for much more than that. It is a fight for the agricultural workers – one fourth of them around the world are migrants – who have very little security of tenure and earn extraordinarily low incomes. It is also the fight for humanity, a fight for a rational food policy that would benefit both the farmers and those who must eat.
The protest sites that ring Delhi – and from where the farmer and agricultural workers will move into the city on 26 January – are filled with joy and culture. Poets have come to recite their verse to the people. One of Punjab’s most famous poets, Surjit Patar, wrote a lyrical poem before he decided to return an award (Padma Shri) he received from the government. His poem rings across the landscape, capturing the width of the protest and its music:
This is a festival.
As far as I can see
Beyond what I can see
There are people gathered.
This is a festival,
Of people and land, trees, water, and air.
It includes our laughter, our tears, our songs.
And you don’t know who are part of it.
The poem describes the interaction of a young girl with farmers. The girl says that when the farmers leave there will be no joy in the world. ‘What shall we do then?’, she asks, and as the farmers weep, she says, ‘my wish is that you win this fight for truth’.