indian farmer protest
Life at Indian farmers protest camps on Delhi's outskirts
02:43 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Mandeep Rai Dhillon is the author of “The Values Compass: What 101 Countries Teach Us About Purpose, Life and Leadership.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author. View more opinion at CNN.

CNN  — 

We are now well into the ninth straight month of strikes and protests by the farmers of India. My family are farmers, and have been for many generations, and my mother called me in distress last summer about the agricultural bills that were being passed in India.

Mandeep Rai Dhillon

She wasn’t the only one who was hurting: These new laws would not only affect farmers, but the price of food and India’s massive informal economy, which engages many millions.

Protests began on a small scale in June in Punjab when the government first rolled out its new agricultural policies. Demonstrations have grown exponentially since they were passed as laws on September 20. In late November, protests moved into the connective streets and main entry points around New Delhi; by early December, 250 million people had participated in a nationwide strike, in a show of solidarity. The laws are now on hold, amid the groundswell of opposition.

At issue are changes to the rules around the pricing, storage and selling of farm produce. Taken together, they would effectively deregulate India’s crop sales and, activists have said, endanger farmers’ livelihoods.

Currently, Indian farmers sell their produce at government-controlled markets for assured prices. This system affords stability, allowing farmers to make decisions and investments for the following crop cycle.

The new laws may seem to give farmers choice and freedom, in that they would have farmers sell directly, but the likelihood is that they would slowly become vulnerable to a few powerful corporations, cutting out the governmental middleman, in this case, the state’s Agricultural Produce Market Committee. That’s how Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party, the BJP, has promoted the changes.

But farmers worry that over time, large corporations will take over much of the market. Without the protection of minimum prices, the fear is that big businesses could take control over crop pricing and storage, undercutting everyone else. Private players might offer better prices at first, but as the government begins to pack up subsidized mandis (markets), prices could fall, especially in years when global markets are glutted with supply.

In an open letter arguing against the new laws, 10 economists cited a risk of “collusion and market manipulation … in the unregulated market space,” if corporations are to become farmers’ direct customers. Economists Kaushik Basu and Nirvikar Singh, professors at Cornell and the University of California, Santa Cruz, respectively, write that “there is no indication of risk mitigation policies,” to accompany the laws, that might protect farmers from market forces or the weight of large corporate buyers.

In India’s northern breadbasket, many livelihoods are already in danger, and as International Monetary Fund Chief Economist Gita Gopinath said recently, incomes could indeed rise – but when such major policy changes are instituted, it’s important to make sure people have a safety net. India’s economic inequality has been widely noted, and with this policy, the divide between the haves and have-nots could grow even further.

Without anything to prevent their sale prices from collapsing, Indian farmers fear losing their land, their income and their livelihoods.

How did we get to this point of protest and misunderstanding?

Firstly, the farmers say these laws were passed without their input – which is unfortunate, in the proudly democratic country that India is. As Barkha Dutt argued in The Washington Post, many Indians (outside the country’s hundreds of millions of farmers) might be uncertain about the laws as a matter of policy, but “what the protests are really challenging is the manner of decision making in India,” as Parliament “rushed through” the laws in the face of opposition, without referring them to a panel for consideration. As Dutt puts it, this fits a Modi-government “pattern of enacting abrupt, disruptive measures that shake up the status quo.”

Secondly, the laws are cumbersome to read and understand; they’ve been presented in a way that looks as though the changes would be beneficial, encouraging free-market economics, and potentially spurring innovation within the industry – but the long term effects are perceived, by farmers, to be detrimental to them and to most likely benefit large corporate players. (Some economists do say that India’s agricultural sector needs some kind of liberalizing reform, the entry of corporate buyers could make it more competitive globally, and the presence of corporate buyers might not crowd out government crop purchases entirely – in other words, that changes are necessary, and farmers’ worst fears will not come to pass.)

Thirdly, this is being presented as a marginal issue, when it isn’t one. To outsiders especially, it may appear mostly to affect a narrow band of India’s society – to concern most significantly the northern state of Punjab, for instance, which has seen its farmers flock to New Delhi area protests; or to concern Sikhs in India’s north, who make up 2% of the country’s population.

The last point, especially, could not be further from the truth, as the policy change impacts the entire farming population across India.

India’s population is 1.3 billion, and more than half of India’s working population (58%) are in the agricultural sector, according to India’s most recent census in 2011; 263.1 million workers rely solely on farming to feed themselves. Small producers and vendors stand to be affected. That a 24-hour solidarity strike in November drew 250 million people around the subcontinent is indicative of what farming means to India and the chord these protests have stuck. Indeed, six states have passed resolutions signaling they will not implement the new laws.

The scale of the protests has been breathtaking. On one massive day of protest in January, an organizer told CNN, 200,000 tractors headed to the streets in and around Delhi. Throughout the winter, tens of thousands of people have camped in the streets of New Delhi. At Slate, Nitish Pahwa suggests November’s solidarity strike may have been the largest protest in world history. According to an umbrella body of 41 farmer unions, at least 147 farmers have died during the months-long protests. The causes have included suicide, road accidents, and weather exposure.

Given the size and duration of the movement, why isn’t it trending like #MeToo or #BlackLivesMatter?

There, the answer has to do with censorship. As freedom of speech is curtailed, it is making it hard for people to understand what’s happening and why.

The internet has been blocked at farmers’ protest sites to interrupt information sharing – for public-safety reasons, according to the Modi government, but it’s not hard to suspect this is about limiting the flow of information.

We have seen this before. In 2019, India blocked broadband internet in Kashmir for several months. The government once again seems to be following the regrettable impulse to restrict information, having neglected to engage more fully in debate over policy.

Today, journalists and opposition politicians have been taken to court because of tweets about the protests that the authorities have labeled “misleading,” or for reporting accounts that challenged the government’s version of events. When Rihanna and Greta Thunberg used Twitter to call attention to the protests, the government issued thinly veiled, yet harsh, criticism. Climate activist Disha Ravi has been arrested (and since granted bail, The New York Times reports) for allegedly disseminating a “tool kit,” later shared by Thunberg, for how to help the protest movement with online activism.

The Indian government reportedly threatened Twitter employees with fines and jail sentences of up to seven years, as it demanded the company block some accounts. Twitter complied, briefly blocking access in India to dozens of accounts, including those belonging to public commentators and the magazine The Caravan. Eight journalists who were covering the protests “are facing baseless criminal charges,” according to Human Rights Watch.

We are talking about the world’s largest democracy, and people sense that free speech is being restricted.

What can be done about all this? There have been rounds of talks between farmers and the government, and in the last one, the government offered to suspend the laws for 1-1.5 years and form a joint committee to find solutions, in return for protesting farmers going back to their respective homes from Delhi borders. Farmer leaders, however, said they would settle for nothing less than a complete repeal of the laws.

But the current course of standoff and censorship can be easily corrected. The remedy involves listening to the people; consultation before, during and even after policies are passed so they can be amended; and collaboration with those affected.

Never before have I seen my faith, my community, my people come together and show the values of standing up for justice, without fear and with service at the forefront, more clearly than they are doing so right now. They are standing for all of India in line with “Sarbat da bhala,” which means, “standing for the welfare of all.” They are not anti-Modi or anti-BJP but can simply see that these bills will not serve India in the long run.

India is home, our desh, which means it is for everyone, and I believe we can go back to this core value. When you enter Parliament and look up, you see the words “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam,” a verse from the Maha Upanishad meaning the world is one family. This defines the Indian civilization and values: open, tolerant, and seeing humanity as one.

The damage of these farming bills, both inside and outside of the country, could be irreparable. Yet, I know we can do better, given our ancient history with these values of inclusion. This is not a simple issue, but I know that if we come from a place of understanding, listening, and courage, India will have a stronger future because of it.