Let’s Talk About the Farmers’ Protest

As a descendant of farmers from both Rajasthan and Punjab, the past few months, more particularly the past week, have been both troubling and inspiring. Growing up, my parents always shared stories about visiting their pinds (villages) during summer holidays and playing in the fields, enjoying the clean air, eating fresh fruit, making makhan (butter) from scratch, and all the simple pleasures that come with kheti (farming). My great grandparents were the last true kisaans (farmers) of my family, but our ancestral land remains. I’ve been fortunate enough to have grown up with both sets of my grandparents and have watched them balance their love for the land that raised them and the land that gave them freedom. Every winter, my grandparents travel to India and then come back to Canada in the summers. Their time with us is mostly spent putting their energy towards growing a garden in our backyard. Seeing them tend to the seeds, nourish the plants and find immense joy in picking the first tomato, pepper, or cucumber always left me both curious and humbled. As a child, I didn’t fully grasp why they longed for their fields or why gardening was so important to them. But now, as I catch myself being drawn to the rolling fields and open land and find happiness in taking care of my own plants, I understand. We are unconsciously connecting to our roots. Kheti.

The Farmers’ Protest sweeping Delhi right now is something I care about deeply. This protest is not about race or religion but rather about fundamental human rights. Farmers are protesting three pieces of disenfranchising legislation passed by the federal government that hinders their livelihoods and ability to survive in their industry — the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce Ordinance, the Farmers Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Ordinance, and the Essential Commodities Ordinance. These ordinances are devastating to all farmers across India. By opening up the agriculture sector to corporations, there will be an exploitation of agricultural workers, a decrease of environmental standards, no accountability set by the government for fair pricing of goods, removal of economic support, a displacement of people from their ancestral lands, and a collapse of small and marginal farmers due to the creation of a large monopoly. Simply put, privatizing the agriculture sector will render farmers landless and cripple the farming industry.

Since September, Punjab farmers have been protesting these three new agricultural bills. There was no consultation or collaboration with farmer unions during the drafting process. After their concerns continuously fell on deaf ears, they decided to march towards Delhi. On November 26th, tens of thousands of Punjab farmers, both young and old, came together in chardi kala (rising spirits) during a global pandemic to brace the cold winter on Delhi’s streets to protest for economic freedom. Considering that most of these protesters are between 70 and 80 years of age, their resilience and strength is stunning. However, as the protestors made their way to the capital, they were met with police resistance and violence through tear gas, water cannons, barricades, dug up roads, false arrests, trumped-up charges, lathi-charges and a lack of media coverage. This is a human rights violation. It is fundamental to a democracy that citizens be able to protest peacefully, so to hinder that with violence is unacceptable and gives rise to questions on India’s democracy.

Still, as Indian authorities perpetuated unnecessary violence against Punjab farmers, they have continued to open their hearts and stay true to themselves by serving them jal (water) and langar (food) with their own ration of food because of their incredible kindness and generosity. Not only are they serving langar to police officers, locals, media members, protestors, and volunteers, but they also are cleaning up the streets.

Farmers are the heart and soul of a nation. They keep us nourished. They put us first. They are the backbone of society. Without our farmers, we have nothing. We must realize that the Farmers’ Protest is not just an Indian issue; this is an issue that affects us all globally. The spices you put in your cha (tea), the sugarcane that makes your gur (jaggery), the haldi (turmeric) you mix into your face mask, the masala you add to your curries, the basmati rice you use for biryani, the atta (flour) that makes your roti, the mangos you put in your smoothies, the makhan you add to literally everything, the plants you use for your ayurvedic medicine, the cotton that’s spun to make your clothes, and the jute that’s woven to create your trendy furniture would not exist without farmers. In particular, Indian farmers.

Punjab farmers have clearly stated that they will continue to agitate on Delhi’s streets until the government repeals the new agricultural bills. They have set camps around major roads and highways surrounding the capital and have come prepared with enough supplies to last them six months if need be. Their main concern is the fall of the Minimum Support Price (MSP) system, which would be crushing. Typically when farmers sell their produce, they sell it through mandis (wholesale regulated markets), which are controlled by the Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC). Mandis ensure that farmers receive MSP, so they are not exploited by corporations, have certainty about crop investments for the next harvest, and maintain bargaining power. With the new agricultural bills, there will be a loss of the mandi system. Therefore, farmers are demanding a reversal of the new ordinances, legally defining MSP, removing the fine for crop burning and withdrawing from the electricity usage law.

Frankly, MSP is the bare minimum the government provides farmers in India. About 58% of India’s workforce is in the agriculture industry (more than 780 million people), yet their contributions to the nation’s GDP is decreasing. This is because Indian farmers are dealing with an agrarian crisis, especially in Punjab. They are overworked, do not have access to modern technologies, suffer harvest failures due to droughts and bad weather, deal with groundwater scarcity, a loss of biodiversity, poor soil quality, pest-infested crops, land degradation, and the lack of storage for surplus harvests. These issues also affect farmers’ health as there is an increased rate of depression, drug abuse, cancer related to the overuse of harmful fertilizers and suicide due to debilitating debt. Unfortunately, the government’s continuous oversight of these issues has caused farmers to make up 7.4% of the national suicide rate. In 2019, there were 10,281 farmer suicides, where the majority of them were from Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. In Punjab, between 2000 and 2015, there have been 16,606 agriculture-based suicides, and from April 2017 and January 2019, about 919 suicides. More recently, after the passing of the three agricultural bills, Punjab has seen 65 suicides. Farmers have been plagued by issues related to their livelihoods and health for years. The lack of consideration and seriousness by various governments is shameful and disheartening.

It is important to note that small and marginal farmers make up 86.2% of India’s agricultural industry. These farmers are vulnerable and need better representation and support. The Farmers’ Protest we see today is not the first one to occur. Throughout the years, farmers have demanded higher MSP, loan waivers, better government storage for crop holdings, and incentives to promote crop diversification. However, no protest has been as organized, unified and powerful as this one.

In 2006, Bihar’s state government abolished the mandi system to bring in private investments, open up the market for small farmers, increase crop prices, and encourage farmers to invest in new technologies to improve productivity. This is eerily similar to the situation right now with the new ordinances set by the federal government. However, after more than a decade, Bihar has not seen any investments or positive economic growth. Bihar farmers are paying higher storage costs at private warehouses, are suffering a decrease in crop prices, have not adopted new cultivation practices to increase productivity, do not have access to new technologies and infrastructure, and their crop investments have been adversely impacted. Many Bihar farmers have had to sell their land and leave the state to work as migrants in neighbouring regions like Punjab to survive. 

To better understand why Punjab farmers are in opposition to these bills, Bihar is a perfect example to examine. Bihar is a mostly rural state, where 80% of the population is employed in the agricultural sector. It is the fourth-largest producer of vegetables and the eighth-largest producer of fruits. However, their lack of economic prosperity is directly related to their open market and the loss of an MSP system as it has deregulated the price of goods. For example, paddy has a fixed MSP at ₹1,868 per quintal; however, it is sold for ₹900-1,000 per quintal in Bihar. Another example, maize, has an MSP of ₹1,850 per quintal, but it is sold at ₹1,000-1,300 per quintal in Bihar. 

ScoopWhoop, a digital media team, has been on the ground in Delhi to share news about the protest on their online platforms. In a video titled, A Day at the Farmers’ Protest ft. Samdish, a Bihari man (clip: 4:11-5:14), expressed his support of the protest because he recognizes the devastating loss of mandi system. He explained how the mandi system gave farmers liberation and that the new bills are a way to exploit farmers to push them into urban areas as cheap labour. In the same video, a Bihar farmer (clip: 24:57-26:40) exposed the discrepancy of crop prices due to Bihar’s abolished MSP system where goods worth ₹800 in Bihar would be worth ₹1,900 in Punjab. He shared his worries of Punjab and the rest of India suffering the same fate as Bihar. Therefore, based on farmer testimonies and observations, it is clear that the new policies are not for farmers but rather corporations.

As Punjab farmers fight for their rights on the outskirts of Delhi, they are now joined by farmers from Haryana, Bihar, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and all across the nation in a staggering protest of 250 million people. Those in Tamil Nadu, the southernmost state in India, have also shown their steadfast support for farmers. Although they were prevented from travelling to Delhi by police, they still expressed their communities’ frustration regardless. They poetically agitated by flying paper airplanes with their demands written on them so that their voices would reach Delhi. Simply put, this is a collective fight for the livelihoods, freedom, sovereignty, and economic justice of farmers.

As days go on, the heroic struggle of Punjab farmers breaking down barriers and marching to Delhi on foot, bicycles, tractors and thousands of busses has energized people to pay attention. As several rounds of discussion between government officials and farmers have resulted in a continuous deadlock, more people are getting involved. Delhi lawyers and the All India’s Lawyers’ Union (AILU) have made their way to the protest site to donate clothing and offer legal assistance. Other workers and trader unions across the nation have also joined the farmers in solidarity as on November 8th they participated in a nationwide strike, Bharat Bandh (“closed country”), organized by the farmer unions. Milk shops, grocery stores, and mandis all shut down. The All India Railwaymen’s Federation (AIRF) and the National Federation of Indian Railway (NFIR) are also in support of the Farmers’ Protest and have encouraged their members to hold demonstrations and agitate in their communities. University student unions across the nation have shown support for Bharat Bandh as well. This just shows that the people of India are standing in solidarity with farmers because they understand that we are all in this together. This moment in our collective history is extraordinary.

Although this is a remarkable moment of people coming together to exercise their democratic right in the world’s largest peaceful protest, mainstream media is has gone silent. We are now relying on independent journalists, digital media groups, photojournalists, diaspora, and those on the ground posting on social media to raise awareness, debunk misinformation and stay informed. The lack of coverage of the Farmers’ Protest is upsetting and alarming. As a society, we rely on journalists to provide us with unbiased investigative reports and expose false information so we can make the best decisions possible. The few reports published by media outlets have been inadequate and utterly dismissive of the situation’s importance and seriousness. The apparent avoidance and disregard of the Farmers’ Protest by large media platforms speak volumes. 

This lack of coverage of the Farmers’ Protest is triggering. Many people, specifically the Punjabi Sikh community, have been at the hands of shocking violence in India, which has been denied, ignored and vilified. We need international media coverage on this issue to ensure transparency on what is happening on the ground and accountability of the Indian government. India has a history of considering the act of protest to be anti-national, thus grounds for state-led violence. When, in fact, speaking about justice does not make you anti-national, it makes you a responsible citizen. The trauma of Punjabi Sikhs requires us to be bold, take up space, amplify our voices, and demand better from those who claim to be for the people. Media presence is vital to pressure the government to listen to the farmers as the Indian government tends to care more about its international reputation than of anything else. 

While international media is keeping mum, the Indian national press is distorting the truth to fit a maligned narrative set to discredit, disrupt and divide the protest. Farmers are being labelled as “illiterate,” “impressionable,” “uneducated,” “paid,” “terrorists,” and “separatists.” This dangerous language is purposefully being used to vilify the agitators as anti-national. The Editors Guild of India issued a statement conveying their concern of the coverage of the Farmers’ Protest by the Indian press as well. They expressed that the rhetoric used to describe the protestors is a way to “delegitimize the protests without any evidence or proof.” They further went on to say that they advise the media to “display fairness, objectivity, and balance in reporting the farmers’ protest” and not perpetuate a narrative that “derogates dissent.” 

Farmers now fight on two fronts — one to demand better from a government in the pockets of corporate greed, and two, against a biased media. However, farmers have remained firm in their resolve to stay unified. Seeing the camaraderie, love, and respect between farmers of different cultures and faiths come together to fight for justice is heartwarming. 

Since the media has not been concerned about the Farmers’ Protest, photojournalists and documentary photographers have done a phenomenal job of covering the spirit of those on the ground. Some of my favourite include @akshaykapoooor, @altafqadri, @naveenmacro, @vibhugroverr, @_emmzedd, @arrushchopra, and @womanwithopinions. Their images and videos showcase how the farmers have come together to create a harmonious community. They all cook and serve langar together throughout the day, children are seen continuing their studies, movie nights have been set up outside in the evenings, shelters offer wifi and beds to those in need, people singing folk songs to raise their spirits, medical aid centres helping people stay healthy, young people playing volleyball on the streets, people congregating together for religious prayers across all faiths, demonstrations of gatka (Sikh martial arts) to emanate strength, people dancing together in good fun, the set up of portable bathrooms and laundry machines to maintain cleanliness, distribution of sanitary pads for women, and the sharing each others company. There are no words to express how beautiful this display of dissent and humanity is.

It is important for me to mention as I bring this post to an end that although I have said that this is not a religious movement, I want to be clear on what I mean. The Farmers’ Protest is not about religion vs religion in any way, but there is no denying Sikhi’s presence in this protest either. Punjab farmers and Sikhs are the heart of the Farmers’ Protest. They have been leading this movement with incredible courage, grace, and power for months now. 

It is Sikh history that has given this movement fearlessness. It is the spirit of the Panth (Sikh community) that has literally broken down barriers. It is their langar seva that keeps people fed. It is their empathy that makes people feel welcomed. It is their bravery that makes people feel safe. It is their sense of justice that keeps people from settling for less. It is their belief in sarbat da bhalla (well being for all) that provides others warmth. It is their leadership that keeps the movement peaceful. It is their ability to mobilize, strategize and organize that has allowed other farmers to join. And it is their chardi kala that has been uplifting throughout this all. 

Sikhs have always been revolutionary, and this moment in time is no different. It is clear that Sikhs and Punjabis are the leaders of this protest. It is also important to understand that the situation right now is complicated, and its ties to the people of Punjab and Sikhi runs deep. Simply put, kheti is Punjab and Punjab is kheti. So although many Punjabi and Sikh diaspora are speaking out and the faces of this movement come from a certain culture and religion, I must emphasize this is not a religious movement nor solely about Punjab. It is merely about farmers as a collective.

So that begs the question of what can we do? First, educate yourself on the situation. Platforms that share reliable information include @sikhexpo@savingpunjab, and @worldsikhorg. Second, raise awareness by using your platforms to post shareables. Third, have critical conversations with friends and families about the Farmers’ Protest at home. Fourth, sign petitions and donate. Some credible organizations doing amazing work for farmers include Khalsa AidUnited SikhsSave Indian FarmersSahaita, and Saanjh.

The year 2020 has been one of reflection and action. As the year comes to an end, let us not be defeated. I know we are exhausted. I understand it’s easier to look away than at yet another injustice. But, we need to keep fighting the good fight. This protest is now a revolution, and we must keep the momentum going. And no matter how you decide to engage, just remember that the food on your plate comes from the hard work of farmers. So if you ate today, thank a farmer.

Sincerely, 
Simran

*Disclaimer: The featured image is by Cherry Laithang on Unsplash.

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