Words by Nisha Chandar-Nair
In response to new farming laws passed by the Bharatiya Janata Party, hundreds of thousands of farmers in India have been protesting since November, demanding repeal in one of the biggest demonstrations in history.
The legislation has ultimately loosened the rules on the selling, storage and pricing of farm products, meaning farmers can sell directly to businessmen. The absence of selling in the confines of controlled markets results in a threatening lack of security for farmers, as the minimum guaranteed price is removed. The decision paves the way for farmers to be exploited. Indian farmers are expected to negotiate with businessmen without being taught the means to do so, and without protection from when this negotiation goes wrong. For many, they are being set up to fail.
The lack of protection of agricultural workers’ living wage undermines the important work of farmers. The agricultural sector in India is vital to the country’s economy, contributing to 18% of its GDP and employing around 60% of its population according to the Statista Research Department. The government’s lack of concern for farmers in spite of this is made evident by Irabi Jadhav, who says in an interview with NPR,
“the farmer dies feeding his country, but no one fights for the farmer”
800 million people in India rely on farming as their main source of income, many of whom already receive the minimum wage. The government claims that changes will leave farmers better off by making markets more efficient and attracting more investment – but this remains unsupported. As with the demolishing of sales at Minimum Support Price, farmers are left at the mercy of buyers with no law to protect them. This is particularly dangerous in India where food prices are low to keep the poor from starving, meaning farming profits are also low. For example, there is no minimum price for onions in India. Indian Farmer, But Sanap, told NPR that he couldn’t even take a day off work to attend the protests, explaining how he is lucky to break even after a maximum gross of around $3000 per month to feed his family of nine…
Furthermore, female farmers have been particularly overlooked by the Indian government as they were even told to ‘stay at home’ during the protests by the Chief Justice of India. Oxfam India calculated that 85% of rural women in India work in agriculture but only 13% of these women are landowners. The government’s advice for women to abstain from attending the protests not only suggests that the protests do not concern women, which they evidently do, but also implies that women’s voices are less valid than male farmworkers. Many women responded by taking the mic at protests, portraying an imperative message to women in India to use their voice and stand up for themselves.
Aside from this, the role of social media in the protests has revealed a lack of freedom of speech. Whilst videos and images on social media have helped bring awareness, with celebrities such as Rihanna and Greta Thunberg showing support, there has been some interference with the success of the campaign via social media. Allegations have been made against major platforms Facebook and Instagram for removing pages that were reporting on the farmers' protests, and for shadow banning accounts that include information on the farmers' protests. This aligns with the Indian government’s concerns that ‘propaganda’ surrounding the protests are believed to be a threat to India’s unity as a country.
This idea of unity appears to be absent given the nature of the protests in which there have been reports of violence and torture on communities. There has been an epidemic of farmer suicides in rural India for some time now. Maharashtra, an area of India that suffers from frequent droughts, has had over 20,000 farmer suicides between the years 2001 and 2017. Amandeep Kaur lost her husband to suicide after a bad crop landed him with $7,000 debt. Kaur told TIME magazine
“This law will kill us, will destroy what little we have”.
The lack of financial support for farmers in India is not just an emotional issue, it is a social one.
The government response to the protests unveils a lingering patriarchal perspective on agricultural work. The government’s silencing of social media reports exposes their authoritarian approach against government legislation criticism. Most prominently, the lack of concern for farmers receiving a living wage, resulting in starvation and suicide, unmasks the uncomfortable truths behind the fatalities of a capitalist regime.