New York, NY – For the past three weeks, tens of thousands of Indian farmers have blocked highways around New Delhi to demand the repeal of three laws enacted in September by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government that deregulate the market for produce.
On Nov. 26, in what might have been the largest single protest in world history, an estimated 250 million Indians joined a 24-hour general strike in solidarity with the farmers. Ten central labor unions called the walkout, demanding that the government withdraw all “anti-farmer laws and anti-worker labor codes and stop privatization of the public sector.” Workers from the country’s vast informal sector, including street peddlers, domestic workers, and those who roll “beedi” cigarettes also joined.
The farmers’ protests continued over the weekend of Dec. 12-13, after five rounds of talks with the government failed to yield results. On Dec. 13, farmers on tractors blocked the highway from the city of Jaipur to New Delhi, the nation’s capital, after police from the state of Haryana closed the road to stop them from crossing the state line, about 50 miles from New Delhi. One protester at Singhu, on New Delhi’s northwestern outskirts, told the Times of India that they intended to block every entry point to the city.
The September laws will let farmers sell directly to any customer at any price and make agreements to grow crops on contract. They also remove crops including rice, wheat, onions, and potatoes from the list of “essential commodities” regulated by the government. Modi’s administration contends that the changes will modernize agriculture, increase farmers’ income, and attract foreign and domestic investment, while some government ministers have accused the protesting farmers of being backed by China and Pakistan and “infiltrated by leftist and Maoist elements.” Police have used tear gas and water cannons to try to break up protests.
The protesters say the laws will undercut the system of government-set minimum prices and the stability of selling crops in marketplaces called “mandis” run by individual states, leaving farmers open to being crushed by larger competitors and swings in the market.
“The private market system which the government is trying to create through these laws will give benefits to farmers in the first few years because they would be exempted from taxes which would lead to increase in prices of crops,” farmer Kanwaljeet Singh, 37, told Al-Jazeera. “But once farmers stop going to the mandis, the private players will control everything. Whatever price they will offer, a farmer will have to sell its produce.”
Agriculture is the main source of income for more than half of India’s 1.38 billion people, according to an Indian Agriculture and Allied Industries report from October. More than 85% of the country’s farms are smaller than 2 hectares (about 5 acres), and less than 1% are larger than 10 hectares. In contrast, the smaller half of the U.S.’s 2 million farms, those with sales of less than $10,000 a year, average 81 acres.
“Over the last 25 years, farmers have suffered and the government has not bothered about us, even when so many are committing suicide,” Kuldip Malana, a 41-year-old farmer from Haryana, told the U.K. Guardian. “They have not provided cold storage for our crops to keep them fresh, so sometimes we have to sell our vegetables for 1 rupee [about 1.35 cents]. They have not thought about us for years, and suddenly they come up with reforms have nothing to do with helping the farmers and only benefit the big corporations. These laws are suicide for us all.”
“If I were in the shoes of these Indian farmers, I would also be against PM Modi’s laws as well,” says Amanda Kay Johnson, a member of Carpenters Union Local 157 who traveled to India last year to meet with women building-trades workers there.
Johnson’s trip was to the southern state of Kerala, which she says is “as different as New York and north Florida” from the northern regions where the protests are. But she sympathizes with the protesters for another reason.
“I can relate to these families in India,” she told LaborPress. “I come from a very rural part of northern Florida where cotton and cows outnumber people. My grandparents and many other family members were or still are farmers. We’ve already seen what privatization can do here in America.”
Large corporations, she adds, can dictate what American farmers do to the point that they can’t even choose what kinds of seeds they plant.
The Indians she met, she says, often compared Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party to Donald Trump, with an agenda that combines economic deregulation and ethnic-supremacist Hindu nationalism. Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar said Dec. 14 that those opposed to the farm bills were the same “leftists” who’d opposed the August 2019 imposition of martial law on the Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir, and the recently commenced construction of a Hindu temple on the site of a 16th-century mosque that was destroyed by a mob of Hindu extremists in 1992.
“It’s awesome that these farmers are standing up. They’re creating appropriate havoc,” Johnson says. “If they win through these protests, it echoes the power of unions.”