Farmer Protests and Strikes in India must not go Unheard

As featured in Edition 37, available here.


By CATHARINA SCHAUFLER-MENDEZ

Since September 20, 2020, India has been in turmoil with no foreseeable end in sight. In addition to the dire effects Covid-19 has had on the country - driving it into a recession, exacerbating pre-existing inequalities, and a sharp increase in the unemployment rate - the passing of three controversial farm acts by the Parliament has resulted in nationwide protests and a general strike of unparalleled proportions.


Agriculture is the main source of income for around 58% of Indians and constitutes almost 15% towards India’s $2.9 trillion economy. Nevertheless, the people sustaining this vital sector of India’s economy and providing the country with food have been continually plagued by “poverty, underdevelopment, and suffering” according to the Guardian, with India also having one of the highest rates of farmer suicides in the world. According to the 2016 Economic Survey, most farmers in India own “less than one hectare of land”, living ‘hand-to-mouth’, barely making it by. The newly introduced bills would only increase the suffering of farmers, as they seek to further deregulate the agricultural sector, allowing large agribusinesses and multinational corporations to easily exploit farmers.


Although Prime Minister Narendra Modi has stated the laws “would reform an archaic and outdated system and give farmers more control over their crop prices”, many allege this is not actually the case. The currently semi-state-run farming system will be turned into a market-oriented system, eliminating governmentally managed and guaranteed crop prices, which have provided farmers with a degree of certainty to make future investments by assuring farmers receive a minimum price for crops sold. By giving farmers the ‘freedom’ to sell their goods to anyone for any price, big companies would be given the opportunity to drive down crop prices.


The anti-farmer bills directly threaten the already deplorable livelihoods of Indian farmers, triggering protests nationwide, with millions of farmers revolting, primarily in Haryana and Punjab. The main objectives of these protests is for the government to repeal the new laws and legally ensure minimum support prices for farmers. According to the Guardian, these protests have resulted in large sections of the transport industry shutting down, in addition to shops and markets as the protests escalate “with the launch of a national strike”. These protests subsequently converged into a more coherent movement called Dilli Chalo, meaning ‘let’s go to Delhi’, with nearly 10 million farmers blocking major entry points into the capital city, setting up camps at the borders. Although protests have been peaceful, there are reports of police responding by using water cannons, tear gas, and batons in an effort to prevent entry into Delhi. Media reports estimate that 57 deaths have occurred during the protest movement, including farmer suicides.


However, the farmers are not alone in their fight. Transport workers’ unions were early in showing their solidarity, blocking essential railways and highways in an attempt to put pressure on the government to listen to the farmers’ demands. Indian workers have been consistently targeted by the Modi government, as it continually privatises various sectors, curtails labor rights in workplaces, increases the working day, and amends labor laws. Major industries, including transport, coal, and banking, have had enough of Modi’s attacks, which, in addition to the anti-farmer bills, culminated in 250 million people participating in a general strike on November 26; the largest strike in global history.


Although the general strike encompassed 615 districts across India, brought states such as Kerala to a standstill, affected various public services and 80% of coal production, and, most notably, comprised 250 million workers, mainstream Western media has barely recognised one of the largest organised events in human history. Additionally, the numbers of participants in the farmers' protests are greatly underreported, never reaching more than ‘tens’ or ‘hundreds of thousands’ of protestors. What is the reason for the media’s under and even complete lack of reporting on these massive events? Worker and farmer organisation on a scale as large as is currently found in India threatens the bourgeoisie not only in India but globally. Western capitalists are frightened of the power that workers hold when they stand in solidarity, which is why worker ignorance is their bliss. India should serve as a stellar example to the West as to what can be achieved when workers realise their full power. If Indian farmers and workers persevere until their demands are met they can remind the global workforce what power they actually hold and that they can bring about real change.


Image: Unsplash (Naveed Ahmed)