Vibrant Democracies & Protest of Indian Farmers

An Indian farmer whose name is Jaswinder Singh Gul lives in a house built by his grandfather years ago. Jaswinder Singh is one of the millions of Indian farmers today who are worried about their future as the economic catastrophe is knocking on their door. Jaswinder Singh Gul, a mechanical engineer by profession and what he had earned in twenty years, had invested in his family’s forty-acre farm in the northwestern Indian state of Punjab. His village is located a few miles from the Pakistan border. His land is a bit sandy, but he has been able to harvest a good crop of rice for the last 15 years with the help of generous government subsidies to farmers. There were strange dreams in his eyes that like him, his son and daughter, who is the sixth generation of this family, would also work hard in these fields and earn their livelihood. Then, suddenly, his farm underwent a dramatic change. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi government introduced new laws for farmers last year. Due to these new laws, the role of the government in the affairs of the Department of Agriculture has been severely limited. The main purpose of these laws was to implement a new system in a country where a plentiful crop of paddy was grown but its citizens were still forced to eat substandard and malnourished food. Why have Indian farmers been protesting against the agricultural laws imposed by the government for the last several months? Because it can darken the future of Jaswinder Singh, and millions of farmers like him. India’s agricultural commodity markets are controlled by the government, but once these laws are enacted, the government’s role in running these markets will be greatly diminished. Farmers fear that the reduced role of the government will be a major blow to the prices of the crops they produce, as the government gives them a hefty subsidy on the prices of their crops, making agriculture a lucrative occupation for them. And they are able to work in the fields. If the government withdraws from subsidizing agricultural crops, the livelihoods of millions of farmers who depend on these lands and fields will be jeopardized. They are convinced that the government is planning to hold them as a hostage in the hands of the corporate sector. Fifty-six-year-old farmer Jaswinder Singh Gul does not know what could happen to him in the coming days. He said that what else can a person like me do in this age group? The fire that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has set across the country through the implementation of these new laws is proving to be the biggest and most difficult challenge of his seven-year rule. Thousands of farmers have been protesting outside the Indian capital, New Delhi, for the past four months. They are from Punjab and other states, India’s largest agricultural producers. Many Indian farmers have also gone to the Indian Supreme Court against the laws, which have suspended them for the time being and ordered the government to take steps to resolve the issue. Narendra Modi’s government is using all possible means to sabotage the farmers’ protest. It has removed the facility to cut off protesters access to the internet, in a bid to stifle online criticism of the government. Now the issue is that the farmers are continuing their protest and the government is standing firm. What is the real cause of this controversy? That is the subsidy received by the government on agricultural commodities. The government, economists and farmers understand and agree that the support price of crops will end once these laws come into force. Narendra Modi’s government acted hastily to end the subsidy given to the farmers and immediately used its political party and power to get these laws passed by the parliament. Farmers say that after the implementation of these laws, the agriculture of the entire country will be destroyed, although everyone knows that the majority of the people living in Indian villages are engaged in agriculture. Devendra Sharma, an independent economist living in Chandigarh, the provincial capital of Punjab, says, “India is in dire need of change in the agricultural sector, but it cannot be done.” At present, the total population of India is 1.3 billion, of which 60% is dependent on agriculture for its livelihood, while the agricultural sector accounts for 11% of the total economic activity. For the majority of rural people, there is no other option for employment other than agriculture. Official figures show that the manufacturing sector has shrunk slightly since 2012, while the workforce has increased. “Our hard-working non-agricultural workforce is growing rapidly, and everyone is looking for a job,” says Jyan Jose Thomas, a professor and economist at the Indian Institute of Technology in New Delhi. Officials at India’s agriculture ministry were also asked to comment but apologized for any inconvenience. There is no doubt that the current system of agriculture is obsolete. It was introduced in the 1960s to avoid famine, encouraging farmers to grow rice and wheat. The government had set a minimum selling price for them so that farmers could make a profit by selling whatever they produce. “Work hard and get as much produce as you can,” Jaswinder Singh Gul said, citing government instructions. The government had given full guarantee to the farmers that it would pick up every single grain they produced. In government-sponsored markets, which are called “Mandi” are used to set crop prices. Here the farmer and the buyer meet. Grain is dried, stored and sold here. The proceeds from the fees are spent on rural infrastructure projects, farmer’s pensions and other programs that provide free advice to farmers on issues such as seeds and fertilizers. Thanks to this system, which uses the best technology, the use of machinery and stiff competition has greatly increased the yield per acre. Basmati rice is more widely grown in India than traditional rice and wheat. When subsidized rice is sold on the world market, it creates tension in the member countries of the World Trade Organization. On the other hand, according to the Global Hunger Index, 19 million people in India are forced to eat less nutritious food. In India, surplus grain is produced in districts from where it is very difficult to transfer it to other provinces. The government food ration system is not capable of delivering grain to the desired states before it decomposes. The government is not in a position to buy all the food produced by farmers. This imbalance does not end there. Price support from the government saves large farmers from losses, but small farmers are destroyed or are often forced to commit suicide. The highest suicide rate is in Indian Punjab. Much of the area is dry and farmers grow traditional rice, which requires a lot of water. The water level in the area is falling due to over cultivation of wheat and rice. Jaswinder Singh Gul once tried to grow basmati rice. Basmati rice is more fragrant and nutritious. It requires less water, grows faster and has a better price in the world market, but government price laws do not apply to basmati rice. “When I wanted to sell basmati rice, the trader refused to pay the full price,” said Jaswinder Singh Gul. According to Narendra Modi’s plan, the role of corporate buyers in Indian agriculture will increase significantly as he believes that if Indian farmers have the option to sell their produce outside the market to a private buyer, it will increase the farmer’s income. There will be and exports will also increase. The protests intensified because the majority of farmers feared that the new laws would eliminate subsidies and disrupt markets. Under the new rules, farmers will not be able to take their disputes with buyers to court. Farmers cite an attempt made 15 years ago today to deregulate agriculture in the state of Bihar. Proponents of the laws say they will increase production, but economists and farmers believe the laws will fail in Punjab as well. Many farmers in Bihar sell their produce in Punjab markets for a good price. Affected farm owners are now forced to work in Punjab’s fields. The haste with which the agricultural laws have been changed shows how much Narendra Modi likes such dramatic changes which have provoked outrage all over India. Punjab farmers and local authorities want a gradual change in price subsidies. Farmers in Bhagwanpura said in an interview that they were afraid that their lands would be taken away from them and they would not get any employment. “I am not afraid of hard work, I can do anything, but I am afraid that I will not get a job,” said Rajwinder Kaur, a widow farmer. “Our land was sold because I had to buy a lot of medicine for my sick husband,” she said. We now have only half an acre of land left, while every farmer in India has an average of two and a half acres. Now my two children and I barely have anything to eat. She added that the bulk of our income is spent on repaying the seed and fertilizer loan. I repay this loan every six months, but the actual amount is never reduced due to interest. If this land of mine is sold, I will be forced to beg. All the farmers involved in the protest have left their family members to work in the fields behind them. The cost of the protest is being borne by all together. Jaswinder Gul has donated his tractor trolley and money has also been donated. He thinks saving his land is his family’s problem. This farm was built by his grandfather who migrated from Pakistan after the partition of India. Farmers were prosperous with crop subsidies and now own a good deal of land. Jaswinder Singh Gul took charge of his farm in 2005 after which he spent all his saved money on improving his land’s irrigation system. He has bought a machine to pick crops from the fields and a pair of tractors. As Jaswinder Singh was talking, a call was coming from a loudspeaker at a Sikh gurdwara near his fields. “This is what we are taught every day from the gurdwara,” Jaswinder said. “Work hard, worship your God and share every benefit with the whole of humanity.” Can’t stop Touching his heart, he said, “My heart knows what is happening here.” I must keep all this in my heart.

 

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