The fight over agriculture in India, and how Punjabis in Canada are supporting farmers

Feb 1, 2021

The fight over agriculture in India, and how Punjabis in Canada are supporting farmers

Farmers are demanding repeal of new laws gutting agricultural protections, and Punjabis in Canada are supporting their protest

Sukhwinder Kaur holds a bright yellow flag as she makes her way through a massive crowd. She was at the Singhu border which connects India’s capital New Delhi to the state of Haryana. This area has been blocked by thousands of protesting farmers for over two months. Sukhwinder is among the countless farmers from the north Indian states of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh who have converged at three locations - Singhu, Tikri and Ghazipur - at the borders of Delhi.

In September 2020, the Indian government passed three laws that farmers believe will lead to privatisation of agriculture and remove measures safeguarding them. The farmers’ protest first began the next month, October 2020, in Punjab and soon spread to other parts of the country.

Sukhwinder owns less than an acre of land. She is from Aiman Jattan, a village in Hoshiarpur district in Punjab. Nine years ago, her husband borrowed money from a bank for his farm. After a bad harvest, he found himself unable to repay the debt. He grew stressed and suffered a heart attack. His family was unable to afford his treatment and he died. Today Sukhwinder earns a living by farming her land and selling milk from her two buffaloes.

Sukhwinder’s story echoes far and wide across the rural landscape of India. 

As per the 2011 Census of India, 54.6% of the country’s population is engaged in agriculture. There are around 263 million agricultural workers, including cultivators and agricultural labourers. According to the Agriculture Census 2015-16, 86% of farmers are small and marginal landholders. 

Growing agrarian distress has pushed farmers deeper into debt and poverty. 10,281 farmers committed suicide in India in 2019, according to the National Crime Records Bureau. Punjab saw a 37.5% increase in the number of suicides from 2018 to 2019.

“We work very hard,” says Sukwinder. “Our land is our life and it belongs to our ancestors, not the government. We voted for the government to protect us, not to take away our daily bread. Now with these new laws, we will lose our lands. So, we are here to ask for our rights. This is our movement.”

Major Singh, general secretary of the farmers' union Bharatiya Kisan Union (Lakhowal) recalls how the movement began at the grassroots. “When the farm bills were passed in the Parliament in September," he says, "farmers unions wrote to the district administration demanding the laws be repealed. There was no response. In October, we began to protest at toll booths, shopping malls and outside the District Commissioner’s office. Yet there was no response from the government.” On November 26th, farmers and traders called for a strike, which was met with widespread support across the country. After that, they gave a “Dilli Chalo” call (in English, “Let’s go to Delhi”).

“We reached the Singhu border on the morning of 27 November. There were farmers in several tractor trolleys from all districts of Punjab. The Haryana police barricaded the border but we drove ahead. They used water cannons and tear gas to stop us and many elderly were injured. But we kept parking our vehicles. After two months, there are ten times more tractors here,” says Singh.

All the protest sites are teeming with people. The precautions of the pandemic - masks and social distancing - are not the norm here. Many farmers this reporter spoke to on January 25th said they are not afraid of getting coronavirus. India saw the world’s biggest and perhaps strictest lockdown, as case numbers rose steeply and more recently have declined. A recent report by Oxfam stated that the pandemic has increased existing inequalities in India. According to official data, 122 million people lost their jobs last year and over 150,000 people have died from Covid-19.

Fighting the new farming laws

The three laws passed by the government last year aim to change the way farmers produce and sell their crops in the market. 

The current system ensures that the government procures crops from farmers through Agricultural Produce Market Committees (APMCs), popularly known as mandi (meaning “marketplace” in Hindi). The government also pays a minimum selling price (MSP) to farmers for key crops such as wheat and rice.

The first new law allows private players to operate parallel marketplaces outside the mandi to buy crops from farmers without paying any taxes, and with no guarantee of fair prices. The second law regarding contract farming allows private entities to enter into contracts with farmers without any provisions to resolve disputes between them in a court of law. The third law lets private players stockpile food items which are listed as essential commodities and has caused concerns about hoarding and inflation impacting food security, especially for the poor.

The law that overhauls the current procurement system also seeks to remove middlemen or agriculture commission agents, known as arthiyas in Punjab and Haryana, who operate in the mandi. They often collect produce from farms, grade it and sell it to big buyers. 

Harjinder Singh owns a five-acre farm in Mohan Majra, a village in Fatehgarh Sahib district in Punjab. He was at the Singhu protest site with a group of fifteen other men from his village. “The arthiyas are the farmer’s spine. If a farmer wants a loan for a wedding in the family, medical treatment, seeds, fertilisers etc, he goes to the arthiya,” he says.

The government has also introduced a law to end subsidised electricity for farmers and made the burning of crop residue a punishable offence, which farmers want reversed. 

Sukhwinder has not been able to repay the bank a sum of 400,000 rupees ($7,044), the debt her husband left behind. “I cannot pay interest on my loan," she says. “How does the government expect me to pay huge electricity bills?” 

Punjab has a high number of landless agricultural workers largely from the Mazhabi Sikh community. They are Dalits, oppressed castes who faced untouchability under the age-old caste system in India. Gurwinder Singh, 23, a Mazhabi Sikh and a member of Punjab Radical Students Union says, “The new laws will lead to destruction of land, water and cause desertification ruining villages. We are asking people to look beyond caste and unite together to protest against the new laws.”

It is a common sight at the protest to see farmers raising slogans and holding placards against Ambani and Adani, two of the richest businessmen in India who own Reliance Industries and Adani Group, respectively. 

“Farmers believe that the whole intention of these laws is anti-farmer and pro-corporate,” says Ranjini Basu, an agricultural policy researcher at the India office of Focus on the Global South, an activist think tank that works with peoples’ movements. “Under the garb of efficiency and greater freedom, the government is washing its hands off making public investment in agriculture and giving an open call to private players to invest. Indian agriculture can only survive if it has public investment and a regulated framework to support small and marginal farmers.”

Canadian connections

There is a sizable Punjabi community in Canada and many have families back in India who farm. According to Statistics Canada, the total number of Punjabi-speaking citizens in Canada rose from 367,505 to 501,680 between 2006 to 2016. There are 18 Sikh MPs in the Canadian parliament. 

Punjabi Canadians are extending solidarity to the farmers movement through demonstrations and sending funds. At Singhu, there are three stalls run by United Sikhs (India), an international humanitarian organisation with presence in 12 countries. They distribute drinking water and essentials such as medicine apart from providing counseling and physiotherapy sessions to ailing farmers.

The Canada chapter of United Sikhs, based in Toronto, has been reaching out to the local community to help farmers. “We tell people to speak to their relatives in India and ask them to donate or volunteer on their behalf instead of giving money to us. Many Canadians went to protests in Delhi recently and gave blankets, tents and even washing machines,” says Sukhwinder Singh, director, United Sikhs (Canada).

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has in general been supportive of Modi, spoke publicly in support of Indian farmers on Dec 1, 2020. This earned a strong objection from India which termed comments made by Canadian ministers “ill-informed” and “unwarranted.” Indian PM Narendra Modi is known for his frequent meetings with world leaders, including Trudeau. However, some hold the opinion that he shunned Trudeau when the latter paid a visit to India in 2018. 

Jagmeet Singh, leader of Canada’s New Democratic Party (NDP) has also extended solidarity to Indian farmers. He recently posted a video on Twitter calling on world leaders including Trudeau “to denounce the Indian government’s violent response to these peaceful protestors.” Liberal Party MPs such as Sukh Dhaliwal, Randeep S. Sarai and Navdeep Bains and Conservatives such as Tim S.Uppal and Jasraj Singh Hallan have also condemned violence against protestors through Twitter.

Members of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have claimed that the farmers' protests are supported by Khalistanis, a group who wants a separate nation for Sikhs, a religious minority in India. BJP minister Piyush Goyal also said "Leftist and Maoist" elements had infiltrated the movement. Last month, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) questioned people from Punjab about foreign funds received from the US-based Sikhs for Justice, a pro-Khalistan organisation, also active in Canada. The people being investigated say it was done to silence them.

What’s next?

There have been 11 rounds of talks between farmers and the government which have all been inconclusive. The Supreme Court of India appointed a committee to look into farmers’ concerns and ordered a stay on the implementation of the laws. But farmers are dissatisfied and have stuck to their demand of repeal.

On January 26th, India’s Republic Day, farmers decided to organise a tractor parade. They were granted permission by the police to follow a fixed route on the periphery of the city. But one section of protesting farmers deviated from this route and reached the historical Red Fort. Violence erupted between police and farmer. A farmer died, around 200 protestors were detained, 394 police personnel were injured and 25 police cases were filed against farm leaders. 

A protestor hoisted a Nishan Sahib flag, which is sacred to the Sikhs, at the Red Fort. Many members of the BJP claimed he had replaced the Indian flag and hoisted a Khalistani flag, spreading misinformation. Telecom services were suspended at the protest sites. The farmers unions distanced themselves from the violence and appealed to all farmers to maintain peace.

In the initial days after the Republic Day violence, the farmers’ movement acquired a subdued tone. After an emotional speech by farm leader Rakesh Tikait, a huge number of farmers arrived at Ghazipur. At Singhu, a small group of people identifying themselves as ‘locals’ clashed with farmers, asking them to leave. The farmers accused the police of inaction and claimed these were ‘paid’ goons.

Over the last few days, the number of protestors has again swelled. From the very beginning, farmers have insisted they are in for the long haul. 

Before Sukhwinder disappeared into the crowd at Singhu, she says, “We will die here but we won't go back.”

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