What Is Going On In India?

Disclaimer: this is not a comprehensive resource and is meant to provide a general overview of the current situation. This is a starting place. You are encouraged to read beyond this article to inform your perspective. 

If you have been keeping up with foreign affairs lately, you have probably heard that the largest protest in human history is currently underway in India. More than 250 million farmers, workers, and activists are striking against proposed agricultural legislation. Here is a breakdown of what you need to know. 

On September 27th of this year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi assented to three highly contentious agricultural bills that threaten the livelihoods of farmers across India. These bills dissolve the requirement of minimum set prices (MSPs) at which agricultural goods can be sold to the government. The MSPs are part of a de facto minimum wage system that helps farmers make ends meet. The bills also call for the removal of mandis - governmental middlemen to whom farmers sell their goods at set prices. Theoretically, these policies would increase efficiency by decreasing government intervention and giving farmers direct access to buyers. However, this theory falls flat as the vast majority of farmers own less than 2 hectares of land, lack the monetary/legal resources to negotiate prices without the mandis, and therefore hold very little power. Thus, by enacting these bills, the government is abdicating responsibility and opening the door to mass exploitation by the private sector. Once the bills come into effect, corporations will be able to monopolize agricultural commodities and push farmers into debt, forcing them to sell their land and fall into poverty. 

Parliamentary opposition members, despite being strongly against these bills, were not allowed a physical vote regarding its acceptance. Physical votes, by Indian law, are to be granted if even a single MP requests it. Lack of adherence to this policy has led opposition MPs to walk out in protest - leaving just 15 members making decisions for over a billion people. This is demonstrative of how Modi’s government’s hurried attempt at passing these bills is not just a crime against farmers but against democracy itself. 

Naturally, farmers and their allies are upset by these proposed bills and are marching in protest. Most of the protesters are from Punjab - a state that is often called India’s breadbasket. Punjab comprises less than 2% of India’s land yet produced over 50% of the wheat that fed India during the lockdown (over 6 tonnes). The farmers, young and old, are marching to New Delhi in peaceful protest. 

While Punjabis are at the forefront of this movement, they are not alone. Farmers from Haryana, Rajasthan, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and other states have also joined the fight. Tamilian farmers tried to join their Punjabi peers in Delhi (which is over 2,000 kilometres away), but were prevented from going by police officers. Instead, they have been vocal from their own home state, letting the world hear their demands and calls for justice. 

Despite their peaceful and non-violent attempt at exercising their democratic rights, the Indian government, law enforcement, and state media are responding with hostility. Rather than hearing out protesters with compassion, they are resorting to draconian tactics and police brutality. Violent images persist of police officers using water cannons on the elderly, beating people with batons, and arresting protestors without cause. The state-sponsored media is perpetuating propaganda and disinformation, calling the farmers “violent terrorists” in an attempt to discredit them and silence their voices. Who exactly are they calling terrorists? The Sikh protestors who are providing langar (free meals) for everyone, including law enforcement? Young men who are sweeping the streets on which they protest so as not to be labelled as creating a mess? Tamilians whose only weapons are paper airplanes with their demands written on them? No, they are not terrorists - they are advocates. What we are seeing is a blatant attempt at suppression, and we cannot sit back and allow this to happen.

The farming community in India has been dealing with threats to their livelihood for decades. Farmer suicide rates are staggering - almost 300,000 farmers have committed suicide since 1995. Approximately 94% of these suicides are due to unmanageable debt. For example, Punjabi farmers’ debt has increased by 60% in the last 30 years, as they are paying over 20% interest rates on their loans, thus setting the stage for financial exploitation and misery. It is estimated that a farmer commits suicide every 41 minutes in India. The removal of MSPs would exacerbate this issue by lowering prices and causing farmers to default on their loans. In Punjab alone, 65 farmers have taken their lives since the new bills have been announced. That is almost one suicide every day. In 2018, Tamil Nadu farmers marched in Delhi with the skulls of their peers who committed suicide - a chilling image that has, unfortunately, not prompted the government to implement tangible change. 

Despite their attempts, the government cannot get away with pushing this issue aside and changing the narrative to align with their agenda. The world is watching. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke out in support of the protesting farmers, stating that Canada will always support peaceful protests and human rights. This isn’t an issue that simply concerns India. Protests against these bills are taking place all over the world, from Toronto and Montreal to London and San Francisco. The world will not be silent as the government tries to subvert freedoms and exploit the hands that feed them. I am in awe of the protesters’ determination, solidarity, and resilient spirit. I hope that by learning about what is happening, you will be too. 

If you are interested in helping out, consider donating to one of these organizations: 

Help does not have to be monetary. Getting informed and sharing posts and articles that are talking about the issue can make a huge difference - especially in a country that cares about its international reputation as much as India does. Even something as simple as writing/emailing your local MP asking them to address the issue can make a profound impact. Let us use our voices to stand behind the farmers of India. #IStandWithFarmers