‘We want dignity’: Indian farmers defy pellets, drones to demand new deal

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Two years after they brought the Indian capital to a standstill, farmers say Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has betrayed its promises.

Shambhu border, India — Balvinder Singh lies on his side, writhing in pain, on a hospital bed in the northern Indian state of Punjab.

When Singh, 47, was hit by a volley of piercing objects while marching towards New Delhi with thousands of other farmers, he did not know what had struck him.

But his body is pockmarked with telltale black scars from iron pellets fired by security forces to prevent farmers from crossing over from Punjab into the state of Haryana, which borders New Delhi. Haryana is ruled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, whose federal policies the farmers are protesting against.

Singh, a farmer from Faridkot district in Punjab, who was admitted at Rajindra Hospital in the city of Patiala, was hit when he was calming the angry young farmers at the front of the protest site, metres away from the border on February 14, a day after the protests began.

“I was calming down the protesters when I was hit,” Singh says, his left eye bloody from a pellet injury. “I could not understand whether it was a bullet or something else that hurt me.”

Singh says he had never heard of iron pellets being used as ammunition by security forces against civilian protesters. In the past, such pellets have been mostly used in Indian-administered Kashmir as a crowd-control mechanism. Pellet guns have blinded scores of people in Kashmir.

Now, they are part of the intensifying confrontation between farmers and the government. The government in Punjab, which is ruled by the Aam Aadmi Party that is in opposition nationally, has said that three farmers have lost their eyesight after being hit with the Haryana police pellets and a dozen others have also suffered pellet injuries.

Critics of the farmers, meanwhile, argue that the central government cannot allow the protests to escalate the way they did in 2021, when clashes broke out on the streets of New Delhi. Some protesters reached the Red Fort – from where the prime minister delivers the Independence Day speech – and were accused of yanking down the national flag. A security crackdown followed.

Yet, days after this latest agitation kicked off, there are growing signs of a repeat of the kind of escalation in tensions that India witnessed three years ago.

Thousands of farmers in their tractor trolleys, small trucks, on foot, and scooters have travelled from rural areas of Punjab and gathered on the Punjab-Haryana highway waiting to march on the capital city. They are hoping to press the BJP government for demands including a guaranteed minimum support price (MSP) for their crops and loan waivers, among others.

In Haryana, the government has been criticised for using drones to drop tear gas shells on the protesting farmers. The state’s police have sealed the border with heavy cemented blocks, iron nails and barbed wire.

Singh, who owns a four-acre plot where he grows rice and wheat, says there is no guarantee of price in the fluctuating market for other crops.

“We spend more on cultivation [when growing other crops] and there is no earning,” he says.

“Now, we are also facing water shortages for even growing these two crops [rice and wheat]. We are in deep stress.”

At present the government buys rice and wheat from farmers for public distribution, and offers them a minimum support price for these grains. But other agricultural commodities do not receive this price protection. That, farmers say, has in turn led to the overproduction of rice and wheat. Paddies in particular, are water intensive, leading to depleted groundwater levels.

“If I want to diversify to other crops, there should be financial security for me that I will get a good price – that is what we are asking. We are asking for our rights,” says Singh, from the hospital, where eight other farmers, some aged above 60, are also being treated.

One of them, Mota Singh, 32, from Hoshiarpur in Punjab, said that he was hit by a rubber bullet on his hand. To Mota, something even more fundamental is at stake than crop prices.

“Farmers are demanding dignity, we cannot be poor forever,” says Mota, when asked why he was protesting.

Why are farmers again on the roads?

More than 250 farmers’ unions have supported the protest that is being organised from Punjab.

Up to two-thirds of India’s 1.4 billion population are engaged in agriculture-related activities for their livelihoods and the sector contributes nearly a fifth of the country’s gross domestic product.

Farmers say that their main demand – minimum support price legislation – would ensure that the rates of their crops are sustainable and provide them with decent earnings.

At present, the government protects wheat and rice against the price fall by setting a minimum purchase price, a system that was introduced more than 60 years ago, to ensure food security in India.

Development economist Jayati Ghosh says that if other crops were also brought under the MSP regime, it would help provide sustainable financial support to the farmers. This wouldn’t mean that the government would need to buy large volumes of these crops, says Ghosh, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

It’s only when the price drops below the MSP that the government would need to step in and buy just enough that the price rises above the minimum set bar, she says.

“It’s a market intervention that makes sure that farmers have this other option,” Ghosh says.

In India, experts say that agriculture has been going through a severe crisis due to increasing extreme weather combined with a lowering water table, affecting yields and pushing farmers deep into debt. Thousands of farmers take their own lives each year. In 2022, data collected by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) shows that 11,290 farmers died by suicide.

Ghosh questions why the government is reluctant to write off farm loans.

“Every year the banking system writes off loans of lakhs of crores (billions of dollars) of money taken by large corporations and that is not even mentioned and it is not even news,” she says. “The corporations can get away with all kinds of loan waivers but the farmers are asking a small fraction of that and …  are treated as criminals.”

‘Government not honouring its promises’

The farmers are also demanding that the Modi government withdraw cases filed against them during the last protest in 2020-21.

Held on the outskirts of New Delhi for 13 months, those protests were against a set of three farm laws brought in by the BJP government that aimed to push India’s family-based, smallholdings-driven farm sector towards privatised and industrialised agriculture.

The government argued that the laws would improve market competition and in turn bring new wealth, especially to smaller farmers. But farmers protested, worried that the laws would leave them at the mercy of big corporations.

Eventually, Modi agreed to repeal the laws, and his government said it would set up a panel of stakeholders to find ways to ensure support prices for all produce.

The protesting farmers now accuse the government of not honouring those promises. And they are readying for a long wait to pressure the government.

Hardeep Singh, 57, from Gurdaspur in Punjab, has come prepared with bags of rice, flour, and other essentials in his tractor.

“We are here even if it takes months,” says Hardeep, who left his home with dozens of other villagers on February 11.

“We might not be allowed to go forward but we will not go backward, either.”

‘Not afraid of losing my health’

Darshan Singh, 66,  sits silently on the side of the highway. He carries a passport-size photo of his son, 27-year-old Gurpreet Singh, in his wallet.

Gurpreet was among more than 700 farmers who died during the previous farmers’ protest in 2021.

“He was at the protest site for a year. He fell sick at the site and died after returning to the village. We are giving sacrifices for this movement,”  Darshan tells Al Jazeera. But that tragedy has not deterred the father from joining the protest this time. “I am not afraid of losing my health here.”

Darshan says he wants justice for the two children and young wife his son left behind.

With national elections in India just two months away, the farmers are trying to ensure that they cannot be ignored. Because of their sheer numbers, farmers constitute a significant chunk of Indian voters.

The ruling BJP government recently conferred the nation’s highest civilian award on MS Swaminathan, a pioneer of the agricultural revolution in the 1960s and 1970s. Meanwhile, the opposition Congress party has promised to legalise an MSP on crops if elected to power.

A government delegation has been engaged in negotiations with the protesting farmers without a breakthrough.

“We feel the government wants to suppress us and pass time,” Manjeet Singh, a leader of Bhartiya Kisan Union Shaheed Bhagat Singh, a local farmers’ union from Haryana, told Al Jazeera.

A fourth round of talks on Sunday evening, held between a 14-member farmers’ delegation and government representatives, including three federal ministers, failed to yield a breakthrough.

The government has offered farmers MSP for pulses, cotton and maize. The crops, according to the proposal, would be bought by the government agencies on an agreement for five years.

But the farmers have rejected the offer, which they argue only temporarily addresses their demand – unlike a law that would guarantee them MSP for these commodities in the long run. The farmers say they will continue with their protest march to New Delhi.

‘Why can’t farmers be prosperous?’

Devinder Sharma, a food and agricultural expert based in Chandigarh, the capital of both Punjab and Haryana, says that the farmers’ demands have merit.

“We have deliberately kept agriculture impoverished,” he says, adding that an MSP law could provide an unprecedented economic boom for the country by improving the income of a majority of the nation’s families that depend on agriculture.

He is not surprised at the pushback the farmers are facing from critics, mostly in the cities, though.

“The problem is when the prices go up the corporate profit is reduced. The (corporates) want to ruthlessly exploit farmers and I think enough is enough,” he says.

“Why can’t farmers be prosperous?”

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