The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why India’s farmers are in revolt in the middle of a pandemic

For weeks, thousands of farmers have cut off major entrances into Delhi to protest new laws that deregulate the buying and selling of agricultural goods. (Video: Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Manish Swarup/AP/Video: The Washington Post)

NEW DELHI — The blockade stretches as far as the eye can see, hundreds of bulky tractors and trailers parked on a highway leading into India's capital carrying a distinct message for the nation's government.

For more than a week, thousands of farmers have cut off major entrances into Delhi in massive protests against new laws that deregulate the buying and selling of agricultural goods.

While the government says the sweeping changes will spur investment, the farmers camped out in Delhi consider them an existential threat.

The laws will “ruin our children’s futures,” said Kalwan Singh, 72, a farmer from the village of Durana in the state of Haryana who traveled a hundred miles in a tractor-pulled trailer with his son, grandson and a dozen others.

They brought flour, lentils, potatoes, wood for cooking and thin mattresses for sleeping. Singh said he’s ready to stay until the government repeals the new laws. “Even if it takes one month, two months, six months, we will win,” Singh said.

The farmers — who were met with barricades, water cannons and tear gas when they neared the city — represent a potent challenge for the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Agriculture employs more than 200 million Indians — about 44 percent of the workforce.

Modi is already facing a difficult juncture. India has more than 9.5 million coronavirus cases — the second-largest outbreak in the world — and experts fear that infections could accelerate in the coming months.

Meanwhile, the pandemic has had a devastating impact on India’s economy. The country is expected to experience the worst recession since independence in the current financial year, according to projections by the central bank.

Despite several rounds of talks between the government and the protesting farmers, neither side appears inclined to blink. On Friday, the farmers called for a new nationwide strike this week and pledged to block all roads leading to the capital. The demonstrations have already snarled traffic and disrupted some truck deliveries to local markets.

Modi has adopted a conciliatory tone toward the farmers, saying they have been deceived by opposition parties about the impact of the new laws. “The farmers are not to be blamed,” Modi said in a speech last week. He assured his “farmer brothers and sisters” that his government’s intentions were as pure as the water of the Ganges, considered holy in Hinduism.

Such statements have not lessened the distrust of the government among the protesters. “They think illiterate people are here,” said Jaskaran Singh, a 23-year-old master’s student whose father farms four acres of wheat and rice. “Aristotle said that if a tyrant wants to rule, he makes the people poor.”

Singh said that the government rushed the laws through the legislature in September with little debate and no scrutiny by parliamentary committees. He and other farmers expressed anger at the way government-friendly media outlets have portrayed the protesters as “anti-India,” an epithet now applied regularly to critics of the ruling party.

India’s agriculture sector is dominated by small landholdings. Economists say that India’s future development depends in part on making farming more productive while generating well-paying jobs for young people migrating from rural areas to cities.

Most of the protesting farmers come from the northern states of Punjab and Haryana. Punjab is often called the nation’s breadbasket for its extensive cultivation of wheat and rice. The state was a prime beneficiary of the “Green Revolution,” a series of innovative farming techniques that transformed India from a country once plagued by famines into one that is self-sufficient in grains.

Some economists say that those gains have given way to an outdated system that results in the overproduction of rice and wheat and dangerously depleted groundwater. In Punjab especially, the government buys much of the wheat and rice produced by farmers at an officially set price via licensed wholesale markets.

In many states, buyers had to transact with sellers at such wholesale markets, where the intermediaries charge various fees. Under the new laws, however, anyone with a valid piece of identification can buy agricultural produce, bypassing the wholesale markets altogether.

“The real loser will be the commission agent, the middle man, and some revenue of the state government,” said Ashok Gulati, an agricultural economist at the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations. “You are freeing up the farmer to sell to anybody. I am amazed — how come farmers are agitating?”

Farmers say they fear a free-for-all in which they are at the mercy of private players, including large corporations, with little recourse if deals go sour.

“How can you allow every Tom, Dick and Harry to dabble with farmer produce?” said Sukhpal Singh, an agricultural economist at the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad. The government is saying the changes will attract investors, he said, but “investment doesn’t come because of deregulation, it comes because of incentives.”

Singh predicted that both sides would have to yield somewhat, although the process could be lengthy and difficult.

On a recent hazy afternoon, the farmers camped in the middle of a highway outside Delhi spent hours listening to speeches or resting in the backs of trailers padded with straw and blankets. Many belong to dozens of different farmer unions and most of them are Sikhs, a religious minority in India.

Preparing free, hot meals at community kitchens, known as langar, is a pillar of the Sikh tradition. The farmers have pooled their provisions and are serving staggering numbers of meals throughout the day to all who would like to eat, whether farmers or locals. Every day, fresh supplies arrive from their home villages and well-wishers drop off gifts: a van full of almonds, crates of apples, fresh lassi.

Sukwinder Singh Sabhra, a 55-year-old farmer who traveled nearly 300 miles to the protest, said he brought a six-month supply of flour, lentils, onions and clarified butter, together with wood for cooking and tarps for shelter.

He was not fazed by the temperatures that plunge each night nor the separation from his family, who are back on the 11 acres of land cultivated by “generations and generations” of his ancestors.

“Our mothers give birth to us, but the land gives us life,” Sabhra said. He fears that if the new laws are not repealed, corporations will end up owning his farm. “We will live at their mercy and eat only when they want.”

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