'Dilli Chalo': The Pulse of Those That Feed the Nation

Since the economic reforms and the opening up of Indian agriculture to global markets, farmers across the nation have been subjected to severe economic distress, unusual changes in agriculture practices resulting in agrarian crises, and unpredictable market fluctuations. In other words, the life of an Indian farmer is riddled with untold stories of misery and despair, consequently leading to a spate of deaths primarily by suicide as a result of farmers incurring heavy debts from loans. India accounts for one of the highest suicide rates in the world. The existing anxieties and fears of the farmers have been further accentuated by the passing of the three farm bills, namely the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020, the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020, and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020. The first bill seeks to completely open the sale of agricultural produce outside the Agricultural Produce Market Committees (APMCs). In other words, the market is thrown open for private players to invest in the agricultural sector and deal directly with the farmers. The second bill creates a mechanism for contract farming. The third bill takes away pulses, cereals, oilseeds, onions, potatoes, and edible oil from the list of essential commodities. Therefore, these commodities are free of the restrictions governing the Essential Commodities Act and stand deregulated. 

The Prime Minister promised that the three farm bills would revolutionise Indian agriculture by doubling the incomes of the farmers, but the ongoing farmers’ agitation exposes some of the serious biases in the law that are a grave detriment to the agrarian sector and communities associated with it. Indian agriculture has been subjected to reforms in the past and farming communities in crisis have opposed the very fundamentals of such reforms. But the current farmers’ protests not only speak volumes of the unprecedented nature of the mass agitation that has engulfed Delhi, but also reflect a deep-rooted crisis of fair developmental possibilities for the agrarian economy in the future. Each of the provisions under the new farm laws intend to take away the agency from an average farmer and hand it over to big corporates and private agribusinesses. The dismantling of APMCs have also raised serious concerns among the farming communities about the “written assurances” of the minimum support price (MSP) for their farm produce. The complete deregulation of agriculture will also throw small and marginal farmers, owning less than two acres of land, at the mercy of private players. Thus, the fear of an uncertain future has created a crisis of confidence and broken the relationship of trust between farmers and the state.  

While some have supported the necessity of these “reforms,” many (including farmers’ organisations) have criticised these, primarily on two aspects; first, the intrinsic perception is that the laws have been “imposed” on them and not democratically implemented, because the voices and concerns of the farmers have gone unheard. The wants of farmers never formed a part of the deliberations or the implementation process. Second, the reforms have been painted with a neo-liberal tinge, implying the creeping corporatisation of Indian agriculture, where farmers begin to slowly lose their lands to big corporate houses. The fundamentals of governance are the voice of its people. The founders of our Constitution mandated that the voice of the people be heard across the hallowed halls of Parliament. For it is the people that placed lawmakers in Parliament. Voices not heard can come back with force to be heard, and that is exactly what the farmers’ acts have evoked amongst the citizens of the nation. Moreover, the manner in which this imposition has been carried out is being questioned on several grounds. It is in response to these unjust laws that hundreds of thousands of farmers have been protesting on the outskirts of Delhi, blocking many of the main arteries to the capital. While angry and agitated farmers have been waging protests on a scale unprecedented in the history of India against these “anti-farmer” laws for over four months now; these agitations stemmed from their respective states spreading to the nation’s capital, Delhi, as voices remain unheard. “Dilli Chalo” resonates amongst farmer communities from across the nation, for they feel that only upon their arrival at the gates of Parliament will the government (which has turned a deaf ear so far) address their demands. 

 

We are farmers, not terrorists! 
Burning of effigies also emerged as one of the strategies to register their dissent against the draconian laws.
 

In this first of a series of essays, Ashmita Sharma and Benny Barkataki capture the ongoing farmers' agitation against the lopsided farm acts that were enacted in a forced manner by the ruling government. This essay, interspersed with images, captures the agitation by farmers primarily from Punjab. Their resilience and determination demonstrated surpasses the pushback by the government. It represents the strong sentiments that they have against the law, at the same time showcases their unity and their intrinsic nature to stand by each other. These hard-working individuals from the “breadbasket” of India along with farmers from across the states need us to stand by them in solidarity. Let us never forget that these are the very people that feed our nation. 

 

 

United and organised, the farmers discuss the strategies for the fight ahead. It is the undeterred commitment to the cause of the struggle that has forced the government to come to negotiate with a mass protest of this kind.  

Farmers from across India are putting up collective resistance to these supposed “reforms,” with those from the northern belt of India at the forefront. Led by various unions from Punjab and Haryana, this vehement opposition to these laws speaks volumes about the pulse of the farmers from across India, as these two states are the most prosperous agrarian states in the northern belt of the country, and therefore demonstrates the deep sentiment against these laws that reverberates across the country. 

Speaking to farmers at Tikri and Singhu borders highlighted the diversity of issues that characterised the ongoing agitation in particular, and the challenges faced by the agrarian sector in general, Balwinder Singh,  a protesting farmer from the Mansa district of Punjab, said,

 “At the outset, these laws are anti-farmer. If the government doesn’t take back the law, it will bring havoc in the lives of lakhs of farmers across the country. We have only been patient till now, but not anymore! We will continue to protest till the law is withdrawn. Farmers are ready to die; this is a fight to the finish!”

As we continued to walk ahead in the ever-winding gathering of protestors, the angst of the farmers was palpable and the unanticipated vigour of the agitation across Tikri and Singhu borders admirable. Another farmer from Mansa district called the new law kaale kanoon (black law) and asserted that it will adversely impact their livelihoods and kill the farmers. He spoke to us as he continued in his seva (community service) of making and serving tea to his fellow farmers. Many of his compatriots joined in for the discussion and expressed views similar to his. These farmers, mostly from Punjab, were thankful to the people of Delhi and Haryana for their unwavering support, and raised their voices in unison, “The laws must be repealed.” 

An image that speaks volumes. ‘No Farmers, No Food’

The central government has been proactively running a campaign in favour of the three new farm laws, falsely portraying that these laws will ensure better prices for the farmers’ produce, remove intermediaries, make Indian agriculture more sustainable, and generally improve the overall condition of the vast agrarian community in the country. In response, Tirkar Singh from Moga district of Punjab said,

“If the reforms were in the interest of the farming community, why would we protest at all? The ongoing agitation is indicative of the pent-up resentment that is now gradually emerging in response to the new black laws. We will not retreat.”  

To the question of the “middleman,” Badal Singh, a farmer camped at Singhu border observed,

“The government cannot fool us. We are educated, I am a graduate and my wife holds a postgraduate degree from IGNOU. We know what is exactly happening in the agricultural sector and the disastrous impact these laws will bring upon the agrarian community, especially the small and middle farmers. The middleman, commonly known as ‘dalaal’, carries a negative connotation. But for us, his existence is supremely important. If my wife falls sick in the middle of the night or there is some other personal issue for which I am in urgent need of financial help, I can always approach the middleman and take loans from him. The arrangement is that if I have to borrow 10 lakh rupees from the middleman, I am supposed to give him my farm produce worth the exact amount. Now, if the middlemen are removed, we won’t have anyone to fall back on because banks charge high rates of interest. How can we afford that?” 

Another farmer, who overheard our conversation, added,

“Farmers from different parts of the country have expressed their solidarity with the ongoing protests. Farmers from Gujarat and Rajasthan have also joined us here. If the Centre, led by our Prime Minister, was so correct in implementing the law, why would farmers from Gujarat express their angst? This means there are serious loopholes in the law.” 

The protests continue to grow amidst stubbornness exhibited by the government. It is certain that farmers and the organisations led by them will under no circumstances agree to any compromise on their demands of “complete withdrawal” of these laws. This despite the central government for the first time being forced to negotiate with the ongoing mass protest. Farmers organisations have totally rejected the proposal sent by the central government under the pretext that it reeked of an anti-people approach, undermining the strength and the sentiments of a people’s movement. Rajinder Singh from Patiala said,

“The laws are inconclusive and fundamentally problematic. Although it says MSP will remain, it is not legally binding on everyone. Additionally, it says APMCs will be scrapped which means the farmers will be forced to sell their produce at a price much lower than government declared MSP. This will open the floodgates for private investment and dismantle the system of government procurement of farm produce.”

It is conspicuous that farmers in general and small and marginal farmers in particular are seriously concerned about losing their lands to private companies, especially those expanding their portfolios to take advantage of the vulnerability of farmers that these laws expose. 

 

All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) plays a key role in building solidarity amongst farmers and channelising voices in the right direction. The organisation has played key roles in 2014 against the land bill and in 2018 spearheaded the Kisan long march in Maharashtra. 

While this broke the notion of the “farmer” as a homogeneous category and the differential impact of the laws, it also presented how unity and solidarity across social groups/classes became the bedrock of the ongoing protests. Besides the strong resentment against the controversial farm legislation, this feeling of solidarity amongst the farmers has also manifested in the “commune” way of life that both the borders unveiled. Besides the support received from various groups, organisations and individuals, farmers from across states have held on to each other not only in the common fight against the state, but also while braving the winter chill that has engulfed Delhi. They sustain and reach out to each other with humanitarian aid such as warm fresh cooked meals, fruits, water, clothing, and medical aid. Volunteers have travelled to ensure that warm meals are ready to sustain these protests and no stomach goes hungry. We observed that there was large consumption of seasonal fruits and vegetables and tea and snacks were always readily available for anyone who wanted to have a cup or two. They even reached out to every soul that has expressed solidarity with them in their protests. These and numerous small gestures exhibit their magnanimous nature and demonstrate that as a people, protests can be registered and sustained with each one’s voice heard when voiced collectively. Further, their resilience and will to ensure that these draconian laws are repealed is apparent with the preparations that have been put into place with the firm understanding that this could be a long haul, a situation that these farmers are willing to endure.   

 

This is the spirit of a united front!
Prepared for the long haul and to ascertain their rights towards a just end to their struggles, farmers have ensured provisions that range from food to medical supplies and clothing.

While the domestic responsibility of cooking and feeding the family is entrusted upon the womenfolk of households, cooking and other kitchen related work—chopping vegetables, stirring cauldrons of milk, heating water, washing utensils, serving people, etc—in the protest sites is primarily done by men. This observation reiterates the everyday production of gendered spaces and how such traditional spatial arrangements reproduced existing status differences between genders. Showing the photo of his ancestral property in Amritsar, Rajbeer Singh said,

“We own 53 acres of land between three brothers. Looking at our property, do you think women from such big households will be allowed to labour in the farms? This will hurt our dignity. Women’s responsibility is to manage the domestic space, household chores. That’s also the reason why very few women have turned up for the protest.”

Commenting on the participation of women in the protests, a woman leader from All India Kisan Mazdoor Sabha (AIKMS) said,

“This satyagraha will continue till the black laws are taken back by the government. We will continue to assert our demands and protest peacefully for as long as it is needed. Women have participated in the protests, but their numbers are not big. The BJP had threatened the women in the villages of getting killed if they dared to join the agitation. This instilled a sense of fear and insecurity in them. But they are not going back to hold back anymore. Some have already joined us, and many more groups are on their way. We are completely equipped with ration and other essential items for the next six months. Food wise we aren’t facing any constraints, but women are facing challenges accessing washrooms although local people have been more than helpful even in this regard. Since we have decided to fight, there is no looking back despite these difficulties.” 

Women form the backbone of our agrarian economy. Many silently edging on the menfolk at the borders of Delhi, while still many actively participating in these protests. These laws have struck a chord across the communities and transcended genders. 

Farmers at the borders of Delhi and from across the nation continue to stand resilient, steadfast and determined that their demands for the complete repeal of these three draconian, anti-farmer laws be met. They stand in unison and with every passing day, not only do their voices reach deeper into the hearts of the nation, but also support towards their cause grows from across all strata of society and from across the nation. Men and women have travelled from far and wide to ensure that their voices are heard. They have come with hopes in their hearts and a trust that the government that has been elected by the people will pay heed, accept the shortcomings of these three laws and swiftly act upon repealing them. Farmers form the backbone of the Indian economy and are the pulse of the nation. This is the pulse, whose beats we as a nation cannot allow to wane. 

Ashmita Sharma is a research scholar at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. Benny D Barkataki is a communications professional who specialises in narrating visual stories.

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