Indian farmers’ strike enters its second year

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Indian woman holds sign that reads in part “Farmers are still protesting. We cannot stay quiet. They need our voices now more than ever.” Gayatri Malhotra

Strike has international implications

While the rest of the world came to know about the Farmer Strike in India only in late November 2020, the movement leading to a full-on strike had actually begun in June 2020, in the Indian state of Punjab. This was when the Indian parliament went ahead with the bill that heavily deregulates the Agricultural Produce Market Committees in individual states, effectively forcing farmers to sell directly to private businesses. Further, the bill meant that the government would no longer be offering price regulation, which led farmers to fear that private corporations will drive down prices, leading to the loss of land and assets for smaller farms which represent 85 per cent of all Indian farmers. On a more global scale, this will affect the world supply and prices of rice, wheat, lentils, and a wide collection of spices.

The movement began in June 2020, when farmers in Punjab blocked freight railway lines in protest against the new bill. By November 2020, farmers from all over India drove in over 200,000 trolleys and tractors towards the border of Delhi, the capital of India. These protests have now been on for a year, and it has not been easy in the midst of a global pandemic and the changing seasons. However, as many of the farmers have been quick to emphasize, they are not deterred by fear of the virus or the hardships of sitting in protest in the borders of Delhi right through winter, because if these laws come into effect, their lives and livelihoods are over anyway.

In fact, mindful of the challenges the average person is facing in these times, thousands of farmers and their families currently in Delhi have set up community kitchens, providing free food and essential goods to hospitals, and in bus and railway stations for people having to travel in the midst of a recent COVID surge all across India. The Samyukta Kisan Morcha, the umbrella organization representing over 40 farmer’s unions, believes this act of community solidarity is essential in communicating the peaceful intentions of the farmers, made all the more important in the wake of government propaganda accusing farmers of being anti-national and under the control of separatist movements based out of Punjab.

The government response, unfortunately, has been almost exclusively oppressive and violent. From denying water supply and internet access to the protest sites to charging protesters with sedition charges and the mysterious disappearances of over 100 protesters, there has been an escalating crackdown on protesters, leaders, and media covering their side of the narrative. Amnesty International, and parliaments around the world, have already issued statements on the farmers’ right to peacefully protest for their interests. There has also been overwhelming support from peasant communities around the world, the Indian diaspora community, and celebrities like Rihanna and Greta Thunberg, among others. To many, this movement has become a symbol for the principles of democracy on which the Indian state was founded.

A year since its inception, the farmer protests have also incurred a significant death toll. On January 26, 2021, Navreet Singh, 25, died while participating in a tractor rally.  The police accounts claim his death was due to head injuries sustained in a tractor accident, however the family of the deceased allege that he died from gunshot wounds from bullets fired by the Delhi police. Journalists who reported on the family’s claims have been charged with sedition, and one freelance journalist was arrested by Delhi police. He has since then been granted bail.

As of this date, there were five suicides between December 2020 and January 2021 in protest of the new farmers’ bill. At least one of those who died by suicide was facing overwhelming debt as a consequence of the new policy. More than 400 farmers have died at the protest sites in and around Delhi, victim to the hardships of the weather and living conditions in the makeshift tents. No small number have died in road accidents while travelling from their villages to Delhi.

Throughout April and May 2021, India had been in the news worldwide due to setting the world record for new COVID-19 cases and deaths. While a tragedy in itself, these events seem to have overshadowed the farmer protests, to the extent that several individuals, when reached out to for a comment, actually admitted that they have not kept up with the news. If past protests are anything to go by, this benefits the government, who essentially need only wait for the world media and the global community to forget about the plight of the farmers in India and move on to the next sensational news. As we have mentioned before, this will have long term implications for the supply and demand of agricultural products all over the world, including Canada.

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